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.

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.

Counterforce: a Threat to Nuclear Deterrence Stability


Vice Admiral (retd) Vijay Shankar

(Published in the IPCS web journal. Available at the following link:  http://ipcs.org/comm_select.php?articleNo=5829 )

Early atomic bombs were crude city-annihilators. Their ability to bring enormous and horrific destruction to the civilian domain was demonstrated by the USA on 06 August 1945 when the Japanese city of Hiroshima was devastated; and if that were not enough, a second atomic weapon was detonated over the city of Nagasaki three days later. The two caused 214,000 primary fatalities to a combined population of 613,000 and an unknowable number of secondary and tertiary casualties.

Targeting Concepts

The use of nuclear weapons is governed by two basic targeting concepts: “Counterforce” and “Countervalue”. The former emphasizes strikes on military forces both nuclear and conventional, their infrastructure and logistics; while the latter focuses on economic targets and population centres. A Countervalue doctrine is limited in complexity and demands relatively simpler capabilities. During the Cold-War It led to a rather macabre belief that “assurance of mass destruction” would bring about a balance-of-terror which in turn guaranteed stability. It led to an amassing of arsenals whose aggregate yield could destroy the world many times over. The Counterforce doctrine, on the other hand, suggests that nuclear war could be limited and nuclear forces could be used to disarm the adversary of nuclear weapons; almost as if, the side adopting a Counterforce doctrine controls retaliation by the victim.

Both targeting concepts lose sight of a cardinal principle of international relations; that war has political purpose. Destruction of purpose debases the application of force to a savage all-obliterating clash. Ironically, we note today how nuclear armed states are, adopting postures that increase prospects of the use of nuclear weapons in armed conflicts.

Bernard Brodie, in 1946, provided an intellectual framework for avoiding nuclear war. In his seminal work The Absolute Weapon (New York, Harcourt Brace, 1946, P76) he suggested: “Thus far the chief purpose of our military establishment has been to win wars. From now on its chief purpose must be to avert them. It can have almost no other useful purpose”.  Brodie recognised that the possibility of ‘total destruction’ inherent in the use of nuclear weapons had made victory unachievable, at the same time it’s political value lay in the threat it posed to manipulate an adversary’s mind.

Evolution of Nuclear Weapons & Political Purpose

In examining the evolution of the nuclear deterrence theory, we note there is an allegorical tendency to correlate the nature of war with the changing characteristics of the nuclear weapon. War, as Clausewitz pointed out, has an enduring nature that is defined by four continuities: a political dimension, a human dimension as characterised by military genius, pervasiveness of uncertainty and the contest of opposing resolve. All of these exist within an historical, social and political context. While the dynamics that govern characteristics of nuclear weapons, is in the main, influenced by human ability to harness technology. Regardless, it is apparent that if either political purpose is lost or the human dimension is removed; then war itself is deprived of meaning.

 Given man’s facility to exploit technology, nuclear weapons have evolved in three distinct phases: first, from a weapon of use to an instrument that assured a balance of terror. Second, the threat of mutually guaranteed destruction developed into a contrivance for bargaining and devising compromises. Third, it comes full circle to a bizarre situation that today attempts to again justify nuclear war fighting. Such a progression of the weapon has lost sight of the political and human impact of use.

The Counterforce Strategic Narrative

For a nation, a strategic narrative is a lodestone to avoid a return to a trauma of the past around which the narrative was built and accepted. Its essence is often reflected in simple but pithy mantras such as “War on Terror”, “Mutually Assured Destruction” or “Counterforce doctrine”. The narrative that governs policies of nuclear armed states has, largely, been stimulated by that which emerged in the USA and been systematised in the wake of the first nuclear attacks, through the Cold-War and in its aftermath of a multi-polar world.  

In today’s strategic milieu, the lines between nuclear arsenals and conventional weapons have dangerously become intertwined as new offensive technologies such as precision hypersonic glide vehicles are introduced that pose a potent threat to the security of nuclear weapons and the stability of a deterrent relationship. The narrative in turn urges a “nuclear counterforce” strategy which determines policy and fashions a first-strike strategic posture.  And so we note with some alarm, that a nuclear weapon state when confronted by another may decide to use precision nuclear or conventional counterforce in a first strike to annul the possibility of being a victim of a nuclear attack. In this context the “reported” Russian policy Escalate to De-escalate and the US deployment of low yield nuclear weapons is confounding as it presumes total domination of the escalation ladder. 

The blurring of conventional and nuclear deterrence is apparent by the increasing integration of conventional and nuclear warfighting doctrines.  The US 2018 Nuclear Posture Review stresses the possibility of nuclear weapon use in response to non-nuclear attacks is a case in point. The long held view that nuclear weapons are exceptional has been set aside and in its place a dramatic escalation to nuclear warfighting is advocated. That, such use could provoke an unpredictable set of nuclear responses has been, eerily, blanked-out. Concepts that promote ‘first use’ of nuclear weapons are not new, for tactical nuclear weapons (TNW) were deployed with decentralised release authority during the Cold War. Recognising the catastrophic hazards of pre-delegation,  Presidential Nuclear Initiatives  attempted to remove all TNWs from the battlefield.


Counterforce strategies intrinsically translate to heightened nuclear risks as it prompts a ‘first strike’. It is also a flawed premise that response to nuclear escalation can ever be predictable and controlled. To the contrary, foreclosure of the option to use nuclear weapons first would not only enhance the stability of deterrence and reduce the role played by nuclear weapons in security policy; but also provide greater political legitimacy. Therefore, to adopt a ‘No-First-Use’ nuclear-policy provides sagacity to a troubled world in its deference for greater security and, indeed, for survival.