Pushing the Doomsday Clock


Vice Admiral (retd) Vijay Shankar

(The article has been published in the IPCS web journal and is available at the following link:  http://ipcs.org/comm_select.php?articleNo=5839 )

The Doomsday Clock

The Doomsday Clock is a symbol that represents the vulnerability of human existence. Set every year by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, it is intended to warn mankind of the imminence of humanity’s annihilation due to a nuclear war or climate change. The clock was moved to its current position at 100 seconds to midnight due to several geo-political incidents of 2020 that drove nuclear anxieties to a pitch.

Historically, the Cold War and the three decades after have contributed to over 30 near cataclysmic nuclear calls, all of which exposed the fragility of command and control and the high probability of unintended use. The build-up and nature of one such near catastrophe is detailed below.

On the Unintended Brink of Annihilation

On 02 November 1983, NATO conducted an exercise (Able Archer 83) simulating conflict escalation against the Soviet Union. The scenario envisaged a massive breach in European defences as Warsaw Pact forces rolled into Western Europe.

The war-game in its concluding phase saw the highest defence alert condition, DEFCON 1, being attained; indicating imminence of a nuclear exchange. Nuclear forces were at instantaneous readiness for strikes on the Soviet Union. All Command Centres had been given necessary weapon release authorisation that set the ether buzzing in preparation for ‘Armageddon’. Nuclear Command Authorities were in their bomb proof posts or in the air, alternate Command posts were enabled, cryptograms were flying fast and furious; while launch codes were broken open with surrealistic deliberation. Predictably this triggered extreme alarm on the Soviet side since there was neither any notification of progress of the exercise nor of the scenario crossing the nuclear threshold. Moscow feared that force build-up was a cover for an actual nuclear attack timed to coincide with their Revolution holiday. Soviet nuclear missiles were readied in ‘emergency mode’ for launch and the entire arsenal with its 11,000 warheads was placed on maximum combat alert.

Kremlin then intercepted a perplexing NATO message stating that US nuclear missiles had been launched; and yet there were no indications of nuclear explosions. It was only then that the hotline was enabled to establish what was going on. The CIA later declared that “the world was on the brink of nuclear annihilation without even knowing it.”

Bewildering Nature of a Nuclear Crisis

The nature of a nuclear crisis is such that the decision to use nuclear weapons is invariably taken in a compressed time frame; in an ambience shut off from impartial consultancy and by a command authority of questionable competence. Its dynamics are driven by a purpose in denial of the probability of like-retaliation and the prospect of mutual destruction. Rationality and balance go out of the window in this determination and are replaced by nationalistic ego and an aroused rush to confront. As one will note, each one of these ingredients possess an element of inadvertence or at the least fecklessness. Carl von Clausewitz’s unerringly wise counsel, that even the “simplest” strategic decision making can be bewilderingly difficult; has new meaning when it comes to the use of nuclear weapons. For neither is there precedence to guide nor, distressingly, time.

Documented events have shown that it takes the chancy instincts of a Vasily Arkhipov or a Stanislav Petrov to make an unsanctioned intervention to defuse a calamity through gut-feelings of survival, conscience and little else. In such a scheme of things one wonders whether hierarchical systems can guarantee the making of decisions in the larger interest of mankind.

The Crisis in Ukraine and Nuclear Overtones

The crisis in Ukraine is no different, for it reveals several events that have turned world attention away from the anguish of people, exposed the hypocrisy of nations and, most recklessly, pushed the doomsday clock a little closer to midnight. It is now apparent that NATO and the European Union are instruments of US foreign policy, rather than being consultative institutions in any collective cause. These institutions, arguably, are acting in American interests. That the USA has contributed over 60% of all contributions (over $ 55 billion since the start of the war) to the Ukrainian war effort makes clear where control of the war lies. The sanctions adopted under American stewardship are proving to be a double edged sword. Europe is faced with the onset of a frosty winter in circumstances of sky rocketing energy prices and crippling economic woes.

