FIVE MINUTES TO MIDNIGHT – BUT WHAT DOES THAT MEAN?
On10 January this year, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists announced
that they had 'moved' the minute hand of the 'Doomsday Clock' that
has been a feature of the Bulletin since it was set up by former
Manhattan Project physicists in 1947, from six minutes to midnight,
to five minutes to midnight.[BAS Press release, 10Jan2012 on BAS
Immediately prior to the move, in a press-release, [PND Press release 8Jan2012 on
PND website], the author of this article had urged the Bulletin to
move to four, or four-and-a-half, minutes to midnight. Five wasn't
far off. The clock had previously been moved from five minutes, to
six minutes to midnight in Jan2010. The closest it has ever been to
midnight is two-and-a-half minutes in the testing frenzy of the 1950s.
But what exactly is 'midnight', and why should the clock be moved? Is the
world really moving, almost imperceptibly toward some abyss, and if
so what, if anything, apart from watching with horrified fascination,
should we be doing about it?
Aren't we supposed to be on some sort of 'glide path' toward zero nuclear
weapons? Didn't the apocalypse vanish from the global agenda about 12
years ago? If not, why is it still there, and what can be done about it?
In spite of the fact that the Bulletin now pays increasing attention to
issues other than nuclear weapons – mostly to global warming –
the main significance of 'midnight' is, still, a global nuclear apocalypse.
Our distance from midnight, or our closeness to it, is a rough measure of
just how much we endanger ourselves as a species.
From the 1960s to the end of the 1980s it was always perfectly clear that
what was involved was the possibility, often visibly imminent, of a
massive nuclear exchange involving a number of tens of thousands of
large warheads between the US and Russia that would kill most people
in those countries, in Europe, in Japan, and in countries allied to
the US and Russia. Those few of us not incinerated in the first hour
would be left to deal with prolonged darkness and sub-zero
temperatures even in the tropics.(I have a cheery 1986 Soviet Academy
of Science publication complete with Albrecht Durers four horsemen of
the apocalypse showing sub-zero temperatures in Amazonia)
[The Night After – Climatic and Biological Consequences of a Nuclear War
And that's not counting the destruction of the ozone layer and the
radiation. Civilisation, and most land-based species including us,
would probably be finis. Jonathan Schell's words, from memory, from
The Fate of the Earth, ring in the ears: 'The more megatons, the less
there is to say'.
According to my friend and colleague Steven Starr of PSR, in a Feb18th blog
“Those who survived the immediate effects of nuclear detonations would
ultimately starve to death when it growing seasons were eliminated
for years by Ice Age weather conditions. Those living in nations far
from the target zones would still perish from famine when food
supplies ran out and no food could be grown.
Recent peer-reviewed studies predict that the firestorms from a
nuclear war between India and Pakistan, in which half of their
currently operational nuclear arsenals would be detonated in their
mega-cities, would produce enough smoke to create a global
stratospheric smoke layer lasting for ten years. The smoke would block 7-10% of
sunlight from reaching Earth's surface, creating the coldest average
surface temperatures experienced in the last 1000 years; the smoke
would also heat the stratosphere enough to destroy up to 45% of the
ozone above the US, Europe, Russia and China, doubling the amount of
UV-B and raising UV Indices off the charts.
The 100 atomic bombs detonated in the hypothetical India-Pakistan
conflict represent less than 1% of the explosive power now contained
in the operational and deployed nuclear arsenals of the US and Russia.
The discussion of "a world without nuclear weapons" has failed
to include the long-term environmental consequences of nuclear war. The
launch-ready nuclear arsenals constitute a self-destruct mechanism
for the human race.
What political purpose would be served if deterrence fails and they are detonated in conflict?”
[Starr Commentary on Cirincione, 18Feb, http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2012/02/17/getting_to_zero?page=full]
If, as both Steve and I (and many others in the abolition movement) have
repeatedly suggested, the potentially civilisation – ending and
even possibly species-ending potential of large-scale nuclear weapons
use is taken as seriously as its peer–reviewed nature says it
should be, then even considerations of so – called 'national
security' must take a back seat to make way for human survival.
