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The End of the World as We Know It

Far from enhancing American national security, or the security of the world, nuclear weapons will lead us to the edge of destruction.

· 6 min read
Crown of a nuclear bomb explosion over Mururoa atoll, French Polynesia, Pacific Ocean
Crown of a nuclear bomb explosion over Mururoa atoll, French Polynesia, Pacific Ocean. Alamy

A review of Nuclear War: A Scenario by Annie Jacobsen; 400 pages; New York: Dutton (March 2024)

As Chair of the Board of Sponsors of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists from 2008–2018, I helped unveil the Doomsday Clock every year for a decade. That meant that each year, I sat down with my colleagues for several days and seriously contemplated how close we might be to the end of civilisation. But even that sombre preparation could not prepare me for the grim realities unveiled in the recent book, Nuclear War: A Scenario, by veteran national security journalist Annie Jacobsen.

Jacobsen details the events that would take place, minute by minute, in the 72 minutes from the launch of a rogue intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) by North Korea to the destruction of modern civilization and the death of up to five billion people.

Jacobsen imagines the following scenario: 

(0 min) A lone ICBM is launched from North Korea.
(19 min) The US launches 50 ballistic missiles at targets in North Korea and instructs submarines to launch 32 additional missiles.
(21 min) Most of Southern California becomes uninhabitable due to a North Korean submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) attack on the Diablo Canyon nuclear reactor.
(33 min) Washington DC, together with almost all its 6 million inhabitants, is vaporized by the impact and explosion of the North Korean ICBM.
(49 min) Fearing they are under attack from the US missiles heading toward North Korea, Russia launches 1,000 missiles at US targets. On detection of these, the US launches an ICBM and SLBM attack on 975 Russian targets.  
(51 min) NATO pilots launch an aerial nuclear attack on the Russian targets.
(52 min) North Korea is effectively wiped off the map, following the impact of 32 SLBM and 50 ICBM missiles.  
(57 min) All land-based US military bases are destroyed by Russian SLBMs.
(58 min) Much of Europe is destroyed by a Russian SLBM attack on NATO bases. (59 min) The US launches the remainder of its stock of SLBMs at Russia.
(72 min) 1,000 locations in the United States are hit by Soviet ICBMs. A large fraction of the US population is killed immediately and most of the rest have little or no means of survival. A similar fate befalls Russia several minutes later.

Meanwhile, 52 minutes into this apocalyptic exchange, a nuclear device explodes in space high above the US, producing an electromagnetic pulse that renders almost all communication systems in the continental US inoperative, destroying much of the country’s infrastructure and causing widespread floods and fires, thus further complicating life for the few remaining survivors.

Whether or not one finds the specific scenario Jacobsen outlines plausible, it is clear that any major nuclear confrontation would have apocalyptic consequences. As Soviet Chairman Nikita Khrushchev said shortly after the Cuban Missile Crisis, in such a situation, “the survivors would envy the dead.”

Military planners have been preparing for scenarios like this since at least 1960, when the first comprehensive nuclear war planning exercise was carried out in the US.

As Jacobsen describes, in 1949, experts estimated that as few as 200 fission-type weapons of the kind that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki would have been sufficient to essentially wipe out the Soviet Union. But despite this, both the US and the Soviets continued to amass weapons. By 1967, the US and USSR had around 30,000 nuclear and thermonuclear warheads each. While their arsenal has since been reduced, the US still has over 1,700 warheads on hair-trigger, launch-on-warning alert. Russia has only slightly fewer. Both countries have over 3,000 additional nuclear weapons stockpiled and available for use.

For the past 79 years, we have been living under the Damoclean sword of mutually assured destruction (MAD), the basis of modern nuclear deterrence. It is argued that since any act of nuclear aggression would lead to the annihilation of most of the world, no rational leader would launch a first strike. What is less frequently stressed, however, is that for this to work, deterrence must never, ever fail. Because once it does, the world as we know it will end.

Thinking the Unthinkable
Appeasement and deterrence in a nuclear age.

