Nuclear weapons are hard to talk about. I’ll readily admit that, even as someone who works professionally on these matters. We have to cope daily with news about joblessness and the fragile economy, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, terrorism and disturbing signs of climate change. The Cold War ended almost a generation ago, and the grass-roots nuclear disarmament movement has faded. But because these nuclear arsenals are still with us, America and Russia have unfinished business.
A significant event for nuclear weapons will happen soon – the Senate will consider whether to consent to ratification by the President of the New Strategic Arms Control Treaty (which has the upbeat acronym “New START”), signed by President Obama and Russian President Medvedev at Prague Castle this past spring. So why does the treaty matter, and could I do something to help it?
State secrecy, and the complexity of Russian and US nuclear forces, makes the topic of nuclear weapons difficult to come to grips with. Out of graduate school in the late 1990s I sought a job at NRDC because I wanted to join in the research here that brings information about the bomb out in the open. I encountered some basic, big-picture facts that make up my world view on nuclear weapons, and affect how I see New START. So here they are in a nutshell:
We Still Live in a World Filled with Nuclear Weapons – The operational nuclear forces of the United States and Russia together number some 7,000 weapons, and are deployed at sea, on land and in the air. Fleets of US missile-carrying submarines patrol the Atlantic Ocean from a base in Kings Bay, Georgia, and the Pacific Ocean from a base in Bangor, Washington. Four hundred and fifty intercontinental ballistic missile silos are arrayed across the high plains of Colorado, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota and Wyoming. US Aircraft carrying nuclear bombs are still stationed in Europe. Russia bases its nuclear missile submarine fleet near the Arctic Circle, in the Murmansk Region, and in the Far East on the volcano-covered Kamchatka Peninsula. Along with its missile silo fields mirroring those of the United States, Russia deploys nuclear weapons mounted on massive trucks that lumber through remote Siberian forests, waiting for launch orders. Many more nuclear weapons are kept in reserve by the United States and Russia, and are held in the smaller arsenals of other states – France, the United Kingdom, China, India, Pakistan, Israel, and North Korea
Nuclear Weapons Still Bind Us to Russia as Mutual Hostages – There is only one country today that could completely destroy the United States in a sudden, apocalyptic nuclear strike: Russia. And, similarly, the United States could wipe out Russia. Each side could do so with only a small fraction of their current nuclear forces, detonating powerful nuclear weapons over all major cities, calling down massive firestorms and spreading radioactive fallout on the winds. This “nuclear deterrent relationship” means that the two countries are bound together in a profound way. The United States prepares 24-7 to execute a rapid, massive nuclear strike with about one-third of its missile forces ready to launch within some minutes of detecting an incoming attack, in order to deter Russia – and Russia does the same. These Cold War nuclear postures have proved difficult to wind down, and while nuclear war between the United States and Russia is less likely today than in the times of the Soviet Union, deterrence means both countries are still ready for it.
Nuclear War Could begin by Accident – One of the most chilling nuclear weapons incidents I’ve read about occurred in 1995 when scientists launched a research rocket out of Norway to study the aurora borealis, and it was mistakenly interpreted by Russian radars as the beginning of a US nuclear strike from a submarine on patrol off shore. Because US and Russian nuclear forces are still prepared to launch after warning of a missile attack, but before the attacking nuclear weapons actually strike their targets, Russian President Boris Yeltsin had about ten minutes to decide whether or not to launch his missiles once the alarm was sounded. For me this incident shows how failures of technology could trigger nuclear catastrophe even during peaceful times, and how nuclear deterrence means we depend both on our military technology and on Russia’s to avoid catastrophe.
Nuclear War Might Result from Failures of Military Command – Many individuals work in the nuclear forces of the United States and Russia. Chains of command and procedures are supposed to track the thousands of nuclear weapons and keep them under control. In 2007 a B-52 Stratofortress bomber flew across the central United States inadvertently carrying nuclear-armed cruise missiles attached to its wings, which had been loaded by mistake. For hours, no one knew the nuclear weapons were missing from North Dakota or sitting on a runway in Louisiana. A mistake like this was never supposed to happen but nonetheless it did: people and organizations are fallible. Where nuclear weapons are concerned, mistakes can lead to the unthinkable. And because we are bound to Russia in a nuclear deterrent relationship, we rely on the reliability of the Russian chain of command and control procedures too, not just on our own.
Defending against Russia’s Nuclear Deterrent is Not Possible – President Ronald Reagan’s famous “Star Wars” speech given in 1983 still echoes today. The United States has missile defense systems and seeks to improve them. However this technology under the most favorable conditions could cope with only a small salvo of long-range missiles. It is not remotely possible for the United States to defend against Russian deterrent nuclear forces conducting a strike numbering in the hundreds of attacking nuclear warheads. For Russians, US missile defense technology remains a concern but not at the nuclear arsenal sizes limited by New START. Missile defense does not offer a “Get- Out-of-Jail-Free” card that the United States can use on its own – the fact is that we are stuck in the perils of mutual nuclear deterrence until, in cooperation with Russia, we decide to change it.
So given the still large numbers of nuclear weapons on alert in the United States and Russia, risks from accidents or from human mistakes, and the inescapable fact of our deterrent relationship with Russia, my nuclear weapons worldview points me in the direction of New START. A reasonable path out of these left-over Cold War dangers is for the United States and Russia to work together to lower the numbers of nuclear weapons in our arsenals, shrinking the dangers.
New START would reduce by about one-third the number of nuclear weapons that could be deployed on intercontinental missiles. New START also brings with it cooperation and knowledge-sharing activities for Americans and Russians which are important in a deterrent relationship – activities like mutual inspections of nuclear weapons sites, notifications and data exchanges for weapon systems covered by the treaty. By itself New START will not eliminate the perils of the nuclear deterrent predicament. But when viewed as part of a continuing process of cooperation and communication between the United States and Russia, New START is a critical step forward.
If the Senate vote to consent to ratification is delayed, final passage will be less likely. Send an e-mail urging your senators to push for an early vote on the New START Treaty, before Congress adjourns this year, and advocate in favor of ratification.