What is not appreciated nearly widely enough is that this human survival
issue is STILL – utterly perversely – on the agenda. The total
number of warheads has gone down, and hopefully will go down further,
from its lunatic heights of over 30,000 each in the 1980's, to
1500-1700 each for the US and Russia, under New START.(This only
counts operational warheads, leaving thousands of 'non –
operational' and tactical warheads outside the scope of the treaty.)
But the US and Russia continue to maintain over a thousand warheads each
on high alert, able to be launched in less than two minutes, a launch
posture that makes an accidental apocalypse not only possible, but
after studying the numerous terrifying 'near misses', leaves one
asking if there is not proof of divine intervention. General Lee
Butler is said to have attributed human survival to 'blind good luck
and divine providence'.
Nonetheless, the exact nature of the Bulletins 'midnight' has come to be a little
more fuzzy over the last 20 years or so. The 'major' apocalypse, of
which we've been already speaking, has undeservedly faded from public
consciousness, while proliferation concerns have, well, proliferated.
Still, to look at the debate in the media, one would imagine that the major
threat to human survival came from Iran (with thus far, zero nuclear
warheads, and a religious prohibition on them), and not from the US
and Russia, who perversely hang on to their ability to render the
planet uninhabitable in less than an hour. It is well to remember –
as undersecretary for disarmament Ellen Tauscher reminded listeners
at a recent lecture – that the US and Russia STILL maintain
approximately 90-95% of all the nuclear warheads that there are.
Nonetheless, there are real proliferation concerns and nuclear use concerns that
were not there in say, 1990. The use of nuclear weapons by terrorist
groups such as Al Qaeda is a real and terrifying possibility that
wasn't there 20 years ago. (Though some disarmament and
nonproliferation experts were warning of it, they were viewed as
So the question arises:
--Is the use of a single, 'tactical' nuclear weapon, to incinerate
downtown Delhi, Karachi, Tel Aviv, Moscow, Los Angeles or New York,
itself 'midnight' or just a terrible curtain-raiser?
--What about the use of a tactical nuke or three by Israel against Natanz or
Fordow – with all the civil 'collateral damage' that might do to
--Use of a 'shoot 'n scoot' tactical nuke against massed tank formations
--Use of 'tactical' Iskander missiles against NATO missile defence
installations in Poland, Czech republic and Romania?
A scenario that was only given really serious consideration after 1998
has of course been that of an India-Pakistan nuclear war. Things came
close with the Kargil confrontation in 1999, and then again in
2002-2003 with a terrifying moment in end of December 2002, when the
worlds number one wire story read 'India, Pak, move nukes to line of
control'. Both governments now deny that it ever happened.
While both governments strenuously deny that it is a possibility, (and many
of my numerous Indian and Pakistani friends will perish if it
happens), analysts elsewhere unanimously regard the India-Pakistan
nuclear relationship as the world's most dangerous. Toon and Robock
of Rutgers University, have published an article in [Scientific
American Jan2010, 'Local Nuclear War, Global Suffering'] that details
the catastrophic global climatic effects of an India-Pakistan nuclear
exchange with roughly half the arsenals now available to each.(and
note the earlier quote by Steven Starr).
Finally, amongst those that actually do have nuclear weapons as opposed to
those who do not have them, and who deny they have any intention to
get them....there is the DPRK.
The DPRK has perhaps 10-12 small and primitive warheads of uncertain
performance, and doubts keep being raised (in my view quite
misguidedly) about whether it has a delivery system. I find these
doubts most strange to say the least, given that the DPRK's No-dong
missile IS the Pakistani Ghauri missile, Pakistan's principal
delivery system. Technology was exchanged for a number of years via
the AQ Khan network between the DPRK and Pakistan. Without any
knowledge whatsoever, I would guess with at least 50% confidence,
that a DPRK warhead looks like a Pakistani one. Or is most likely to.
I also suspect that there are in fact very few circumstances (I am
comparing with Pakistan) in which it would ever make any sense for
the DPRK to use its minuscule nuclear capacity. It could, to be sure,
vaporise downtown Seoul or Tokyo, but that would be followed by its
own prompt destruction. On the other hand if that looked imminent
anyway, it might just do so.
