U.S. missile plan spurs Russian fears

May 10, 2000|By Stephen I. Schwartz

CHICAGO -- You would think that 10 years after the end of the Cold War, the United States would be doing everything it could to get Russia to reduce its bloated, aging and dangerous arsenal of approximately 6,000deployed strategic nuclear warheads.

You would be wrong.

In fact, as revealed in official documents obtained by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists and released recently, U.S. negotiators have sought to allay Russian fears about a possible U.S. national missile defense system by ruling out any future reductions in strategic nuclear warheads below the 1,500-2,000 level and encouraging Russia to maintain its nuclear forces on constant alert.

At a January meeting in Geneva where the documents were presented to Russia, Russian negotiators countered with an offer to slash the number of deployed strategic nuclear warheads held by each side (from the START II level of 3,000-3,500 to 1,500). The United States rejected the offer but provided no public justification for why it required more warheads.

That the United States is asking Russia to forsake deep cuts in nuclear weapons for the indefinite future is bad enough. This news is certain to anger delegates at the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty review conference, under way at the United Nations until May 19.

Many of the delegates already have been extremely critical about the lack of progress in arms control and disarmament since 1995, when the United States was able to secure the permanent extension of the treaty by, among other things, renewing its promise under Article VI of the treaty to "pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament."

Worse still, the United States is actually encouraging Russia to continue to maintain its strategic nuclear forces on hair-trigger alert, ready to fire within minutes of receiving a launch order.

As a consequence of the breakup of the Soviet Union and the continuing economic difficulties in Russia, the vast country's early warning network is deteriorating. So many satellites and radars are inoperative, or only partly functional, that for as much as 12 hours a day, Russia has no means of detecting an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) launch from the United States. As for attacks from U.S. Trident missile submarines, each of which can carry up to 192 warheads, Russia essentially has no detection capability at all. That makes Russian military commanders nervous.

Combining decaying and inoperative early warning systems with a "launch on warning" posture for thousands of nuclear weapons is a recipe for nuclear disaster.

Russia's continuous high-alert posture has already led to at least one major scare.

On Jan. 25, 1995, Russian radar technicians detected a routine scientific rocket launch from Norway. But, having failed to receive advance warning of the launch, they misinterpreted it as a Trident missile from a U.S. submarine. President Boris Yeltsin hurriedly convened a threat assessment conference with his senior advisers and for about eight minutes they deliberated whether to launch a counterattack before the incoming missile arrived. Fortunately, Russian military officers were able to determine -- with only two or three minutes to spare -- that the rocket was in fact heading away from Russian territory and therefore posed no threat. If the next false alarm occurs under less peaceful world circumstances, the outcome could be far worse.

Although the Clinton administration's rationale for a limited national missile defense system centers on "rogue states" like North Korea, only Russia has the capability today and into the indefinite future to deliver a large number of extremely powerful nuclear weapons to targets in the United States in 30 minutes or less. North Korea has exactly zero deployed ballistic missiles and has halted its missile testing program for the duration of negotiations with the United States over its future.

While the risk of deliberate nuclear war is far lower than in years past (even though both the United States and Russia continue to prepare to execute a nuclear strike against each other), the risk of accidental or unauthorized use of nuclear weapons is rising, in no small part because of Russia's increasing reliance on nuclear weapons even as its early-warning systems (its eyes and ears) fall into disrepair.

But in the name of political expediency (many observers believe the administration's stance on national missile defense has more to do with defending Al Gore against George W. Bush than against actual enemy missiles), the Clinton administration has chosen to ignore this very real and growing danger. Instead, it is expending significant time and political capital seeking to modify the ABM Treaty to allow the deployment of a not-yet-fully tested and very limited missile defense system against a threat that may never fully materialize.

It is deeply disturbing that the administration would not only pursue this path but deliberately exacerbate the danger by encouraging Russia to continue to indefinitely deploy thousands of nuclear weapons on hair-trigger alert.

Stephen I. Schwartz is the publisher of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

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