January 28, 2018

Two Minutes Till Our Doom (Or, The Art of Buying Time) - Updated for 2023

[Last updated 5/26/23 11:34 AM PT—Tragically, the B-39 was removed from display at the Maritime Museum of San Diego and shipped off to be scrapped in Mexico in February 2022.]

This past week, members of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists' Science and Security Board advanced the time of the Doomsday Clock by 30 seconds.

That puts it to 11:58 p.m.—just two minutes away from midnight, the end of the line.

We are two minutes till doomsday, the closest to the end of humanity we've been since 1953 (at least in the time that anyone has been keeping track, over the course of the last 70 years).

Now, the whole concept behind the Doomsday Clock is symbolic more than anything else—obviously we have more than 120 seconds before a man-made global catastrophe wipes us out. But if nothing else, it's significant by comparison.

The best we've gotten since then has been 17 minutes to midnight in 1991. At the beginning of the Cold War, at which point the clock launched in 1947, we were seven minutes to midnight.

Our demise has been imminent for quite some time, but it should create some alarm that the threat of nuclear war—compounded by climate change and "emerging technologies"—is just as bad right now as it was during the time that the U.S. was testing its H-bomb as part of Operation Ivy.

We are just as close to civilization-ending nuclear war right now as we were just four years into the nuclear arms race.

That is, if you trust the clock. Fortunately, the Doomsday Clock—unlike actual timepieces—can move forwards and backwards. It doesn't ever have to hit midnight, or even a minute to midnight.

All this talk of North Korea and nuclear warfare has got me thinking about the Cuban Missile Crisis—something I knew by name but never learned about in history class. I didn't even remotely grasp the concept when I was in Cuba in 2016. But after a bit of research—timely to our current situation, to say the least—I now understand that the closest nuclear war threat we ever had, and the closest the Doomsday Clock should've ever gotten to midnight, was in 1962.

Circa 1962, By USN (Official U.S. Navy photograph [1] via [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The thing is, what happened in those waters surrounding the Cuban archipelago entered a crisis state, climaxed, and resolved too quickly for anyone to adjust the Doomsday Clock accordingly.

Located so incredibly close to the tip of Florida, Cuba proved to be a strategic military alliance for the Soviet Union, which sent a number of its submarines into the waters there, helping bring the world's two biggest nuclear superpowers to the brink of war.

Perhaps one of the best places to learn about what happened during the Cuban Missile Crisis isn't actually Cuba, nor is it Russia, but San Diego—at the Maritime Museum, which has in its collection a B-39 (Б-39) Soviet era attack submarine of the Foxtrot class. [Update 5/26/23—The submarine has since been put out to pasture.]

It was part of the Soviet Navy's fleet called "Project 641"—and although this particular "undersea boat" wasn't commissioned until 1967, it's similar enough to the ones that were submerged near Cuba and armed with a nuclear warhead.

These boats would go to such ocean depths that their crews would lose radio contact with Moscow—something that's normally OK for brief periods of time, as long as a crisis isn't happening.

But when one of those boats has been "under" for a while, and its radar detects American military ships closing in on it at sea level, what can you do without outside command?

It sounds like the Americans are dropping grenades on you—or, at least, all around you. You're so deep underwater that you don't know if the world is already at nuclear war. You should be under attack, but you don't want to breach the surface to find out.

Your submarine is equipped with a nuclear warhead—the one with the purple tip—just in case. Why would the Navy give you one if you weren't supposed to use it?

You're running out of fuel. These submarines, though diesel-electric hybrids, were only meant to run submerged for three to five days at a time.

Your crew is getting stir crazy, more than 50 seamen crammed into a 300 foot boat...

...chock full of equipment, leaving very little leg room.

The cabin fever is compounded by a lack of oxygen and the rising temperatures from the A/C being on the fritz. The B-59 was designed for the freezing waters of the Arctic, not the warm, tropical tides of the Caribbean.

If you remain 800 feet or more below the water's surface much longer, you and your crew will surely die. There's no escaping it.

But coming up for air could also be suicide: You may be shot down or bombed by one of the 11 U.S. destroyers up there, or you may find yourself poking your head up into the middle of thermonuclear war.

And if you aim your torpedoes at whatever is headed your way, you could be the one to start a war that hadn't already begun in the first place.

That's exactly the dilemma that another submarine, the B-59 (Б-59) faced on October 27, 1962, when its captain ordered that its nuclear-tipped torpedo be launched against the USS Randolph aircraft carrier. After all, he didn't want to become the shame of the fleet.

And the only thing that kept the strike from happening was the vote from one man: Vasili Arkhipov (Василий Александрович Архипов), the B-59's second-in-command and commander of the entire flotilla (which is why they needed his vote).

He was only 34 years old at the time. He suggested that the "bombs" they were hearing—and that were rattling the sub—were mere warning shots, signals from the Americans for them to come up. They couldn't hide anymore, but maybe the U.S. Navy just wanted to question them.

But since the U.S. had no idea that the sub had been equipped with a nuclear torpedo—and wouldn't find out until 50 years later—Naval officers simply sent the boat home to Russia to enforce President Kennedy's "no sea traffic" rule. They didn't board the B-59. They didn't inspect anything.

So, it turns out that Arkhipov was right. And he has since become known as the man who "saved the world."

Well, he bought us some time, anyway. Maybe he was just delaying the inevitable.

Still, although I am watching the seconds tick by on the Doomsday Clock with trepidation, dread, and horror, I am hoping that there is at least one guy out there who might be able to convince someone not to hit the big red button when the time comes.

Because sometimes, we're so deep underwater that we can't see what's going on at the surface. And although it may feel like we've got to do something, sometimes it's better to just wait and see.

Sometimes it's better if your decision is not to decide.

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Photo Essay: A Night on the Battleship
Photo Essay: Southern California's Repository of Eastern Bloc Artifacts, Under Construction
Photo Essay: Upon the Grand Reopening of LA's Cold War Museum
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