Two Minutes to Launch

The bitter disputes over national missile defense (NMD) have obscured a related but dramatically more urgent issue of national security: the 4,800 nuclear warheads--weapons with a combined destructive power nearly 100,000 times greater than the atomic bomb that leveled Hiroshima--currently on "hair-trigger" alert.

Hair-trigger alert means this: The missiles carrying those warheads are armed and fueled at all times. Two thousand or so of these warheads are on the intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) targeted by Russia at the United States; 1,800 are on the ICBMs targeted by the United States at Russia; and approximately 1,000 are on the submarine-based missiles targeted by the two nations at each other. These missiles would launch on receipt of three computer-delivered messages. Launch crews--on duty every second of every day--are under orders to send the messages on receipt of a single computer-delivered command. In no more than two minutes, if all went according to plan, Russia or the United States could launch missiles at predetermined targets: Washington or New York; Moscow or St. Petersburg. The early-warning systems on which the launch crews rely would detect the other side's missiles within tens of seconds, causing the intended--or accidental--enemy to mount retaliatory strikes. "Within a half-hour, there could be a nuclear war that would extinguish all of us," explains Bruce Blair. "It would be, basically, a nuclear war by checklist, by rote."

A Cold War Vestige

Blair is no wild-eyed Cassandra. In fact, he is perhaps the country's foremost authority on nuclear command-and-control. (After serving as a Minuteman ICBM launch control officer and as a support officer for Strategic Command, he spent 13 years as a Brookings Institution senior fellow in the foreign-policy-studies program, and since last March has been president of the Center for Defense Information.) And Blair believes that the single most important thing the United States can do to reduce the risk of a nuclear launch toward us is to get the Russians to remove the hair-trigger alert on their missiles: We need, says Blair, to get the Russians to extend the time to launch from "minutes to weeks or even months." But, of course, the Russians will not agree to de-alert their missiles unless we agree to de-alert ours. Which is "why the United States and Russia must jointly undertake de-alerting," Blair says.

The road to a safer planet seems clear: mutual de-alerting. Yet de-alerting policy never won official favor in Washington during the Clinton administration. Al Gore could have talked about it during his campaign, but he never did. And aside from three leading Democrats (Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, and former Senators Bob Kerrey and Sam Nunn, who was chairman of the Armed Services Committee) and one Republican (Senator Richard G. Lugar, Nunn's ally on the Foreign Relations Committee), few legislators supported de-alerting.

In surprising contrast, President George W. Bush has said he does favor it. He signaled his support for de-alerting in a major speech on May 23, 2000, during his presidential campaign. "The United States should remove as many weapons as possible from high-alert, hair-trigger status--another unnecessary vestige of Cold War confrontation," he declared. "As president, I will ask for an assessment of what we can safely do to lower the alert status of our forces."

In the same speech, unfortunately, Bush also embraced national missile defense. This surprised no one, yet the media's coverage of the speech focused almost exclusively on Bush's endorsement of NMD. Even when the Republican Party platform subsequently seconded Bush's endorsement of de-alerting, the mainstream press paid little attention.

Bush's support of de-alerting was remarkable because it implicitly repudiated the long-standing position of Republicans on Capitol Hill. Despite Senator Kerrey's best efforts, Republican congressional majorities--who were motivated, Blair says, more by hatred of Bill Clinton than by substantive policy-based opposition--wrote into the 1996 National Defense Authorization Act a prohibition on President Clinton's undertaking any effort to de-alert our missiles. Renewed annually since 1996, the prohibition on de-alerting "interferes with the right of a commander-in-chief to make decisions regarding the readiness of the armed forces," Blair says, and is consequently at least arguably unconstitutional.

Who's Minding the Nuclear Store?

How did the Republican majority in Congress get away with erasing the president's ability to reduce the risk of nuclear Armageddon, without eliciting an audible peep of protest from editorial pages and concerned citizens? The media's complacency on these issues helps explain why, for example, you're probably not aware of this fact: Four times in the last 20 years the planet has been on the razor's edge of catastrophe--closer to nuclear oblivion, in terms of minutes-to-disaster, than during the Cuban missile crisis [see "Close Calls" on page 27].

Although we have equivalent numbers of missiles pointed at each other, the danger of a launch from Russia at the United States is much greater than the reverse, chiefly because the Russian military is in grave disrepair. Their ground radar and related early-warning facilities are "wearing out and increasingly susceptible to false alarms," according to Blair. The training the Russian military provides to those who work at those facilities and operate nuclear weapons is at a level the U.S. military would not tolerate. The Russian nuclear staff is poor and hungry: 80 percent of its strategic rocket forces live below the poverty line (compared with 50 percent of the population as a whole). When the Russian nuclear submarine Kursk sank last summer, the Russian defense minister himself intensified concerns about the disintegrating military, declaring on national television that the armed forces of the once-powerful Soviet empire had been "robbed and stripped in the last decade and were operating on half the budget required."

