Fear Nuclear War: It IS Five Minutes To Midnight, After All…

by admin on July 20, 2014

imagesWe just don’t fear nuclear weapons enough anymore.

While the global fear of nuclear war has receded, the threat of nuclear war is a very real and fast-growing danger.

Lacking a healthy global uptick in appreciation of the consequences of nuclear conflict–a fear that both endows nuclear weapons with value while helping to prevent their use–the world is ripe for catastrophic miscalculation.

Time Is Short

The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists’ Doomsday Clock has been sitting at Five Minutes to Midnight since 2012–a grim status only beaten between the rough Cold War patches of 1981 through 1988 and the frightening span between 1949 and 1960.

What’s sad is that few in the U.S.–one of the most fearful, fret-prone nations in the world–paid the latest Doomsday Clock reset any attention.

And that should worry everybody.

You don’t need to go commission a Pew Survey. It’s quite clear that atomic weapons and the prospect of a nuclear confrontation just aren’t as frightening to the average American anymore.

If anything, America’s collective shrug at the Doomsday Clock is a symptom of something larger…that we–as a planet–are getting awfully cavalier about nuclear weapons. Too many leaders out there dismiss the threat with a fatalist shrug–it’s just another threat in a world where life is often nasty, brutish and short.

Trident II

For the U.S., survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki–those grim reminders of America’s real-world atomic bomb use–are disappearing.  The scary “hide under your desk” era of the Cold War is being forgotten. In the West, my generation was the last to experience collective, community-wide scares like “The Day After” and other cultural events that attempted to hammer home the reality of nuclear warfare (And it worked, too. Remember how 100 Million folks watched that show?).

Younger generations have been shaped by the COIN and Terror era, a conflict far removed from the grim Game Theory days of yore.

The errors and excesses of the Cold War are a misty, gauzy memory for far too many.

In certain circles there is a far greater apatite for applying nuclear weapons to problems–not in using nukes as savvy geopolitical tools in the comparatively subtle (!!) “Reagan-era” model–but as the ultimate hammer to solve, in an unrealistic no-muss-no-fuss way, knotty non-proliferation issues, crazy rogue leaders or any tough geopolitical problem manifesting at the moment. That’s a volatile trend, particularly when combined with the globe’s apparently greater tolerance for brinkmanship and risk-taking these days.

We Americans are getting far more focused on the immediate gratification (BOOM–Yay! The Iranian centrifuge plant is destroyed! POW–Woo! North Korea will trouble us no longer!) and neglecting the longer-term political, economic, environmental and humanitarian consequences of such actions.

Ignorance, forgotten history, lack of experience, a failure to appreciate the consequences…these are all things that heighten the risk of miscalculation.

This isn’t an exclusively American phenomenon. The rest of the world is not in much better shape.

With that in mind, there should be a far, far larger national investment in educating the nation’s public and policymakers–and, for that matter, the rest of the world–on the very real risks and consequences posed by nuclear war.

The time to do this is now. America is teetering on the brink of a Cold Warish-esque engagement with China, most of Asia is eying nuclear weaponry, the Iran/Israel/Saudi Arabia and Pakistan/India mini-Cold Wars are still grinding along while North Korea sits out there as wild card. Then there’s Russia, quietly nursing grudges and perceived slights. And then, off in the distance, is South America…

It’s a grim, scary future out there. But what is an interested and engaged American Administration to do?

empReinvigorating Nuclear Nonproliferation

New Blood Needed: First, America needs to work on completely reinventing and reinvigorating the resident non-proliferation community. As it is now, the community is dominated by a sclerotic bunch of old Cold War dinosaurs who are, as a whole, far too fond of bilateralism, looting their resident non-profits and enjoying far more comforts of the rubber chicken circuit than is healthy for the field.

Nobody would care if many of the lions of the old order disappeared tomorrow. As it is, too many of these Cold War relics are too bound by convention, preach only to the converted and have essentially marginalized themselves into irrelevance.

So we need a new cadre of nonproliferation leaders–ones that can reach out and make new audiences understand and care about the threat of nuclear warfare.

New Frontiers in Nonproliferation Needed: If reinventing the nuclear non-proliferation community is a worthwhile goal (it is!), the government needs to start taking steps that inject some life and excitement into the field of nuclear nonproliferation, extending the field into new areas. (Look, I know Iran, North Korea and India/Pakistan are great, worthwhile areas to focus upon, but they’re also old issues, with policy set pretty much in amber until, one day, a transformational crisis erupts.)