As recent as June 2021 in the Geneva Agreement for extension of the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty, both Premier Putin and President Biden reaffirmed the principle that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought”. And yet right from commencement of Russia’s “special operations” to date, a week has not gone by without a threat or the rhetoric of imminent use of nuclear weapons. It began with Russia exercising their nuclear forces on 19 February 2022 as tensions of invasion of Ukraine were at its peak, almost as if to announce the impending military operations were covered by nuclear forces. Towards the end of October, both the NATO and Russia were involved in intensive exercise of their respective nuclear forces amidst shrill rhetoric about the use of nuclear weapons in Ukraine. The nuclear face-off has today degenerated into a threat of use against intervention, on the one side; versus intimidation by proxy.

The Doomsday Clock in Forward March

And almost as if to further provoke the doomsday clock into a “forward march”, the US Nuclear Posture Review 2022 released recently, is interwoven into something called Integrated Deterrence  that brings the nuclear factor alongside war fighting domains as an instrument conjoined with all elements of U.S. national power. To say the least, this is disappointing for the cause of nuclear arms control and indeed for survival as it makes no attempt to differentiate nuclear weapons from the conventional.

Humanity’s hope for a lead into reducing the role of nuclear weapons in interstate relations and an opening to a universal No First Use policy as a pre-cursor to disarmament is a far and bleak cry. For verily, the Ukraine war and foolhardy nuclear postures have brought the day of reckoning that much closer.

Effectiveness of the Fleet Aircraft Carrier  


Vice Admiral (retd) Vijay Shankar

( published in the December 2022 issue of the DSA magazine and available at the following Link: https://www.dsalert.org/DSA-Editions/2022/DSA_December_2022_V_Adm_(Retd.)_Vijay_Shankar.pdf)

The Fleet Aircraft Carrier possesses a number of attributes that make it the Operational Commander’s platform of choice to deal with maritime crises. These virtues may be summed-up in the platform’s intrinsic ability to operate in international waters Independent of territorial and political constraints; the carrier’s Mobility allows it to deploy its full array of combat power over distances in excess of 600 nautical miles in a day; the Role-Flexibility provided by the vessel’s integral air and power projection competence permits it to respond across the spectrum of maritime conflict scenarios.

The Sceptics View

Detractors of the Fleet Carrier harp on three issues that to them lies at the heart of the debate of whether the Navy’s demand for the Fleet Aircraft Carrier is justified or not. The assertions made in support of their premise are as follows:

  • The Aircraft Carrier is old in concept and vulnerable in contemporary Anti-Access/Area-Denial (A2/AD) threat scenarios.
  • The platform is expensive and the nation’s maritime security interests are better served by sea-denial forces such as submarines, small missile units and land based air-power.
  • The prospect of action damage makes the Commander of a deployed Aircraft Carrier much too tentative to venture into “harm’s way”.

Analysing the Three Assertions

The first Assertion suggests obsolescence of the concept of the Aircraft Carrier; this is not rational since obsolescence is a condition when the Carrier ceases to have operational use. Concepts are essentially tempered by time and technology. The issue of vulnerability to contemporary A2/AD threats requires more serious deliberation. Depending on the situation, threat perceptions and how operations have been conceived; the Carrier Group, in addition to its integral air power, will comprise of elements that provide the necessary capabilities to neutralize or supress forces that are likely to confront it. Where the threat is perceived to emanate from long range Anti-Ship Ballistic or Cruise Missiles, then the adversaries extended surveillance and control chain will be targeted either by co-operating units or by integral forces.

The second Assertion relates to the cost-benefit or the valuation of the Carrier in terms of its ability to provide security. This while sounding ‘scholarly’ is in fact a distortion of the theory of maritime warfare; of Control of oceanic spaces and of Denial of the same. That the Aircraft Carrier is a ‘big ticket’ platform cannot be seen in isolation. The economics of the platform must be weighed against the part it plays in defining and securing the maritime interests of the nation. The relationship between the Carrier and denial forces when integrated provides the instrument for sea control to influence the outcome of operations; but when separated, denial forces restrict themselves to chance skirmishes and nuisance value.

 The third Assertion deals with the tentativeness of the Commander when required to commit an aircraft carrier to battle. This is, at best, a fallacious argument. At any rate the hesitancy to go into “harm’s way” only occurs when the fleet force package is wanting in material and technological capabilities. The three ‘assertions’ are, therefore, rather eclectic in form and tendentious in content, particularly in the light of the unique attributes of the Fleet Carrier.  

