Doomsday: How Accurate Is The Atomic Clock?
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By Peter Huessy, President of GeoStrategic Analysis, Potomac, Maryland - Senior Warrior Maven Columnist
Every January the Bulletin of Atomic Scientist (BAS) issues a warning about the extent to which nuclear dangers are approaching doomsday or as portrayed by their Atomic clock how close we have come within the past year to the end of the world or Armageddon by striking 12 o’clock.
Doomsday Around the Corner?
Since 1945 the Bulletin has portrayed-- as decided by a group of far-left arms control enthusiasts it gathers together—how close the world is to doomsday, with the world as many as 20 minutes away to as close to “midnight” as 2 1/2 minutes which is where the United States has been for the past two years.
I predict that on January 27, the doomsday specialists will warn us once again that we have to get the arms race and missile defenses under control, join the Paris climate accord, extend the 2010 New Start treaty, and rejoin the JCPOA nuclear deal with Iran, or we will risk the end of the world. They then will tell us because they are hopeful the new administration is moving positively in all three directions, the doomsday clock stayed at 100 seconds from the end of the world. The Bulletin then hopes that by the end of 2021 they project the doomsday clock will move away from and not closer to the end of the world.
An Historically Broken Clock
Before we pay too much attention to the clock, has the Bulletin been accurate in its previous warnings?
Well, lets take a look.
For example, the Bulletin loved the 1961 Limited Test Ban treaty so much it nearly cancelled out the nuclear dangers during the Kennedy-Johnson administrations. The Bulletin predicted that with only limited testing allowed, the nuclear arms race would be curtailed, and thus moved the clock some four minutes further away from doomsday.
Forgotten in their rush to support “arms control”, the BAS apparently forgot the 1961 Berlin and 1962 Cuban missile crises when the Soviets tried to militarily bully the US into concessions. The world came perilously close to triggering nuclear war between the USSR and the US. And while the limited test ban agreement was welcome, little did the BAS realize that over the next quarter century, Soviet deployed strategic nuclear arsenals would still grow by a staggering 1200%.
In 1972, the BAS again applauded an arms control deal. In this case it was the Nixon administration’s SALT I and ABM treaty adoption, compelling the BAS to move the doomsday clock away from the end of the world by a full four minutes. But again, the facts didn’t seem to matter as the SALT I treaty allowed the Soviets to increase their 2500 warheads to nearly 12,000 deployed strategic nuclear warheads over the next decade and one-half.
The Reagan Record
In 1981 when President Reagan took office the doomsday specialists at the Bulletin moved the doomsday clock closer to the end of the world claiming that the Reagan administration was “against arms control.” By 1984, the BAS was charging that the Reagan administration was “trying to win the Cold War by winning the nuclear arms race”, with a “failed” strategy of peace through strength which the BAS disliked intensely. The American people on the other hand re-elected Reagan with a 49 to 1 state majority and by 18 points, one of the biggest landslides in US electoral history, implicitly supporting the Reagan administrations national security strategy.
But undeterred the BAS would ultimately give the Reagan administration very low marks on nuclear issues. The BAS was not impressed even though the Reagan administration successful concluded the INF treaty of 1987 banning nearly 2000 Soviet nuclear warheads and put into process the 1991 and 1993 START I and II treaty negotiations that successfully reduced USSR strategic deployed strategic nuclear warheads from over 12000 to 3500.
In fact, over the period of the Reagan administration the BAS regularly gave the Reagan administration very poor marks in dealing with nuclear weapons.
In 1981 as we noted the Bulletin claimed that Reagan was opposed to arms control and had stopped all negotiations with the Soviets.
This was far from the truth as in November 1981 at the National Press Club the President put forward a revolutionary arms control agenda including proposing to eliminate all INF range missiles in Europe and Asia. Which would eventually get rid of over 2000 Soviet warheads deployed on SS 20 missiles aimed at our allies in NATO and our allies in the western Pacific.
In 1981 at the same press conference, President Reagan proposed a dramatic 50% cut in strategic nuclear warheads and if that was successful to go one step further and work to secure an additional nearly 50% cut in nuclear warheads. These proposals were backed up by an extraordinary number of national security defense directives (NSDD’s) being put together by the National Security Council staff, including a proposal to prohibit the deployment of multiple warhead land-based missiles which were the most destabilizing and preemptive capable nuclear missiles in the inventory of the USSR. (This idea was eventually imbedded in the 1993 START II treaty).
Reagan’s vision of dramatic reductions and nuclear weapons was fulfilled with the successful agreement with the USSR and then Russia on the START I and START II treaties which reduced deployed strategic nuclear weapons on each side from near 12,000 deployed nuclear warheads to no more than 3500 warheads with very serious and unprecedented verification measures adopted as well. But none of this to the liking of the BAS.
Bush Does Well
Of all the Presidents since the dawn of the nuclear age in 1945, George Herbert Walker Bush got the doomsday clock to move further away from the end of the world than any other administration. During the Bush administration START I and START II were signed. Certainly, to many it appeared that the Cold War conflict between the USSR and the United States had permanently ended, especially with the collapse of the Soviet empire.
The Bulletin did eventually move the doomsday clock a full 10 minutes away from Armageddon with the end of the Cold War and completion of three nuclear arms control deals, but they refused to give any credit to Reagan, particularly due to Reagan’s push for missile defense which the Bulletin .portrayed as a reckless pursuit of more arms.
Missile Defense Trouble
The good news of the end of the Cold War didn’t last long. With the Clinton administration and the rise of Putin in Russia, the START II treaty floundered and failed to gain approval by the Russian Duma. The “new” Russia opposed the elimination of multiple warhead ICBMs that Yeltsin had approved in January 1993. The BAS clock was moved slightly closer to the end of the world.