For many decades, most Americans assumed that someone was ensuring the safety of their medicines. Then, in 1962, they learned that the Food and Drug Administration had come extremely close to approving the marketing of thalidomide, a sedative/tranquilizer that turned out to have caused birth defects in thousands of babies in other countries.

Americans incline toward a similar but even more optimistic assumption about the control of nuclear weapons in an emergency: There must be a careful, deliberative process in place to protect us. Alas, that's not the case. On receiving a report of a Russian nuclear attack, perhaps in the middle of the night, our commander-in-chief must decide whether the report is true or false and whether to order a retaliatory strike. And he must do this in mere minutes, bearing in mind that a single warhead--from either side--could destroy any large city. "Even if such reports turn out in the end to be false alarms, they powerfully bias the president to launch our missiles before missiles possibly aimed at us hit," Blair said. "It's easy to see our leaders being swept away in all of this... . We should worry even more about the behavior of Russian leaders awakened in the middle of the night."

The Case for De-Alerting

Blair, in a speech at the Aspen Institute in July, and in subsequent interviews with me, explained the benefits of serious de-alerting negotiations:

1. By precluding an unauthorized launch or a mistaken launch even on strong warning of an incoming missile, the United States and Russia would buy a huge margin of safety for themselves.

2. By creating an international norm of operational safety for nuclear weapons, the United States and Russia would be saying to the world that no country should have or strive to have nuclear weapons on hair-trigger alert. The norm would most urgently affect India and Pakistan, where the great issue is no longer nuclear proliferation but the desire to follow in the footsteps of U.S. hair-trigger-alert procedures.

3. The United States and Russia would strengthen and validate their appeal to other nations to sign the nuclear nonproliferation treaty.

4. Extensive de-alerting would be a major step toward the abolition of nuclear weapons everywhere. De-alerted missiles would be put in storage, and military planners could write them off. This would make it much easier to get rid of them altogether, because of the time needed to remove the missiles from storage and put them on hair-trigger alert. It takes days or weeks for a few to be reactivated, but about three years to reconstitute the warheads for the entire arsenal.

Currently, however, the United States spends tens of billions of dollars annually to maintain a nuclear arsenal sufficient to destroy every major city in the world 10 times over. In fact, reducing our stockpile to the point where it could destroy those cities only four times over would save $15 billion a year, according to John J. Shanahan, a retired U.S. Navy vice admiral who once commanded nuclear weapons and who now speaks on these matters on behalf of Business Leaders for Sensible Priorities. The U.S. military could withstand even deeper cuts and still be capable of mass destruction if it chose: A single Trident sub on alert, carrying 150 warheads, could kill 40 million Russians.

At the end of the Cold War, the total number of nuclear warheads in the United States and the Soviet Union had peaked at about 24,000. Under START I--signed in 1991, with a 15-year duration--the number deployed has fallen to 6,000 each (this counts each bomber as carrying only a single warhead; in fact, bombers carry about 20 warheads each), plus several thousand warheads in reserve.

The Senate approved ratification of START II in 1996--and the Russian Duma approved it last April--but it has yet to go into effect. Once it does, it will reduce U.S. and Russian arsenals to 3,000-3,500 deployed nuclear warheads each. The Pentagon says it could go no lower than 2,500 weapons absent "presidential guidance." According to the brass, this is because it may require 2,500 weapons to destroy the 2,300 Russian sites that U.S. missiles are currently poised to strike.

To his credit, in his May 23 speech Bush declared even the projected START II arsenals to be excessive. "The premises of Cold War nuclear targeting should no longer dictate the size of our arsenal," he said. "It should be possible to reduce the number of American nuclear weapons significantly further than what has been agreed to under START II." The GOP platform concurred: "We can safely eliminate thousands more of these horrific weapons." One problem, however, is that the same law that prevented President Clinton from de-alerting also prevents President Bush from reducing the number of U.S. strategic nuclear warheads. Bush needs to make the case to his fellow Republicans in Congress that it is of utmost importance to reduce the size of our nuclear arsenal and to de-alert our missiles. Given the hawkish proclivities of many GOP lawmakers, this won't be easy.

Bush's Choice

But national missile defense is the wild card in Bush's deck. In the May 23 speech and since then, Bush and his national security advisers, particularly Condoleezza Rice, have linked de-alerting and the reduction of the U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals to NMD. This raises some questions: Is the Bush administration using NMD as a bargaining chip for achieving de-alerting and the reduction of nuclear arsenals? Or is the administration gambling that Russia will decline to de-alert, which would justify the construction of an NMD program that is weak, wasteful, and needlessly provocative?

The basic criticisms of NMD are fairly familiar by now. First, the basic argument for NMD--that it's needed to intercept nuclear missiles launched not from China or Russia but from North Korea--has all but evaporated with the d├ętente between North and South Korea.

Second, numerous qualified experts, military as well as civilian, say NMD can't work, or doubt it can be made to work, or predict that by the time it could be made to work, enemies would have developed decoys and other ways to circumvent it. (Some experts allege skullduggery in NMD testing and say that concealment of test results should cast doubt on the system's feasibility.) Third, NMD would be impotent against nonmissile modes of attack. "A nuclear bomb that could easily wipe out Manhattan and kill 100,000 people is a ball of plutonium weighing about 15 pounds," Blair points out. "It is a little bigger than a softball. One such bomb could be carried into the United States in a suitcase. And if one could, many could."

