How Obama Could Reduce the Risk of Nuclear War Right Now
Minuteman missiles in remote silos are a thermonuclear accident waiting to happen.
Why didn't rage against unsafe nuclear reactors after the Fukushima accident spill over into rage against the presence on own soil of nuclear devices that could murder millions more with a single accident? Perhaps the mind-set is there, but maybe the problem is that most of the missiles and warheads are buried underground in silos or are undersea in subs, while nuclear reactor towers loom ominously and conspicuously over the landscape.
Each of those 1,550 warheads we'll max out at in 2018 is in essence a flying nuclear power plant, only one that is designed to explode and kill. One Fukushima was terrible. Why is the prospect of 100 Hiroshimas—which could be the consequence of an accidental nuclear war between the super powers or a regional nuclear war among the seven other nuclear armed nations—considered a less urgent concern? There have been occasional protests, for instance against submarine-based Trident missile production facilities, but when the new START was struggling to get ratified, I didn't notice any marches or rallies in support of it by the people who protest reactors. I think this is a serious issue that calls for some rethinking on the part of that movement's leadership.
But to return to my treaty/executive order. To understand it, one must understand a long-entrenched but no longer essential concept of the Pentagon's: the sacred strategic nuclear "triad."
This was the Cold War "balance of terror" architecture, a fear-of-surprise-attack nuclear arsenal that called for three types of nuclear delivery vehicles. They were manned bombers; submarine missile-launching "platforms;" and the now-pointless, dangerous, hair-trigger alert, mistake-vulnerable silo-based missiles scattered in deep holes across the badlands of the western United States and the bleak steppes of Russia.
The goals of the triad (mirrored in the Soviet Union's tri-partite nuclear dispositions) were to diminish the chance that a surprise attack could demolish all our methods of reprisal and thus defeat deterrence, the fear of retaliation which supposedly kept us safe from attack.
The silo-based Minuteman missiles were key to this because, as their name suggested, they had the capability of being launched in minutes, flying off to Moscow (or Washington) before they could be destroyed in their protective sheaths, which nobody believed protected them from multiple megaton strikes.
The need for speed dictated a "use it or lose it," launch-on-warning philosophy when it came to signs of an attack. There were several horrifying close calls on both sides—including one in which our nuclear warning center mistook a flock of geese over Canada for incoming nuclear missiles. In another case, the Russians mistook the launch of a Norwegian weather satellite rocket for a NATO surprise attack. These episodes illustrate the peril of what in Pentagon jargon is called "inadvertence"—a mistaken missile launch that could touch off an unintentional nuclear exchange and kill hundreds of millions. In both cases we were lucky. Scariest of all was the incident in 1980 recounted in a memoir by former National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski. Training tapes of an all-out attack were mistaken for real, and Brzezinski was minutes away from calling the president. And on the other side of the world, a similar glitch was intercepted at the last minute by a Col. Stanislav Petrov before he called the Kremlin. We were lucky again. Will we always be?
The silo-based missiles have been "detargeted," we've been told, but can easily be retargeted in seconds with a burst of code containing—say, Moscow's GPS coordinates. They've been detargeted but not de-alerted (something I called for back 2008 in Slate). They're still ready to go, at a moment's notice, vulnerable to hackers despite the claims by some security experts they're "air gapped from the internet"—but think USB sticks.
Nobody has yet explained the incident in late 2010 when 50 nuclear missiles in Wyoming stopped responding to the C3I system for a frightening period of time. The Pentagon hastened to say, hey, no problem, don’t worry that our computer system isn't capable of error-proof command and control of 50 nuclear missiles for just a little while. The episode was not confidence-inducing, and it reminded us how much world-destroying power is entrusted to glitch-prone computer architecture. The fact that this sensational story was virtually ignored is further evidence of head-in-the sand consciousness we have about nuclear power.
When I discussed the matter of our "launch posture" with a Pentagon general who specialized in nuclear affairs, he refused to say whether these missiles could still be launched on the basis of "dual phenomenology." This obfuscatory euphemism means that once we receive signals from two electronic tracking systems—radar and satellite—that something on the screens looks like an attack, we'd face the "use it or lose it" choice. We'd have to "launch on warning" before we knew that the warnings were not "false positives" like the flock of geese. Fortunately, it's unlikely there could be two simultaneous false positives in our dual phenomenology, but a statistician's analysis has argued that eventually it would happen. One prominent statistics expert, Martin Hellman, one of the inventors of the "trap door" and "public key" methods of encryption for the Internet, calculated a 1-in-10 chance of a nuclear exchange in the next decade, and Scientific American put it at a not-so-reassuring 1-in-30 for the same period.
Ron Rosenbaum is the author of The Shakespeare Wars and Explaining Hitler. His latest book is How the End Begins: The Road to a Nuclear World War III.