Minutes To Midnight – Nuclear Fruit, Part Three

Minutes To Midnight – Nuclear Fruit, Part Three


The pursuit of space is a noble goal: it grants
new technology, a greater understanding of our universe – and a chance the extend our
reach to the stars. However, a more insidious side of humanity
lurks in the shadows of progress. The embodiment of war; and a currency of peace. Nuclear weapons unlock the explosive power
of the atom: pound-for-pound, a potential a million times greater than TNT. A destructive force that can strike terror
into even the most powerful nation. A secret struggle for superiority which would
define the decades ahead. The first nuclear weapons were designed to
be delivered by aircraft: by dropping the payload directly on the target. A B-29 Superfortress named ‘Enola Gay’ embarked
on an historical mission – the first atomic bomb used in war: 1945, Hiroshima. It’s hard to keep something so loud a secret,
and so America’s time as sole nuclear power was short: the Soviets tested their ‘First
Lightning’ in 1949. In the standoff that followed, strategic bombers
were the agent of destruction: massive, long range craft like the Tupolev Tu-95 and B-52
Stratofortress bearing the fate of the world on their frame. Aircraft were the most visible aspect of the
tensions between two nations – and the missions flown the closest approach to conventional
war. It wasn’t just bombers – Cold War skies saw
a menagerie of exotic birds, in tentative sorties of all kinds: from spy planes like
the U-2 and SR-71 Blackbird – to scrambled air superiority fighters. Flight simulators have long been used to train
pilots, with scale simulacra far less expensive than risking a real plane. Amateur flight simulations made an appearance
shortly after the rise of the 8-bit home machines, with aeronautical enthusiasts seeking to emulate
the thrill of aerial combat. They vary in realism, with some titles taking
authenticity very seriously – and others seeking simpler, action-centric gameplay. The Soviet MiG-31 caused quite a stir in the
west in the late 70s, with claims of a new super fighter faster than anything else and
capable of intercepting cruise missiles. This panic was reflected in 1982 film Firefox,
along with its tie-in game on LaserDisc. Even more popular was 1986’s Top Gun, with
dogfighting MiGs a backdrop to fighter pilot drama. It too spawned a number of video games to
cash in on its name – and it likely influenced Sega’s After Burner, released in 1987. Not a particularly realistic simulator, but
the impressive scaling graphics, imposing cabinet and non-stop action made for a memorable
arcade experience. The most pressing threat of the cold war wasn’t
delivered by aeroplane, however: but instead a self-propelled means, able to target anywhere
on the globe – and nearly impossible to intercept. Inter Continental Ballistic Missiles, or ICBMs. A sinister side effect of developing rockets
able to travel to space, it was the Soviets who devised the first in 1957: the R-7 Semyorka. This was the same platform that launched Sputnik,
but rather than reaching for the stars, its nuclear payload was aimed squarely at American
shores. Naturally this caused a bit of a stir, and
the US quickly developed a similar platform in response: the SM-65 Atlas. Total annihilation anywhere on earth, delivered
in 30 minutes or less. While the space race stole the limelight,
the real struggle was behind the scenes: a failure to keep pace with the Soviet’s nuclear
arsenal might be to cede superpower status. Ballistic calculations have been a necessity
since the earliest days of artillery. The sooner you can calculate a projectile’s
trajectory – and thus its point of impact – the more likely you are to strike your target. Precalculated tables were the go-to means
in the early 20th century, but as computer technology took off their ability to rapidly
crunch numbers meant that they soon played an instrumental role. Nuclear missiles are no exception, and the
machines used in the 1950s to calculate their path were typically analogue computers, reliant
on variable voltage instead of discrete digital bits. These machines could simulate basic physical
scenarios – and this ability gave yield to a very early video game example: Tennis For
Two. Like an early version of Pong, the game is
a two-player rendition of tennis: with the ball shuttling back and forth between the
players. One of the first games ever to use a graphical
display, it was created as an attraction for visitors to the Brookhaven National Laboratory. Technology designed to deliver destruction
instead co-opted for peaceful play: swords to ploughshares, doom to delight. The threat of missiles raining from the sky
was present for most of the Cold War: and as nuclear arsenals swelled rapidly throughout
the 1960s, their use seemed inevitable. Atari’s Missile Command perfectly encapsulates
this fear: with an endless onslaught of missiles headed towards an unwitting population. You are tasked with their destruction, by
