U.S., Russia aim missiles away from each other

June 01, 1994|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASINGTON — WASHINGTON -- For the first time since the dawn of the nuclear age, the world's two superpowers are no longer in each other's sights.

The Defense Department announced yesterday that it had "detargeted" all U.S. strategic missiles, matching a similar move by Russia and taking global nuclear war off hair-trigger readiness.

The department added that Britain had also detargeted its nuclear weapons as part of the international effort to step back from nuclear confrontation.

Strategic targets in the former Soviet Union and its satellite states had been programmed into the United States' 1,400 strategic nuclear delivery systems. With the Kremlin locking its intercontinental missiles onto key targets in the United States, the policy that helped keep the peace for decades became known as MAD -- mutual assured destruction.

Programming erased

The Pentagon said yesterday that 50 10-warhead Peacekeeper missiles, which have a range of 6,000 miles and form the core of the U.S. land-based nuclear strike force, were no longer programmed with targeting information. The programmed targeting of all the Trident missiles on 18 Ohio-class submarines, which carry 24 missiles each, was also erased.

The computers on 500 older Minuteman IIIs, housed in silos in North Dakota and Wyoming, require constant targeting programs. They have now been targeted to fall into the seas.

"Detargeting is an important symbolic point," said Kathleen de Laski, a Pentagon spokeswoman. "It emphasizes the strengthening partnership between the U.S. and Russia, a significant milestone which indicates we are no longer nuclear adversaries."

Easily retargeted

But she stressed that the weapons could be retargeted quickly to hit military, political and urban centers, so that neither the United States nor Russia is at "a significant disadvantage."

Conservative hawks are concerned that the administration might retreat from the land-, sea- and air-based nuclear forces that have been the basis of U.S. deterrence for decades.

Baker Spring, a nuclear-force specialist with the conservative Heritage Foundation, said: "What worries me a little bit is whether the overall [nuclear] force will be in a ready enough state to retain a retaliatory capability in the most extreme circumstance -- a bolt out of the blue, presumably from Russia.

"The question is, in an unexpected crisis, is the load-up time [for retargeting the missiles] still long enough that it reflects retaliatory capabilities. Ultimately, the targeting should be done so that the United States has the best chance possible . . . of reducing to an absolute minimum the amount of damage that would be done to this country, in the event deterrence fails."

The U.S.-Russian agreement to detarget the weapons of mass destruction was signed by President Clinton and Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin at their summit in January. The two leaders set a deadline of May 30 for completion of the operation.

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