Unique Characteristics of the Fleet Carrier: Indian Experience

The Aircraft Carrier’s Mobility, which enables it to act as a rapid responder, has been evident in every operation that it has participated in. Whether it was the liberation of Bangla-Desh in 1971, Operation Jupiter the Sri-Lanka peacekeeping operations in 1989, Operation Parakram the Indo-Pakistan stand-off post the Pakistan sponsored terror attack on the Indian Parliament in December 2001 or the rescue and relief operations consequent to the Tsunami of December 2004. During the recent crisis along the Line of Actual Control with China, the Indian Carrier Group was poised to execute its plans to squeeze China’s energy-jugular plying across the Indian Ocean and through the Malacca Straits.

The importance of an Aircraft Carrier as the central control and strike element of a task force charged with exercising sea control was validated over a sustained period of several months in the North Arabian Sea during Operation Parakram. The Carrier’s integral air-power and co-operating maritime patrol aircrafts ensured complete sanitisation of the surveillance bubble around the force; Surface Action Groups comprising speedy and stealthy missile units prowled the surveillance and kill zones to counter hostile trespassers venturing into these tracts; while anti-submarine warfare units searched, located and suppressed the submarine threat. Friendly merchant ships and tankers were routed through safe waters while those bound for Pakistani ports were marked by forces in readiness to divert/seize them. Not only was the Pakistan Navy limited to coastal patrols, but its surveillance elements remained, in the main, restricted to the Makran littoral.

After US combat operations in the Gulf were terminated in 2003, tanker traffic was being flagged by the US out of the Gulf under escort. To verify Indian capability to do the same without being targeted the Indian Carrier Group was deployed in the Gulf of Oman to provide airborne escort to Indian hulls coming out of the Gulf. The tankers motored along three escort lines patrolled by missile destroyers from the Carrier Group. Significantly, this was accomplished in sea-space where no land based aviation was available. These tasks could not have been achieved in the absence of the Indian Fleet Carrier.

And because the Carrier is such a large and capable platform, it can integrate assets from other services (even other nations) into its operations. Its Role-Flexibility was on display in Operation Jupiter during the peacekeeping operations in Sri-Lanka in 1989. This is especially crucial today with the stress placed on jointness between the armed services and between allies. In the current combat environment characterized by fluidity, the capabilities needed in one situation may not be the same in another. This is where the versatility of the carrier and its consorts to be tailored for foreseeable roles comes to play. Given the adaptability, payload, mobility and power of the Carrier Group it now becomes meaningful to understand the operational philosophy that governs its deployment.

Contemporary Naval Thought

A fourfold classification of maritime forces has dominated contemporary naval thought. The grouping is largely functional and task oriented. It comprises of aircraft carriers, denial forces (including surface, air and sub-surface units), escorts and surveillance elements. Auxiliaries including logistic and other support ships and tenders provide distant and indirect support. In addition current thought has given strategic nuclear forces a restraining role to define and demarcate the limits within which conventional forces operate.

The make-up of the fleet must logically be a material and technological articulation of strategic concepts that prevail. India has for long aspired to attain a strategic maritime posture that would permit control and hold sway over oceanic spaces that serve to promote its national interests. And in times of hostility, influence the course of conflict. Against this frame of reference the fundamental obligation is therefore to provide the means to seize and exercise that control (it must come as no surprise that China develops forces necessary to realize its A2/AD policy). Pursuing this line of argument, it is the Aircraft Carrier Group and its intrinsic air power assisted by strike and denial forces that sea control and security of control can be achieved. It is here that the true impact of the Aircraft Carrier is felt. Control and security of control is the relationship that operationally links all maritime forces with the Aircraft Carrier. In the absence of the latter, naval operations are reduced to a series of denial actions limited in time, space and restricted to littoral waters with little impact on the progress of operations on land. It is for this reason that the Indian aircraft carrier programme today envisages a minimum force level of three Fleet Carriers at all times in order to meet the diverse tasks that the Navy may be charged with across geographically separated areas of interest under circumstances of change and uncertainty.

