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Nuclear warhead tests, such as this 1951 test in Nevada may be replaced with supercomputer simulations.

Taking Nuclear Weapons off Hair-Trigger Alert

Bruce Blair, Harold Feiveson, Fran von Hippel Scientific American Nov 97

In January 25, 1995, military technicians at a handful of kiradar stations across northern Russia saw a troubling blip suddenly appear on their screens. A rocket, launched from somewhere off the coast of Norway, was rising rapidly through the night sky. Well aware that a single missile from a U.S. submarine plying those waters could scatter eight nuclear bombs over Moscow within 15 minutes, the radar operators immediately alerted their superiors. The message passed swiftly from Russian military authorities to President Boris Yeltsin, who, holding the electronic case that could order the firing of nuclear missiles in response, hurriedly conferred by telephone with his top advisers. For the first time ever, that "nuclear briefcase" was activated for emergency use. For a few tense minutes, the trajectory of the mysterious rocket remained unknown to the worried Russian officials. Anxiety mounted when the separation of multiple rocket stages created an impression of a possible attack by several missiles. But the radar crews continued to track their targets, and after about eight minutes (just a few minutes short of the procedural deadline to respond to an impending nuclear attack), senior military officers determined that the rocket was headed far out to sea and posed no threat to Russia. The unidentified rocket in this case turned out to be a U.S. scientific probe, sent up to investigate the northern lights.

Weeks earlier the Norwegians had duly informed Russian authorities of the planned launch from the offshore island of Aiidoya, but somehow word of the high-altitude experiment had not reached the right ears. That frightening incident (like some previous false alarms that activated U.S. strategic forces) aptly demonstrates the danger of maintaining nuclear arsenals in a state of hair-trigger alert. Doing so licightens the possibility that one day someone will mistakenly launch nuclear-tipped missiles, either because of a technical failure or a human error-a mistake made, perhaps, in the rush to respond to false indications of an attack.

Both the U.S. and Russian military have long instituted procedures to prevent such a calamity from happening. Designers of command systems in Russia have gone to extraordinary lengths to ensure strict central control over nuclear weapons. But their equipment is not foolproof, and Russia's early-warning and nuclear command systems are deteriorating. This past February the institute responsible for designing the sophisticated control systems for the Strategic Rocket Forces (the military unit that operates Russian intercontinental ballistic missiles) staged a one-day strike to protest pay arrears and the lack of resources to upgrade their equipment. Three days later Russia's defense minister, Igor Rodionov, asserted that "if the shortage of funds persists ... Russia may soon approach a threshold beyond which its missiles and nuclear systems become uncontrollable.11

Rodionov's warning may have been, in part, a maneuver to muster political support for greater defense spending. But recent reports by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency confirm that Russia's Strategic Rocket Forces have indeed fallen on hard times. Local utility managers have repeatedly shut off the power to various nuclear weapons installations after the military authorities there failed to pay their electric bills. Worse yet, the equipment that controls nuclear weapons frequently malfunctions, and critical electronic devices and computers sometimes switch to a combat mode for no apparent reason.