Things got worse with the Bush 43 administration. In 2002-3, the United States withdrew from the ABM treaty. Since 1972, the treaty had prohibited the United States from building any kind of missile defenses to protect the American people from incoming nuclear warheads whether from Russia, China, or rogue states such as North Korea.
To the BAS, the Bush administration was obviously “against arms control” and foolishly increasing nuclear dangers, as the Bulletin moved the Doomsday nuclear clock a full 3 minutes closer to the end of the world.
Apparently this occurred despite the Moscow treaty agreement in 2002 by the Bush administration, where Russia agreed to reduce its deployed nuclear forces from 6000 to 2200 warheads, which consisted of the largest decline—70%-- in nuclear warheads through formal arm control in the history of relations between the USSR and the United States and now Russia and the United States.
New Start Treaty
In 2010 with the Senate ratification of the New Start treaty, the BAS appeared much more positive although it continued to warn about the nuclear weapons programs in North Korea.
But what particularly upset the Bulletin was the continued pursuit by the United States of the modernization program laid out in the 2010 Nuclear Posture review-- and fully agreed to by the Trump 2018 Nuclear Posture review and supported by successive classes of Congress for each of the past ten years. To the Bulletin, modernization increased nuclear dangers even when given the green light by the New Start treaty they praised.
Forget the Clock—Even if Broken It Looks Right Twice a Day
So, should we listen to the BAS warnings? No, we should not.
Why? Primarily because the BAS is stuck by an obsession—the dream of disarmers to cut nuclear warheads to zero. Since 2003, however, when the Moscow treaty dropped warhead levels to 2200, arms control has been on a treadmill, with current New Start allowed warhead levels coming close to 2400, a 10% increase since 2003. (The 1550 number so often referenced does not take into account the special bomber counting rules that allow upwards of 1000 bomber weapons to be deployed but count as only 60 under the 2010 treaty.)
Without Russian concurrence to lower levels of nuclear warheads, the only way for the United States to reduce its nuclear deterrent is to do so unilaterally. Since that is a non-starter with Congress, the US needs to look elsewhere for sound arms control, especially to look beyond just warhead levels.
What is needed is an assessment of strategic stability which is not so much the level of nuclear warheads deployed by each of the nuclear arms superpowers but extent to which the strategic balance is unstable and could lead to preemptive attempts to disarm each other.
Here United States has led the way towards stabilizing deployments by eliminating its own multiple warhead loadings on its land-based missiles, moving a significant portion of its nuclear deterrent to sea aboard submarines, (fully survivable but roughly only 1/3 deployed over time), as well as protecting its conventional bomber fleet from being reduced while facing a nuclear rearmed Russia and an emerging heavily nuclear armed China.
Russia Doesn’t Get It
Unfortunately, the Russians continue to rely on highly mirved ICBMs. Although allowed upwards of 700 strategic nuclear delivery vehicles under New Start, Russia maintains less than 600 total but with at least 300 and perhaps upwards of 400 of these systems highly mirved land-based ICBMs.
The Russians also have five strategic nuclear systems that are going to be deployed by 2026 which would add at that time over 500 warheads to the Russian strategic arsenal but would not be captured by the New Start treaty. They could be an area addressed by arms control but with a five-year extension of New Start without conditions, that option has been foreclosed.
Also ignored by the Bulletin is that the verification measures adopted for the New START treaty are also less than adequate and certainly considerably less stringent than those adopted under START I. This means contrary to popular views; one cannot adequately verify the 1550 warhead limit (actually more like 2400) adopted primarily because there were no warhead limits per missile types adopted by the 2010 agreement. Again, that is an area where an arms control deal could be pursued to great benefit of the United States but again that option has now been closed.
SORT to START: Nuclear Arms Control on a Treadmill
We should stop fooling ourselves that New Start is a simple logical extension of the nuclear reduction treaties adopted since 1987—including START I, START II< and the Moscow treaty. In reality, the 60 US or Russian bombers allowed under the New Start treaty could deploy anywhere up to 900 warheads, which would put the total permissible strategic deployed Russian inventoryas high as 2400 warheads which when compared to the New START limit of 1550 is nearly 70% higher and 10% higher than the numbers allowed by the Moscow treaty. As far as warheads go, the US and Russia have been at a standstill for nearly the past two decades, despite all the fanfare about the adoption of global zero goals.
On the other hand, to be fair, the New Start treaty allows 700 deployed platforms—missiles and bombers—compared to the US previous level of 1100. In short, while the Russians have built up from 400 to around 600 SNDVs, the US cut its platforms of missiles and bombers under New START.
In that light, an important point not considered by BAS and other disarmament enthusiasts is that future possible directions of arms control are not going to be simple warhead reductions but controlling certain kinds of SNDVs such as encouraging single RV missiles or deploying missiles at sea. Dual use and hypersonic speed systems should also be on the table for consideration.
In short, stability may in fact be the important new watchword, and not the relative level of nuclear warheads on some hoped for magic road to zero.
Peter R. Huessy – Mr. Huessy is the President of Geostrategic Analysis, a Potomac, Maryland-based defense and national security consulting business, and Director of Strategic Deterrent Studies at the Mitchell Institute, a Senior Fellow at ICAS, a senior consultant with Ravenna Associates, and previously for 22 years Senior Defense Consultant with the National Defense University Foundation at Fort McNair in Washington, D.C.He is and has been a Guest Lecturer at the School of Advanced International Affairs at Johns Hopkins University, at the Institute of World Politics, at the University of Maryland, at the Joint Military Intelligence School, at the Naval Academy and at the National War College.