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A new arms race and nuclear Armageddon: UN chief’s grim warning.

“Humanity,” said António Guterres in Hiroshima, “is playing with a loaded gun.”

The UN Secretary-General warned that world leaders are enhancing stockpiles at a cost of hundreds of billions of dollars with almost 13,000 nuclear weapons currently held in arsenals around the world.

He was speaking at the 77th anniversary of the world’s first nuclear attack.

Guterres ... 'crises spreading fast"
“Crises with grave nuclear undertones are spreading fast, he said, “from the Middle East to the Korean peninsula, to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.”

“Three-quarters of a century later, we must ask what we’ve learned from the mushroom cloud that swelled above this city in 1945. Or from the Cold War and the terrifying near-misses that placed humanity within minutes of annihilation.

“Or from the promising decades of arsenal reductions and widespread acceptance of the principles against the use, proliferation and testing of nuclear weapons.

“Because a new arms race is picking up speed.”

 In truth, that threat has never gone away. It’s just that we forgot about it.

There is now a real and acknowledged risk that the war in Ukraine could lead to a wider, conceivably global, nuclear exchange.

Vladimir Putin and his top officials have repeatedly threatened to use Russia’s fast-expanding nuclear arsenal, if that’s what it takes to win the war he’s probably losing. Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, has claimed NATO is “in essence at war” against Russia in Ukraine.

Putin said: “We have all the tools for [nuclear war] that no one else can boast of having– a reference to tests of next-generation hypersonic and intercontinental nuclear missiles.

On state television a Kremlin-aligned presenter, Dmitri Kiselyov – known as “Putin’s mouthpiece” – showed a video illustrating the impact of a single underwater drone on Britain and Ireland. The 100-megatonne device, he said, would destroy both nations.

“The explosion of this thermonuclear torpedo by Britain’s coastline will cause a gigantic tsunami wave up to 500 metres high,” Kiselyov told his audience. “Such a barrage alone also carries extreme doses of radiation. Having passed over the British Isles, it will turn what might be left of them into a radioactive desert.”

The serious risk of nuclear war erupting from Ukraine has been shown in analyses by the American and European security establishments.

“Scores of war games conducted for the US and allied governments,” wrote Christopher Chivvis, the former US national intelligence officer for Europe, “[show that] there are really only two paths toward ending the war: one, continued escalation, potentially across the nuclear threshold; the other, a bitter peace imposed on a defeated Ukraine that will be extremely hard for the United States and many European allies to swallow.”

Atrocities among Bucha's wreckage
An embattled Putin, with weak conventional forces but a vast nuclear arsenal, would be tempted to play to his strength. If this war is lost by Russia, Putin could face deposition and a trial for war crimes like those in Bucha, west of Kyiv. He has everything riding on this war.

If nuclear war does break out, it would most probably start with the use by Russia of relatively low-yield tactical – that is, battlefield – weapons in Ukraine itself. A bigger danger would be if some of these weapons were used against a NATO country in retaliation for supplying arms to Ukraine. The United States and its European allies would be certain to respond decisively.

Even if nuclear war happens – and NATO is trying hard so far to avoid it – the risk of conflict elsewhere in the world is higher than it ever was during the Cold War. Although the US and Russia account for 90% of the world’s nuclear arms, there are now nine nuclear states. Iran is likely to join the club later, or perhaps sooner. The spark could occur almost anywhere.

The nuclear arms race peaked in 1985, when there were an estimated 63,632 warheads worldwide. Today’s total of 13,080 represents a decline of 79%.

But does it matter? Modern delivery systems are more powerful and much better targeted than ever before. And 13,080 warheads is more than enough to wipe out human civilisation. The older nuclear states – the US, Russia, France and Britain – have mostly reduced their stockpiles in line with arms-limitation treaties. The newer entrants, though, are ramping theirs up.


BACK THEN, WHEN WE ALMOST DIED

Anybody under the age of 60 cannot remember the dread of global nuclear war that existed for 40 years after the end of World War 2. I can, as it happens.

Few people now know or care about the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. I was 13 then, and we all thought we were going to die.

