russian roulette

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should the u.s. and russia de-alert their nuclear forces

bruce blair

We've talked of problems, what would you say are the chief solutions here?

I believe that we need to stand down the nuclear arsenals, take them out of play, so they're not poised for immediate longer susceptible to mistaken launch-on-warning, or to unauthorized or accidental firing....

The problem that we face today is not deterrence. We don't need to keep thousands of warheads on high alert, poised for immediate launch, in order to deter one another. I'm not even sure we needed that many weapons during the cold war, but we certainly don't now. The primary challenge that we face today is not deterrence but a failure of control, particularly in Russia, because Russia depends more on nuclear weapons, depends more, currently, on quick launch of those weapons, at a time when its command and early warning networks are deteriorating.

These hair trigger nuclear arsenals are inherently dangerous, and, on the Russian side at least, becoming more dangerous, because of the decline in early warning and control. So, the obvious solution to the danger of the hair trigger on Russian nuclear arsenals is to take them off high alert, so that those forces in Russia need hours, days, weeks or months of preparations, before they can be fired. That's called de-alerting. And it's a new agenda for arms control, and for US-Russian bilateral changes in their nuclear arsenals. But this is an agenda that should be pursued energetically now. Because we can't wait for decades for the nuclear arsenals to disappear, which they probably never will, from Russia and the United States. The dangers that I've tried to outline, of accident or unauthorized use of these forces, is a present danger and will only respond to changes in the operational safety of these arsenals. So we need to take steps that take Russian weapons out of play completely, and that means of course, that American weapons need to be de-alerted as well, and eventually, British, French and Chinese weapons.

What's the worst case scenario, if we don't adopt any of these measures and the Russian command and control system continues its current trend of deterioration, say, ten or twenty years hence?

...The Russian command system cannot endure the stress and strain indefinitely, there will be an incident. And I believe that we will look back at it, in hindsight, whether it's a year from now or ten years from now, I can't predict the timing of this breakdown, but we will look back at it in hindsight and decide that this was a train wreck in progress that we should have seen coming and which was preventable.

And the obvious solution is not to count on nuclear arms control of the standard variety, which reduces the arsenals over the course of decades, and leaves hundreds or thousands of weapons still on high alert, but, rather, to move quickly in the months ahead, or certainly a short period of years, to stand down these arsenals so that they simply are not in any position to be used. This is not abolition. These weapons could be, if necessary in a national emergency, redeployed, re-alerted. But, on a normal peacetime basis we have everything to gain by standing down these arsenals so that they simply cannot be fired, period. And if we don't take these measures, if we don't eliminate the hair trigger that exists on Russian nuclear forces -- and, I might say, on American, too -- because there's an inherent danger in this posture, then we are simply inviting an accident. This system is an accident waiting to happen. And, given the adverse trends in Russian early warning and control, physical, organizational and human I'm afraid that something will happen and sooner rather than later.

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admiral stansfield turner

I think that one of the first things we should do is take every US weapon off of high alert. We have an absolutely insane policy in this country. Had it now for 30 or 40 years. We're in particular danger today because the Russian early warning system has broken down, in part because some of it's in countries that used to be part of the Soviet Union but are not part of Russia today. And, in part, because they're not maintaining it. And so they feel vulnerable. They feel like they're not going to have warning. They're on higher hair trigger alert today probably than they were during the Cold War. So we've got to get away from that.

Which policy are you referring to?

That is that if we see an attack coming from Russia, we are going to get the President to decide to launch our counter-attack before this one lands from Russia. That's 25 minutes. Now, when you take out time to evaluate this and decide it really is coming, when you take out time at the end, between a President's decision and the fact the missiles actually get off and far enough away that they're not going to be damaged by the blast of the incoming attack, the President's got somewhere between two and ten minutes to make this most momentous decision. No President's going to do that. It would be insane to do it anyway, because our counter-attack doesn't stop this incoming attack. It's not intended to do that. And we don't need to worry about that attack knocking out our missiles. Our missiles that count are in submarines out here at sea, and they can't see those. So we can always counter-attack, no matter what they do in that attack....

Why do we have this policy? What is this policy called?

The policy is called "launch under attack" -- launch our weapons while they are under attack, that is, before the attack has arrived. And we have this policy because we have transmuted to nuclear strategy the theorems of conventional military strategy. And one of the problems in conventional warfare is surprise attacks, Pearl Harbors. It really makes you vulnerable. This is a different case. And we have not appreciated that nuclear strategy is generically different than conventional strategy. We just have got to get away from this idea that we're under a threat of attack. If we would just get rid of those land-based missiles anyway -- we don't need them -- then there's nothing for them to attack, other than our cities and things. The excuse for launching quickly goes away. And it's really just a US preoccupation with big land-based missiles, which are obsolete....