On seven occasions during the fall of 1996, operations at some nuclear weapons centers were severely disrupted when thieves tried to "mine" critical communications cables for their copper. Many of the radars constructed by the former Soviet Union to detect a ballistic-missile attack no longer operate, so information provided by these installations is becoming increasingly unreliable. Even the nuclear suitcases that accompany the president, defense minister and chief of the General Staff are reportedly falling into disrepair. In short, the systems built to control Russian nuclear weapons are now crumbling. In addition to these many technical difficulties, Russia's nuclear weapons establishment suffers from a host of human and organizational problems. Crews receive less training than they did formerly and are consequently less proficient in the safe handling of nuclear weapons. And despite President Yeltsin's promises to improve conditions, ndemic housing and food shortages ave led to demoralization and disafection within the elite Strategic Rocket forces, the strategic submarine fleet and the custodians of Russia's stockpiles of nuclear warheads. As a result, the likelihood increases that desperate low-level commanders might disregard safety rules or, worse still, that they might take unauthorized control of nuclear weapons-something a deteriorating central command might be unable to prevent or counter. Although most Russian launch crews would need to receive special codes held by the General Staff before @hey could fire their missiles, one recent CIA report warned that some submarine crews may be able to' launch the ballistic missiles on board their vessels without having to obtain such information first. Even at the topr, control over nuclear weapons could splinter along various political fault lines. Relations between politicians and military leaders in Russia are strained, and physical control of the launch codes remains in the hands of the military. Thus, the authority to fire ballistic missiles 'could be usurped by military commanders during an internal crisis. In fact, during the August 1991 coup against President Mikhail S. Gorbachev, top-level allegiances suddenly shifted, and the normal chain of command for Russia's nuclear weapons was broken. For three days, the power to launch nuclear weapons rested in the hands of Defense Minister Dmitri Yazov and the chief of the General Staff, Mikhail Moiseyev. Given the dire conditions in Russia, something similar could happen again.

STRATEGIC MISSILE TOTALS for the U.S. and Russia should shrink over the next decade in compliance with the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaties (START). Still, each country could hold from 500 to 1,000 warheads ready to fire under these agreements. (Shaded bars indicate the number of warheads kept on constant alert.)

The Nuclear Hair Trigger

Although international relations have changed drastically since the end of the cold war, both Russia and the U.S. continue to keep the bulk of their nuclear missiles on high-level alert. So within just a few minutes of receiving instructions to fire, a large fraction of the U.S. and Russian land-based rockets (which are armed with about 2,000 and 3,500 warheads, respectively) could begin their 25-minute flights over the North Pole to their wartime targets.

Less than 15 minutes after receiving the order to attack, six U.S. Trident submarines at sea could loft roughly 1,000 warheads, and several Russian ballisticmissile submarines could dispatch between 300 and 400. In sum, the two nuclear superpowers remain ready to fire a total of inore than 5,000 nuclear weapons at each other within half an hour. Why do two countries at peace retain such aggressive postures, ones that perpetuate the danger of a mistaken or unauthorized launch? Because military planners on both sides remain fixated on the remote specter of a deliberate nuclear surprise attack from their former adversary. They assume that such a "first strike" would be alined against their own strategic nuclear weapons and the command centers that direct them. To deter such an assault, each country strives to ensure that it could respond with a forceful counterattack against the full spectrum 'of military targets on its opponent's territory, including all nuclear weapons installations. This requirement saddles military planners with a task virtually identical in scope to mounting a first strike: they must be able to guarantee the rapid destruction of thousands of targets spread across a distant continent. In order to meet this demand, both the U.S. and Russia rely on a launch-on-warning strategy-that is, each side is poised to release a massive retaliatory missile salvo after detecting an enemy niissile attack but before the incoming warheads arrive (which alight take just 15 minutes if they were fired from submarines nearby). Although it has thousands of warheads securely deployed at sea, the U.S. adheres to this quick-draw stance because of the vulnerability of its missile silos and command apparatus, including its political and military leadership in Washington, D.C. Russian officials perceive an even greater need to launch their missiles on warning. The General Staff evidently fears that if its nuclear missiles are not launched immediately, tticii only tens of them would be able to respond after absorbing a systematic U.S. attack. Russian command posts and missile silos are as vulnerable as those of the U.S. to a massive assault. Russia's current inability to deploy many of its most survivable forces submarines at sea and mobile land-based rockets-amplifies this worry.

