Hair-Trigger Planet

BY ALEXANDER ZAITCHIK
03.01.2004 | POLITICS

When the U.S.S.R. collapsed, American public interest in nuclear weapons disappeared under the rubble. People boxed up their fears and hauled them down to the basements of their souls like some hideous secret, never to be looked upon again. Thirteen years later, we're still willful strangers to thermonuclear dread, carrying on as if the nuclear stockpiles amassed during the Cold War had all been converted into solar panels and parakeet swings under Boris Yeltsin's kindly gaze.

Of course, they weren't. Most of those warheads are still live, still scattered under prairies, under seas, on roving flatbed trucks, ready to launch at a moment's notice. Right now, thousands of them are aimed at you, your family and your favorite television and sports personalities.

Against a backdrop of nuclear proliferation, both Russia and the U.S. continue to maintain and refine their own arsenals. They are also lowering the thresholds for their use. As Washington pushes forward with missile defense and a bonus round of NATO expansion, Russian generals are bristling, while Russia's command and control system continues to deteriorate, increasing the chance that misjudgment, error or sabotage could trigger a missile launch against, say, New York City, which is still targeted for a couple hundred megatons. According to those analysts who never took their eyes off the nuclear threat, the danger of a missile exchange between U.S. and Russia is actually greater today than during the more stable periods of the Cold War.

* * *

Last week, Russia held a wide-ranging exercise simulating a nuclear war with America. Old Soviet Tu-160 strategic bombers launched cruise missiles over the North Atlantic and ICBMs were tested over Russia's far northern region. Military satellites were launched under simulation battlefield conditions, and Russia's beleaguered early warning system was put through the ringer.

Gen. Yuri Baluyevsky, first deputy chief of the General Staff of the Russian military, told reporters in Moscow that the military exercise reflected Russian concerns over U.S. plans to research and develop new classes of nuclear weapons, including so-called "bunker busters."

"The [U.S. is] trying to make nuclear weapons an instrument of solving military tasks [and] lower the threshold of nuclear weapons use," Baluyevsky said. "Shouldn't we react to that?"

Days before the exercise, Russian defense minister Sergei Ivanov had a testy exchange with Senator John McCain at NATO's annual security conference in Munich. The two clashed over Moscow's "meddling" in the Baltics, Ukraine and the Caucuses. McCain charged neo-imperialism; Ivanov reiterated Russia's right to secure its "near abroad."

It is an argument that is just getting started. As the two nuclear superpowers vie for influence and oil routes, U.S.-Russian tensions will rise. In a sign of the changing times, nostalgic Cold Warrior William Safire blurted out in his Feb. 9 syndicated column something that has rarely been said in polite company since 1989: that the central mission of NATO is still to "contain the Russian bear."

The clash at the Munich conference was certainly a chilling moment for those unenthusiastic about another Cold War. But it was far from the first such moment since the dismantling of the Berlin Wall. In fact, the entire post-Cold War period could be accurately described as one long series of huge, underreported chilling moments, during which the threat of nuclear war has persisted and grown amid public apathy and ignorance.

Call it the dirty little open secret of nuclear planning: Neither Russia nor the U.S. ever stopped viewing preparation for war against the other as the central organizing principle of its nuclear policy. February's extensive war game wasn't Russia's first such drill since the end of the Cold War, and the U.S. military performs similar drills annually.

Driving the Russian side of U.S.-Russian nuclear politics is the General Staff. The Russian General Staff is made up of officers from the various branches of the military, including the Strategic Rocket Forces. It is the generator and keeper of Russian nuclear policy. These senior generals, who maintain de facto independent control over the country's nuclear weapons, are proud, tough bastards who came of age during the heyday of Soviet military prestige. It is said that Gorbachev just barely prevented some of them from launching an invasion of Eastern Europe to prevent the collapse of the Warsaw Pact. Even now, many remain deeply bitter about the dissolution of the U.S.S.R., which deprived Russia of the eastern buffer it acquired in World War II, when the Red Army beat back and crushed the Nazi Wehrmacht at the cost of 20 million lives.