The field needs new issues and approaches to enliven it.

The avenues available to shake things up are many–for example, the Administration might try urging some of our friends to consider shedding their nuclear capability.  Sweating the UK (Does the UK really need a second-strike capability right now?) or other friends a bit over their nuclear programs (declared or not) might be an interesting way to catch people’s interest.

Engaging China in a meaningful way BEFORE the country starts recapitalizing their existing (and, I might add, a very cost-effective and strategically smart) minimal means of reprisal might be quite worthwhile. Striving to better understand the implications of old, bilateral agreements in a multi-polar world is another.

virginia_1Or, if tougher “realpolitik” standards apply, the Administration could follow the Reagan-era playbook (a playbook I believe in) and try creating change by destabilizing–by, say, really focusing on China’s nuclear short range and medium range missiles, or by openly mulling the deployment of medium-range sub-launched ballistic missiles via the Virginia Payload Tubes (yes, yes, I know there are treaties here, but it would certainly be a way to help get nuclear weapons back on the wider public agenda).

Recapitalizing Old Resources: At the end of the day, the Administration–at every level–needs to start reminding folks that nuclear weapons are woefully inefficient weapons, really only useful for killing us all very, very quickly. The Administration (this one and the next and the one after that) need to be out there, reminding us all that regional Cold Wars are unstable things and that regional nuclear war will mean not just the end of the participants, but the end of the world–or at least carry a disproportionate impact upon those countries least prepared to withstand grave, system-wide impacts (China/India/Pakistan).

That leads to the third point–to communicate threats the Nation needs to mount a wholesale recapitalization and reinvestment of their nuclear nonproliferation infrastructure. I see a lot of tools, government organizations and U.S. infrastructure built for assessing and popularizing the impact of nuclear war out there struggling for relevancy–working to find funding and relevance from Climate Change studies or other avenues–and then loosing funding because of it.

The Administration would be wise to reinvigorate funding for a number of those now threadbare and somewhat forgotten Cold War institutions–and reminding Congress that these institutions and infrastructures are anchored in national security, and that, for a world hurtling into a complex rat’s nest of multilateral mini-Cold Wars, it is vital for America to better understand and socialize the potential catastrophic consequences of such events. If modeling things like Climate Change helps build fidelity for modeling the impact of nuclear war on the survival of the United States, then, by gosh, we should do it, Climate Deniers be darned!

American security and diplomatic specialists need to get back out there and work really, really hard at re-awakening the world’s fear and loathing of nuclear weaponry and nuclear warfare. That means empowering the nation’s non-proliferation community to work on, say, consequence management–followed by wider efforts to publicize their work and get it into the mainstream.

A perfect example is in the recent Popular Science. Government climatologists modeled the consequences of a small nuclear war–and then, a few months later, helped mainstream writers translate the researcher’s dry science into accessible language everybody understands. More of this needs to happen–not less.

ThedayafterWhy Does This Matter To The Navy?

Ultimately, this is a wakeup call for the Navy. The Navy must help reinvigorate the nuclear non-proliferation community. The Navy must help educating the public and policymakers on the horror of nuclear war.

Navy engagement makes a certain amount of sense–after all, it is about helping to better define and shape the world the Navy is going to operate in over the coming decades.

It is in the Navy’s interest to have a nation fully “engaged and educated” on the threat of nuclear war and to help promote and support the growth of national infrastructures required to distribute honest, robust and public real-world assessments of nuclear risks.

The Navy must get nonproliferation right. The Navy and Administration are in the middle of generating a new set of naval strategies, recapitalizing the Navy’s portion of the nuclear triad, and struggling to determine where a limited amount of money is gonna go–and if the Navy is going to need to ask the public for funding to “operate forward” in a nuclear armed–and likely contaminated world–then, yeah, public awareness and interest in nuclear nonproliferation is gonna be an important determinant of the Navy’s future.