A lack of resources and qualified personnel has forced the Russian navy to cut back operations considerably. At present, the Russian navy typically keeps only two of its 26 ballistic missile submarines at sea on combat patrol at any one time. Similar constraints prevent Russia from hiding more than one or two regiments of its truck-mounted mobile missiles by dispersing them in the field. The remaining 40 or so regiments, each controlling nine single-warhead missiles, keep their trucks parked in garages. These missiles are more exposed to attack than those housed in underground silos. Russia also has 36 1O-warhead nuclear missiles carried on railway cars, which were designed to be hidden along Russia's vast rail network. But these railcars remain confined to fixed garrisons in keeping with a decision made by President Gorbachev in 1991. These vulnerabilities have led Russia to ready some of its submarines in port and mobile missiles in garages to launch on warning, along with the missiles in silos. The time available for deciding to launch these weapons is shortened by the presence of American, British and French submarines cruising in the North Atlantic, only about 2,000 miles (3,200 kilometers) from Moscow. This proximity means that the nuclear-release procedures in Russia require a response time of less than 15 minutes: a few minutes for detecting an attack, another few minutes for top-level decision making and a few minutes for disseminating the launch order. Russian leaders and missile controllers are geared to work with in this brief time frame and to practice regularly with drills. U.S. nuclear forces operate with a similarly short fuse. It is obvious that the rushed nature of his process, from warning to decision on action, risks causing a catastrophic mistake. 'The danger is complicated by the erosion of Russia's ability to distinguish reliably between natural phenomena or peaceful ventures into space and a true missile attack.

Only one third of its modern early-warning radars are working at all, and at least two of the nine slots in its constellation of missile warning satellites are empty. The dangers stemming from this decline in Russia's technical capabilities are offset, to some extent, by the relaxation of tensions that has come with the end of the cold war. Given the milder political climate, decision makers on both sides should be more inclined to question the validity of any reports they receive of an impending missile attack. Nevertheless, the coupling of two arsenals geared for rapid response carries the inherent danger of producing a mistaken launch and an escalating volley of missiles in return. The possibility an apocalyptic accident cannot be ruled out even under normal conditions. And if the control of Russian nuclear weapons were to be stressed by an internal or international political crisis, the danger could suddenly become much more acute. During the cold war, such risks were subordinafed to the overriding requirement to deter an enemy believed to be willing to launch a nuclear attack. This rationalization is no longer defensible, if ever it was.

Today, when both countries seek normal economic relations and cooperative security arrangements, perpetuating the readiness to launch nuclear weapons on the mere warning of an attack constitutes reckless behavior. Yet this thinking is so entrenched that it will yield only to steady pressure from the public on political leaders, especially presidents-to replace it with a safer policy.

"De-alerting" Missiles

The cuts in nuclear arms set by the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaties (START) should lessen the threat of an accidental nuclear exchange, but those changes will come only gradually. Under the START III framework, endorsed in Helsinki this past spring by President Yeltsin and President Bill Clinton, the U.S. and Russian strategic arsenals would shrink to about 2,000 warheads on each side by the year 2007. But if current practices are not revised, 10 years from now half of those nuclear weapons could still remain ready to launch on a few minutes' notice. The chance of an accidental launch could be reduced much more rapidly by "de-alerting" the missiles-increasing the amount of time needed to prepare them for launch. The U.S. and Russia should move independently down this path to a safer world, preferably taking quick strides in parallel. Two prominent proponents of this approach are former senator Sam Nunn of Georgia and retired general George L. Butler, commander in chief of the U.S. Strategic Command from 1991 to 1994.