The memory of Hitler's June 1941 invasion lives deep in the General Staff's collective military mind, fueling a determination that Russia will never again be taken by surprise. This determination is today reinforced by Russian weakness and what these generals perceive as the growing NATO "threat." Faced with economic ruin and the collapse of the conventional military, they have concentrated attention and resources on the world's second-greatest deterrent: Russia's remaining massive nuclear arsenal.

American military planners are naturally unnerved by the continued existence of this arsenal, and lingering mutual suspicions have led both sides to maintain their nuclear forces on a constant alert, launch-on-warning footing. This means that American and Russian rocket-mounted nuclear weapons remain armed, fueled, loaded and kept at hair-trigger readiness 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

* * *

The dangers of keeping nuclear forces on a high-alert, launch-on-warning footing were real enough during the Cold War, when U.S. and Russian command and control systems were reliable and followed a strict line of authority. This is no longer the case. Not only do Russian generals today have the power to launch Russian missiles independent of their political masters, Russia's ability to accurately detect incoming missiles has eroded badly since the early 90s, adding to Russian insecurity and increasing the likelihood that confusing radar data could lead to a nuclear launch order.

The most famous example of this danger occurred on Jan. 25, 1995, when Norway launched a weather research rocket to explore the Northern Lights phenomenon. When Russia's radars picked up the missile trajectory, it seemed to have been fired from a U.S. submarine in the Norwegian Sea--long suspected by the Russians as a likely first move in a U.S. surprise attack. Russian nuclear forces scrambled into position and bunker commanders inserted their launch keys, awaiting the order to turn them. Yeltsin, reportedly fuming drunk at the time, opened his nuclear briefcase and consulted with the frenzied General Staff. With their nerves screaming, together they watched the missile trajectory slowly turn away from any conceivable Russian target. When the crisis finally ended, they had less than two minutes to make a decision. (U.S. submarine-launched missiles can reach Moscow in 10 minutes.)

The Norwegian government had warned the Russian embassy in Oslo in advance about the test, but the information never made it to the Russian General Staff. As described by former CIA analyst Peter Vincent Pry in his book War Scare, it was "a clerical error" that brought the world closer to nuclear war than at any time since October 1962.

This is only one of the instances that we know about.

According to Bruce Blair, a former U.S. nuclear launch commander and current president of the Center for Defense Information in Washington, blips that could be mistaken for incoming missiles appear on Russian (and U.S.) radar screens every day. Says Blair: "Everything from peaceful satellites to space shuttles to wildfires present possibly confusing information for early warning systems."

Of the technology that makes up Russia's early warning system, an estimated 60 percent is past its service life. Most worrisome of all, Russia's global radar coverage--think of the "big board" in Dr. Strangelove--has deteriorated to the point where it is only fully operational between eight and 16 hours per day, leaving enormous holes in Russia's view of what is happening in its air space and over U.S. missile silos.

During the Norwegian crisis, the knowledge that no ICBMs had been launched from U.S. silos helped the Russians keep somewhat cool. Had the Russians been "blind," as they often are, they might have assumed that they were about to get slammed by a full strike. In another possible scenario, terrorists detonate a nuclear weapon on Russian soil during a period of radar blindness. Decision-makers, unable to trace the blast's origin, would likely assume it was a hostile missile strike.

Recognizing the gravity of this threat, Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin in 1998 announced plans to build a Joint U.S.-Russia Data Exchange Center. The project snagged on NATO's 1999 war in Kosovo, and today remains held up by the Pentagon's insistence that its radar data be filtered through U.S. Strategic Command before going to Moscow. As last reported by the Washington Post in 2001, the unfinished facility "sits empty and unrenovated in a leafy residential neighborhood in Moscow…serv[ing] mostly as a clandestine hangout for young beer drinkers."

The failure of the Joint Data Exchange Center has left experts on both sides shaking their heads. "This initiative is of the utmost importance," says Valery Yarynich, a retired colonel formerly with Russia's Strategic Rocket Forces.

"No serious technical problem [stands in the way] of coordinating data exchange," he says. "Any level of such cooperation would be useful in preventing accidental missile launches. The [Joint Data] initiative is being held up at present only because of mutual distrust between [the U.S. and Russia] in the nuclear area, in spite of repeated declarations about friendship, understanding, etc."

