Averting "inadvertent" nuclear war in two easy steps.

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.


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.

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."

"Perverse consequences" seems to understate the matter. In a footnote, Blair cites one scary example: the discovery of "an unprotected electronic backdoor into the naval broadcast communications network used to transmit launch orders by radio to the U.S. Trident deterrent submarine fleet. Unauthorized persons including terrorists might have been able to seize electronic control of shore-based radio transmitters ... and actually inject a launch order into the network. The deficiency was taken so seriously that new launch order validation protocols had to be devised, and Trident crews had to undergo special training to learn them."

Is this the only "electronic back door"? Or is it just the only one we've discovered? And if an unauthorized launch order could be insinuated into the system by hackers, why not a false-attack warning, which could generate an authorized (but mistaken) launch order? So in addition to the potential for accidental nuclear war, there is an even more disturbing threat of deliberate-but-unauthorized nuclear launches.

This cyber threat offers yet another powerful argument for Blair's de-alerting proposals.

His plan has four phases, but I'd like to focus on the first two, which seem to me to be the simplest to implement, the least likely to arouse opposition, and the most likely to reducing anxiety about nuclear "inadvertence."

In Phase 1, he recommends "revising the nuclear war plans to eliminate massive attack options and launch-on-warning from the repertoire of response options available to nuclear decision-makers." In Blair's vision, massive attacks wouldn't be impossible; they just wouldn't be an instantly implementable, one-button option in the president's "nuclear football." Neither side has an interest in deliberately annihilating the other and suffering annihilation in return. Why not acknowledge that and remove the capability from instant "inadvertent" use?

In addition, Blair suggests that "the strategic missile forces could also be de-targeted, stripped of all wartime aimpoints." At the moment, missiles are de-targeted, but—Blair says—all the old target coordinates are still programmed into computers, and missiles could be retargeted with the push of a button. In Blair's plan, retargeting the missiles would take hours rather than minutes, and missiles would be less subject to a cyber-spoofed launch order.

In Phase 2 of Blair's Oslo proposals, "strategic missiles in silos would be isolated from external launch control, by flipping a safety switch inside each silo, as was done in 1991 when former President Bush de-alerted nearly one-half of the U.S. Minuteman force almost overnight." De-alerting the rest of our missiles would prevent an electronic or physical takeover of a launch control node from causing an unauthorized launch. (That's because re-alerting the missiles would take at least 24 hours.) The Russians would simultaneously match our measures.

Blair also proposes that submarines at sea refrain from installing a crucial element of their launch system, the so-called "inverters," which would similarly preclude an inadvertent launch.

The combined effect of the two phases of his proposals, if adopted by both superpowers, would be to create a kind of time-delay firewall that would replace the short-fuse, hair-trigger, launch-on-warning, accident-prone command-and-control systems both nuclear arsenals retained from the Cold War. And the overly hasty mistaken decisions they leave us vulnerable to now.

I'll let you evaluate his third and fourth phase proposals—separating warheads from missiles and taking them out of the silos and putting them into storage—for yourself (the whole Oslo paper is here), but they would seem to require more elaborate negotiation, more commitment to complete nuclear abolition, and would likely arouse more opposition on both sides. They probably couldn't be adopted as easily as Phases 1 and 2 could be.

And there's no reason a version of them shouldn't be inserted into both parties' platforms, along with a pledge for a comprehensive study of our nuclear warning and launch procedures. It's hard to think of anything that should have a higher priority than saving the world from "inadvertently" destroying itself.

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