Averting "inadvertent" nuclear war in two easy steps.

Scrutinizing culture.
May 9 2008 2:33 PM

A Real Nuclear Option for the Nominees

Averting "inadvertent" war in two easy steps.

Illustration by Charlie Powell. Click image to expand.

Do you know about this? On Nov. 22, Thanksgiving Day, 2007, two U.S. jets were scrambled from the 90th Fighter Squadron at Elmendorf Air Force Base in Alaska to intercept two Russian long-range "strategic" bombers (strategic being a euphemism for nuclear-capable) in the skies over the Aleutian Islands as the bombers approached Alaskan air space.

The U.S. F-22 jets monitored the Russian Bear H bombers at close range for a few minutes before the bombers turned back. This encounter was one of the consequences of Vladimir Putin's decision, announced last August, to resume regular "strategic flights" of its nuclear bombers. Most reports said that the bombers were not carrying nukes, that the flights were ostensibly for "training" and "readiness" purposes, although nuclear armed missions were not explicitly ruled out. And probing the state of U.S. and NATO warning and defense systems and reminding the world of Russia's superpower status may have been on the agenda as well.

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The Thanksgiving Day encounter was not an isolated incident. While the resumption of "strategic flights" was fairly widely reported, the number and frequency of such subsequent intercept "incidents" have not been. A Canadian air force major who spoke to me from North American Aerospace Defense Command headquarters in the hollowed-out core of Cheyenne Mountain in Colorado, the central node in the U.S. nuclear-attack warning system, confirmed the details of the Aleutian incident and said there have been at least 17 such incidents in NORAD's U.S. and Canadian sphere of operations since August.

In each case, the U.S. jets were scrambled to intercept, he said, because the Russian bombers refused to file a flight plan and just showed up out of the blue approaching NORAD-patrolled airspace.

The Aleutian encounter first came to my attention in a relatively obscure U.K. military trade magazine called Air Forces Monthly, which also reported similar incidents involving NATO jets and Russian strategic bombers over the Atlantic and Arctic seas and cited a Russian major general saying, "NATO jets approached at what he considered could be potentially dangerous distances—within 16-25 feet ... wingtip-to-wingtip" and concluding that "the fact no emergency situation had arisen ... was a testament to the flying skills of both sides."

And one of the few mainstream press stories on this subject, in the Denver Post, contained this disquieting quote:

While odds are low that these increasing Russian forays will cause a catastrophe, "there's more of a risk of something accidental happening," Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen said.

Something accidental happening? The odds of "catastrophe" may be low, but how low? And can they be lowered? I've touched on the largely unexamined risks of accidental nuclear war before, but now that we know U.S. and NATO jets are buzzing Russian strategic bombers, raising concerns about "dangerous situations" and "catastrophe," I think it's important to press the question now when both political parties are writing their platforms. Let's challenge both presidential nominees to place the problem of reducing the risk of accidental nuclear war on their agendas. Because while "the odds are low," the costs of a catastrophe would be unimaginably high.

In my last column on this subject, I suggested it was time for both the United States and Russia to publicly define and defend their warning and launch procedures. I've now come upon a persuasive set of concrete, achievable steps both countries can take to lower the risk of an accidental launch. These steps would extend the all-too-brief window we now have to evaluate attack warnings, the better to distinguish "false positives" from the real thing. And thus extend the time the presidents of both nuclear superpowers have to decide how to respond. Our current warning decision procedures—both U.S. and Russian—make our nuclear arsenals all too vulnerable to accidental or unauthorized launch. To inadvertence, as the nuclear euphemism has it.

It's time to avert "inadvertence."

Not long after I read about the U.S. fighter jet intercept of Russian bombers, I took myself down to Washington to talk to Bruce G. Blair, president of the World Security Institute, a D.C. think tank, and perhaps the world's leading expert on both the U.S. and the former Soviet Union's nuclear warning and launch postures, their "command and control" systems. It turns out he'd recently delivered a paper on "de-alerting"—steps that could be taken to reduce the risk of accidental nuclear war—at an Oslo conference, and they merit close attention by whomever will be in charge of these matters in the next administration. For the most part, his proposals are neither hawkish nor dovey. They're just smart. And urgent.

Bruce Blair is the former minuteman missile crewman and Brookings nuclear systems savant who published a study called "Strategic Command and Control" in the mid-'80s. Its analysis of the flaws in our systems attracted the attention of both the Russians, who would later consult with him in the post-Soviet era, and the U.S. Congress, which got him highly classified access to U.S. warning and launch systems to delve further into the flaws. His Congressional Record testimony is the closest unclassified look at the workings of the nuclear attack launch and warning systems we have. It reveals how poorly and patchily thought-out these systems were. According to Blair, the systems in place now have not been much improved.

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