This proposal is also gaining support in the community of nongovernmental organizations involved in nuclear security and from some members of the U.S. Congress. In Russia, the Ministry of Defense is seriously studying such an alteration. President George Bush set a notable precedent for de-alerting nuclear weapons at the end of September 1991, when the Soviet Union began to split apart in the wake of the August coup attempt. On the advice of General Butler, President Bush ordered an immediate standdown of the many U.S. strategic bombers that had remained ready for decades to take off with only a few minutes' warning. Soon afterward, air force personnel unloaded and stored the many nuclear weapons carried on these planes. In addition, President Bush ended the alert for the strategic missiles destined to be eliminated under START I, a set composed of 450 silo-based Minuteman II rockets, along with the missiles on 10 Poseidon submarines. These important actions took only a few days. President Gorbachev reciprocated a week later by ordering the deactivation of more than 500 land-based rockets and six strategic submarines, by promising to keep his strategic bombers at a low level of readiness and by putting the rail-based missiles in garrison. In the subsequent months, both countries also withdrew many thousands of shorter-range tactical nuclear warheads that had been deployed with their armies and navies and placed these weapons in central storage depots. Presidents Clinton and Yeltsin took a further step together in 1994, when they agreed to stop aiming strategic missiles at each other's country. This change, though a welcome gesture, has little military significance. Missile commanders can reload targget coordinates into guidance computers within seconds. In fact, the 1994 pact does not even alleviate the concern about an accidental Russian launch, because an unprogrammed missile would automatically switch back to its primary wartime target, which might be a Minuteman silo in Montana or a command center in Washington, London, Paris or Beijing. And Russian missiles, like their American counterparts, cannot be ordered to self-destruct once they are launched. Possessing the most robust forces and cohesive command system, the U.S. government should take the lead in a new round of voluntary actions by announcing that it will withdraw the U.S. warheads that most threaten Russia's nuclear deterrent (particularly those capable of hitting Russia's missile silos and underground command posts). The most menacing warheads are those deployed on the 50 MX silo-based missiles, which are armed with 10 warheads each, and the 400 high-yield W88 warheads fitted atop some of tile missiles on Trident submarines. We also recommend immobilizing all of the land- based Minuteman IIIs (about 500 missiles), which are armed with three warheads each, halving the number of submarines deployed in peacetime and cutting the number of warheads on each submarine-borne missile froin eight to four. The operation of ballistic-missile submarines should also be altered so that crews would require approximately one day to ready missiles for launching. These measures would leave almost 600 U.S. warheads remaining invulnerable at sea, each capable of destroying the heart of a great city. With such a force, the U.S. would preserve ample capacity to deter any nuclear aggressor. Such a dramatic shift by the U.S. would fully establish its intention not to pose a first-strike threat to-Russia. We believe this change in policy would persuade Russia to follow suit and take most of its missiles off hair-trigger alert. These changes would also help accelerate the implementation of agreements for disarmainent already negotiated under START II and START III. We estimate that most of the job could be completed within a year or two. Capabilities already exist to confirm ttiat nuclear weapons have been taken off alert. For instance, the number of ballistic-missile submarines in port can be monitored using satellites, and most other measures could be checked dur- ing the random on-site inspections per- mitted by START 1. Over the longer term, additional technical means could be engineered to provide more frequent checks that nuclear missiles posed no immediate threat. For example electronic "seals" could be used to ensure that a component removed froni a missile had not been replaced. The integrity of such seals could be verified remotely through satellite relay using encrypted communications.

ZONES OF DESTRUCTION, were a 500-kiloton nuclear warhead to explode over the Washington Monument, would cover hundreds of square kilometers around metropolitan Washington, D.C. The inner circle encompasses the area where most people would die from the immediate blast. The outer circle delimits the area where more would perish from subsequent fire storms in built-up areas. The range of casualties would extend evcn further.

Global Zero Alert

This blueprint for taking U.S. and Russian nuclear forces off alert would substantially diminish the ability of either country to mount a first strike. Thus, it would eliminate both the capacity and rationale for keeping missiles ready to fire on warning. Leaders would have to wait out any alarm of an attack before deciding how to respond, drastically reducing the risk of a mistaken or unauthorized launch. We recognize that military leaders in the U.S. and Russia might insist on maintaining small portions of their current arsenals on high alert, perhaps hundreds of warheads each, until the other nuclear-weapon states-Britain, France and China-joined in adopting similar measures to reduce the readiness of their nuclear arsenals. But if the U.S. and Russia aspire to establish the highest possible standards of safety for their nuclear armaments, they should move as rapidly as possible to take all their missiles off alert and then follow witli further steps to increase the time required to reactivate these weapons. The ultimate goal would be to separate most, if not all, nuclear warheads from their missiles and then, eventually, to eliniinate most of the stored warheads and missiles. To implement such an extensive program fully, the means for verification would liave to be strengthened to ensure that every nuclear state would know whether another country was making nuclear missiles launch-ready. Moving toward a global stand-down of nuclear arms will undoubtedly encounter strong resistance from those whose dominant fear remains a secretly prepared surprise attack. The desagn of procedures to take nuclear missiles off constant alert needs to take into account this already remote possibility. But these plans must urgently go forward to remove the much more immediate hazard-the mistaken or unauthorized launch of nuclear missiles.