My guess is that Kim Jong Un will in fact pursue a rather cautious
policy, though he may conduct a third test, and could – a little
more riskily – conduct further missile flight tests.
But lets backtrack to that now somewhat faded, but still all too real
apocalypse, a US/NATO-Russia conflagration, that at New START numbers
would involve 1500-1700 warheads each. That prospect, unlike that of
putative Iranian nukes when that country neither has the warheads nor
according to its own statements the intention to acquire those
warheads (but watch that change after military action), - is one that
actually DOES have the hardware, and the procedures, regularly
rehearsed still by both the US and Russia, to make it happen.
Early last December [ http://eng.kremlin.ru/transcripts/3115:],
after repeated warnings, including one in the preamble to New START
agreement itself,President Medvedev announced as follows:
“First, I am instructing the Defence Ministry to immediately put the missile
attack early warning station in Kaliningrad on combat alert.
Second, protective cover of Russia's strategic nuclear weapons will
be reinforced as a priority measure under the programme to develop
our air and space defences.
Third, the new strategic missiles commissioned by the Strategic Missile Forces and the Navy
will be equipped with advance missile penetration systems and new
Fourth, I have instructed the Armed Forces to draw up measures for disabling missile defence
system data and guidance systems, if need be.
These measures will be adequate, effective, and low-cost.
Fifth, if the above measures prove insufficient, the Russian
Federation System will employ modern, offensive weapon systems in the
west and south of the country, ensuring our ability to take out any
part of the missile defence system in Europe. One step
in this process will be to deploy Iskander missiles in the
Kaliningrad region. Other measures to counter the
European missile defence system will be drawn up and implemented as
Furthermore, if the situation continues to
develop not to Russia's favour, we reserve the right to discontinue
further disarmament and arms control measures. Besides, given the
intrinsic link between strategic offensive and defensive arms,
conditions for the withdrawal from the New START Treaty could also
arise, and this option is enshrined in the treaty.
But let me stress this point, we are not closing the door on continued
dialogue with the USA and NATO on missile defence, and on practical
cooperation in this area. We are ready for that. However, this
can only be achieved by establishing a clear, legal basis for
cooperation that would guarantee our legitimate interests and
concerns are taken into account. We are open to dialogue and
hope for a reasonable and constructive approach from our Western
This prompts an obvious question: For gods sake, have you actually
WARGAMED what happens after you target and destroy NATO missile
In the words of the letter that myself, Col Valery Yarynich (30 years
Soviet missile forces), Steven Starr and David Krieger of NAPF
(Letter is on NAPF[www.wagingpeace.org] and PND[www.pndnsw.org.au]
websites) wrote in response to Medvedev and Obama:
“The leaders of the U.S., NATO and Russia must seriously consider the
possibility that the current course of political events is pushing
them towards an eventual military confrontation and conflict.
Further expansion of NATO, its “nuclear umbrella” and missile
defence system to the very borders of Russia increase the odds that
any conventional military confrontation would quickly escalate into
If Russia decided “to take out any part of the missile defence system
in Europe,” as threatened by President Medvedev, would not such an
action be likely to lead to nuclear conflict between the U.S. and
Russia? According to recent peer-reviewed studies, the
detonation of the launch-ready U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals
could leave the Earth virtually uninhabitable for more than a
decade.[xii] Such a war would lead to global famine and
starvation of most of the human race.[xiii]”
[Our references are to studies by Toon and Robock].
It is well to note that this particular piece of nuclear chest-thumping
was accompanied by an implied threat to withdraw from New START, if
Russia concerns are not met. This again is not new: Missile Defence
is explicitly discussed in the preamble and in Article 5 of New
START. The preamble recognises the "relationship between
strategic offensive arms and strategic defensive arms" and
stipulates that "current strategic defensive arms do not
undermine the viability and effectiveness of strategic offensive arms
of the Parties."
Thus, the ongoing deployment of U.S./NATO
Missile Defence systems is, in the eyes of Russia, at least a
violation of the spirit of New START. In addition, a statement added
by the Duma explicitly says that Russia is to withdraw if its missile
defence concerns are not met or if its deterrent is compromised.
