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The Other Threat to Our Species

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by Bill Pearce

While we are reminded daily of the global warming crisis our planet is facing we seem to have lost sight of the other crisis we are facing, the risk of a nuclear conflagration. At the height of the cold war the Doomsday Clock moved to two minutes to midnight (and apocalypse). Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union the clock was moved to 17 minutes to midnight but in recent years it has moved back to two minutes to midnight on account of global warming reaching a crisis point and the world reaching new levels of global nuclear danger that has not been experienced since the last world war.

It is the latter danger that this essay will address, along with the steps that must be taken to reduce the risks to a manageable level while we continue to work towards the total elimination of the danger. As a starting point. I would like to review events that occurred during the Cuban missile crisis to remind us how miscalculation coupled with poor intelligence can sometimes lead to the brink of disaster even when there are two superpower leaders intent on avoiding any military conflict. These events were taken from Daniel Ellsberg’s book “The Doomsday Machine”.

On October 22nd 1962, JFK announced the blockade against Cuba warning that “any launch of a single missile…would lead to a full retaliatory response upon the Soviet Union” and he placed his forces on the highest alert. The blockade commenced on October 23rd. On the afternoon of October 27th sonar operators on the American destroyer USS Beale detected a Soviet submarine and they began to bombard it with “practise” low explosive depth charges with the intent of signalling the sub to surface for identification.

At a conference in Havana on the fortieth anniversary of the crisis it is revealed for the first time that the commander of the sub did not read the explosions as simply a signal to surface. It was interpreted as a full scale attack and he ordered the torpedo with the nuclear warhead to be loaded and fired with the approval, according to procedure, of the chief political officer on the sub. Fortunately, the chief of staff of the sub group, Vasili Arkhipov, also happened to be on board the sub on that day and procedure required his approval as well. He withheld his approval and the torpedo was not fired.

Ellsberg tells us that had Arkipov “been stationed on one of the other submarines…there is every reason to believe that the carrier USS Randolph and …perhaps all of its accompanying destroyers would have been destroyed” and that “since no submarines known to be in the region were believed to carry nuclear warheads the clear implication on the cause of the nuclear destruction… would have been a medium-range missile from Cuba…the event that president Kennedy had announced on October 22nd would lead to full- scale attack on the Soviet Union”. Robert McNamara who was in attendance at the conference agreed that if the torpedo had been launched it “would have been an absolute disaster for the world”.

US Intelligence did not believe that tactical nuclear weapons were in Cuba or on any of the Soviet navy vessels. They were wrong on both accounts. If JFK had agreed with his military advisors to invade Cuba there is no doubt they would have been used. It was also beyond the comprehension of US intelligence that Soviet military commanders in the field would have had the authority to use such weapons in a conflict situation without approval from Moscow. These misconceptions probably influenced US Navy commanders to use practise depth charges.

It is also interesting to note that the sub commander chose the most lethal weapon in his disposal, one which would maximize the sub’s survival from the concerted attack but one which presented the obvious risk of generating an all-out war. This brings to mind the present day dangers associated with the arsenals of modern armies, navies and air forces that includes nuclear tactical weapons of every description and variable yield making their use easy and more likely early in any conflict.

Ellsberg thinks the lesson to be learned from the above incident is that the very existence of nuclear weapons in the hands of the superpowers poses “intolerable dangers to the survival of civilization,” a proposition I completely agree with.

Daniel Ellsberg was employed by the RAND corporation as an expert on strategic nuclear warfare and was intimately involved in the negotiations that eventually led to a peaceful resolution of the crisis. He also had access to highly classified information and in 1961 became privy to the estimated death counts associated with the implementation of the sole nuclear war-fighting plan in existence against the Soviets. The estimate of deaths, mostly civilians, was 600 million from a US first strike and another 100 million from the retaliatory strike that would come from the remnants of the Soviet nuclear forces. When Ellsberg asked the Pentagon what the count would be if one included the effects of the firestorms created by the atomic explosions, they doubled the death count taking the total to well over one billion people (or one third the global population at the time).

