My Nuclear Winter

In a previous post, I gave a bit of my personal Cold War history, and argued (quietly) that despite the end of the Cold War, nuclear weapons still posed a greater threat to this country (and the world) than terrorism, and that we should pay more attention to on-going arms-control efforts. This post is the promised sequel, attempting to summarize the current state of the world’s nuclear arsenals and the threat they pose.

One of the most common measures of the nuclear threat in the Cold War was the ‘Doomsday Clock’ of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists. It was first featured in the journal in 1947 as a symbol of how close the editors of the Bulletin believed the world was to nuclear catastrophe. The clock debuted at 7 minutes to midnight–7 metaphorical ticks away from armaggedon. Since then the clock has been adjusted 17 times. The clock now reflects not only the danger of nuclear war, but of the broader category ‘catastrophic events,’ but its movements have been primarirly motivated by events in the nuclear realm, most recently the desire of the US to develop a missile defence and new types of nuclear weapons, and the development of nuclear weapons by other powers, such as India and Pakistan. It was last reset in 2002, when it was moved from 9 minutes to 7 minutes after the US announced it would withdraw from the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) treaty. So, after more than fifty years of arms races and arms control, the editors of the Bulletin put us back where we started.

The world’s arms control record between 1947’s seven and today’s offers both hope and cause for concern. The chart below shows the number of nuclear warheads possessed by the major nuclear powers–US, Russia, China, UK, and France–from 1945-2002, against the background of the settings of the Doomsday Clock. Nuclear stockpiles and the Doomsday Clock 1945-2002 The closest the Doomsday Clock came to midnight was 2 minutes, where it stood from 1953-59. Even after the clock was moved back in 1960, the number of nuclear warheads kept by the US and Soviet Union kept growing. The US nuclear arsenal peaked at 31,700 warheads in 1966; the USSR’s stockpile hit 40,723 in 1986. Together the major powers held some 65,057 warheads that year, but the arsenals were reduced to a little over 20,000 by 2002.

Since 1991, even as the number of warheads in the inventories of the US and Russia continued to drop, the Doomsday Clock has crept closer to midnight, reflecting the proliferation of nuclear weapons to other countries, the rise of non-state threats, the lack of progress in further arms reduction agreements between the major powers. In addition to the warheads on the chart above, today Israel is estimated to have 200 warheads, India perhaps 30-35 assembled warheads, Pakistan 24-48, and North Korea perhaps a very worrying 2. [All these numbers are from the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists’s Nuclear Notebook.] Iran might be able to build a bomb in a decade or so.

At the moment the US has roughly 10,000 warheads, about 5,200 of these are operational strategic warheads, 500 operational non-strategic. Under the terms of the 2002 Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT) this stockpile will fall to a total of about 5,900 warheads by 2012: 1,700-2,200 deployed strategic warheads; 700 short-range warheads, and an ‘inactive’ stockpile of 3,000 warheads that could be reactivated by reinstalling limited-life components (a process that could take days or months, depending on the type of warhead). Russia will make symetrical cuts in its nuclear arsenal, and, because of difficulties meeting the costs of storage and maintenance, its arsenal may fall below the treay limits.

For the US, most of the deployed warheads are carried on submarines. The US currently has 17 Ohi0-class nuclear submarines, but will reduce this to 14 by 2008. Four of the subs are being converted to carry non-nuclear cruise missiles, but those remaining in the nuclear force are each capable of carrying 24 Trident II D5 missles. By 2008 the US will have 336 such missiles, carrying roughly 2,000 warheads. Since the end of the Soviet Union, the Pentagon has been steadily redeploying nuclear subs from the Atlantic to the Pacific, in order to have better coverage of Chinese targets. There are currently five subs assigned to the Atlantic, and nine to the Pacific. As for the inactive warhead stockpile, a large portion of them are probably still stored at the Four Hills complex outside Albuquerque.

In terms of numbers of warheads, then, the danger to the world from nuclear war has decreased dramatically since the end of the Cold War. Why, then are we back to seven seconds to midnight on the Doomsday Clock? Arms control agreements between the major power have clearly been very successful in reducing warhead numbers, but efforts to forge new agreements have stalled, and there are concerns that the US is planning to develop a new range of nuclear weapons. Meanwhile, new powers have joined or are trying to join the nuclear club. As the redeployment of US nuclear submarines shows, the growth of China’s economic and military power is also cause for concern about a new arms race. Indeed, a Chinese general recently suggested that China was reconsidering its no first-use policy, and might respond with nuclear weapons to any US intervention in a China-Taiwan conflict. (These remarks were quickly disowned by the Chinese government, but demonstrate the potential for increased nuclear tensions between the US and China.)

China’s nuclear ambitions, or lack thereof, and the US’s often ambiguous message on nuclear arms control will be the subject of a future post.