The U.S. Navy–unlike any other service–operates right at the front lines of nuclear nonproliferation–and not just in nuclear weaponry. The Navy advances energy, too. With the US Navy focusing on petrochemical energy conservation and energy weapons, the strategic and tactical utility of nuclear combatants may well see a renaissance. In time, the Navy may again lead the way in nuclear power plant design–and give the Navy (and nation) an opportunity to help direct the world toward nuclear power-plant designs that are safer and tougher to bend towards production of bomb-ready material.

As a lead component of America’s nuclear triad and the pointy end of the spear for eliminating other countries’ underwater deterrence, nuclear non-proliferation is a big deal for the Navy. To be healthy–and to prepare appropriately for the future–the Navy stands to benefit from an engaged public that is more aware of the real costs of nuclear proliferation and nuclear war. It makes fiscal and strategic sense for the Navy to really get engaged here.

But it is also why the Navy should be really quite concerned about America’s ambivalence over the Doomsday clock’s inexorable march towards midnight. If American taxpayers can’t muster much of a care about their national survival, they sure as heck won’t pay for much of a Navy.

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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Craig Hooper July 21, 2014 at 10:49 pm

Great comments–

Subs–Well, this is a Navy-oriented blog, so I figured I’d tie the matter back to the Navy. That said, given that the Defense Strategic Guidance highlights things like “preventing the proliferation and use of nuclear” weapons and to “maintain a safe, secure and effective nuclear deterrent” I sorta thought the Navy might have some skin in the game here. (Read J_Keis’ earlier comment, too) Yes, it’s a “Whole of Government” Issue, but I think it might be wise for the Navy to bite the bullet and go out there and explain it’s missions–particularly if it is asking taxpayers for billions for new SSBNs, or SSNs to go and kill other country’s SSBNs.

I think the Navy could do well by the country to help raise awareness of the real risks (and consequences) of nuclear war both at home and abroad. I mean…good lord, they’re the service that is going to be out there facing nuclear-tipped MRBMs in the Pacific. Why not let the Public know what they’re up against and see if they can help build public pressure for either more Navy resources or new approaches to help reduce the threat in other ways? The Navy–I think–is ideally placed, with personnel engaged in a range of different (and quite relevant) nonproliferation/conterproliferation/deterrence work, and, here at home, they’re gonna need tones of money for their bit of the triad. So yeah. It’s a Navy problem. To bend a naval phrase–Why not “engage the issue more closely”? The costs are minimal, and the potential upside for the nation and service are high.

J. Keis–Great comment. I don’t mean to be so harsh on–as you call ’em–the thinktank hippies. They do do great work. But the energy that gave rise to these institutions isn’t there anymore–the governmental energy and focus on the issue is gone, the major players are older and are no longer, (forgive the term) hungry bomb-throwing insurgents but part of the tired ‘ole mainstream, and…I guess I’m just raging that nonproliferation (at least on the thinktank side) grew up and got old.

I think the field desperately needs new energy.

Do the thinktankers do great work? Yeah, sure. But, that said, I can’t help but look at the Form 990s for nonproliferation organizations and blanche at, say, NTI’s bloated cadre of leaders making over $300K and $200K a year (and then go compare that list of big salaried folks with the comparatively lean and mean and waaay more influential CNAS). I love Sam Nunn, but hell, in 2010, NTI had 37 Million dollars in a nest egg that, by 2012, had shrunk to 16 Million; In 2012 it was bringing in 4 Million dollars in revenue and paying 5 Million in salary alone. That’s no way to run a business…I’ve seen the same thing happen in naval non-profits (Heck, the CEO of the organization that tended the ex-USS Olympia looted the place so badly he went to jail), and the end result is, well, nothing but memories of some darn good parties, I guess. Eying the CEO salaries at these places, and then comparing them to the rank and file salaries…AND then comparing that compensation to the legions of uncompensated interns and volunteers…it’s just, well, kinda sad.

None of the old guard can look me in the eye and tell me that the game hasn’t changed quite a bit from when they first started out.

Grousing aside, I think the nation would benefit from seeing the field get a little more energy. That energy can come from government efforts to spur new thinking/wider interest in new nonproliferation approaches, government efforts to recapitalize some of the old and now defunded government infrastructures that once really focused on some of these issues (and helped build a braintrust of engaged new thinkers, too)….and, of course, it would all be aided by a systemic effort to add new blood to the nonprofit thinktank leadership ranks (and actually empower–vice impoverish–the young’uns interested in the topic)…Hope to see some of these steps happen!

