Obama, Putin, You Can Prevent an Accidental Nuclear War Right Now

The future of fusion and fission.
Jan. 23 2013 3:37 PM

How Obama Could Reduce the Risk of Nuclear War Right Now

Minuteman missiles in remote silos are a thermonuclear accident waiting to happen.

US Air Force Minutemen Missiles.
Peacekeeper missile, left, and two versions of the Minuteman missile at Warren Air Force base.

Photo by Michael Smith/Getty Images.

Mr. Obama, Mr. Putin, I have a treaty I'd like you to sign. Or barring that, an executive order; that’s easier. A nuclear arms agreement. But a different kind of nuclear arms agreement from the dead end we've reached now. One that could restart the process that has stalled since the 2011 signing of the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty. The process that brought you, President Obama, a Nobel Prize after you called for "a world without nuclear weapons." One that could bring you, President Putin, your own Nobel.

This eminently doable agreement would shift the focus from reducing the number of nuclear warheads—the Cold War nuclear treaty paradigm—to reducing the kind of nukes that are operational and still pose a threat of accidental nuclear war. It would focus on "delivery vehicles," one kind of vehicle in particular.

Sure, I'd like to reduce the number as well. I'd like to abolish all nuclear weapons if that pipe dream were possible. (I explore the problems and obstacles this would pose in a recent Scientific American article.) And I'd even like us to continue down the road of gradual reductions as far as we can go. But it's clear from the agonizing START ratification negotiations in the U.S. Senate and the Russian Duma that any new treaty for further reductions in the number of weapons is going to be a nonstarter, so to speak. There is no sign the administration is giving the matter any priority anymore. It was too exhausting rolling the rock of treaty up the Hill. It will take only 34 Republican senators to kill any reduction treaty. And kill it they will.

But my proposal is something I believe could be accomplished without the formal treaty process, by executive order in the United States and executive decree in Russia. The president, as commander in chief, has the ability to make discretionary decisions, such as what kind of delivery vehicles should be used, without consulting the Senate. This is something he could do unilaterally if Putin doesn't want to go along, and despite the fear that surrounds any unilateral nuclear act, it would actually make us—and them and the whole world—safer.

For those who haven't followed the relationship between delivery vehicle types and nuclear weapons treaty negotiations, this is the state of play. The 2011 START was saddled with many caveats and add-ons by the Senate and the Russian Duma that make withdrawal from the treaty by either side for any number of reasons (mostly involving the Pentagon's love and the Russians' hatred for anti-ballistic missile defense "shields") an easy matter. Nonetheless, it promises that both the U.S. and Russian military will reduce the number of operational nuclear warheads from approximately 2,300 on each side (most likely more) to 1,550 by February 2018. And the number of delivery vehicles—missile-silos, bombers, submarine missile tubes—to about 800.

The treaty does not, however, specify the number of delivery vehicles of each type the two parties can deploy. How many must be on subs, how many in silos, how many in bombers. This makes the type of delivery vehicles a decision for the president or Pentagon, not a treaty matter. This is where my RE-START treaty (or executive order) comes in. I propose that the next smart, practicable step in the long-delayed, post-Cold War denuclearization of the super powers should be the abolition of all our silo-based missiles—the most dangerous, vulnerable, hackable, accident-prone of delivery vehicles. There are some 450 of them in our silos now, ready to fly.

I've been down in one of those silos. I later learned how one could evade the then-current, supposedly failsafe "simultaneous two-man, two-key launch requirement" in about 15 minutes from some missile crewmen who demonstrated how it could be done with a spoon and a string. That flaw has supposedly been fixed, but who knows what others lurk. (I describe this in my recent book How the End Begins: The Road to a Nuclear World War III). Cold War congressional investigations revealed far deeper, far more dangerous flaws in the "command and control" system (as it was then known), which contemporary students of the matter have argued persuasively have not been fixed. (Except that "command and control" has been given a sexy new Pentagon jargon tag: "C3I," for "command, control, communication and intelligence." Don't you feel safer now?)

If some demonic hacker or simple signal glitch causes an inadvertent launch toward the Russian Federation, it might not help for us to IM the Kremlin saying, “Sorry, it’s all a mistake, your city being vaporized and all. We don’t want a war.” Analysts I’ve talked to (including a designer of the Russian system) agree that the Russian ICBM launch warning system known as “perimeter” is also on hair-trigger alert. Even if the Kremlin wanted to, it might not be able to prevent a major missile response to our accident. In other words, worst-case scenario, we’re all one mistake away from a global nuclear war.

Before disclosing the rationale for my proposed treaty, I'd like to ask a question that has always puzzled me. The president will need the support of activists across the board for any denuclearization he embarks upon. Why aren't opponents of nuclear energy reactors in the forefront of anti-nuclear weapons activism?

Yes, there is some overlap among activists, but from my perspective as a student of the culture of nuclear weapons foes, I haven't see anti-nuclear-energy activists put a lot of energy into abolishing planet-destroying nuclear weapons. In fact, hardly anyone except concerned scientists and former nuclear missile crewmen do. (See my Slate story about one of the first crewmen protesters.)