Almost every week seems to bring us closer to the edge of nuclear catastrophe, most recently the news that the US is deploying the weapons and doing the war games for “limited” nuclear war. There are however signs, albeit small, that this wild spear-waving is beginning to provoke some realism.
On 23rd January the Bulletin on the Atomic Scientists moved forward the hands of its symbolic clock which registers the status of existential threats to humanity and the planet, based on the risks of catastrophic climate change and of nuclear war. In its statement, the Bulletin said that any belief that the threat of nuclear war has been vanquished is a mirage and that civilisation-ending nuclear war – whether started by design, blunder, or simple miscommunication – is a genuine possibility. Their assessment was based on the Iranian and North Korean developments as well as on the almost total breakdown in arms control measures applying to the nuclear armed states.
The situation has just got even worse. On 29th January we learned that US Navy had deployed the new W76-2 “low-yield” warhead aboard the USS Tennessee. The W76-2 It has an explosive yield of five kilotons, a third of the power of the “Little Boy” bomb dropped on Hiroshima. The unhinged idea behind it is that it could be used militarily, unlike the bigger weapons in the arsenal whose use would lead inevitably to a civilisation-ending exchange. These bright planners are glossing over the fact that it is still a warhead of massive destructive power, capable of inflicting thousands of civilian deaths, horrific injuries, fatal radiation sickness and significant environmental damage. Further, these “tactical” missiles would not be launched singly but as a salvo. Also off the wall is the calculation that any enemy response to its use would be limited to the same level. Once the nuclear threshold is crossed we are on a steep slope to disaster.
On 17th January the US conducted a simulated war scenario in which they responded to a tactical nuclear attack from Russia with their own nuclear weapons. Far from being secretive or coy about it the Pentagon released the story at a press conference, with the clear aim of impressing everyone they felt needed to be impressed. Granted, this was a “table top” exercise invisible at the time to outsiders but the nuclear planners seem to have forgotten just how close to global nuclear war we were brought during the Cold War by exercises such as Able Archer. Were they also unaware of the study conducted by researchers at Princeton in September last year calculating the effects of such an exchange of “tactical” nuclear weapons? The researchers’ scenario depicted “a plausible escalating war between the United States and Russia using realistic nuclear force postures, targets and fatality estimates. It is estimated that there would be more than 90 million people dead and injured within the first few hours of the conflict.”
In the history of the major Cold War nuclear confrontations a touch of realism tended to appear at the most critical points. Kennedy and Kruschev, then Reagan and Gorbachev, backed off. The ramping up of nuclear tension comes two months before the Review Conference of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) which, at least notionally, provides an opportunity to measure the stance and performance of the nuclear-armed states against their responsibilities as parties to the Treaty. On 25th February the Stockholm Initiative nations (Argentina, Canada, Finland, Germany, Indonesia, Japan, Jordan, Kazakhstan, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, the Republic of Korea, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland) laid out their hopes for the Review Conference. While their requests to the big 5 nuclear-armed states are modest, their call for a strong arms control framework and for restraint on the part of the US and Russia is a helpful move.
Yet something more radical is needed. Article V1 of the NPT Treaty states that : Each of the Parties to the Treaty undertakes to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control. No significant progress has been made by the nuclear-armed NPT signatories on this article since the NPT’s’s entry into force in 1968. So long as nuclear weapons exist we will keep coming back to these junctures of extreme peril and always in the background is the realistic threat of an accidental or computer generated initiation of a nightmare exchange. The only real answer is prohibition and elimination. Also at the Review Conference will be the 122 states that voted for the adoption of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons which provides the legal instrument that article V1 requires to do precisely that. We look forward to hearing their voices at the Conference. We are all downwind on this one.