For Our Survival


Radiation reassessed

Missile defense, once again.


Destroyed ICBM Silo in Ukraine.

Courtesy Department of Defense's Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) program.


About one hour after the bombing of Hiroshima on 6 August 1945.

© U.S. Army.

Removing the hair-trigger -- Time to put the deep-freeze on Cold-War weapons?
7 MAY 1999. Washington is in a furor over the alleged theft of millions of lines of computer code from Los Alamos National Laboratory by a Chinese scientist.

These codes are the "distillation of 50 years of research" into nuclear bombs, says weapons-proliferation expert Gary Milhollin. He notes that if the codes indeed reached China, they will run on supercomputers China legally bought from the United States.

As the recent Indian and Pakistani nuclear tests prove, nuclear weapons are indeed proliferating. But some observers warn that the familiar weapons of the Cold War could still cause a cataclysm. Did the possibility of nuclear war end when the Berlin wall was wrecked?
A decade after the Cold War ended, despite minor gestures toward retargetting, U.S. and Russian missiles can still be launched on a few minutes notice. Each side has about 2,500 strategic warheads in operational condition, says Arjun Makhijani, director of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, a think-tank and advocacy organization in Takoma Park, Md.

The Cold War is over, the Soviet Union has imploded, and the Red Army could not conquer Chechnya, let alone Western Europe. Yet the United States and Russia both maintain forces on high alert -- able, as they have been for decades, to "launch on warning" -- in other words, while the enemy's missiles are still in flight.

Catastrophic mistakes could occur during the 15 minutes of warning time. In 1995, Russia may have come within a few minutes of launching a nuclear counterattack after it interpreted the launch of a scientific rocket from Norway as a first strike on Moscow. Fortunately, although advance notice of the scientific launching had not reached Russian commanders, the country's nuclear controls still worked. There are conflicting reports over whether the Russian nuclear force was put on alert for a possible launching.

That close call raises a question: Would making it more difficult to launch nuclear missiles reduce the danger of accidental nuclear war?

Nobody knows the true likelihood of an accidental war, but the continuing deterioration of the Russian technical and administrative structure means that some type of nuclear disaster could be just a matter of time. To date, much of the concern has focused on the possible transfer of nuclear weapons, expertise or materials to an unpredictable, hostile regime like Iraq, or to a terrorist organization.

Cataclysmic chaos?
But chaos also raises the chance of an accidental launch of nuclear weapons by an uneasy Russia dependent on decaying warning satellites, radars and computers. "The saga of the Mir space station bears witness to the problems of aging Russian technical systems," wrote a group of doctors in 1998 (see "Accidental Nuclear War..." below). These authors quote the former Russian Defense Minister, Igor Rodionov, as saying in 1997, "No one can guarantee the reliability of our control systems ... Russia might soon reach the threshold beyond which its rockets and nuclear systems cannot be controlled."

The chaos in Russia does not just concern equipment, says Makhijani, but "also judgment and training." Military and nuclear personnel go unpaid for months at time, and often "are off doing something else."

Removing the hair-trigger, or "de-alerting," describes anything that would delay the launch of missiles and allow more time for interpreting the situation. Possible steps include blocking switches in rocket motors, putting warheads in safe storage, and deactivating the mechanism that pops open missile silo covers, so a crane would be needed to open the silo.

Destroyed ICBM Silo in Ukraine.
Each of these steps would be reversible, showing how de-alerting offers something to everybody. To advocates of further nuclear-weapons cuts, de-alerting is a tentative step toward that more ambitious goal. Yet it keeps the nuclear weapons intact, satisfying those who want to retain a retaliatory force. That explains why de-alerting has attracted attention of such establishment figures as former Sen. Sam Nunn, who once headed the Senate Armed Services Committee. (The Nunn-Lugar program is trying to stabilize nukes in the former Soviet Union.)

Makhijani, who urges citizens to contact their government during national "call-in days" for de-alerting, May 13 and 14, notes that the biggest de-alerter in U.S. history was President George Bush, who removed weapons from forward bases and reduced the general alertness of strategic forces during the abortive coup in the Soviet Union in 1991.

As that action demonstrates, de-alerting may not require formal arms-control talks between the United States and Russia, which have stalled after making significant progress. Over the past decade or so, thousands of US and Russian warheads have been disassembled. Tactical weapons have been removed from Europe, nukes have been removed from surface ships, and rockets have been crushed.

Makhijani says that given the perilous condition of Russian forces, the wisdom of avoiding harassing a confused, heavily-armed adversary, is equally relevant today. With so many weapons remaining operational, he says a "world-destroying" accidental nuclear war could conceivably involve thousands of weapons. About one hour after the bombing of Hiroshima on 6 August 1945.
Milhollin, director of the Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control in Washington, says de-alerting is a good idea that would "reduce the chance that some government employee could start World War III." But he thinks the chance of accidental war has fallen since the Cold War. Even if a lower-level Russian mistakenly detected a launch, he says, at the political level, "No one could imagine Bill Clinton with the blood of 50 million Russians on his hands."

To Makhijani, lengthening the fuse on nuclear weapons represents "a battle for pure physical survival. I believe the political leadership is not being responsible, has lost the survival instinct. De-alerting is not about disarmament, about a peaceful world -- it could be about that, but you don't have to be for peace or justice. You just have to be for survival."

--David Tenenbaum


The Why Files Former CIA director Stansfield Turner calls keeping nukes on high alert absolutely insane.

Accidental Nuclear War -- A Post-Cold War Assessment, Lachlan Forrow et al, The New England Journal of Medicine, April 30, 1998, pp. 1326-31.

Taking Nuclear Weapons off Hair-Trigger Alert, Bruce Blair et al, Scientific American, November, 1997, pp. 74-81.

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