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The Growing Nuclear Danger


The United States possesses an enormous nuclear arsenal, left over from the days of the cold war. We have about 6,000 operationally deployed nuclear weapons,1 of which roughly 2,000 are on intercontinental ballistic missiles, 3,500 on submarine-launched ballistic missiles, and a few hundred carried by bomber aircraft. These are thermonuclear weapons, considerably more powerful than the fission bombs that devastated Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Looking over these figures, one can hardly help asking, what are all these nuclear weapons for?

There was a rationale for maintaining a very large nuclear arsenal during the cold war: we had to be sure that the Soviets would be deterred from a surprise attack on the US by their certainty that enough of our arsenal would survive any such attack to allow us to deliver a devastating response. I don’t say that US strategic requirements were actually calculated in this way, but the need for such a deterrent at least provided a rational argument for a large arsenal.

This rationale for a large nuclear arsenal is now obsolete. No country in the world could threaten our submarine-based deterrent, and even with an implausibly rapid development of nuclear weapons and missiles, for decades to come no country except Russia will be able to threaten more than a tiny fraction of our land-based deterrent.

Russia maintains a nuclear arsenal of a size similar to ours, though with a different mix of delivery vehicles. On May 24, 2002, Presidents Bush and Putin signed a treaty calling for a reduction in operationally deployed nuclear weapons on both sides to about 3,800 in 2007 and to about 1,700 to 2,200 in 2012. This treaty will almost certainly be ratified by the Senate; Democrats will generally be glad of any reduction in nuclear arms, and few Republicans will want to oppose President Bush on a matter of foreign relations. President Bush has said, “This treaty will liquidate the legacy of the cold war.” But any celebration would be premature, for there is far less to this treaty than meets the eye.

For one thing, the rate of reduction is painfully slow. The START III agreement that was announced (though not signed or ratified) by Presidents Clinton and Yeltsin called for a reduction to about 2,000 to 2,500 “strategically deployed” nuclear weapons by 2007, not by the 2012 deadline of the Bush– Putin treaty. (The term “strategically deployed” differs from “operationally deployed” in including all weapons that are associated with delivery systems, whether or not they are actually ready to fire. Thus for instance the nuclear warheads of missiles on a submarine in dry-dock would be included on the list of strategically deployed weapons but not of operationally deployed weapons. When this difference is taken into account, the limit of 2,000 to 2,500 strategically deployed weapons in 2007 set by the START III agreement is the same as the limit of 1,700 to 2,200 operationally deployed nuclear missiles in 2012 set by the Bush–Putin treaty.) The treaty is highly reversible; either party can withdraw with forty-five days’ notice, and unless renewed the treaty will expire in 2012. Also, unlike former arms control agreements, the Bush–Putin treaty would not call for the destruction of missiles or bombers, only for the removal of their nuclear warheads or bombs.

Most important, the Bush administration has turned back Russian efforts to require in this treaty that the nuclear weapons withdrawn from deployed missiles and bombers should be destroyed. The Defense Department’s plans for nuclear weapons have been laid out in a classified Nuclear Posture Review,2 dated January 9, 2002, of which large sections were leaked a few months later to the press.3 The plans laid out in this review call for the retention of about 7,000 intact warheads that are not operationally deployed, not to mention a large number of plutonium “pits” (the fission bomb that triggers a thermonuclear explosion) and other weapon components. Of course, the treaty does not call for the destruction of demobilized Russian nuclear weapons either, and it does not constrain Russian nuclear tactical weapons, so it actually increases the danger that some Russian weapons could fall into the hands of rogue states or terrorists. This treaty is not designed to “liquidate the legacy of the cold war,” as President Bush claims, but to hold on to as much of that legacy as possible. Even taking into account the reductions called for by the Bush–Putin treaty, we are left still wondering what all these nuclear weapons are for.

There is one possible use of a large American nuclear arsenal: to launch a preemptive attack against Russian strategic weapons. I say “Russian,” because the large size of our arsenal would be irrelevant for a preemptive attack against any other power. If we ever found that a hostile “rogue” state were about to deploy a few dozen nuclear-armed ICBMs, and if we could locate them, then they could be destroyed by only a tiny fraction of our nuclear arsenal, and in fact even by conventionally armed cruise missiles. On the other hand, even though we were unable to neutralize the Soviet deterrent during the cold war, now as Russian nuclear forces become increasingly immobile, with their missile-launching submarines tied up at dockside and their land-based mobile ICBMs kept in fixed garrisons, our large nuclear arsenal may put Russian nuclear forces at risk of being destroyed by a preemptive US strike. In the letter of transmittal of the Nuclear Posture Review to Congress, Secretary Rumsfeld said that “the US will no longer plan, size, or sustain its forces as though Russia presented merely a smaller version of the threat posed by the former Soviet Union.” But that appears to be just what we are doing.