A Prescription for Change

To reduce concerns that have driven Russia to maintain its mis- siles ready to launch on warning, the U.S. president should order the following:

Even after these actions are taken, six submarines carrying up to 576 warheads would remain undetectable at sea, and the immobilized Minuteman IIIs could be destroyed by a massive attack on about 500 silos.

In response to the U.S. initiative, the Russian president could order the following:

After these actions are taken, 128 to 400 warheads on two submarines will remain undetectable at sea, and nine to 18 SS-25 warheads on truck mobile launchers will remain securely hidden in the field. In addition about 2,700 warheads on silo-based ICBMs could be destroyed only by mounting attacks on some 340 missile silos.

When Treaties Fail Scientific American May 94

If a rogue state attacks, what are the technological options?

The world is not a safe neigbborhood. At least a score of countries believed to possess weapons of mass destruction or to be seeking them and a dozen nations have ballistic missiles. The dissolution of Soviet Union has fragmented its nuclear arsenal and raised concerns that weapons might fall into the hands of terrorists or 'rogue' states. On the Korean peninsula, in the Middle East and on the Asian subcontinent, the nuclear non-proliferation treaty regime has been under the strain of regional tensions. A proposed ban on chemical weapons, even its strongest supporters acimowledge, will depend heavily on the goodwill of those who sign it. Although the Clinton administration supports diplomatic efforts to contain the spread of strategic weaponry, it has quietly begun building a technological firebreak. It is the Counterproliferation Initiative, a Department of Defense program designed to equip U.S. forces to fight adversaries armed with 'special' weapons-Pentagonese for nudear, biological and chemical arms. The initiative was the brainchild of Les Aspin the former secretary of defense. One of Aspin's first acts as secretary was to create a Pentagon position called assistant secretary of defense for nudear security and counterprohferation. Aspin appointed Ashton B. Carter, a professor at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, to the post According to Carter, the initiative, which has survived Aspin's departure, could spur the development of various technologies: miniature sensors that, disguised as twigs or pebbles, keep tabs on a suspected arms-manufacturing site; devices that provide seaming of a chemical or biological attack, as well as vaccines, antidotes and protective gear to minimize an attack's effects; bombs that disable electronics by eraitting an electromagnetic pulse; and 'hypervelocity missiles' that can penetrate deep underground to destroy buried weapons facilities or bunkers-such as the one in which Saddam Hussein reportedly hid during the Persian Gulf War. By far the most expensive component of the plan involves-theater defenses against ballistic missiles. These would consist of mobile, ground-based interceptors designed to shoot down missiles launched against U.S. troops or allied populations in a regional conflict. The Clinton administration is seeking $3.25 billion for research on missile defenses in 1995, up from $2.7 billon this year. It has also suggested that the 1972 Antiballistic Missile Treaty between the U.S. and the former Soviet Union be modified to permit theater defenses. Carter emphasizes that the Counter-proliferation Initiative requires not only new technologies but also new military strategies, ones focussed on adversaries such as Iraq or North Korea rather than the former Soviet Union. These strategies should complement rather than supplant prevention policies, he explains, by convincing potential proliferators that special weapons will have little military value. The plans cotisidered so far do not advocate preemptive strikes to destroy enemy arsenals, Carter declares, nor do they call for using nuclear weapons. -We are trying to look for non-nuclear responses to special weapons,' he remarks. But Laura S. H. Holgate, a member of Carter's staff, says a new class of low-yield nuclear weapons has not been 'categorically' ruled out as a counterproliferation tool. Dubbed mini-nukes,' such weapons would have yields ranging from five kilotons to 100 tons. (The bomb that destroyed Hiroshima had a yield of 10 kilotons.) Indeed, some officials in the weapons laboratories, notably Edward Teller of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, have suggested that mininukes deployed on high-precision missiles would make effective counter-proliferation weapons. In addition to serving as 'bunker-busters' .or electromagnetic-pulse bombs, mininukes would be ideal for destroying biological-weapons stockpiles, researchers say, because the thermonuclear heat and radiation would kill and not just disperse pathogens. In last year's Defense Authorization Bill, Congress specifically prohibited the Department of Energy from conducting research and development which could lead to the production ... of a new low-yield nuclear weapon.' But the restriction lasts only one year and it has a rather large loophole: it allows such research to address proliferation concerns. In response to a query from ScientificAmerican, Secretary of Energy Hazel R. O'Leary did not rule out the possibility that such weapons could be developed. 'This is an issue we're grappling with.' she said. The possibility that the Counter-proliferation initiative may allow the development of mininukes alarms arms-control advocates.

