Dismantle Armageddon

June 06, 1994|By Bruce G. Blair & Henry W. Kendall

AS OF last Monday, the United States and Russia no longer aimed strategic missiles at each other.

A missile fired accidentally and flying under its own normal motor power and guidance would fall short of its Cold War target, landing in stead in the Arctic Ocean. But the risk of such an accidental launch is low compared to other safety hazards. And this symbolic agreement does nothing to alleviate them.

The real hazards are unauthorized firings or firings induced by false warning of inbound enemy missiles. These dangers stem from keeping large numbers of strategic missiles in a high state of combat readiness so they can be fired within the 30-minute flight time of opposing missiles.

The new plan does nothing to relax this hair-trigger stance.

Under the plan, Russia becomes a reserve target instead of the primary target for U.S. silo-based missiles. Switching back to the original Russian targets is a simple procedure that most missiles need only seconds to complete.

This rapid reversibility is supposed to ensure that the U.S. missiles can still be fired before Russian missiles could attack them. But why is this a virtue if rapid reaction is inherently unsafe?

The time needed to detect an attack, retarget the missiles and perform the launching procedure would allow a president only a few minutes to consult with advisers and decide whether or not to launch.

Under this hasty process, a nuclear war could begin in error. On the other hand, if the attack is real, the slightest delay could result in the destruction of most of our weapons seconds before or after liftoff.

By risking an inadvertent launching while making the survival of land-based missiles precarious, quick-launch tactics put enormous pressure on commanders at all levels.

Yet the United States and Russia have geared their nuclear strategies to beat a 30-minute deadline. For the United States, such rapid reaction is necessary to destroy the excessive number of targets required by presidential directive.

President Clinton could put his good intentions to better work with an agreement that obliges both parties to strip out all the Cold War targets from every missile's memory.

Eliminating reserve as well as primary targets would strengthen safeguards against unauthorized launchings and make land-based missiles unable not only to respond quickly to attack, but also to initiate a sudden massive attack.

Other steps should be taken. In 1991 President George Bush ordered a unilateral reduction in the readiness of the older Minuteman missiles.

Maintenance crews went into each silo and inserted a pin that blocks the motor's ignition. The same could be done with other missiles. Another step is to shut off the power to the missiles. A minimum of several days would be needed to reverse these procedures.

These mutual obligations could be verified by U.S.-Russian crews at designated command centers in both countries.

Such monitoring would ensure that any illicit retargeting of weapons would be detected in time to prevent the cheater from gaining a decisive advantage.

Farsighted leaders would also take the next logical step: removing all warheads from land-based missiles and removing critical components from sea-based strategic missiles.

This would solve the problem of inadvertent or unauthorized launchings, and add a safety cushion against coups in Moscow.

Keeping missiles on a hair trigger is inherently dangerous. World leaders need to confront the danger with a comprehensive remedy that eliminates the chance of a catastrophic failure of nuclear control.

Pointing missiles at the oceans is a timid and feeble beginning.

Bruce G. Blair, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, is a former Minuteman missile launch officer. Henry W. Kendall, professor of physics at MIT, is chairman of the Union of Concerned Scientists.

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