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Bush and Putin have an opportunity to assure their nukes can't destroy U.S., Russia

ASK THIS | June 29, 2007

When the American and Russian presidents meet to discuss the threat of nuclear weapons, will they say anything about the fact that they each keep more than a thousand warheads aimed at each other on hair-trigger alert?

By Morton Mintz

When George W. Bush invited Vladimir Putin to spend two days at his father's home in Kennebunkport, Maine, to continue their "intensive bilateral dialogue," the White House emphasized that "[c]ooperation between the United States and Russia is important [in] stopping the spread of weapons of mass destruction."

Very true. The two presidents have an opportunity--one that is theirs alone--to assure that weapons of mass destruction they command will not devastate Planet Earth. But notably, the White House announcement didn't say whether that opportunity is on the agenda of their dialogue on Sunday and Monday.

The opportunity arises from a stark fact. The United States and Russia each continue to keep on hair-trigger more than a thousand nuclear warheads that are aimed at each other. The warheads are armed, fueled, and poised to launch on receiving two or three short, coded computer commands. Within a few minutes, they could unleash 70,000 times the explosive firepower of the atomic bomb that leveled Hiroshima at programmed, pre-determined targets--New York, Moscow, Washington, St. Petersburg.

Even that horrific explosive power could be a substantial underestimate. Because of "uncertainties in the actual loading and explosive yield of Russian weapons," it could be “as high as 104,000 times," Bruce G. Blair, president of the World Security Institute in Washington, told me in an interview. Long recognized as the nation's foremost authority on nuclear command and control, Blair was a nuclear missile launch officer in the early 1970s.

Blair has warned for years that a nuclear war that would extinguish all of us could take place within a half hour. "It would be, basically, a nuclear war by check-list, by rote," he has said.

While seeking the Republican presidential nomination, Bush himself publicly recognized the peril. "The United States should remove as many weapons as possible from high-alert, hair-trigger status-another unnecessary vestige of Cold War confrontation," he declared in a Washington speech in May 2000. "For two nations at peace, keeping so many weapons on high alert may create unacceptable risks of accidental or unauthorized launch." (News reports on the speech ignored the declaration, focusing instead on his commitment to Star Wars.)

"There has been a gradual decline and decommissioning of warheads and missiles because of the reductions called for by strategic arms agreements," Blair told me. The most recent agreement was the Moscow Treaty on Strategic Offensive Reductions, which Bush and Putin signed in May 2002. Blair said the treaty "requires reductions down to 2,200 warheads in the active operational arsenal on each side by midnight, Dec 31, 2012. The day after, it expires!"

Here are some questions reporters could put to the two presidents at their expected news conference after the meeting ends:

Q. If  the Cold War is truly over, why do the Kremlin and the White House require their strategic forces to be prepared to fight a large-scale nuclear war against each other at a moment's notice?

Q. How many nuclear warheads could Russia launch against the United States within minutes, and vice versa?

Q. Does keeping nuclear warheads on hair-trigger alert pose real risks of a launch by mistake, without authority, or by terrorists hacking into the nuclear communications network?

Q. In your discussions, did the subject of taking taking these warheads off hair-trigger alert come up? If it did, did you come to a decision? If you did not discuss de-alerting, would you explain why you didn't?

Q. How many nuclear warheads have been taken off hair-trigger alert by the United States? By Russia?

Q. In 1985, while the leader of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev joined Ronald Reagan in declaring that "a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought." This January, he wrote in a Wall Street Journal opinion piece that "[t]he goal of the eventual elimination of nuclear weapons has been essentially forgotten."  Was Gorbachev correct?

Q. Gorbachev also said that the United States and Russia "must put the goal...back on the agenda, not in a distant future but as soon as possible" Will you commit to doing that?

That de-alerting has gone unmentioned in connection with the Kennebunkport meeting is consistent with past practice. For example, when Bush and Putin  nnounced that they'd signed the Moscow Treaty they said nothing  about it. (The press didn't report the omission.) Their silence on de-alerting is emblematic.

The United States and Russia "spend 25 times more money to preserve their Cold War nuclear deterrent postures than they spend on shoring up security against theft," Blair wrote in "Primed and Ready," an article in the February issue of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists that was reprinted in the May/June issue The Defense Monitor.

In "Primed and Ready," too, Blair laid out a comprehensive and compelling case for de-alerting and, implicitly, for reporters to press Bush and Putin on the long-neglected issue. A few chilling-to-the-bone excerpts:

"[I]f early warning satellites or ground radar detected missiles in flight, both sides would attempt to assess whether a real nuclear attack was under way within a strict and short deadline. Under Cold War procedures that are still in practice today, early warning crews manning their consoles 24/7 have only three minutes to reach a preliminary conclusion. Such occurrences happen on a daily basis, sometimes more than once per day….

"[I]f an apparent nuclear missile threat is perceived, then an emergency teleconference would be convened between the president and his top nuclear advisers. On the U.S. side, the top officer on duty at Strategic Command in Omaha, Neb., would brief the president on his nuclear options and their consequences. That officer is allowed all of 30 seconds to deliver the briefing.

"Then the U.S. or Russian president would have to decide whether to retaliate, ...On the U.S. side, the time allowed to decide would range between zero and 12 minutes, depending on the scenario. Russia operates under even tighter deadlines because of the short flight time of U.S. Trident submarine missiles on forward patrol in the North Atlantic. Such rapid implementation of war plans leaves no room for real deliberation, rational thought, or national leadership….

"[T]here is inherent risk of human or technical error that results in a mistaken or unauthorized launch…..

"Keeping hundreds of missiles on hair-trigger alert...also raises the question of whether they could be fired by unauthorized actors who manage to hack into the nuclear communications networks or even the actual launch circuits."

Posted by Kim Reading -
07/08/2007, 05:43 AM

I don't think that MAD is really the issue here. I think that Putin was trying to evade criticism of his increasingly dictatorial powers in Russia (and he succeeded) by attacking the missle shield. Now Bush and Putin are talking about what they were supposed to have been talking about in the first place.

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