Even in Its non-nuclear form, the initiative arouses concern. Natalie J. Goldring of the British American Security lnformation Council fears that by "trying to increase its lead in conventional capabilities, the U.S. may actualy encourage other countries to acquire weapons of mass destruction as equalizers.' She also faults the implicit premise of the initiative that traditional efforts to stop proliferation are inadequate. After all. she points out diplomatic pressure recently helped to convince Argentina and Brazil to renounce all ambitions to build nuclear weapons

The ballistic-niissile defenses advocated by the initiative suffer from the same liabilities as the much more ambitious 'Star Wars' plan proposed by President Ronald Reagan, remarks Spurgeon M. Keeny, jr, of the Arms Control Association. The defenses could easily be circumvented by inexpensive, lowtech means of delivery, such as airplanes, boats or trucks. I'm concerned that the proposals being made to accommodate this system would undermine the Anti-Ballistic Treaty,' Keeny adds. 'Counterprohferation is mny an answer to the question, What if Saddam Hussein had had nuclear weapons? And I think it's the wrong answer," comments Barry R. Posen. Posen thinks that even with improved offensive and defensive systems, the US. could never be sure of its ability to destroy all of an enemy's nuclear arsenal and thereby pievent a retaliatory strike. That raises an unpleasant question: How should the U.S. respond if an enemy successfully a nudear weapon? 'Our firm preference is to use non-nuclear means and to. win the war anyway, Carter replies. Some conservative analysts, such as Seth Cropsey of the Heritage Foundation, a former Pentagon official in the Reagan and Bush administrations, have been taking the same position, arguing that the U.S. would thereby reinforce the 'taboo" against nuclear weapons. Ironically, John A. Pike of the relatively dovish Federation of American Scientists insists that the threat of massive retaliation-rather than missile defenses and other weapons being considered under the Counterproliferation initiative-is still the best defense the U.S. has against an adversary armed with nuclear weapons. If such an enemy initiates a nucleur attack, the U.S. should turn them into a sea of radioactive glass and be done with it.' He notes that last July, President Bill Clinton warned that if North Korea used nuclear weapons, 'it would be the end of their country." But what if terrorists or breakaway elements within a country launch the attack? And what if the attack strikes an ally of the U.S. but not U.S. troops or citizens? When is massive retaliation conventional or nuclear - by the U.S. military appropriate? Pike acimowledges that 'this is a very interesting and complicated set of questions that people are just beginning to answer . Michael Krepon of the Henry L. Stimson Center in Washington, D.C., thinks the Counterproliferation initiative-at least if it eschews mininukes-is a reasonable first step toward dealing with these questions. -John Horgan