Ex-US, Russian Brass: 'De-alert' Nukes or Risk Disaster
April 30, 2015
Bryan Bender / Politico
Nearly 25 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Washington and Moscow still have nearly 2,000 atomic bombs ready to fly at a moment's notice. That so-called 'hair-trigger' alert is now sparking concerns that deepening distrust between the former foes significantly raises the risk of a nuclear disaster. Today, the former commander of US nuclear forces will join ex-Russian officers and other security leaders in an appeal for the US and Russia to take steps to "de-alert" their nuclear arsenals.
(April 29, 2015) -- Amid all the talk about a new Cold War, here's one hard, cold fact: Nearly 25 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Washington and Moscow still have nearly 2,000 atomic bombs ready to fly at a moment's notice to destroy each other.
And that so-called hair-trigger alert is now sparking new concerns that deepening distrust between the former foes significantly raises the risk of a miscalculation and nuclear disaster.
On Thursday the American general who recently commanded US nuclear forces will lead a group of ex-Russian officers and other national security leaders in an appeal for the United States and Russia to take immediate steps to "de-alert" their respective arsenals.
Their proposal starkly warns that the current dismal state of relations -- combined with other new factors such as the threat of cyberattacks -- demands leaders on both sides be given more time to respond to potential provocations before ordering the unthinkable.
"Tension between Russia and the West over the Ukraine crisis has brought the parties one step closer to the precipice of nuclear brinksmanship, the point at which nuclear risk skyrockets," according to the findings of the commission convened by the disarmament group Global Zero, which will be delivered at the United Nations. "This tension is uncharacteristic of their post-Cold War partnership, but it has flared to the point that it is producing dangerous misunderstandings and action-reaction cycles with strong escalatory updrafts."
The group, led by retired four-star General James Cartwright, who oversaw the US nuclear arsenal before leaving the military in 2011, says the United States and Russia are at serious risk of an accidental nuclear confrontation, spurred by flawed intelligence or a misreading of the other side's intentions.
The primary reason: Fully half of their large arsenals remain designed to respond within minutes, what is known as launch-on-warning. As the report points out, "the go-code comes as a message that is the length of a tweet." And "Minuteman missiles are so named for a reason."
By requiring more steps be taken to prepare the weapons for launch, Russia and the United States would have hours -- if not several days -- to develop better information before reacting, while still maintaining a strong deterrent force, Cartwright told POLITICO.
"These weapons that are on alert are particularly vulnerable to being hijacked or [the systems] indicate something that is not true in a situation where you only have a few minutes to make a decision," said Cartwright, who was head of the US Strategic Command before becoming vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
"In a tense military-political situation, like the one that exists currently as a result of the crisis in Ukraine, the probability of making erroneous decisions increases," added retired Russian Major General Vladimir Dvorkin, former director of Research Institute No. 4 in the Russian Ministry of Defense. "That is why at the present time it would be necessary for the presidents of Russia and the US to formally renounce the launch-on-warning form."
Neither side is believed to have plans to launch a surprise attack on the other, which would likely result in a full retaliation and the destruction of both countries. But the warnings come against the backdrop of new confrontations, both military and diplomatic, between the former adversaries.
Close encounters between US and Russian warplanes have recently escalated. NATO fighters have intercepted Russian aircraft hundreds of times this year. A US spy plane recently fled into Swedish airspace after it was closely trailed by Russian fighters. And the head of the North American Aerospace Defense Command has said that Russian bombers -- some capable of carrying nuclear weapons -- have made more forays out of Russian territory "than in any year since the Cold War."
The new level of nuclear bluster coming from Moscow is also deeply worrisome. Last year a senior Russian general raised the prospect of using nuclear weapons to preempt aggressive moves from the NATO military alliance. Russian officials have also reportedly threatened to use nuclear weapons in the Ukrainian conflict.
"I think that startled people both in Europe and the United States," said Ambassador Richard Burt, who was the US negotiator for the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with Russia and participated in the new study, which is backed by more than 75 global leaders on nuclear security issues.
What isn't new is that each day military personnel in early warning centers around the world monitor the heavens for missile or air threats. They rely on radars and satellites to assess whether satellite launches, missile tests, or even volcanic eruptions or flocks of geese are an attack.
US early warning crews have just three minutes to make an initial assessment before the process begins of alerting the president he may have to decide to retaliate. Once or twice a week, according to a congressional report cited in the new study, "the phenomena appear to pose a possible nuclear missile threat requiring a second, closer look."
There have also been a number of close calls reported over the years.
