Risk of Nuclear War

February 11th, 2018 | Research Director

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It’s 2 Minutes to Midnight.
On January 25, 2018, growing concerns about a possible nuclear war and other global threats have pushed forward the symbolic Doomsday Clock by 30 seconds – to just two minutes before midnight. The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (BAS) said it had acted because the world was becoming “more dangerous.” The clock, created by the journal in 1947, is a metaphor for how close mankind is to destroying the Earth. As the BBC noted, it is now the closest to the apocalypse it has been since 1953, at the height of the Cold War. That was the year when the US and the Soviet Union first tested hydrogen bombs. BAS President and CEO Rachel Bronson said that “in this year’s discussions, nuclear issues took centre stage once again.”

The team of scientists singled out a series of nuclear tests by North Korea and heightened war rhetoric from the US. But the scientists also referred to a new US nuclear strategy that was expected to call for more funding to expand the role of the country’s nuclear arsenal. And rising tensions between Russia and the West were also cited as a contributing factor.

A new arms race
As Reuters noted in a recent special report, “President Barack Obama rode into office in 2009 with promises to work toward a nuclear-free world. His vow helped win him the Nobel Peace Prize that year.” However, by the time Obama left office in January 2017, the risk of Armageddon hadn’t receded. Instead, Washington was well along in a modernization program that is making nearly all of its nuclear weapons more accurate and deadly.

Today, the Soviet-era land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (SS-18, SS-19 and SS-25) are being replaced with different versions of the SS-27 and a new “heavy” ICBM – the RS-28 Sarmat dubbed the Satin 2,” with a range and number of warheads exceeding all its Soviet-era predecessors.

Vladimir Putin has also recently announced that Russia has now developed a nuclear-powered cruise missile with unlimited range and high speed maneuverability, allowing it to pierce any current missile defense. And they’ve developed a high-speed “intercontinental” underwater drone capable of carrying a nuclear warhead that could target both aircraft carriers and coastal facilities. Another new weapon called Avangard is an intercontinental hypersonic missile that would fly to targets at a speed 20 times the speed of sound, strike “like a meteorite, like a fireball” according to Putin.

“We have been extremely concerned with what we have seen as the evolution of Russian military policy as it relates to potential use of nuclear weapons,” David Trachtenberg, the US deputy undersecretary of defense for policy, recently said. “Russian nuclear doctrine seems to actively consider the possibility of limited nuclear use. Russian military exercises … in some cases have involved levels of activity involving strategic nuclear forces that we haven’t seen since the heyday of the Cold War.”

Not insignificantly, Russia will also continue to retain significantly more “undeployed” nuclear warheads in its arsenal above the deployed limit set by the New START treaty for February 2018. So will the United States.

Under modernizing started by Obama, the US transformed its main hydrogen bomb into a guided smart weapon, made its submarine-launched nuclear missiles five times more accurate, and gave its land-based long-range missiles so many added features that the Air Force in 2012 described them as “basically new.” And to deliver these more lethal weapons, military contractors are building fleets of new heavy bombers and submarines. The budget for all this is enormous.

As of January 2018, the total number of nuclear weapons possessed by nine states – the U.S., Russia, the U.K., France, China, India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea – was 15,395. Approximately, 4,120 of them are operationally deployed, according to the annual report of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. Russia and the U.S. outnumber the rest of the nuclear countries with 7,290 and 7,000 nuclear weapons respectively, while both countries also had over 1,700 deployed ones that remain on hair-trigger alert. China ranked fourth with 260 nuclear weapons, none deployed.

The world has been lucky so far to escape the launch of nuclear weapons through miscalculation, but the odds of such a catastrophic accident are increasing, the former US energy secretary, Ernest Moniz, said recently.

Moniz, a nuclear physicist who now heads the Nuclear Threat Initiative, recently added that the margin for error in avoiding disaster was getting thinner because of the introduction of new, smaller weapons, the broadening of circumstances in which their use is being contemplated, and a lack of high-level communications between major nuclear weapons powers.

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