My two cents, anyway! Great discussion ya’ll.


Subs July 21, 2014 at 7:39 pm

Why is this specifically a Navy problem?


J_kies July 21, 2014 at 3:10 pm

I expect that a number of people from various partisan views will regard your post as a partisan opportunity to castigate or drum up funding for some partisan issues.

Nuclear weapons and their effects are ‘intellectually interesting’; no living persons have a good memory of the decisions of use or a good memory of the social / societal impact of having dropped the bomb on two wartime targets (or the deliberate simulation of NW effects on Dresden). (Japanese survivors may take me to task on ‘good memory of’ but their stories have been subsumed into a low level awareness that does not impact the current discussions.)

The ‘5 minutes to midnight’ doomsday clock has been around so long that we no longer remember why we stopping paying attention to the boy always crying wolf. As a non-partisan individual; I can see where people would accuse the BAS of partisan leanings in their setting and justifications for the ‘5 minutes’ claims.

Where this matters for the military; nuclear weapons are not a warfighting tool for use on any planet that you want your children and grandchildren to inhabit. Accordingly, the US nuclear weapons complex and delivery systems are in the ‘war avoidance’ job jar deterring foreign first use of nuclear weapons. Deterring foreign first use is ‘good’ especially in the context of the US gross overmatch in conventional weapons targeting and delivery capabilities (consider Gulf war 1 as a case study). Don’t whine about Ohio Replacement eating the Navy’s shipbuilding budget (especially due to the insane cost growth of conventional surface combatants and the lack of will to properly resource the shipbuilding to offset the inflation and cost growth due to inefficient production mandates). Ohio and all nuclear weapons systems should return to their roots in a strategic budget line that pays for that war avoidance mission where the ‘boomers’ just happen to be operated by the Navy due to domain expertise. Don’t blindly re-cap the ICBMs however without a harsh look at exactly what role they really play in multipolar deterrence especially with ‘strategic confusion’ in play from CONUS BMD.

As to the arms-control guys, don’t beat on the old guys for doing a good job; the fact that we have the small (semi-manageable) number of Nuclear Weapon States today is mostly due to fine work by the ‘hippies’ against proliferation. That is one of the elements of ‘all aspects of national power’; arms control has blunted many threats and reduced / eliminated more nuclear weapons than the rest of the government combined in all their efforts.

As for the ‘we don’t have enough nukes’ crowd and their fan-boys; I have studied nuclear weapon effects including some irrecoverable test articles still ‘down hole’ from sudden radioactive exposure. I have looked at the details of the nuclear winter models and error quantification as compared to large volcanic events (VEI-5/6/7 style). Ruining any country regardless of targeting protocols is somewhere in the neighborhood of 50 to 100 above ground bursts. Onset of global effects due to VEI style solar blockage and cooling looks to be around 100 ground bursts / airbursts. Overall, you don’t want a practical demonstration where the error terms in the modeling matter to the food stocks for the world population. ‘5 minutes till midnight’, hmmph get over the analog clock already.


Matt July 21, 2014 at 10:17 am

What does 5 minutes to midnight mean, anyway?

Given that we’re stuck with this Doomsday clock, it’s probably more like 5 seconds to midnight. In other words, if you don’t have a fallout shelter in your backyard then you had better start digging.

Let us ignore the deluge of articles discussing the possibility of war between China and the US. Let’s ignore a history that shows how a rising power (China) will go to war against an existing power (US) over 75% of the time if there is a conflict, and depending on how you count that percentage can go up 100%. Let’s ignore all the articles pointing out how today is a lot like 1914 right before the war. Let’s ignore the fact that Russia has threatened nuclear attack or targeting at least 15 times since 2008. Let’s ignore Russian threats of nuclear war if Sweden and Finland join NATO. Let’s ignore the multiple threats of nuclear attack should the US continue to interfere in the Middle East.

Ignore all those things if you want, but don’t ignore this: If you want peace, then prepare for war. Gutting the US nuclear arsenal has already crossed a red line and put the country on a path to war. Based on the behavior of China and Russia, the US nuclear arsenal is no longer an effective deterrent. Remember, you don’t get a vote. It’s the other guy who gets to decide. When he decides something is not effective then it is not effective. And China and Russia are telling us it is not effective. It is the cost of doing business – a speed bump.


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