#9 - JRL 7207
June 3, 2003
A new nuclear madness
By Thomas Oliphant
WASHINGTON--RUSSIA AND the United States continue to get the numbers more or less right where nuclear weapons are concerned.
A dozen years after the Soviet Union collapsed, however, it's the policy governing the use of the monsters that remain that ought to concern both countries far more than it does.
Over the weekend, Presidents Bush and Putin celebrated the recent past - another ratified treaty slashing numbers - while leaving in place policies that maintain important vestiges of the Cold War that today constitute danger instead of deterrence.
During the Cold War, it was often said, accurately, that the nuclear arms race between the two adversaries had acquired a ''mad momentum'' in overkill capacities. Today it is the absence of momentum in addressing disturbing aspects of nuclear posture that should be considered irrational.
As former Georgia senator Sam Nunn noted recently, the Cold War mechanisms at least put policy in command of weapons systems in the interest of deterring an aggressive Soviet Union from attacks. ''Today,'' said the conservative Democrat, ''Presidents Bush and Putin must ask the question: Are our weapons driving our policy? Have the machines taken over?''
How else does one explain the following facts that ''increase the risk of accidental or unauthorized nuclear launch,'' cited in a report from the Rand Corporation commissioned by the Nuclear Threat Initiative, which Nunn cochairs with fellow Georgian Ted Turner:
The two countries remain in a stance that allows their strategic nuclear weapons to be launched within minutes.
Russia's nuclear forces have deteriorated but remain in a dangerous posture, allowing once-mobile garrisoned intercontinental missiles to be launched through the roofs of their storage facilities and submarine missiles to be launched from their moorings. The suggestion is of a ''launch on warning'' policy.
Russia's satellite systems have major deficiencies that limit their ability to tell the difference between real attacks and false alarms confidently and quickly.
The United States still keeps more than half its fleet of Trident nuclear submarines at sea, including regular patrols near the Russian coast, along with attack submarines.
Put it all together and the result looks like a US force structure still on ''hair-trigger status'' that can easily threaten a Russian deterrent. This bad situation is made worse by Russia's economic and social mess and dispersed nuclear weapons maintained under deteriorating security.
Even less rational is the post-9/11 fact that the United States and Russia (their differences over Iraq aside) have supposedly joined to fight both terrorism and the proliferation of nuclear weapons instead of confronting each other.
Experts in doomsday scenarios continue to study two reminders of what can go wrong: a 1979 goof that briefly produced a mistaken US command view that we were under missile attack when in fact a training tape had been mistakenly inserted into the early-warning computer, and a 1995 inability in Russia to identify quickly a NASA rocket that had been launched.
With the potential for a breakdown in Russia still real, the Rand report with Nunn's backing urges the United States to lead Russia into a less unsafe environment. Right now, it says, the United States should pull its Trident and attack submarines well back from Russian waters, reduce the readiness of a third of the US land-based missile force, and stand down at once to the force levels set in the new arms treaty.
That's for starters. Even more important, these confidence-building steps need a follow-on effort to persuade Russia to accept joint measures to bring its degraded early-warning systems into the 21st century. The United States should have sensors at its missile silos, and the Russians should follow suit.
As Nunn points out, the basic idea of bringing nuclear policy in line with our actual relationship with Russia was one advocated by candidate George Bush three years ago. This only makes a failure to take these kinds of steps more puzzling.
President Bush was right to call attention over the weekend to disturbing nuclear developments in Iran and in North Korea. There are differences over means here but not diagnoses. That, however, does not excuse foot dragging on a dangerous situation that could be made much less so almost immediately.
As Nunn, long a common-sense voice in an area where irrationality has dominated, put it: ''The American and Russian people have a right to ask this question: Why must we continue to live with this risk when we are no longer enemies? My own question: In the aftermath of an accidental or unauthorized launch of a nuclear ballistic missile, what would we wish we had done to prevent it. And why aren't we doing it now?''