A Real Nuclear Option for the Nominees
Averting "inadvertent" war in two easy steps.
Blair has long been arguing that the two nuclear superpowers' post-Cold War detargeting is merely "cosmetic." He contends that the original target coordinates are still in the missile memory system and could easily be retargeted in moments via computer.
In addition, Blair has long warned that some of the current warning-and-launch protocols leave almost no time for the president and the nuclear chain of command to adequately evaluate whether a warning signal is a false positive or a serious threat. His Oslo proposals have two key objectives: true de-targeting, and extending the time we have to evaluate warnings.
Of course we all think the days when we have to be concerned about such things are gone. The United States and the former Soviet Union, though still geopolitical rivals, are no longer locked in the ideological death struggle that entailed a nuclear "balance of terror," the threat of "mutually assured destruction," to keep both from inflicting nuclear war on the planet.
But the chance of accident remains (there were two extremely close calls and many lesser ones during the Cold War), and the danger of accident or misinterpretation of innocent artifacts on the radar or satellite screens grows greater when the tensions between the superpowers begin to ratchet up again. As they have, alas, recently but unmistakably.
In the spring 2008 issue of the Journal of International Security Affairs, Victor Mizin, the director of studies at the independent Moscow-based think tank the Institute of Strategic Assessments, has a piece called "Russia's 'Nuclear Renaissance,' " which instances the following troubling aspects of the recent U.S.-Russian relationship:
1) Public measures such as Russia's withdrawal from the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe Treaty with its inspection provisions and Russia's threats to withdraw from the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty.
2) "Russia's efforts to boost the power and reach of its nuclear forces … an extensive armament plan worth $200 billion … entailing massive, unprecedented procurement of advanced weaponry (including a new generation of advanced ballistic missiles)."
3) The stunning but not widely reported fact that "Moscow has threatened"—in response to U.S. and European plans for a limited ballistic missile defense—"to retarget nuclear missiles on Europe."
4) The fact that all of the above "suggests that Russian generals still view a nuclear war with either the United States or NATO as theoretically possible. ... On a very basic level nothing has changed since Soviet times."
Nothing has changed? Perhaps that's hyperbole, but such developments certainly raise the level of noise in the strategic background and might carry weight in a warning assessment drill at a place like NORAD's Cheyenne Mountain.
According to a recent paper by Blair (whose account of these procedures has been made public in the Congressional Record), an "assessment drill ... is supposed to yield a preliminary assessment three minutes after the arrival of the initial sensor data. Analogous drills take place under comparable deadlines in Russia. A rush of adrenaline and rote processing of checklists, often accompanied by confusion, characterize the process." Rising levels of "strategic tension" between the superpowers may lend more credibility to what are actually false-positive warning signals.
The time pressure to make momentous decisions is the key problem. After the three minutes are up, if the warnings are assessed as "serious," there follows a quick conference between the president and his nuclear advisers "whereupon, on the U.S. side, the commanding duty officer at Strategic Command headquarters in Omaha, Neb., would brief the U.S. president on the nature of the apparent attack, the wide array of response options and their anticipated consequences [human casualties and physical damage]." Blair noted that "the time allocated for this briefing is as little as 30 seconds," and that afterward the president's "decision window is typically twelve minutes, although under certain conditions it can be much shorter."
The reason for the 12-minute deadline is that missiles launched from offshore submarines can reach coastal targets in less than 15 minutes.
So it's insanely short-fused as it is. But when I spoke to Blair in Washington last week, he noted an additional cause for concern: cyber-attacks.
He pointed to the preface of his Oslo paper, which focused on how "information warfare" in cyberspace heightened the threat of "inadvertent" nuclear war.
"The nuclear command systems today operate in an intense information battleground," Blair wrote, "on which more than 20 nations including Russia, China, and North Korea have developed dedicated computer attack programs. These programs deploy viruses to disable, confuse, and delay nuclear command and warning processes in other nations. At the brink of conflict, nuclear command and warning networks around the world may be besieged by electronic intruders whose onslaught degrades the coherence and rationality of nuclear decision-making. The potential for perverse consequences with computer-launched weapons on hair-trigger is clear."
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.
Illustration by Charlie Powell.