It might seem that the ability to launch a preemptive strike against Russian strategic nuclear forces is a good one to have, but in fact it poses enormous dangers, and to us as well as to Russia. The Russians can count missiles as well as we can, and as “prudent” defense planners they are likely to rate our chances of a successful preemptive attack more highly than we would. Even though they may understand that the US now has no plans for such a preemptive attack, they are bound to consider the possibility that this could change if relations between Russia and the US sour in future. This possibility is likely to seem more probable if the US proceeds with a national missile defense, which might be perceived to have some effectiveness against a ragged Russian second strike, or if we follow the recommendation of the Nuclear Posture Review that the US should develop real-time intelligence capabilities of a sort that would allow us to target even mobile Russian missiles on the road.

The danger is not that the Russians will get angry with us, or plan to attack us. The danger is that they will quietly adopt a cheap and easy defense against a preemptive American attack, by keeping their forces on a hair-trigger alert. This presents the US with the threat of a large-scale Russian attack by mistake during some future crisis; for instance, the Russians may receive misleading warnings of an imminent American attack and launch their own nuclear weapons before they can be destroyed on the ground. (According to Russian sources, it now takes fifteen seconds for the Russians to target their ICBMs, and then two to three minutes to carry out the launch.) This danger is exacerbated by the gradual decay of Russia’s capabilities for surveillance of possible attacks and control of their own forces, a decay that has already led them on one occasion to mistake a Norwegian research rocket for an offensive missile launched from an American submarine in the Norwegian sea.4

For those who may think that this is a paranoid worry, perhaps left over from cold war movies like Fail Safe or Dr. Strangelove, it is instructive to look back at mistakes made by American strategic forces during the Cuban missile crisis, the most dangerous crisis of the cold war5:

(1) On August 23, 1962, a navigational error led a B-52 bomber on airborne alert—i.e., ready to retaliate if the US were attacked—which was supposed to be on a nonprovocative course heading over the Arctic Ocean toward Alaska, to head instead directly toward the Soviet Union. Its error was noticed when the bomber was only three hundred miles away from Soviet airspace. Despite this incident, and the well-known difficulties of navigation above the Arctic Circle, the routes of US bombers on airborne alert were not changed for months, not until after the October missile crisis. Luckily no similar navigational errors were made by our bombers during the missile crisis.

(2) On October 26, 1962, when US and Soviet forces were already at a heightened state of alert, an intercontinental ballistic missile was launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base, as part of a test program that no one had thought to cancel. We do not know if the Soviets detected this launch, but they might have.

(3) The Cuban missile crisis happened to come at a time when new Minuteman I missiles were being installed at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana. In order to get these missiles ready for possible launch, Air Force and contractor personnel apparently bypassed safeguards that had been designed to prevent a launch by a single officer. Fortunately no officer decided to launch the missiles under his control.

We don’t know what mistakes may have been made on the Soviet side. Whatever mistakes were made on either side did not lead to war, but this was evidently not because national leaders are able to completely control their forces under crisis conditions. As President Kennedy said during the Cuban missile crisis, “There is always some son-of-a-bitch who doesn’t get the word.”

Even though the threat of a large Russian mistaken attack is not acute, it is chronic. It is also the only threat we face that could destroy our country beyond our ability to recover. Compared with this threat, all other concerns about terrorism or rogue countries shrink into insignificance.

This brings me to the one real value of our large nuclear arsenal: we can trade away most of our arsenal for corresponding cuts in Russian forces. I don’t mean cuts to about two thousand deployed weapons, but to not more than a few hundred deployed weapons on each side, and with each side having not more than a thousand nuclear weapons of all sorts, including those in various reserves, as called for by a 1997 report of the Committee on International Security and Arms Control of the National Academy of Sciences.6 In that way, although the danger of a mistaken Russian launch would not be eliminated, the stakes would be millions or tens of millions of casualties, not hundreds of millions.

  1. 1

    The term “operationally deployed” refers to nuclear warheads that are installed on missiles ready to be fired plus bombs that are ready to be loaded on bombers in service.

  2. 2

    Nuclear Posture Reviews are reports on US nuclear capabilities and plans requested by Congress from the Department of Defense. There have been just two of these reviews; the first was prepared during the Clinton administration. This article is based on my testimony at hearings on the latest Nuclear Posture Review held by the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, May 16, 2002.

  3. 3

    The contents of the Nuclear Posture Review were first reported by William Arkin in the Los Angeles Times on March 10, 2002. The leaked version is available at www.globalsecurity.org/wmd/library/policy/dod/npr.htm. There is also an unclassified briefing on the Nuclear Posture Review by J.D. Crouch, assistant secretary of defense for international security policy, available at www.defenselink.mil/news/Jan- 2002/t01092002_t0109npr.html.

  4. 4

    Apparently the Russians were informed in advance of the launch, but somehow this notice did not reach their strategic control center.

  5. 5

    These examples are taken from Scott Sagan, The Limits of Safety: Organizations, Accidents, and Nuclear Weapons (Princeton University Press, 1993).

  6. 6

    The Future of US Nuclear Weapons Policy” (National Academy Press, 1997). More recently, a statement by Hans Bethe, Richard Garwin, Marvin Goldberger, Kurt Gottfried, Walter Kohn, and myself has called for an accelerating reduction of our nuclear arsenal and other steps to improve our security; see www.ucsusa.org.

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