It wasn’t until 22 years later when studies on the dangers of a nuclear winter emerged that Ellsberg came to the realization that civilization could have ended with the events that could have occurred on October 27th 1962 and that when Vasili Arkhipov became known as “the man who saved the world” it was no exaggeration. The lesson Ellsberg took from these events is “that the existence of masses of nuclear weapons in the hands of leaders of the superpowers…even when those leaders are about as responsible, humane and cautious as any we have seen-posed then, and still do, intolerable dangers to the survival of civilization.”

US and NATO forces are equipped with a mixture of conventional and nuclear weapons of every description in the belief that nuclear weapons are essentially no different than conventional weapons and forces should have the option to use whatever weapon is called for to fit a given situation in the belief that the use of nuclear weapons in a “limited” application is entirely possible. Ellsberg admits in his book that he was wrong to advise the JFK regime that a limited use of nuclear weapons in a conflict would be possible. He is now firmly of the belief that a limited first use of nuclear weapons could never stay limited. He quotes General Lee Butler, the last commander of SAC who revealed that “war planners in Omaha and the Pentagon never took any of the limited nuclear options seriously, either in their operational planning or in rehearsals for the war which they expected and planned to be ‘all-out’.”

He characterizes the idea of keeping a war limited as a “hoax” adding “the changes I am describing mean giving up the pretence, that it is possible for either superpower to limit damage to anyone or to everyone by attacking the other with nuclear weapons whether first or second or in any circumstances or manner whatsoever” (my emphasis). Former Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz and former US Senator Sam Nunn who now work together at the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI), an organization focused on preventing attacks and accidents, wrote in a recent article for Foreign Affairs titled “The Return of Doomsday” were of the view that “any nuclear use would almost certainly trigger further escalation.”

Bruce Blair a former ICBM missile control officer and former member of the US Secretary of State’s International Security Advisor board from 2011-17 noted in a recent article that in his experience and research US nuclear exercises “always” escalate to an all-out exchange with Russia or the Soviet Union. If limited nuclear warfare is not possible under simulated condition why do we persist with the illusion that the use of nuclear weapons can be controlled once commenced and that catastrophic outcomes can be avoided.

It behooves us as a peace-loving nation that we sign the treaty prohibiting the possession and use of nuclear weapons and that we join the other nations who have signed the treaty to work towards the total elimination of these weapons. But in the meantime we have to be aware that we are in the midst of a very dangerous arms race that is heightening the risks of accidental nuclear war, an arms race which is driven by the nuclear war-fighting policies of the United States and Russia, driving them to modernize their weapons with a view to achieving and maintaining a competitive advantage on the illusion that fighting and winning a nuclear war is possible.

Because this war fighting strategy seeks the rapid destruction of opposing nuclear forces, it places a premium on early first use but this mentality extends to its defensive posture such that on the first indication of incoming missiles there is a policy of ‘using them or losing them’ which leads to a launch on warning (LOW) policy and keeps all nuclear forces on a hair trigger alert. This policy is quite mad when one pauses to reflect upon the documented nuclear ‘close calls’ (defined as incidents that could have led to at least one unintended nuclear explosion) that spanned 39 years, 7 of which were systems errors that created false information of incoming missiles and 4 of which were brought about by human error in combination with faulty intelligence.

Thus far, humans have intervened and have been able to identify unreliable early warning information in time to avoid retaliation, but the reaction time has been shrinking steadily over the years to the point that launch decisions may already be automated if Ellsberg’s opinion is sound on this point. Ellsberg states that the Soviets, to maintain a retaliatory capability, designed an elaborate system, code-named Perimeter (which translates in Russia to mean “Dead Hand”) which would be activated by the receipt of data indicating that Moscow had suffered a nuclear explosion. Low level officers would be required to automatically launch retaliatory missiles. Ellsberg states this system became fully automated, citing a February 2017 article which appeared in Pravda, following Trump’s election, and advised everyone that “the Perimeter system exists. The system is on alert – If there’s a need for a retaliatory strike, the command for an attack may come from the system, not people…the doomsday machine is not a myth at all-it does exist.”