There are absolutely no surprises here.
Moreover it has been repeated much more recently by the Russian negotiator of
Mikhail Ulyanov, that Russian withdrawal from New START was 'not excluded' if Russian
concerns are not met.
"Naturally, it would be very undesirable that circumstances would force us to
take this step, but it cannot be excluded,”
There have also been statements that Russia would not only not engage in
further arms cuts, but that they would in fact 'augment' their
nuclear arsenal in response to Missile Defence.
General Makarov, chief of Russia's general staff, said last wednesday, that
Russia would use nuclear weapons against any threat to its
If the downward trajectory in warhead numbers in the two countries that
possess 90-95% of all the nuclear warheads on the planet is reversed
and arms control measures such as New START are abandoned, then all
bets – at least, all optimistic ones – are off as far as further
progress in nuclear disarmament is concerned. Abandonment of arms
control measures amounts to thumbing ones nose at the clear NPT
Article VI obligation to have negotiated away nuclear arsenals by
about 30 years ago. This could cause the entire NPT framework to
The apocalypse would be well and truly back on the agenda, yet it is all
On the US side, an unwholesome 'deal' has been struck with opponents of
New START, that offset the limitations on operative warheads with a
massive modernisation plan that actually would have been the greatest
expenditure in history on nuclear weapons and nuclear weapons
infrastructure ever to take place. Such a program would seem to
undermine the very purpose of New START in the first place, namely to
fulfil the legal obligation of the US and Russia to go to zero.
However – and this is actually a positive – the modernisation program now
seems to be in increasing doubt in view of the financial crisis, with
some congresspeople (Ed Markey with the SANE Act),
urging drastic cuts in spending on nuclear weapons.
The Obama administration itself is said to be contemplating 'deep cuts'.
with Associated Press reporting possible cuts of up to 80% in warhead
The possibility of 'deep cuts' to the US nuclear arsenal has prompted
both supportive comments from the disarmament community, and vitriol
and misrepresentation from the republican right. Once more, it is
clear that if it were widely understood that large -scale nuclear
weapons use could be terminal for most living things including humans
as the scientific evidence makes so crystal-clear, this would change
the very nature of the debate from 'how to ensure national
security'(by holding everyone else at risk) to 'how to ensure
As it is, the commentary on the republican right runs as follows:
“Can you believe that the American people will stand by for this … so
clearly putting the nation's defense at risk?" said Liz Cheney on Fox
Radio host Rush Limbaugh called it "downright scary" and a
shift in the balance of power toward Russia "by design."
Equating reducing nuclear weapons with reducing American power, Sen.
James Inhofe (R-Okla.) said, "The idea that making ourselves
weaker will somehow lead to increased global security and stability
Many in the disarmament community, notably Cirincione and Hans Kristensen
in the FAS blog, have commented that in fact, it has been republican
administrations that have made some of the largest cuts in the US
Kristensen notes that:
“Despite an outcry from congressional republicans and conservatives
against the Obama administration’s plans to reduce nuclear weapons,
Republican presidents have been the big disarmers in the post-Cold War era.”
A reduction to 1,000-1,100 would be about 30 percent below the New
START treaty limit, a drop similar to the 30 percent reduction between
the New START treaty and the Moscow Treaty ceiling of 2,200 warheads.
A reduction to 300-400 would be a reduction of approximately 77
percent – right up there with the Bush cuts of the past two decades.
Those Bushies must have been reckless liberals in disguise.”
Steven Schwartz of the Monterey Institute said to Joseph Cirincione that:
"I don't recall too many Republican complaining or fretting about
those reductions, the latter of which took place during a period when
we were fighting two wars, when North Korea conducted two nuclear
tests, and when Iran expended its nuclear operations, "
Cirincione [op cit] notes that proposals for going as low as 500 or even 300
nuclear warheads are not exactly new. The rightwing Cato Institute,
not exactly a darling of the nuclear disarmament movement, has
proposed going from the current 1500-1700 warheads, (with much larger
numbers in the non-operational 'hedge' category) to 500 warheads. A
study done in 2010 by three air force officers, suggested going as
low as 300 warheads. And as Cirincione pointed out it is almost
impossible to envisage circumstances in which even 300 nuclear
warheads might be called for that did not entail the destruction of
Unless of course, a US – Russia apocalypse is STILL on the agenda in spite
of all the denials that this is so.
