Ken Kimmell, Elliott Negin and Eric Schlosser / Union of Concerned Scientists – 2015-04-25 00:50:06
Let’s Not Roll the Dice with Nuclear Weapons
Ken Kimmell / Catalyst Magazine
(Spring 2015) — UCS has launched a campaign to take US land-based nuclear missiles off “hair-trigger” alert status — some 450 of them. This defense posture, which allows missiles to be launched within minutes, was intended to foil and therefore deter a feared “first strike” from the former Soviet Union, because our missiles would leave their silos before Soviet missiles could arrive to destroy them. It carries significant risk, however, because it enables nuclear weapons to be fired as a result of a rushed decision-making process and potentially erroneous warning data.
The risk posed by this Cold War relic has no justification now and actually makes us less safe. Even if one were to ignore the fact that the Russians have no reason to fire nuclear weapons at us, we have about 1,000 nuclear warheads in hidden submarines that are a more effective retaliatory force against anyone who might contemplate using nuclear weapons against us.
So why haven’t we fixed this? Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama have both called for taking our missiles off hair-trigger alert, and a Who’s Who of military experts has joined them. It seems that it hasn’t happened because the issue has not been made a high enough priority.
We can change that. UCS is now gathering allies from faith, public health, environmental, and other communities to present the facts on this issue and demand the elimination of this unnecessary and scary risk.
Ken Kimmell is president of UCS.
A Simple Step toward a Safer World:
UCS calls for President Obama
to take nuclear missiles off hair-trigger alert
Elliott Negin / Catalyst
(Spring 2015) — In September 1983, one of the most tense periods of the Cold War, Lieutenant Colonel Stanislav Petrov was in a bunker just outside of Moscow, monitoring the Soviet Union’s early warning satellite system.
It was Petrov’s job to report a nuclear attack to his superiors, who would send the message up the chain of command until it reached Soviet leader Yuri Andropov, who would then decide whether to retaliate. They would have only an 8- to 10-minute window to respond. Just after midnight, alarms went off . . . .
One of the satellites had detected five US intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) heading toward the Soviet Union. Repeated checks confirmed the satellite was working correctly.
Petrov was skeptical that the attack was real. He figured that if the United States had actually launched a nuclear attack it would likely involve hundreds, if not thousands, of nuclear missiles attempting to wipe out Soviet forces, not five. Moreover, Soviet ground-based radar had not yet detected any missiles. He told his superiors it was a false alarm, but with no hard evidence to back up his decision.
Petrov’s hunch proved correct — and saved the world from nuclear disaster. Later it was discovered that the early warning system had mistaken the reflection of the sun on the tops of clouds for a missile launch. That’s what fooled the system.
Too Many Malfunctions
It is terrifying to consider that something as innocuous as the sun’s reflection on clouds could have resulted in a nuclear debacle. But that incident is just one example of technical glitches and human errors in both Russia and the United States that could have triggered a nuclear launch over the last few decades. A civilian scientific rocket, a failed computer chip, and an improperly installed circuit card are just some of the culprits.
That’s why, to significantly reduce the possibility of something going horribly wrong, the Union of Concerned Scientists has identified one vital step President Obama can take immediately and without congressional approval to make the world a safer place: remove US land-based missiles from “hair-trigger” alert status to reduce the chance of an accidental, erroneous, or unauthorized launch.
“We’re pressuring the Obama administration to act now to take US land-based nuclear missiles off hair-trigger alert,” says David Wright, co-director of the Global Security Program at UCS. “It’s long past time to abandon this dangerous policy.”
A Dangerous Relic of the Cold War
The policy of keeping US land-based missiles on a hair trigger dates to the Cold War era. Back then, military strategists on both sides feared a surprise first-strike nuclear attack not only on cities and industrial sites but also on their land-based nuclear missiles and bombers.
To ensure that they would maintain the capability to counterattack, both countries kept their land-based nuclear weapons on hair-trigger alert so they could be launched within minutes and avoid being destroyed on the ground.