Ellsberg has no doubt that both countries have made it “highly likely, if not virtually certain, that a single Hiroshoma-type fission weapon exploding on either Washington or Moscow-whether deliberate or the result of mistaken attack…or as a result of an independent terrorist action-would lead to the end of human civilization.” Ellsberg concludes that each side has an actual Doomsday Machine “susceptible to be triggered on a false alarm, a terrorist action, an unauthorized launch or a desperate decision to escalate”. He asks the question ‘does the existence of this capability serve any national interest that would justify the continuance of this danger?’ The answer to this question should be obvious.

I have my doubts that either country would be mad enough to actually have an automated dead hand, but with the development of hypersonic missiles nuclear powered cruise missiles which are on the horizon there won’t be enough time for humans to properly assess the correctness of warnings of incoming missiles increasing the likelihood of bad decision making. A move to a fully automated dead hand response also becomes more likely.

What has to happen to reduce tensions and end the arms race is to move to a deterrent only defence posture. Both sides should declare a no first use policy which should bring about a drastic reduction to the number of weapons each side has (Russia and the United States are each estimated to possess more than 6000 nuclear devices). This also would allow each side to take their weapon systems off of the hair trigger alert. By moving to deterrent only posture, both sides would retain survivable second strike forces capable of delivering an unacceptable level of devastation to the other side, even if delayed by a day or more.

Surviveability, not alert status, is the necessary condition to ensure of its effectiveness and, at the present moment, a small fleet of nuclear submarines would serve that purpose.

This brings us to numbers because numbers matter as well. They matter because of nuclear winter. Since Carl Sagan warned us in 1983 that nuclear winter could cause human extinction, there have been a number of studies on the subject. A 2014 study published in American Geophysical Union Journal, using 100 “small,” 15 kiloton, Hiroshima sized bombs, modelled what would happen if India and Pakistan exchanged 50 bombs each. The study concluded it could cause a decades long nuclear winter and remove 20-50% of the ozone from the atmosphere. In October of this year, a similar study was published in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists based on a scenario where a total of 400 bombs were exchanged between India and Pakistan utilizing 15, 50 and 100 kilotons. In each of the three scenarios a nuclear winter would halt agriculture around the world and produce a famine for billions of people (but not of the scale of a US-Russia war) and would significantly lower temperatures for at least a decade.

What this tells us is that all nuclear weapons states should immediately reduce their stockpiles to a level which would avoid a nuclear winter if the weapons were all used, as unlikely as that may be, simply because any risk of their use would pose an unacceptable risk to the survival of our species. I think if Russia and the US were forced to go through this exercise they would conclude that to maintain a nuclear deterrent one only needs to retain the retaliatory capacity to wipe out one major city of the opposing side such as Moscow or New York City. It is unthinkable either country would dream of initiating an all out nuclear attack on the other if it looked likely they would have to sacrifice a major city.

But Canada, as a long standing member of NATO, has always supported its first use policy. The most recent support came with Canada’s refusal to sign the prohibition treaty which it couldn’t do because of NATO policy. Canada should lobby NATO to adopt a no first use policy which would entail the removal of US nuclear weapons now stored in Europe back to the United States. A recent NTI report concluded such a move “would not diminish US and NATO capabilities” and keeping nukes in Europe “may in fact increase the risk of nuclear use in a crisis.” Such a change in policy would also serve to put pressure on the United States to change its policy to deterrence only. There is every reason to believe Russia could be persuaded to follow suit

This would allow both sides to make drastic reductions to their stockpiles, which would not only assure the survival of our species if an accidental war should erupt, but would free up the trillions of dollars that will be needed for the necessary transition the planet must make from fossil fuels to renewables. To save us from the ‘other’ crisis will greatly increase our chances to properly address the crisis that is pressing us most at this time.Paragraph

A shorter version of this article is also available.

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