A more recent attempt to help Russia shore up its early warning system, the Russian American Observation Satellite Program (RAMOS), has also stalled. The plan originally called for the U.S. and Russia to develop its own observation satellite to be launched into low earth orbit. Each country would then be responsible for constructing a ground control station that would receive shared satellite data. After numerous fits and starts, the project now appears dead, as it's widely expected to be denied funding in President Bush's 2005 budget. Further dimming its prospects, a U.S.-Russian meeting scheduled to resolve technical legal issues surrounding RAMOS was abruptly cancelled by the Pentagon earlier this month. Some U.S. analysts point to the same mistrust mentioned by Yarynich.

"Despite President Bush's reminders that Russia is our friend, there is a residual Cold War group still hanging out in the Pentagon," says G. Wayne Glass of the University of Southern California. "The Missile Defense Agency in particular is competing with RAMOS for funding and has a motive for subterfuge. There is enough funding in the current budget to keep [RAMOS] going, but the [Republican] Senate won't fight for anything the White House doesn't include in [future] budgets. It is a lost opportunity."

Meanwhile, America's command and control system has its own problems. The network connecting U.S. launch centers to its Minuteman missiles is still in some cases powered by Eisenhower-era computers. Nor are the U.S. launch systems foolproof. In 1979, a training tape simulating a Russian surprise attack somehow made its way into the real system at the U.S. Strategic Air Command inside Cheyenne Mountain. Luckily, the officer in charge that day suspected the mistake and tracked it down. More recently, according to Bruce Blair, a classified Pentagon study found a back door into a military radio network that could be exploited to transmit phony launch orders.

These are just a few of the lapses and loopholes that have been reported. As U.S. and Russian officials dither about in distrust, the risk of launch by accident, sabotage or radar misreads continues to grow.

* * *

The possibility of Russia or the U.S. misinterpreting a situation has led many experts and planners in both countries to push for a policy of "launch-after-attack." This means attack orders would only be given after a nuclear detonation is recorded on the ground and its launch trajectory confirmed beyond doubt.

Another way to reduce the chance of accidental nuclear war is "de-alerting." This would entail taking missiles off a hair-trigger footing and adding steps to the physical launch procedure, thus lengthening the minimum response time to any attack. The argument for doing this rests on the assumption that both sides have enough missiles to absorb a first strike and still guarantee the destruction of the enemy after the facts are in. This would provide an enormous margin of safety against starting a war over a suspicious weather balloon, as well as reduce the risk of accidental or terrorist launch.

But the Pentagon's declaration of its intent to achieve decisive U.S. military advantage--"full spectrum dominance"--over any conceivable adversary does not encourage the kind of thinking that leads to de-alerting and other trust-building measures, in Russia or anywhere else. Quite the opposite. And this is where U.S. policy after the Cold War enters into the picture.

Russian hypersensitivity about U.S. intentions doesn't exist in a vacuum. While the paranoia and bitterness at the highest levels of the Russian military are partly a result of history and disposition, U.S. actions can modulate how this paranoia and bitterness translates into policy.

In 1991, a recently retired member of the General Staff named General Yuriy Kirshin gave a talk in Washington, DC, in which he discussed the dilemma of overwhelming U.S. power in the face of Russian weakness. "The most important thing the U.S. can do to contribute to world peace," he said, "[is] convince the [Russian] General Staff that the U.S. does not want to conquer the world."

Since the end of the Cold War, the dialectic has been clear: Whenever the U.S. flexes its military muscle in breach of international law, announces hegemonic ambitions or presses for strategic advantage, Russia (and, increasingly, China) has responded with sharp rhetoric and a recalibration of its nuclear doctrine. Operation Desert Fox, the bombing of Belgrade, the expansion of NATO eastward, the declaration of America's intent to "own" and weaponize space, the proposed building of a missile defense system and other high-tech weapons that threaten the effectiveness of Russia's nuclear deterrent--all are instances in which U.S. policy after the Cold War has sharpened tensions with Russia and increased the risk of nuclear war.

