war on the rocks

Three Minutes to Midnight: Closer to Nuclear Conflict Than We Think

March 8, 2016

While at Stanford last month, we had a long conversation with former Secretary of Defense William Perry about the nuclear dangers facing the world. We were struck by his provocative and frightening outlook: that the possibility of a nuclear catastrophe today is greater than it was during the Cold War. North Korea’s recent bluster only underlines the dangers.

Perry knows whereof he speaks, since he has devoted most of his career to preventing nuclear conflict. (Full disclosure: One of us was his student and research assistant at Stanford.) His recent book, My Journey at the Nuclear Brink, explains why he focused so much on these issues, and why he concluded that nuclear weapons endanger U.S. national security far more than they preserve it.

After our conversation with Perry, we attended a lecture that he gave on today’s nuclear dangers. It is well worth watching in its entirety, for he offered a nuanced analysis of the nuclear policies and capabilities of Russia, China, North Korea, Iran, and Pakistan. After this sweeping tour of the world, he concluded that there are three main nuclear dangers today that, taken together, make the current world even more dangerous than during most of the Cold War. He pointed out that the Doomsday Clock is currently set at three minutes to midnight — the closest to midnight it has been since the height of the Cold War in 1984, and only one minute ahead of its lowest setting ever, in 1953.

The first danger is the possibility of a nuclear war with Russia, either by accident or miscalculation. Perry argued that today’s situation is “comparable to the dark days of the Cold War,” not only because Russia is modernizing its nuclear arsenal but also because Russian President Vladimir Putin might consider using nuclear weapons if the survival of his regime is at stake. Putin faces many domestic challenges, including the drastic decline of oil prices that is forcing the state to rapidly consume its capital reserves, and aggressive nationalist policies are one way to divert domestic attention from those problems. Russia is not deliberately seeking a military conflict with the United States or NATO, Perry said, but the key danger is that Putin “will take actions that will cause him to blunder into a conflict.” He argued that over time, Russia would inevitably lose any such conventional conflict, which might lead it to use its tactical nuclear weapons (which it refers to surreally as a “de-escalatory strike”). And if that were to happen, it would be impossible to predict or control the resulting escalation.

The second danger is a regional nuclear war — a danger that did not exist during the Cold War. Though he discussed possible future threats from North Korea, Perry rightly described a possible nuclear conflict between India and Pakistan as “the poster child” of this scenario. We’ve written about this danger before. Pakistan and India remain locked in a frozen conflict that is the legacy of nearly 70 years of unresolved issues — including Kashmir — and three bloody wars. Today, both nations possess more than 100 nuclear weapons. The Pakistanis have recently begun developing and fielding tactical nuclear weapons, ostensibly to offset India’s sizable conventional superiority. These short-range weapons are inherently less easy to secure and control, and clearly lower the threshold for actual use on the battlefield.

Perry noted that both Indians and Pakistanis expect and fear future attacks similar to the 2013 Mumbai terrorist massacre — and neither side expects New Delhi to exercise similar military restraint in response. Thus, the stage is set for a conventional military confrontation that could rapidly escalate into an Indo-Pakistani nuclear war — first at the tactical level, but one that could spiral unpredictably into a strategic exchange. In Perry’s words: “This is the nightmare of how a regional nuclear war would start — a nightmare that would involve tens of millions of deaths, along with the possibility of stimulating a nuclear winter that would cause widespread tragedies all over the planet.”

The third nuclear danger is the prospect of nuclear terrorism, which also did not exist during the Cold War — and which he argued is far more dangerous than most people understand. He showed a chilling video of what he called the Nightmare Scenario. It involves a rogue group of scientists operating on the fringes of a state’s nuclear weapons program smuggling out enough plutonium and bomb-making knowledge to create a single nuclear device, which they then transfer to a waiting terrorist group. This group then uses commercial air, sea, and land transport to infiltrate the bomb into the United States and detonate it in downtown Washington, D.C. — inflicting tens of thousands of casualties and effectively decapitating the U.S. government. The terrorists threaten further attacks on other major American cities if all U.S. troops deployed overseas are not immediately brought home. The resultant chaos plunges the nation into a paroxysm of civil disorder, mass roundups of thousands of suspects, and martial law.

This scenario may be unlikely, but it is both credible and chilling — and a little-discussed danger for the United States. Its dangers lie not just in tens or hundreds of thousands of casualties from such a devastating attack here at home, but in the potential for the United States to plunge into chaos and respond in ways that forever alter the essence of what it means to be an American. Both the catastrophic destruction and the breakdown of U.S. civil liberties depicted in the film suggest the imminent dangers associated with this nuclear threat today — one aimed within the United States itself, not just constrained to some distant region.

Perry suggested a series of steps to help reduce the growing risks of nuclear war in this century. Foremost among them was the very purpose of his book and lecture: to “educate the public on today’s nuclear dangers, and to promote policies that can reduce those dangers.” He is a tireless advocate of improving relations between the United States and Russia, because he believes that restoring cooperation in areas of mutual interest is the first step towards reducing the dependence on nuclear weapons. He also reinforced the need to raise global awareness of the dangers of nuclear weapons, and remain focused here at home on the very real dangers of a terrorist group detonating a weapon in the United States.

Perry, who is 88 years old, ended his talk on a much-needed note of optimism. He continues to work tirelessly to reduce the threat of nuclear conflict and towards a world free of nuclear weapons. But he does not believe he is a “naïve idealist,” as he has been called, for promoting such unrealistic goals. Instead, he noted that the famous Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov spent his whole life working toward political reform in the Soviet Union, which also seemed to be a hopeless task. When told he was being too idealistic, Sakharov replied, “There is a need to create ideals, even when you cannot see a path to achieving them. Because when there are no ideals, then there is no hope.”

“We must pursue our ideals,” Perry concluded, “in order to keep alive our hope — hope for a safer world for our children and for our grandchildren.”


Lt. General David W. Barno, USA (Ret.) is a Distinguished Practitioner in Residence, and Dr. Nora Bensahel is a Distinguished Scholar in Residence, at the School of International Service at American University. Both also serve as Nonresident Senior Fellows at the Atlantic Council. Their column appears in War on the Rocks every other Tuesday. To sign up for Barno and Bensahel’s Strategic Outpost newsletter, where you can track their articles as well as their public events, click here.


Photo credit: Участник:Goodvint