The republicans in a letter signed by 32 congresspeople alleged that
going to 300 warheads (which may not Alas! - even be at all what is
contemplated) – would mean that the US would have 'fewer' warheads
This is not so. While China has an astonishingly restrained arsenal of
approximately 240 warheads by our best estimates, most of these would
by considered by US standards not to be 'deployed' at all (i.e.
they'd be in the hedge stockpile where they are more or less
invisible to counting under arms limitation treaties), and a mere
40-50 max are able to be used as strategic forces against the US.
The Chinese clearly (and correctly) believe that being able to
incinerate 50-100 million americans and cripple the US as a
functioning society is sufficient deterrent. They do not need to make
I wish President Obama all the success he could have in the
bureaucratic infighting and vicious politicking that he will
experience in trying to implement deep cuts in warhead numbers and in
alert status in the US nuclear arsenal. Even partial success in doing
this will make a significant difference to the prospects of survival
for both civilisation and for humans and the thousands of other
species we would make extinct n a major nuclear event. For Obama it
may be his last, best, chance to justify the nobel he was awarded
after the Prague speech.
Returning once more to the subcontinent, there are again, both negative and
positive forces clearly at work. It is hard to see what will win.
On the more negative side, even as the Pakistani state seems on the
verge of dissolving, with civil and military authorities facing off
against each other, while insurgent elements are coddled, or at
least not tackled, and with relations with the US in some kind of
free-fall, Pakistan is still making nuclear warheads faster than
anyone else on earth. [http://bos.sagepub.com/content/67/4/91]
Pakistan's induction of a short-range tactical nuclear missile with 'shoot 'n
scoot' characteristics presumably in response to a 'cold start'
scenario,merely inserts another tripwire for nuclearising a conflict
Finally, there has been speculation amongst the media and amongst analysts for
years, that Taliban or Al Qaeda elements could, one way or another,
probably with inside help, obtain a nuclear weapon.
On India's side, I suspect that things are being held back from a
subcontinental arms race by the personal commitments of both the
Prime Minister and by the commitment of Mr Mani Shankar Aiyar, the
author of the 1988 Rajiv Gandhi Peace Plan. How long Mani will be
able to restrain a full-fledged nuclear arms race, and whether he
will be able to reverse it, via the current round of confidence
building measures, I do not know. One can only wish him all the
considerable luck, prayers, and divine intervention that he is going
to need to achieve this.
The BAS was right to have moved the clock from six to five minutes to
midnight. While there was significant hope in 2010 with the signature
and ratification of START, and while the 2010 NPT Review conference
was lacking in the rancour that some other conferences (such as the
2005 conference) displayed, and did actually come up with a final
declaration that was not too bad, in more recent times we have slid
backwards. And no attempt whatsoever has been made to implement the
2010 NPT final declaration.
In addition, some utterly critical items have been missed.
Obama in his election campaign and after it, committed to negotiate with
Russia to lower the operational readiness of US and Russian nuclear
weapon systems. His promise has disappeared in spite of resolutions
in the UN General Assembly on the issue that go through 157-3.
This quite literally keeps the apocalypse on the agenda.
In spite of Obama's initial enthusiasm for nuclear disarmament outlined
in the 'Prague Agenda' there are a few too many pre-emptive
surrenders to the hawks. Lets hope that the deep cuts now on the
agenda succeed, along with meaningful changes to nuclear posture.
Russian responses to the obsessive pursuit of a missile defence program that
technically cannot work, against an enemy that does not even have the
weapon to which BMD is supposedly a counter, are also unhelpful (as
are NATO responses to Russian responses), though they are completely
understandable. But on missile defence, NATO and Russia seem to
simply talk past each other. This has to change.
The same dynamic applies on the subcontinent.
Without clear global leadership and a strong constituency for zero nukes, we
risk drifting insensibly, to four minutes to midnight.