America had installed nuclear missiles in Turkey, pointing straight at Russia. The Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev, ordered the clandestine installation of its own missiles in Cuba, aimed at the United States.

At a top-level security meeting in the White House, President John F Kennedy was urged by the Joint Chiefs of the armed services to bomb and then invade Cuba. The president rejected this option, fearing that the Soviets would retaliate by taking West Berlin. Instead, he ordered a naval blockade of Cuba.

At the height of the crisis, Kennedy spoke to the nation and the world:

Khrushchev and Kennedy
“It shall be the policy of this nation,” he said, “to regard any nuclear missile launched from Cuba against any nation in the Western Hemisphere as an attack by the Soviet Union on the United States, requiring a full retaliatory response upon the Soviet Union … Any hostile move anywhere in the world against the safety and freedom of peoples to whom we are committed – including in particular the brave people of West Berlin – will be met by whatever action is needed.”

That speech was played again and again over my school’s public address system. As I said, we all thought we were going to die. And we had good reason to think that.

In the end, Khrushchev withdrew the missiles and, quietly, Kennedy withdrew America’s missiles from Turkey. Armageddon was averted.

We did not then know that at the height of the crisis, a Russian submarine off of Cuba was being harassed by US warships. A dummy depth charge was launched as a warning that the submarine should turn around. But the Russian captain was convinced that war had already begun and prepared to launch a 10-kiloton torpedo – with the same power as the Hiroshima bomb – at the American flotilla, which would have wiped it out and started World War 3. At the last moment the Russian flotilla’s second-in-command convinced the captain to surface and contact Moscow.

The Wikipedia page on nuclear close calls lists 19 incidents, each of which could have started a nuclear exchange. The list includes early warning systems mistaking the moon (US) or the sunrise (Russia) for an incoming missile attack, mistaking military exercises for the real thing (US and Russia), computer errors and power outages.

Then there was this.

On the night of 15 April 1969 President Richard Nixon got schickered – as he tended to – and ordered a nuclear strike on North Korea, which had shot down an American spy plane. USAF Phantom-4 fighters at a US air base in South Korea were loaded with nuclear bombs. Fortunately for the world, the order to take off did not come.

A book, The Arrogance Of Power: The Secret World Of Richard Nixon by Anthony Summers, documented the incident:

“‘If the president had his way,’ [National Security Adviser Henry] Kissinger growled to aides more than once, ‘there would be a nuclear war each week!’ This may not have been an idle jest. The CIA's top Vietnam specialist, George Carver, reportedly said that in 1969, when the North Koreans shot down a US spy plane, ‘Nixon became incensed and ordered a tactical nuclear strike ... The Joint Chiefs were alerted and asked to recommend targets, but Kissinger got on the phone to them. They agreed not to do anything until Nixon sobered up in the morning.’”

THE EFFECTS OF NUCLEAR WAR

A recent major study by 19 American and European scientists modelled the global effects of a limited nuclear war between India and Pakistan. They found it would start fires that would send so much soot into the stratosphere that for at least five years, global temperatures would be reduced by 1.8 degrees and rainfall by 8%. Global production of maize would fall by 13%, wheat by 11%, rice by 3% and soybeans by 17%.

The main cereal-growing nations – the United States, Canada, Europe, Russia, China, and Australia – would be most affected.

“The continued existence of nuclear weapons,” wrote the scientists, “implies a risk to life on Earth not just from the immediate effects of the war.”

Nuclear war between NATO and Russia would be unlikely to remain limited, even if it started that way. The effects would be catastrophic.

A single nuclear explosion produces temperatures hotter than the sun’s 15 million degree core, and ten seconds after a one-megaton explosion, the fireball is 1.6 kilometres in diameter. The thermal flash can cause severe burns to exposed flesh at a range of 30 kilometres; the blast wave, moving at thousands of kilometres a second, destroying everything in its path. Then comes the firestorm.

As the mushroom cloud rose into the stratosphere, nuclear fallout would extend across the world, contaminating food and water supplies and causing hundreds of millions of deaths, including more than half the population of the United States.

Nuclear winter would follow, as soot and debris shut out the sun. The human species would be likely to survive but our civilisation would not.

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