By Vice Admiral Vijay Shankar (Retd)*
The Doomsday Clock is symbolic of the vulnerability of human existence. Set every year by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, it is intended to warn of the imminence of humanity’s annihilation due to nuclear war or climate change. The clock was moved to its current position at 100 seconds to midnight, thanks to several geopolitical incidents in 2020 that drove nuclear anxieties to a crescendo.
The Cold War and the following three decades 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. This article discusses the build-up and nature of one such near catastrophe.
On the Unintended Brink of Annihilation
On 2 November 1983, NATO conducted an exercise (Able Archer 83) simulating a conflict escalation against the Soviet Union. The scenario envisaged a massive breach in European defences as Warsaw Pact forces rolled into Western Europe.
In its concluding phase, the wargame witnessed the attainment of the highest defence alert condition, DEFCON 1. This indicated the imminence of a nuclear exchange. Nuclear forces were instantly ready to undertake strikes on the Soviet Union. All command centres were given the necessary weapon release authorisation that set the ether buzzing in preparation for ‘Armageddon’.
Nuclear command authorities took to their bomb-proof posts. In the air, alternate command posts were enabled. Cryptograms flew about and launch codes were broken with almost surreal deliberation. Predictably, this triggered extreme alarm on the Soviet side, particularly since there had been no notification of the progress of the exercise or of the scenario ever crossing the nuclear threshold.
Moscow feared that force build-up was a cover for an actual nuclear attack, timed to coincide with the revolution holiday. Soviet nuclear missiles were readied in ‘emergency mode.’ Indeed, their entire arsenal of 11,000 warheads was placed on maximum combat alert.
The Kremlin then intercepted a perplexing message from NATO stating that US nuclear missiles had been launched. But as yet, there were no indications of nuclear explosions. It was only then that the hotline was enabled to establish what was going on. Later, the US found that “In 1983 we may have inadvertently placed our relations with the Soviet Union on a hair trigger.”
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 similar retaliation and mutual destruction. In this determination, rationality and balance are replaced by nationalistic ego and a rush to confront. Each of these ingredients possesses an element of inadvertence or fecklessness. Carl von Clausewitz’s unerringly wise counsel that even the “simplest” strategic decision-making can be bewilderingly difficult attains new meaning when it comes to the use of nuclear weapons. Here, there is neither precedence for guidance nor is there 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. This tempts one to wonder whether hierarchical systems can guarantee the making of decisions in the larger interest of humanity.
The Crisis in Ukraine and Nuclear Overtones
The crisis in Ukraine is no different. It reveals several events that have turned global attention away from a people’s anguish over the hypocrisy of nations. It has 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. That the US has contributed over 60 per cent of all contributions to the Ukrainian war effort ((roughly USD 54 billion since the start of the war)) makes clear where control of the war lies. Europe is now faced with the onset of a frosty winter with sky rocketing energy prices and crippling economic woes.
As recently as January 2022, in a joint statement by the P5, both President Putin and President Biden reaffirmed that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.” And yet, ever since Russia commenced its “special operations,” a week has not gone by without a threat or the rhetoric of imminent use of nuclear weapons. It began with Russia exercising its 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 NATO and Russia were involved in intensive exercises 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, vs. intimidation by proxy.
Doomsday Clock in Forward March
Almost as if to further provoke the doomsday clock into a ‘forward march’, the US Nuclear Posture Review 2022 released recently is interwoven with Integrated Deterrence. This brings the nuclear factor alongside war fighting domains, an instrument conjoined with all elements of US national power. To say the least, this is disappointing for the cause of nuclear arms control and, indeed, for survival. It makes no attempt to differentiate nuclear weapons from the conventional.
The hope for a reduction in the role of nuclear weapons in interstate relations and an opening to a universal No First Use (NFU) policy as a precursor to disarmament is a far and bleak cry. The Russia-Ukraine war and consequent foolhardy nuclear postures have brought the day of reckoning that much closer.
*Vice Admiral Vijay Shankar (Retd) is Distinguished Fellow, IPCS, and former Commander-in-Chief of the Strategic Forces Command of India.