(Bill Clinton's decision to begin the bombing of Yugoslavia while Russian foreign minister Yevginy Primakov was en route to Washington for emergency talks is a particularly brazen example. The bombing sent the General Staff into a frothing rage and seemed to confirm their worst suspicions. NATO-Russian relations have yet to fully recover from the Kosovo war.)

And on it goes into the future. The Iraq invasion, President Bush's stream of imperial white papers, NATO's imminent "big bang" and plans to develop a new generation of bunker-busting "mini-nukes" have all quickened the pattern in which U.S. policy sweats up the palms of an already nervous and distrustful Russian General Staff, not to mention the rest of the world. Cap it off with the recent announcement that the number of interceptors in the U.S. national missile defense system will be doubled while a new generation of nuclear weapons is pursued, and one is forgiven for wondering if anybody at the Pentagon or the White House has any appreciation of how foreign threat perception can adversely affect U.S. national security.

* * *

Despite the growing risk of accidental launch based on bad information and jittery launch commanders, there is in this country no significant public discussion about nuclear policy or the massive arsenals on both sides of the old Cold War divide. Beneath the silence, the nuclear bureaucracy within the Department of Energy continues to be lavishly funded, fueling an inherently innovative system of research and development.

Under the multi-billion-dollar Stockpile Stewardship Program, the U.S. nuclear arsenal is today being upgraded and expanded, keeping government scientists and engineers busy designing new generations and classes of missiles. Plans are being discussed for the weaponization of space and funding is slated for new plutonium "pit" factories in several locations, including Los Alamos, where the hearts of future hydrogen bombs will be constructed. (California senator Dianne Feinstein is leading the battle to delay the appropriation of funds.)

In short, America's nuclear weapons program is back to mid-1980s levels of funding and activity, while public interest is stuck at mid-1990s levels.

At the same time, a political sea change in nuclear thinking has been occurring in Washington, where it was once universally accepted that nuclear weapons were horrible things and that disarmament was a noble, if distant, goal. This was implicit in our signing of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, which paid lip service to the promise of eventual major power disarmament.

No more. For today's right wing, there is no such thing as a bad weapon--there are only bad countries. This thinking is represented starkly in American threats to use nukes against non-nuclear enemies, as stated in 2002's official Nuclear Posture Review.

Even if the current administration can restrain itself from acting on this new philosophy, such thinking could already be percolating down through the defense establishment. At a conference last month sponsored by the Nuclear Policy Research Institute, General Charles Horner of the U.S. Air Force warned of "a danger of creating a generation in the military that sees nuclear weapons as an acceptable form of warfare."

That the nuclear firewall is being lowered even before it is breached is evident in Russia's evolving nuclear doctrine as well. The Russians have made it clear that they now reserve the right to use nuclear weapons even in the face of conventional threats. This is a post-Cold War development for both countries.

In the realm of bilateral arms control, Bush and Putin share a common lack of interest. The only treaty on nuclear arms they have signed so far is the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT), a convention with no verification provisions that does not require the destruction of a single warhead or weapon. It simply states that by Dec. 31, 2012, neither side will deploy more than 2200 strategic nuclear warheads. If even five percent of this number were exchanged, it would mean the total destruction of both countries.

The Bush administration's disdain for meaningful arms control measures even spreads into a lack of concern for securing Russia's nuclear materials from sabotage and theft, a crucial component of any honestly fought "war on terror." The Cooperative Threat Reduction Program, created to help the countries of the former U.S.S.R. guard and destroy nuclear materials, is viewed by the White House and the Republican majority in Congress as just another liberal foreign aid program; its funding was slashed in the 2003 budget. Former senator Sam Nunn, one of the program's creators, is currently out raising his own private funds for its full and future implementation.

Any Democrat that replaces Bush in 2004 will have his hands full just rolling back the minute hand on the nuclear clock to where it stood in 2000. Pushing it back further will be a more difficult project still, but that doing so is an urgent and front burner task there can be no doubt. In averting nuclear disaster after the Cold War, we've all been very lucky. But the thing about luck is, it eventually runs out.

Originally published in New York Press.

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