means of interception with counter-missiles – careful placement required to make sure
all threats are blocked. Should a missile slip through your defences,
one of the six cities at the bottom of the screen might be hit – and permanently destroyed. Missile Command is unusual in its defensive
approach, rather than the conventional shoot-em-up formula: while the mechanics are parallel,
shooting becomes more about saving yourself than destroying an opponent. This is mirrored in real life with the Strategic
Defense Initiative, or ‘SDI’ program, sometimes known as ‘Star Wars’. It was an attempt to build a defensive shield
against the soviet missile threat – a means to defuse Mutually Assured Destruction, and
to tilt the scales in favour of the west. The technology required was a tall order,
and an impermeable shield would have required decades of research – by which time newer
missiles capable of bypassing it might have left the project moot. Like in Missile Command, it was a futile effort
– the missiles keep coming, in ever greater numbers, until all your cities are destroyed
and there’s naught left to save. Such is the nature of nuclear war. Tensions reached a crisis point in 1962, when
the Soviets brokered a deal with Cuba to host their nuclear missiles. This placed them a mere 90 miles from Florida,
and granted a distinct advantage in first-strike capability. The Cuban Missile Crisis saw the world on
a knife edge – and is probably the moment closest to midnight: the world on the brink
of its doom, with all-out nuclear war a button-press away. Thankfully, it was resolved via diplomacy:
the Soviets withdrew their missiles in exchange for the dismantlement of American missiles
in Turkey, and an agreement to stay out of Cuba. For all the potential of the atom, it proves
impotent through stalemate. This futility is a common trait in the depiction
of atomic weapons: providing instant obliteration at your fingertips, but inviting your opponent
to deliver the same fate unto you. Such terrible weapons shape the balance of
power – an opponent without an equal ability to respond forced to capitulate, leaving an
oligarchy of nuclear states left to battle for superpower status. With the prospect of a surprise decapitation
– a strike rendering a nation unable to respond – the concept of ‘second strike’ capability
has the potential to upset the balance. A secret fleet of submarines, each capable
of launching multiple nuclear missiles – and each instructed to retaliate should the enemy
take action. Perhaps you could eliminate every last missile
silo – but can you be sure of destroying every single submarine? Retaining the ability to strike in retaliation
serves as a very potent deterrent – and renders any first-strike strategy almost untenable. Almost. Mutually Assured Destruction is an odd sort
of equilibrium. Who would dare launch the first missile? Who
would dare disarm? The only viable option is to match your opponent
– to do otherwise might invite the apocalypse. As technology evolves, so too will the balance
of power: with neither side seeking destruction, nor prepared to back down. The power of nuclear weapons all but denies
their use, but mandates an atomic quiver ready for immediate despatch. A power so compelling even Ghandi himself
might not resist. There’s an art to this political game of chicken:
the deft balance needed to stay close to the edge without falling in: they call it brinksmanship. It takes nerves of steel, but you can exploit
your enemy’s fear to gain political concessions: treaties, disarmament, or currying public
favour. However, even the strongest leadership is
subject to chance: and the most terrifying thing about nuclear war might not be a deliberate
act. What if someone made a mistake? In 1983, the Soviet early warning system detected
the launch of an American ICBM – retaliation was poised for immediate despatch. It was a false alarm, a malfunction – but
only the judgement of a single man prevented the counterattack. The event wasn’t made public until the 1990s
– but the potential for a nuclear false alarm was the subject of 1983 film WarGames. It was a fusion of cold war fear and the rising
popularity of video games: a young Matthew Broderick hacks into a military computer and
unwittingly starts a training exercise in the belief that it was just a game. Truly, we live in a fragile world – with Armageddon
hanging by a thread, and where a single mistake invites destruction. The fate of the world subject to a slip of
a button: How about a nice game of chess? An unwinnable war, a futile pursuit – the
only winning move not to play. The ultimate weapon at mankind’s disposal
– and the first of our creations that might prove our undoing. Nuclear weapons might be a currency of peace
– but what a terrible price. Coming up in part four: wishes for a nuclear
winter – and what if the worst came to pass? Thanks for watching – and until next time,
farewell.