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From First Alert to Missile Launch Go to "From First Alert to Missile Launch"

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From First Alert to Missile Launch
by Rick Groleau

At this very minute, operators at early-warning centers in both the U.S. and Russia are sitting in front of their displays, on the lookout for nuclear attack. In both countries, a total of 13,000 nuclear devices are deployed. Among these, about 4,400 sit within missiles on high-level alert, just minutes away from launch.

The reason for the high alert is to deter the other side from attacking. If a strike was ever initiated by one side, the other side could send off all of its missiles before being destroyed. Since this would result in the destruction of both countries, the attack—any attack—would be pointless.

This strategy may have had its place during the Cold War. But now that the Cold War is over, the "launch on warning" strategy should also end, or so argue defense experts such as Bruce Blair of the Center for Defense Information. The solution, these experts say, is for both sides to take nuclear-tipped missiles off hair-trigger alert. If we don't, we risk the possibility of an accidental launch, or of a false alarm triggering an all-out "counterattack." (Such a scenario has almost come to pass on four occasions—see False Alarms on the Nuclear Front.)

Compounding the problem of the launch-on-warning strategy is the time that each side has to respond to a threat. The U.S. has about 25 minutes to respond to an apparent attack. With Russia, the response time is ten minutes. (Russia has less time because U.S. submarines could fire missiles from the North Atlantic, whereas missiles headed to the U.S. would originate almost entirely from Russia's mainland.)

The following presentation simulates the sequence of events that would take place after Russian operators at early-warning centers first detect a threat. As you'll experience firsthand, the time presented for deciding whether or not to attack is short—frighteningly short when you consider the potential catastrophic outcome.

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Rick Groleau is managing editor of NOVA Online.

Bruce Blair, Center for Defense Information

"Russian Roulette." Frontline/PBS, 1999.

Bruce Blair, Harold Feiveson, Frank von Hippel. "Taking Nuclear Weapons off Hair-Trigger Alert." Scientific American, November, 1997.

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