The Uncertainty Paradigm

As struggles of the post-cold war era are played out the first casualty is the still born hope of an enlightened global order. Endemic instability worldwide is manifest in the number of armed conflicts (over 50) that erupted in this period. The nature of these wars, more than anything else, reflect what may be termed the ‘Uncertainty Paradigm’ for they ranged from wars of liberation and freedom to insurgencies, civil wars, ethno-racial-religious wars, proxy wars, interventions, armed settlement of historical scores and conflicts motivated by the urge to corner economic resources. In all cases it was either the perpetuation of a regime, political ambitions, radical religious ideologies, racial animosities or the fear of economic deprivation that was at work.

The unease of nations in this milieu is compounded by the perpetuation of each State, its sovereignty, growth, demand for distinctive aspirations and its right to use force; all of which are features that every individual nation lists as primary national interests. It is also here that the roots of uncertainty often lie. Against this backdrop, when politics of ‘territorial grab’ and competitive resource access are linked to survival and growth of State; we have before us the recipe for diverse forms of inter-state, intra-state and bloc conflicts.

Challenge of China

Of all the uncertainties that influence strategic stability, it is China; a self-declared revisionist autocratic power, that will impact and challenge globally. Particularly so, in the maritime domain. And therefore it is appropriate that the planner examine and understand in some detail the challenge of China.

Of import is China’s dazzling economic growth and strategic military prowess. This has transformed their perspective of the world and their role in it. Beijing places primacy on its beliefs and interests, its comprehensive power gives it the required heft to shape global affairs in a manner that promotes own well-being. The search for geopolitical space that the emergence of a new revisionist power precipitates, historically, has been the cause for global instability and tensions. Add to this is the ideology of nationalism that is inextricably linked to their military and we are faced with a situation when China’s power and its revisionist urge has the potential to provoke conflicts. Progressively, China appears to be challenging not just today’s economic orthodoxy and order, but the world’s political and security framework as well without bringing about a change within her own political morphology.

China’s claim of sovereignty over the South China Sea; her territorial aggressiveness; her handling of dissent within Tibet and Sinkiang; her proliferatory carousing with rogue states such as North Korea and Pakistan are cases that do not inspire confidence in change occurring within that nation without turbulence. It is also noted, with some foreboding, the breaking out of China from its largely defensive maritime perimeter into the Indo-Pacific.


The ultimate reality of the international system is the place that power enjoys in the scheme of assuring stability in relations between nations. Uncertainty in relations queers the pitch, in view of the expanded space for possibilities. China has unambiguously articulated three canons that make for its strategic objectives; revision of the existing order, sustained growth at any cost and regional pre-eminence. In the absence of a security oriented cooperative impulse, the problem with such sweeping strategies is its blindness to recognize that, we are in fact dealing with a sea space that is the busiest of all the “vast commons”. The reluctance for collaboration makes the potential for friction high and the only consideration that could deter it, is the ability to attain a strategic posture that serves to stabilize. The ready availability of the Fleet Aircraft Carrier and its complimentary group is central to any power equation and in consequence provides the foundation for stability.

The Looming Winter of Discontent


Vice Admiral (retd) Vijay Shankar (Published in the IPCS web journal. Available at http://ipcs.org/comm_select.php?articleNo=5837 )

Impact and Veracity of Social Media

       The widespread popularity of social media, despite its loud and frequent boorish content, has made the study of events that form historical processes more a disarrayed function of the common than, hitherto, an orderly and elitist function. With around 63.4 million tweets in cyber space relating to the Russo-Ukraine conflict inside a fortnight of the commencement of operations, reality is tossed around and mangled as never before to present itself in the garb of emerging history. Meanwhile, people quite blithely debate whether a nuclear holocaust is an option; whether the NATO should impose a no-fly zone (forget the consequences); or if the alleged counter offensives are kosher; and indeed the imminence of a palace coup in the Kremlin  through the revolt by the oligarchs or even the return of Alexei Navalny.

       A viewpoint built on contrived interpretations of happenings serves only to manipulate human understanding in a manner that gives life to wishful projections. All this has left discernments of the conflict in Ukraine confounded in a mire of half-truths, myths and propaganda.

Where Lies the Truth?