This “use ’em or lose ’em” policy may have sounded logical to some military leaders years ago, but it doesn’t anymore. Just ask Lieutentant General James Kowalski, who became deputy commander of the US Strategic Command in October 2013. Before taking that job, he oversaw US ICBMs and nuclear bombers. He says the notion of a Russian first strike at this point is “hardly worth discussing.” He says other, much more likely things worry him far more.
“The greatest risk to my force is an accident,” Kowalski said at a July 2013 forum in Washington, DC. “The greatest risk to my force is doing something stupid. That puts my force at risk, more so than almost anything out there I can think of.”
As Simple as Flipping a Switch
There are many ways to take US land-based nuclear missiles off hair-trigger alert, but one is particularly straightforward. The Air Force could use the safety switches designed to prevent a missile launch during routine silo maintenance.
Doing so would electronically isolate the missile from outside launch signals, and it could not be launched until a maintenance crewmember physically entered each silo to turn it back on. While unlikely to ever be necessary, the entire US ICBM force could be returned to hair-trigger alert status within two days.
Kowalski wasn’t directly referring to hair-trigger alert, but a number of high-ranking military officers and government officials have singled out the policy as one that could most easily lead to a devastating accident.
For instance, James Cartwright, a retired four-star Marine Corps general who served as commander of the US Strategic Command and vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was the lead author of a 2012 study that called on the US government to end hair-trigger alert. One of Cartwright’s co-authors was former Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel.
“The current postures of launch-ready nuclear forces that provide minutes and seconds of warning and decision time should be replaced by postures that allow 24 to 72 hours on which to assess threats and exercise national direction over the employment of nuclear forces,” the report stated. “This change would greatly reduce the risks of mistaken, ill-considered and accidental launch.”
The recommendations from Cartwright and his co-authors echoed one made by former Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and George Shultz, former Defense Secretary William Perry, and former Senator Sam Nunn, who proposed a series of steps to establish a foundation for a nuclear-free world in a January 2007 Wall Street Journal column. Their very first suggestion was to modify “the Cold War posture of deployed nuclear weapons to increase warning time and thereby reduce the danger of an accidental or unauthorized use of a nuclear weapon.”
Not long after that column ran, presidential candidate Barack Obama promised to work with Russia to take nuclear weapons off hair-trigger alert. “Keeping nuclear weapons ready to launch on a moment’s notice is a dangerous relic of the Cold War,” he told Arms Control Today. Such policies increase the risk of catastrophic accidents or miscalculation,” he said. “I believe that we must address this dangerous situation.”
The Time Is Now, Mr. President
We’re now into the third year of President Obama’s second term. So why are US ballistic missiles still on high alert? The short answer is that no one in the administration has yet made this a high enough priority. UCS is working to change that.
To those who worry about US vulnerability with such a move, UCS Senior Analyst Stephen Young points out that the majority of US nuclear forces are on submarines, which, by virtue of the fact they are constantly moving and difficult to detect, would survive any effort to take them out with a first strike.
“Our subs represent a supremely capable response to nuclear attack,” Young says, “more than what would be required for any purpose. They make the readiness level of our ICBMs irrelevant, even in a crisis.”
Of course, the world would be even safer if Russia also took its missiles off hair-trigger alert. A US decision to do so will encourage Russia to reciprocate. Either way, with widespread agreement that taking US land-based nuclear missiles off hair-trigger alert would significantly reduce the risk of an accidental or unauthorized launch, the time is now for the United States to lead by example, especially when the advantages are obvious and the disadvantages are negligible.
Accidents happen. Let’s make sure they aren’t nuclear.
Elliott Negin is a contributing writer for Catalyst.
We Can Reduce the Nuclear Threat
Investigative journalist Eric Schlosser documents
the history of accidents and near-misses in the US arsenal
Catalyst: You spent six years researching Command and Control. Given what you uncovered, how worried should we be about the possibility of a nuclear accident or inadvertent nuclear launch?
