Hair-Raising Hair Triggers

Thousands of ready-to-fire U.S. and Russian nuclear weapons are susceptible to unauthorized launches by terrorists, who might either capture a missile or electronically hack into a missile launch-control system. This reality has gotten nearly zero attention in the press. And it gets worse. Cyber-terrorists might also succeed in fooling early-warning systems, inducing a false attack warning that increases the risk of a mistaken retaliatory launch. Although terrorism has dramatically intensified these perils, there has been no progress on nuclear "de-alerting" -- reducing the operational readiness of nuclear forces -- since the September 11 attacks.

Last May, Presidents George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin agreed to a treaty that would cut the number of missiles by more than half over a 10-year period. But they and the treaty ignored the issue of de-alerting.

Testifying at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on the treaty last July 23, retired Air Force Gen. Eugene Habiger, former commander in chief of the U.S. Strategic Command, warned, "There is only one thing that can destroy the United States of America today -- and that is Russian nuclear warheads." Former Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), now co-chairman of the Nuclear Threat Initiative, a private organization formed to raise public awareness about nuclear, biological and chemical weapons, told the committee that movement toward de-alerting "may well be more important to stability and security than the number of nuclear weapons."

That could be an understatement. Bruce G. Blair, the country's foremost authority on nuclear command-and-control, told me: "Not long ago, a super-secret Pentagon study found that cyber-terrorists could hack into the U.S. submarine communications network, electronically seize a coastal radio station used for communicating with Trident submarines and actually transmit a launch order to the Trident fleet. This loophole, or back-door access, was deemed so serious that the Trident crews were given completely new procedures for validating missile launch orders to ensure that they would not fire their weapons upon receipt of fake orders."

Blair served as a strategic command launch control officer for Minuteman intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), has a doctorate in operations research, studied the Russian military-industrial economy extensively, won a Russian Language Institute Fellowship at Yale University, taught security studies at Yale and Princeton, and spent 13 years as a Brookings senior fellow in foreign-policy studies. Since March 2000, he has led the Washington-based Center for Defense Information, which researches global security issues. Blair has had continuing contacts with Russian nuclear officers, active and retired. "They continue to express concern about spoofing of early warning and terrorist interference with nuclear command-and-control systems in Russia," he says.

More than a decade after the collapse of communism, the United States and Russia keep approximately 4,800 nuclear warheads -- weapons with a combined destructive power nearly 100,000 times greater than that of the atomic bomb that leveled Hiroshima, Japan -- on hair-trigger alert. The missiles carrying those warheads -- armed and fueled at all times -- "would launch on receipt of three computer-delivered messages," Blair told me. "The crews rely on early-warning systems that would detect incoming missiles within tens of seconds, causing the intended -- or accidental -- enemy to mount retaliatory strikes."

Of the 4,800 or so nuclear warheads, about 2,000 are on intercontinental ballistic missiles Russia targets at the United States, 1,800 are on ICBMs the United States targets at Russia and 1,000 are on submarine-based missiles the two nations target at each other.

Although candidate Bush (but not Al Gore) raised the issue during the 2000 presidential campaign, it has remained all but totally submerged. "[T]he United States should remove as many weapons as possible from high-alert, hair-trigger status -- another unnecessary vestige of Cold War confrontation," Bush declared on May 23, 2000, in a speech later reflected in the Republican Party's national platform. "Preparation for quick launch -- within minutes after warning of an attack -- was the rule during the era of superpower rivalry," he continued. "But today, for two nations at peace, keeping so many weapons on high alert may create unacceptable risks of accidental or unauthorized launch. So, as president, I will ask for an assessment of what we can safely do to lower the alert status of our forces."

This past May, two years plus one day after the campaign speech, Bush and Putin signed the Moscow Treaty on Strategic Offensive Reduction. But neither the text nor an accompanying joint statement addressed de-alerting. In agreeing to the treaty, the United States and Russia made only one legally binding commitment: to have a maximum of 1,700 to 2,200 warheads on "operationally deployed" launchers by Dec. 31, 2012. The numbers imply that a significant number of nuclear warheads will be taken off hair-trigger alert over a decade. But the silence of the two presidents and the treaty on de-alerting leaves crucial questions remote from public debate: How many hair-triggers would be removed, and how many would remain? On what schedule?

False alarms -- twice in Russia and twice in the United States during the Cold War -- have four times put the planet on the edge of destruction. Now the danger of a Russian launch at the United States is much greater than the reverse, chiefly because the Russian military is in increasing disrepair and thus vulnerable to false alarms.

In his Senate testimony, Nunn pointed to a growing possibility of Russia making a catastrophic mistake, citing its inability to afford keeping its nuclear submarines at sea or its land-based missiles mobile and invulnerable. "This reduces Russia's confidence that its nuclear weapons can survive a first strike," he said. Thus, "It is more likely to launch its nuclear missiles on warning, a warning that would come from a Russian warning system that is seriously eroded and, in my opinion, more prone to mistakes." For Nunn, the peril of the United States and Russia remaining in their Cold War recalled the feud between the Hatfields and the McCoys. He imagined "two families -- bitter former enemies, now declared friends -- that continued to have six high-powered, lethal automatic weapons, each loaded, ready to fire, finger on the trigger and aimed to kill. ... Imagine you were one of those neighbors and you wanted to defuse the danger, so you said to your counterpart: 'Let's reduce the number of weapons we have from six down to two ... 10 years from now. In the meantime, we will both keep our weapons loaded, ready to fire, with our fingers on the triggers.'"

Nunn urged Bush and Putin to "order their defense and military leaders, in joint consultation and collaboration ... to devise changes in the operational status of their nuclear forces [that] would reduce toward zero the risk of accidental launch or miscalculation and provide increased launch decision time for each president."

The whole issue of nuclear de-alerting has been all but ignored by major news organizations, including The Washington Post and The New York Times.

Candidate Bush's May 2000 speech on the danger of hair-trigger alert got little press attention. The press has been largely silent on the connection between the May 2002 Moscow treaty and the de-altering challenge. In July, the major dailies ignored Nunn's de-alerting pleas, and in September -- at the last of four treaty hearings called by Sen. Joseph R. Biden (D-Del.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee -- the press failed to report former Defense Secretary William J. Perry's testimony that the treaty "misses the opportunity to reduce the danger ... of an accidental or unauthorized launch."

Earlier this year, President Bush received the assessment, called a "nuclear posture review," that he had requested. It not only rejected de-alerting, but claimed that "U.S. forces are not on hair-trigger alert," says Blair, who saw a copy of the classified document. "It is the biggest misrepresentation of the U.S. nuclear posture since Clinton declared that U.S. and Russian missiles were no longer aimed at each other's country."

Now the Senate is in Republican hands. It's too early to say just when the Foreign Relations Committee will issue its report on the Moscow treaty, when the Senate will debate ratification, how de-altering will figure in either and whether these events will find leading news organizations asleep at the switch. It's also too early to say whether the possibility of a link between terrorism and ready-to-fire nuclear warheads will put the media on hair-trigger alert.

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