The madness of having almost 2,000 nuclear weapons on hair-trigger alert, capable of being  irretrievably launched on their missions of destruction at the mere warning of an incoming nuclear attack—before a single nuclear explosion has even occurred—has not been lost on US presidential candidates from both parties. Both George W. Bush, and Barack Obama vowed to take us back from the razor’s edge while running for president, but neither made good on this promise while in the White House. I was on Obama’s science policy team during his first run for the presidency. I was gratified when he won because I thought he would fix this lunacy. I was profoundly disappointed when he didn’t.

Most of the US public thinks that America has renounced the optional first use of nuclear weapons. But while many presidential candidates have promised to do so, no one in office has ever made it an official policy.

I have often wondered why successful presidential candidates change their tune once they get into the Oval Office. I suspect that the generals who advise the President and the Secretary of Defence have lived with the idea of launch-on-warning throughout their whole careers and cannot even imagine that a US president might allow a nuclear weapon to explode on American soil without having already launched a response. Since most presidents have no experience with war game planning—and Democratic presidents, in particular, are often worried about appearing soft on defence—they are easily swayed by their military advisors.

The maddening ramping-up of nuclear arsenals is a real-world example of the well-known game theory scenario called The Prisoner’s Dilemma, in which two prisoners, who cannot communicate with either other, are motivated by mistrust to make choices that are in neither party’s best interests.  Likewise, each of the superpowers assumes that its adversary will stockpile ever more nuclear weapons, so it seems logical to stockpile more themselves.

There is a simple way out of this dilemma. Unlike in the game theory example, the prisoners here can talk to each other and, through diplomacy, can jointly arrive at a win-win strategy. The problem is that there are currently almost no front-door communications between either Russia and the US or China and the US on strategic nuclear issues. The resulting perils are clear—especially at this time, with the continuing war in Ukraine, tensions between China and Taiwan, and the brewing catastrophe in the Middle East.

The American public has been misinformed about the gravity of this threat because of a false narrative regarding anti-ballistic missile (ABM) defence. Having witnessed Israel’s recent success in defending itself against conventional missiles launched from Iran, many people assume that the US has a working ABM system (a false claim first touted by George W. Bush in around 2004). We don’t—despite having spent almost 176 billion dollars trying to create such a system. As Jacobsen emphasizes in her book, we have only 44 ABM interceptors in place. Moreover, in carefully controlled tests that did not realistically reproduce the many uncertainties inherent in an actual nuclear exchange—including the possible use of decoys—the prototypes of those interceptors have failed more than 50 percent of the time. We have essentially no defences against nuclear weapons. All we can do is try to ensure that they are never used.

For the arms industry, however, nuclear weapons—as horrifying as they are—are the gift that keeps on giving. The Biden administration’s $850 billion defence budget for 2025 allocates $69 billion to nuclear weapons operations and modernisation. Plans for 400 new ICBMs, new nuclear submarines and bombers, and upgrades to existing warheads are currently in the works, at a projected cost of three quarters of a trillion dollars over the next decade. MAD isn’t mad enough, it seems. Defence contractors, lobbyists, and right wing think tanks are concerned that 1,700 nuclear weapons are not enough and that “America’s enemies will become even more emboldened… while facing a hobbled and undersized American nuclear deterrent.”

Almost all the nuclear war games that military strategists have engaged in have invariably escalated to the point of Armageddon. Spending further billions to produce weapons whose sole purpose is to lead to nuclear annihilation will not make us safer. Far from enhancing American national security, or the security of the world, nuclear weapons will lead us to the edge of destruction.

I was proud to take the helm of the group established in 1947 by Albert Einstein and Robert Oppenheimer to warn the world of the dangers of nuclear weapons, in part through the annual setting of the Doomsday Clock. But, sadly, that effort has been an abject failure. Perhaps Jacobsen’s new book, reportedly soon to be adapted for the big screen, may bring people to their senses. For the past 79 years, we have been lucky, but our luck may not hold forever. Even a single ICBM launch could lead to a war that abruptly ends over 400,000 years of modern hominid evolution, leaving little or no trace of human existence and of our other technological achievements—all in less time than it took me to write these words.

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