Stop the Clock

April 2, 2010

By Pat Ryan

The “Doomsday Clock” is not really a timepiece. It is a metaphor marking civilization’s proximity to a self-induced conclusion adopted by scientists at the dawn of the Cold War. In 1947 the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, the clock’s makers, set the time at 11:53 p.m., reflecting the danger of nuclear weapons, the sole province, at the time, of the United States. By 1953 with the introduction of an atomic bomb by the Soviet Union and testing of more powerful thermonuclear weapons by both America and Russia, the clock nudged to just two minutes away from humanity’s midnight.

The clock took big jumps away from midnight when Americans and Soviets signed nuclear agreements like the 1963 treaty to ban testing nukes in the open atmosphere, the 1972 Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty, and the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, or START. Expansion of the nuclear club to other nations – France, China, Britain, India, Pakistan and in recent years North Korea – and times of superpower tensions served to move the minute hand in the wrong direction.

The “Doomsday Clock” was adjusted 18 times until 2010. One change occurred in 1974 at the height of the Cold War when India joined the club and US-Soviet arms talks stalled. That was the year I reported for duty on the USS George C. Marshall, one of the U.S. Navy’s nuclear powered, ballistic missile submarines. It was among the sea-based strategic forces – alongside land based missiles and bomber borne weapons – created to deter an attack against the United States from the Soviet Union, and if that mission – prevention – failed, to deliver a nuclear counterstrike.

The Marshall like dozens of sister submarines in the force was fitted with 16 missile tubes. Inside each was a “Poseidon” SLBM, Navy jargon for “submarine launched ballistic missile,” capable of flying from a hundred feet under the ocean into outer space and returning at over 8000 miles per hour to a spot on earth, up to 3200 miles away. The missiles could each deliver as many as 14 independently aimed warheads – the complete complement consisting of 224 thermonuclear weapons – against targets in the Soviet Union. The blow one submarine could deliver, equal to over 11 million tons of TNT, was said to be more than every weapon ever exploded in every conflict man has ever fought up to that point, and a thousand times the power of the atomic bomb that destroyed the city of Nagasaki, Japan in World War II. To say the consequences of failure of the strategic deterrence mission – the use of these weapons – were unimaginable does a disservice to the word “unimaginable.”

Submariners, like their Air Force counterparts who served in ICBM silos or bombers on nuclear alerts, may forget the occasional “black humor” that defused the seriousness of their business but will always remember the gravity of strategic weapons duties. They are also more finely tuned to developments in the news like last week’s announcement that the United States and the Russian Federation, inheritor of the Soviet Union’s nuclear arsenal, signed the first major strategic arms reduction treaty in decades.

The new START, or Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, is focused on extending the limits, monitoring and verification steps implemented in the 1991 START, which expired in December. However, the aggregate limits of weapons will be reduced by about 30 percent in the new agreement and it sets the framework for further reductions.

It is difficult to imagine a world completely free from the threat of nuclear weapons, in particular an American security policy that casts off the deterrence and retaliation potential guaranteed by nuclear might for 65 years. However, few could argue it will be a much safer world with continued reductions in the arsenals of the nuclear powers. There will be less chance of an accidental launch, less chance of a weapon falling into the “wrong” hands, and less opportunity for “second tier” states to rationalize their programs. It is among these countries that a nuclear war is most likely to be fought – India and Pakistan or Israel and a neighbor like Iran – which seeks nuclear weapons. Reductions like those in START will remove the rhetorical, if not practical, rationale for their nuclear weapons programs.

The final step for START will come with ratification of the treaty by both parties that, for the United States, will come in the Senate. It should be a straightforward vote to approve the treaty. Sadly, however, we are at a point in American political dialogue where it would not be difficult to imagine some partisan advantage being sought through the treaty debate. This year the “Doomsday Clock” was adjusted one more minute away from midnight to reflect arms reductions like the new START agreement. Getting Republicans and Democrats to agree on the value of reducing the threat of nuclear weapons should not be more difficult than getting American and Russian negotiators to agree to treaty terms. If START falls victim to Washington political posturing then it might be time for us to create a new timepiece, like the “Doomsday Clock,” but one that marks the minutes to the midnight of American progress.

Pat Ryan served in the U.S. Navy, including assignments in the “Silent Service.” He lives in Cookeville, Tennessee where he works as a writer and he can be contacted through

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