Fourth, Chinese and Russian leaders, as well as many Americans, assert that NMD violates the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, of which the United States and the Soviet Union were the original signatories, and therefore threatens to destabilize relations among the major powers and set off a new arms race. (According to The New York Times, a highly classified U.S. intelligence report has warned that deploying NMD could "prompt China to expand its nuclear arsenal tenfold and lead Russia to place multiple warheads on ballistic missiles that now carry only one.") Finally, NMD would waste a projected $60 billion--primarily on campaign-contributing military contractors--that could otherwise be spent on such pressing needs as health care, affordable housing, and education.

But NMD is a bargaining chip for George W. Bush because, with Russia's economy and military in tatters, its leaders openly seek drastic cuts in the costs of maintaining immense strategic forces. Allowing the United States to construct a missile defense system might be a face-saving way for them to achieve those cuts. "Unwilling to wait for a declared winner in the American presidential race, the Kremlin has mounted a diplomatic offensive to advertise its desire to make deep cuts in the nuclear arsenals of Russia and America as soon as possible after a new president takes office," The New York Times reported on November 14. The day before, President Vladimir Putin had said he was prepared "'to consider even lower levels' than the 1,500 warheads presented ... at the outset of negotiations for a Start III agreement." And in an obviously coordinated statement the same day, the commander of Russia's strategic rocket forces, General Vladimir N. Yakolev, said that "Russia should make a new deal with Washington: trading any American buildup in missile defenses for deeper cuts--perhaps deeper than Russia's cuts--in nuclear weapons." In other words, according to Blair, the United States could make deep cuts in its large strategic nuclear arsenal in exchange for the right to build a missile defense system. Russia would get to save some money by making defense cuts but would retain numerical parity with--or maybe an advantage over--the United States in terms of the size of its arsenal.

Suppose that all the bad things said about NMD are true--that it's irrational, fraudulent, futile, wasteful, disruptive of U.S.-China relations, and likely to trigger a new arms race. And suppose also that the disastrous and worsening condition of the Russian military poses a real, substantial threat. Should the United States, under those circumstances, move forward with NMD in exchange for the de-alerting and shrinking of the U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals? The logical conclusion would seem to be yes: Building a missile defense system might be dangerous--because it fails to shoot down missiles and, more significantly, because it is a needless provocation to potential adversaries--but retaining thousands of missiles on hairtrigger alert is still more dangerous.

There's a problem, however. President Putin has been sharpening his rhetoric in opposition to NMD, increasing the possibility that de-alerting and the reduction of the two countries' nuclear arsenals can be achieved only if the United States forgoes its missile defense plan. Moreover, the law enacted by Bush's vociferous pro-NMD allies to prevent President Clinton from de-alerting or reducing our nuclear arsenal also limits the new president's ability to use NMD as a bargaining chip for strategic arms reduction.

If there is a stark choice between de-alerting and NMD, then Bush should choose dealerting. But given his past rhetoric--he has publicly, repeatedly, and unequivocally supported NMD--and the hard-line advocacy for NMD by his vice president, secretary of defense, and secretary of state, Bush would probably choose to move forward with missile defense at the expense of de-alerting. A few months ago--before Bush had picked his foreign policy team--the best hope for de-alerting appeared to be that the new president would be presented with a choice between (a) not de-alerting and (b) de-alerting in exchange for arsenal cuts and construction of a missile defense system. Selecting option B might have sent us down the dubious path of NMD--but at least it would have gotten more missiles off hair-trigger alert.

Unfortunately, Putin's recent rhetoric suggests that Russia might not accept option B--the implication being that if missile defense goes forward in the United States, de-alerting will not occur in Russia. In that case, we're left with a dismal prospect: President Bush having to choose between de-alerting or NMD. And he may very well choose to spend billions on a shield that is unlikely to protect us from the thousands of missiles that will still be on hair-trigger alert.

But there may yet be reason for optimism. Several weeks ago, de-alerting was given an unexpected boost when Sam Nunn and media mogul Ted Turner unveiled the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI), a Washington-based nonprofit to which Turner pledged $250 million over the next five years. Nunn and Turner will co-chair the NTI, with Nunn to serve as its chief executive. With thousands of nuclear weapons on "high alert," an accidental exchange is "not out of the question," Turner told The Washington Post, adding that nuclear weapons still constitute "the greatest threat humanity faces." And Nunn challenged President Bush to re-examine our basic nuclear posture. NTI is a step in the right direction, and it's particularly encouraging that its 11-member board of directors includes two senior Republican senators, Richard Lugar and New Mexico's Pete Domenici, as well as Andrei Kokoshin, Russia's former first deputy defense minister and a current member of its parliament. Let's hope this group can exert influence quickly enough that our new president makes de-alerting a top priority--and not something to be thrown aside in favor of missile defense.