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.