In 1995, a Norwegian weather rocket was nearly mistaken for a US nuclear attack. Then-Russian President Boris Yeltsin had four minutes to respond and opted not to retaliate. In 2010, American missile crews lost contact for an entire hour with a field of 50 Minuteman intercontinental ballistic missiles in Wyoming, an incident in which "the normally firewalled command and control systems for these missiles were likely breached," according to the report.
Meanwhile, most cooperation between Washington and Moscow on nuclear weapons issues has been a casualty of the Ukraine crisis. For example, the two countries have halted a series of cooperative efforts aimed at reducing the spread of nuclear weapons or materials around the globe and have refrained from pursuing any new arms control treaties aimed at further reducing the size of their nuclear arsenals.
"The traditional reductions approach seems at least for now not very viable," said Burt. "Putin has not sounded very interested in this. Finding ways to stabilize the existing nuclear balance perhaps could be more promising."
But renewed US-Russian tensions are not the only reason for action, the former military officers, national security leaders and diplomats warn.
For one, all the world's nuclear powers are upgrading their nuclear arsenals and shrinking the time needed to deploy them. "Warning and decision timelines are getting shorter, and consequently the potential for fateful human error in nuclear control systems is growing larger," the report states.
At the same time, cyberattacks increasingly threaten the integrity of nuclear command and control systems, further raising the risk of misunderstanding. "Could such hackers break firewalls, the air gaps, and transmit launch orders to launch crews or even to the weapons themselves?" the co-authors of the report ask.
Cartwright said the prospect is particularly scary "when you associate [it] with 1960s, 70s and 80s technology for [nuclear] communications" still in wide use.
An electronic onslaught against such systems, the report adds, "degrades the coherence and rationality of decision-making" -- especially if hackers have insider help with passwords or launch codes. The threat of a terrorist group stealing nuclear weapons is also greater when the weapons are moved regularly in order to be ready for use.
The high-alert status maintained by both sides was a bedrock of Cold War nuclear strategy -- namely, the only sure-fire way to deter the enemy from launching a surprise attack was the knowledge that as soon as the missiles or bombers were detected there would be a counter-strike.
But that approach is increasingly seen as an anachronism -- and one that does not address the pressing security threats of today, such as nuclear proliferation, terrorism or cyber warfare.
"The current strategy of mutual assured destruction perpetuates nuclear stockpiles that are much larger than required for deterrence and that have scant efficacy in dealing with these contemporary threats," the new proposal states.
Cartwright and dozens of other officials who held high positions in Russia, the United States and other nuclear powers like India and Pakistan are proposing a schedule for Moscow and Washington to de-alert: Twenty percent of their weapons in the first year, or about 170 weapons on each side; 50 percent within three years; and 80 percent within six years.
"Within ten years, 100 percent (850 weapons on each side) could be off alert if US-Russian relations have returned to normal and their security cooperation has deepened," according to the report.
Similar proposals have been made in the past. Indeed, then-Sen. Barack Obama said in 2007 that if elected president he would "work with Russia to take US and Russian ballistic missiles off hair-trigger alert," saying that the American arsenal was "focused on deterring the Soviet Union -- a country that doesn't exist." President George W. Bush similarly expressed support for de-alerting the arsenals. In each case, the two sides never took steps to begin the discussions.
China is seen as a model, according to the new proposal: All its weapons are believed to be de-alerted and would have to be transported considerable distances by rail, road or air to be mated with the missiles designed to launch them.
But there are differences of opinion on whether the Russian government, which blessed the participation in the commission of three retired generals, would be open to taking similar steps.
"Whether this will get resonance in the Kremlin is a mystery," said Burt. "But it is at least worth raising."
Steve Andreasen, who served as director for defense policy and arms control on the US National Security Council from 1993 to 2001, said he believes there is considerable support from key Russians.
"At the expert level in Russia and former Russian military there is a recognition of the risk and support for taking steps to reduce the risk," he said.
The potential risks are just too great to do otherwise, maintains Stephen Schwartz, an expert in nuclear strategy at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey.
In the event of a warning of a potential attack, "there would be enormous pressure on leaders from their military advisers to act fast," he said. "It would take an extraordinary leader -- someone like Kennedy during the Cuban Missile Crisis -- to push back on that. De-alerting would remove that option and the pressure to act quickly and keep things from spiraling out of control."
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ACTION ALERT: Help Prevent a Nuclear Catastrophe
Union of Concerned Scientists
There are still around 16,000 nuclear weapons on the planet—most of them much more destructive than those that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki nearly 70 years ago. And around 1,800 US and Russian nuclear weapons are still on hair-trigger alert—ready to launch in a matter of minutes.
ACTION: Urge President Obama to take our land-based nuclear weapons off hair-trigger alert and make the world safer now.