Fitting ICBMs with conventional weapons risks catastrophe

November 29, 2006|By Alexander Artem Sakharov

LOS ANGELES -- Twenty-five years ago, a Reagan administration official asked my opinion on whether America was facing a clear and present danger from Russia. I said no.

Despite the heated rhetoric on both sides, the Russians never intended to initiate an attack on the West, their strategic objective being to split Europe from the U.S. On the other hand, their fear of being attacked was countered, even in the face of President Ronald Reagan's hostility, by their faith in America's common sense. Why should the richest nation on earth invite horrific devastation upon itself without a logically compelling reason?

Today, I am no longer that optimist. Washington's unwarranted presumption of global nuclear superiority - the mainstay of this administration's National Security Strategy from the beginning - has taken an alarming twist. And the Russians, still capable of destroying America with a nuclear strike, are seriously worried.

Too little attention has been given to a plan the administration is considering. It calls for certain strategic delivery systems, previously solely designated for nuclear war, to be put to use with conventional warheads. About $50 million has been allocated to three studies of placing conventional weapons on submarine-launched ballistic missiles.

Who cares that there is no technology to tell which kind of warhead has been launched? Russia will have to trust Washington that it is not the target of a first-strike nuclear attack. This idea comes in the wake of an article earlier this year in Foreign Affairs, titled "The Rise of U.S. Nuclear Supremacy," that contains these statements:

"The current and future U.S. nuclear force seems designed to carry out a preemptive disarming strike against Russia or China."

"It will probably soon be possible for the United States to destroy the long-range nuclear arsenals of Russia or China with a first strike."

"If U.S. submarines were to fire missiles from areas in the Pacific, Russian leaders probably would not know of the attack until the warheads detonated."

If Russian leaders have read these statements and taken them as an expression of administration policy, they may have reached some very unpleasant conclusions.

Washington's intention to legitimize the use of first-strike strategic delivery systems, expecting no retaliatory move by Russia, provoked Col. Viktor Litovkin to write for the Russian news agency Novosti (and reflecting Moscow's official view): "Any nuclear power will be sorely tempted to launch a retaliatory strike after detecting incoming strategic ballistic missiles. A retaliatory nuclear strike seems to be the only way to stop an all-out ballistic-missile attack involving nuclear and conventional warheads."

Disingenuously, then-Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld, meeting in August with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Ivanov, suggested that Russia could do the same thing.

"Russia has some misgivings about such preliminary plans," Mr. Ivanov replied. "I am not ready to say that Russia agrees to join this initiative."

This gobbledygook in no way implies indecision on Russia's part. Rather, it reflects the traditional Soviet-style presumption that any unambiguous rejection of U.S. terms by Russia may be misconstrued as a sign of fear and weakness. Mr. Rumsfeld, however, interpreted these words in line with Washington's wishful thinking, telling a news conference that the Russian defense minister would probably phone him from Moscow and call the American proposal a good idea.

No such luck. Should Washington unilaterally proceed with this insane plan, and eventually an intercontinental ballistic missile launch is made - whether intended against Iran or anybody else - a Russian retaliatory nuclear strike against the United States could follow, triggering the unthinkable.

America is facing a clear and present danger, compared to which the worst nightmares of the "war on terror" will pale. It's time to start paying attention.

Alexander Artem Sakharov is a former fellow of the Institute of USA & Canada Studies in Moscow. His e-mail is alexander@alexanderartem

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