The submarine is what has saved this country from nuclear war since the early 1960s....Because in the submarines we have more than enough to put Russia, China, anybody out of business. And we want to get down now to a number that's so much smaller than what we've got, like a factor of 100 lower. We've got 15,000 nuclear warheads in this country today. A hundred and fifty, 200 is more than enough to threaten anybody in the world with enough damage to make them say, "I'm not going to start a nuclear war." And that's what we want. And if we get rid of the excess, we reduce these threats of accidents, we reduce these threats of proliferation, and make the world as well as our own country much safer. And the treaty process is irrelevant because it is too slow and too small, as I've said.

And what we need instead is a process called strategic escrow. Now, under strategic escrow, we take 1,000 warheads off of our missiles and we move them into storage 200 or 300 miles away, so that you can't just put them back at the drop of a hat. We ask the Russians to put observers here who count what goes in, and if anything goes out. No authority to stop us, but there they are. If we do that, Yeltsin has got to follow. He's got to put 1,000 in storage. Why? Because his deputy in October announced that in ten years they're not going to have the capability of firing more than about 500 nuclear warheads. They've let the thing deteriorate, and they don't have the money to rehabilitate it....

We can go to zero alert, because we do have those submarines out there, and they'll be able to fire back whenever we want.

General Habiger was just describing 5 or 6 steps that the US has taken unilaterally in terms of reducing warheads, and the Russians have not followed suit. How do we know that if we decide to take 1,000 off the shelf, that they would do so? What makes you trust them?

Because Yeltsin is in this position. If he doesn't find a way to make an agreement with us to go downward quickly, we're going to have 10,000 warheads ten years from now, and he's going to have 500. And he's not going to like that prospect. In short, we can maintain any number we want into the indefinite future. So if we make an offer for him to find a way to get down quickly -- and we're totally at loggerheads on the START process -- strategic escrow process is away around this. It's also a way around the treaties because you don't have to have Congressional or Duma approval. This is just changing the readiness. And it's no risk to us. If we put 1,000 here today and Yeltsin says "nyet," we [put] them back. There's no problem. We have not put ourselves in any vulnerability if we go from 15,000 to 14,000. But if Yeltsin does this, we do another 1,000 or 2,000, and we go back and forth. And in a few years, not a decade, we're not down to 10,000; we're down to the hundreds that are ready to fire. The rest of them are still there.

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If the right preconditions exist?

The preconditions are there now. I don't see why we have the forces alert. I've never been a big enthusiast for our whole approach of being able to launch on warning or launch in a very short amount of time. Firing off 1,000 or 500 or 2,000 nuclear warheads on a few minutes' consideration has always struck me as an absurd way to go to war. I don't know how one chooses political war aims to support that approach. Now, because of deterrence theory and arms control notions of stability, etc., we've talked ourselves into this kind of Rube Goldberg world where we've surrendered political choice to these nutty para-mechanistic ideas and technology. Therefore I think it would make a lot of sense to completely de-alert. And if you're going to use nuclear weapons, use them thoughtfully for purposes that make sense.

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De-alerting is a perfectly good idea, and I have nothing against it in principle. But the question is whether it should take precedence over elimination of weapons, in our thinking or in our dialogue with the Russians. I don't think it should. I would love to see Russia de-alert its arsenal. I think that would be safer. I would not mind if the United States de-alerted at the same time. So one could imagine an agreement whereby they de-alert and we de-alert. We enjoy the benefits of their de-alerting; they enjoy the benefits of our de-alerting. Now, who's going to negotiate that agreement? Is that agreement going to be ratified? They haven't ratified the START II agreement in years. So I think, since we have a limited ability to capture the attention of Russians -- whose attentions are towards survival these days, not towards arms control -- that we need to stick to the essentials, which is eliminating nuclear weapons, not fiddling with them.

So de-alerting is a valid concept, and in a different age, during the cold war, it might have made a great deal of sense. I don't think it makes a great deal of sense in the post-cold war world, or at least I wouldn't give it a lot of priority. If it happens, that's terrific. I have no objection to it.

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matthew bunn

Are you a supporter of the proposal by Bruce Blair, the idea of de-alerting the arsenal?

I'm a supporter of de-alerting....I think it's quite important to reduce the hair trigger status of nuclear forces, because they were set up that way to deal with a different world, to deal with a world where a preemptive nuclear strike was at least something that was worth worrying about and was one of the main threats that we structured our forces around.

Now the main threats come not so much from Russian strength as from Russian weakness. And the notion that we should take the kind of risks involved in having not only our nuclear missiles but Russian nuclear missiles ready to launch at a moment's notice, in today's post-cold war world, where the Soviet Union no longer exists, just doesn't make sense to me.