       In this ambience of facts being irrelevant to a distorted narrative, Orwell’s suggestion that the truth  “is not merely determined by the accuracy of verbal veracity; it is the sense of the importance of the event that is its truth; a combination of actual fact and factual relevance ultimately impel an outcome which is the inviolable truth…” Arguably, this is the most important sense in which the truth exists and also the only way of deciphering the goings on in the war in Ukraine.

       President Zelenskyy addressing his nation stated that “The pace of providing aid to Ukraine by partners should correspond to the pace of our movement.” To a military mind, this may suggest that western arms and war material is either not keeping pace with losses or that Ukraine is running low on reserves. And what of the Ukrainian counter offensive? It appears to be vacated space that is being reclaimed; not on account of having exacted a military rout but more owing to Russian operational inability to consolidate a territorial over-reach.

Not the Era for War

       At the recent meeting of the 77th session of the UNGA, deliberations were dominated by the situation in Ukraine. President Macron went to some length as he quoted Prime Minister Modi’s dialogue with President Putin at the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit exhorting him that “Today’s era is not an era of war…” There can be several interpretations of the discourse; but the one that underscored sense and criticality to Macron, the EU and indeed the world was the impact that Russian controlled energy cut-offs will have on the people and economies of the EU.

Russia’s Menacing Energy Bludgeon

       Russia supplied the EU with 40% of its natural gas last year. Germany, Europe’s largest economy, was the leading importer. As the main supplier of gas for many European countries, Moscow controls energy to propel industries, keep alive essential services and for domestic heating. The resource has become a lever that governs relations and, indeed, tensions. Europe’s dependency on Russian gas was no accident. It began as a measure to wean itself away from the OPEC and then became a part of a larger project spearheaded by Germany to deliberately tie the two together in bonds of reliance. The probable understanding was that increased dependency on Russia would open their vast markets to bi-lateral trade and mutual dependency would bring to an end an historical adversarial relationship. But the war in Ukraine exposed the failings of this strategy as Russia’s dominance over energy supplies far outweighed any sense of mutuality. On the contrary it has put immense pressure on European leaders without in any way reducing Russian oil revenues, as demands mount.

       The Kremlin has already cut off gas to six countries and fettered supply to six more in response to NATO’s sanctions. While energy policies of EU states have recognised that it is overly dependent on Russia, it offers no definitive answers of how to reduce that dependency. After all, Russia earned over $430 billion in revenue from oil and gas exports to the EU in the last one year and this figure far exceeds the estimated costs of Russia’s war in Ukraine. In balance is the menacing hardship of an extreme winter for Europe without Russian gas to brave it. Add to this Russia’s control over a third of global wheat supplies that has laid bare the food insecurity of the world. Clearly economics has trumped strategy.

       In the meantime, in a referendum ordered in the occupied Eastern and Southern regions of Ukraine, the people there have apparently voted overwhelmingly in favour of joining the Russian Federation. The annexation has made clear that Moscow’s war aims was the territories that comprised the Donbas region, Kherson and the Zaporizhizhia Oblasts (if it weren’t discernable all along).  A reported partial Russian mobilisation has been called, perhaps to generate the necessary “boots-on-ground” that will secure the fresh appropriations.

External Factors and Peace Prospects

       Distinguishing myths from the reality of disparities in Russo-Ukrainian war waging potential and the flagging nature of aid coming in from the NATO are keys to understanding the direction of this conflict. There is little doubt that Moscow has suffered military reverses, yet their hold on substantial swathes of land in the East and South to the extent of near 20% of the Ukrainian land area is firm and is in the process of being consolidated.  On a daily basis, Ukraine confirms the pivotal dependence upon external factors. Fundamental to the war and, ironically, the weakest link is the US and NATO material backing. Both, surprisingly, bristling at the start of the conflict; are perhaps becoming aware that sanctions are not going to make the Kremlin sue for peace. The answer is not more sanctions as much as the political will to see through privations, a harsh winter and the current economic downturn; we note, NATO’s strategic patience has worn thin.

       Given the correlation that is emerging, hazards of escalation and NATO’s wilting resolve to stay-the-course; one is unlikely to see the appearance of an olive branch till the worst of winter is past and that too on Kremlin’s terms.