ES: I think the danger posed by the world’s nuclear arsenals is the single greatest national security threat we face. I’m not apocalyptic. I’m not predicting there’ll be a nuclear detonation tomorrow at 3 p.m. But there’s been remarkably little public discussion and attention paid to this issue considering what’s at stake.
Today I’m more worried about an unauthorized launch than an accidental detonation — something going wrong in the system itself so that a launch either happens by mistake or someone who shouldn’t have access to things gets access. It takes constant vigilance to make sure that doesn’t happen.
And, while the nuclear weapons we have today are much safer than the ones we had in the 1970s and 1980s, our nuclear infrastructure is also aging and a lot of the equipment is outdated. So accidents absolutely are possible. The probability is greater than zero. There’s no question about that.
Catalyst: The Union of Concerned Scientists is now calling for the United States to take its land-based nuclear missiles off hair-trigger alert. How helpful do you think this step would be for our safety here at home?
ES: I support the idea of taking our land-based missiles off of hair-trigger alert. Our land- based missiles are really only useful for attacking Russia. And to take them off of hair-trigger alert is to signal to Russia that we’re not going to have a first strike with our land-based missiles.
It would be great to see a similar effort on Russia’s part because there’s much more we can do in a partnership to reduce the danger. But I believe we need to do everything we can to prevent accidents with our nuclear arsenal and this seems like a sensible and important first step.
Catalyst: Back in the 1980s, a million people gathered in Central Park to call for a nuclear freeze. Why do you think the public seems to be paying such comparatively little attention to the subject now?
ES: The prospect of a nuclear war was a source of tremendous anxiety during the Cold War. And the collapse of the Soviet Union was so sudden and unexpected that I think everyone just breathed a sigh of relief. People started to believe that the danger ended with the end of the Cold War. And of course, the risk of nuclear war was greatly reduced.
The nuclear arsenals in the United States and in Russia have declined in size by about 80 or 90 percent. That’s terrific. But the danger never fully went away. The danger is still with us. And, unfortunately, I think people are pretty much in denial about it.
Catalyst: By explaining in detail how close we’ve come on a number of occasions to an accidental nuclear cataclysm, your book is a terrifying read. What has the reception been like since it was published?
ES: My aim with this book has been to provoke discussion about this issue. And I’m very gratified that there seems to have been a significant uptick in attention to the issue since the book was published. This is the first book I’ve written that seems to have been read by people in power — people in the Air Force, people at the weapons labs. And, to some extent, I think it is encouraging a discussion about the safety of our nuclear infrastructure and I’m very glad about that.
I’m also happy to be speaking about this with the Union of Concerned Scientists — an organization that has played an important leadership role on this issue for the past 40 years.
Catalyst: At UCS, we’re encouraging our members to get more involved and take action on the safety of our nuclear arsenal. What would you say to encourage them?
ES: Well, first of all, in the coming years, Congress will be discussing the modernization of our nuclear arsenal and infrastructure. Much of this debate will take place in secret with very little public input.
There will be some people proposing to spend about $1 trillion to upgrade our nuclear weapon capabilities. So I think it is vital to learn about these issues. People need to get involved, and this country needs a vigorous, informed public debate about this spending and its goals.
Today we are witnessing the beginning of an international discussion — a serious discussion — about the abolition of nuclear weapons. From a humanitarian perspective, these weapons do not discriminate between civilians and military targets. And there are many who are making the argument that nuclear weapons should be abolished on those grounds alone. You know, we banned land mines and chemical weapons and cluster munitions. A growing number of people are working toward the abolition of nuclear weapons as well.
The key point I want to make is that we can reduce the threat posed by our existing nuclear arsenals. There are all kinds of things we can do. Taking our land- based missiles off of hair-trigger alert is certainly one such thing. But, in order to meaningfully reduce the threat, we absolutely need to start talking about it — and stop living in denial.
Eric Schlosser explores nuclear weapons and the illusion of safety in his latest book Command and Control (Penguin 2013); he is also the author of the New York Times best sellers Fast Food Nation and Reefer Madness. His work has appeared in the Atlantic Monthly, New Yorker, and Rolling Stone, among other publications.
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