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general vladimir dvorkin

You have floated the idea of de-alerting to some U.S. leaders. Can you describe your proposal and how it would work?

While the essence of the proposal is that there are a number of technical measures which would prevent, once in place, a fast launch of nuclear missiles. And unlike the de-targeting regime, these measures are transparent and verifiable....For example, one of them is that the gas generator can be separated from the cover of the silo. You can also remove on-board batteries. These are verifiable measures, and the missile would not fly anywhere until those on-board sources of power batteries are replaced. But, in my opinion, these measures could have been undertaken only with regard to a portion of the missiles, not all the missiles, due to the reasons that I already mentioned...that we cannot fully de-alert all of our forces while other countries will maintain their forces on alert.

The very fact that you want to prevent a fast launch of missiles tells me you do have some concerns about a fast launch.

Well, as an expert, I do not have any concerns about that. However, from a political point of view, I support this measure because I see it as a confidence building measure. Only because we cannot freeze our nuclear relations, and we cannot limit them only to a very slow, gradual reduction of strategic weapons. Which is of course what the START agreement would have begun to lead us towards.

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general eugene habiger

General Butler advocates a total de-alerting and stand down with these weapons as the only way to get rid of the nuclear genie. What's your stand on that?

...The policy of the United States of America, as embodied in the 1968 Non-Proliferation Treaty, is zero nuclear weapons. But if you read Article 6 of that treaty, it says "under the proper preconditions". The problem is, I don't think we'll ever see the proper preconditions. And that's unfortunate.

Now, de-alerting. Again I go back to my analogy. You know: 12,000 nuclear weapons, most of those on alert during the cold war. Today, under START I, the Russians have about 2,000 nuclear weapons on alert. Under START II, they'll be down to about 1,000 nuclear weapons on alert. Under START III, if all goes [as planned, that number will] be around 700 nuclear weapons. And everybody feels comfortable with that. You don't want to do anything unilaterally that's going to be destabilizing. You don't want to do anything that's going to create uncertainty. So we're on a very adequate, verifiable glide path....

We've taken some aggressive steps. Getting back to those 450 Minuteman II's that I mentioned earlier, we unilaterally de-alerted those. Gorbachev, when he was here in a press conference, said he was going to do the same thing when he got back home. He never did. There was a revolution. He was thrown out of power. So we unilaterally, for example, de-alerted those 450 Minuteman II missiles, with no reciprocal actions on the part of the Russians. As a matter of fact, if you go back and look at every initiative that's been taken since the end of the cold war -- de-alerting of airplanes, missiles, command and control airplanes, that sort of thing -- the United States has taken, as I recall, about 19 separate initiatives. The Russians have reciprocated in six of those 19. Who won the cold war?

So you're still not quite trusting.

Oh, I am. I'm trusting. My point is that we, as the winner of the cold war, have taken extraordinary steps, in my view.

But we don't want to go down to zero?

As I said, we're trying to get down to lower numbers, and we're doing that. And as I said, when you get beyond START III, in my view, it's going to become a multilateral negotiation, and that's going to be a very painful process.

Gen. Dvorkin was also advocating de-alerting, in a different sense. He felt there were steps that could be taken to increase the time available. So instead of moving from 10-15 minutes, we'd have weeks or months. The batteries could be removed. There were ways the missiles could be taken apart so that they could be put back together again, but it would give diplomatic efforts more time to work. Do you think that's a good idea?

No. And the reason why I say "no" is that those concepts are very difficult to verify. And once you get into things that you can't verify without very, very intrusive inspection protocols, then the uncertainty grows. And right now, we have virtually no uncertainty.

One of the things that I did when I was in command of Strategic Command was a wall-to-wall review of: What are the things we have to think about as we get to lower and lower numbers? And...I asked Paul [Robinson who is the director of the Sandia Lab] and his band of very smart people...that work for him on this committee to go out and look at the policy implications. And he came back with a whole menu of things we need to worry about. The thing that really got my attention is that leverage of cheating as you get to lower and lower numbers. As you get to lower and lower numbers, and as you start doing things like you're talking about or being advocated by Dvorkin or Butler, is that the leverage of cheating takes on a whole new dimension.

What do you mean by "the leverage of cheating?"

If you could put those batteries back in without the other side knowing about it, and then all of a sudden coming up on the Net saying, "Okay, what are you going to do now? We've got the batteries back in our missiles, and now we've got 2,000 warheads on alert. You've got 200. Get on your knees."

So we're still hostage to the nuclear standoff, is what you're telling me.

Only if you go to the outer boundaries of the extremes I'm talking about. And that's the beauty of following the policy we've got going now.

So you're an advocate of deterrence. You believe it works.

For the foreseeable future, yes. But deterrence will take on new meaning as the United States and Russia gets down to lower and lower numbers of weapons....

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