U.S., Russia stop pointing missiles at each other's key military targets today

May 30, 1994|By Knight-Ridder News Service

WASHINGTON -- When he first visited the Pentagon last fall, Russia's defense minister looked around and mused, "I've only known this place by its coordinates."

By today, Russia will reprogram those coordinates in its nuclear bombs and the Pentagon will no longer be Ground Zero.

Bombs that have been trained on one another for up to 50 years --roughly 30,000 land and sea-based nuclear missiles in the United States and the former Soviet republic -- will have no target or will be pointed at the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.

Pentagon officials say the move, agreed to by President Clinton and Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin at their summit in January, is an important confidence-building measure for the two former rivals. The change is not verifiable by either side, but is based on trust.

While military analysts, peace activists and psychiatrists say the "de-targeting" is largely symbolic -- the bombs can be re-aimed in a matter of minutes -- it will build confidence in an even more fragile area: the human psyche.

"Psychologically, the move is very important," said Burt Glass, program director for Peace Action, an anti-nuclear group. "It's another step away from annihilating the planet."

By today, the Peacekeeper, a newer missile system that can carry up to 10 warheads, will have no primary target, officials said. But the older Minuteman III, which carries three warheads, is designed to always be trained on a target, and will therefore be pointed at the ocean.

While the primary targets have changed, the missile systems' back-up targets have not -- evidence that the former adversaries still maintain some skepticism toward each other, analysts said.

Air Force Capt. Lee-Volker Cox, who has worked in missile silos most of his career, said the targets will be moved using strokes on a computer keyboard. After years on alert in missile silos 60 to 90 feet underground, it's a move he welcomes, albeit with mixed feelings.

"No missileer wanted to do his job, when you think about it," said Captain Cox, who is stationed at Warren Air Force Base in Wyoming. "When the missiles started going away . . .it's part of you going away. But it's going away because of what you did."

Still, analysts and psychiatrists caution that new threats are on the horizon -- North Korea, a nuclear conflict between India and Pakistan, and stolen plutonium that could get into terrorists' hands.

And, they caution, the fear of nuclear annihilation might never go away. Even if all weapons are dismantled, the knowledge of how to build them will always be there.

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