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Four Minutes to Armageddon

Richard Nixon, Barack Obama, and the nuclear alert.

Just one week into his presidency, on Jan. 27, 1969, Richard M. Nixon got an eye-opening briefing at the Pentagon on the nation's secret nuclear war plans -- the Single Integrated Operational Plan, as it was known then. "It didn't fill him with enthusiasm," Henry Kissinger, the national security advisor, said later. The briefers walked Nixon through the absolutely excruciating decision a president would face upon receiving an alert of impending attack: whether to launch nuclear missiles.

The slides used to brief Nixon that day have been partially declassified and released by the National Security Archive, and they suggest how complex the whole decision process would be.  In the event of nuclear war, Nixon was told, he would have three functional tasks: Alpha, for strikes on the most urgent military targets; Bravo, for secondary military targets; and Charlie, for industrial and urban targets. If the president ordered an attack of Alpha and Bravo, urban areas would be spared. But beyond these were dozens of decisions, attack options, targets, and variations. There were committed forces and coordinated forces, hard-core forces and theater forces. Nixon was shown the "decisions handbook" or black book, with tabs, which was open in front of him.

At the end of the briefing, Nixon was shown a slide marked "Conclusion." He was reassured the war plan was flexible and responsive. "Procedures for execution are straight-forward and in themselves neither new or unusually complicated," Nixon was told. "It is in the decision-making process, the evaluation and selection of the many attack responses available, wherein the problem becomes complex."

Then the briefer warned:

"In a crisis mounted over a period of time, it should be possible to eliminate early some of the alternatives, such as whether or not to attack particular countries. In a long, drawn out crisis, with highly intensified force readiness on one or both sides, it may be even possible to eliminate from further consideration some of the attack options. But in a sudden emergency, with little or no warning, all of these considerations must be entertained and discussed with the president [pause] and perhaps in no more than a very few minutes."

Such a nightmare scenario hung over the Cold War until the very end, and even beyond. No one really could predict how a president or Soviet leader would react when faced with a do-or-die choice in just minutes. The imponderables troubled every American and Soviet leader of the nuclear age. And the high state of readiness of the weapons, on alert to fire in a short period, reflected the very deep tensions of the era.

In the early 1980s, U.S. officials were particularly worried that the system for command-and-control of nuclear weapons had become outdated, and began taking actions to improve it. One day, President Ronald Reagan told one of his assistants, Thomas C. Reed, that he didn't want to fly away in a helicopter if there was a nuclear alert. "I want to sit here in the office," Reagan said. Referring to Vice President George H. W. Bush, Reagan added, "Getting into the helicopter is George's job." A few years after the Soviet collapse, in January 1995, Russian President Boris Yeltsin got his own taste of the tension when he was called to the briefcase-sized remote terminal for nuclear command to monitor what looked like a possible nuclear attack. After a while the Russians realized it was not a threat; the rocket flew away from Moscow and toward the North Pole. It was not an American missile but a weather rocket launched from Norway. The Russians had been notified of the launch, but lost the paperwork.

Next week, this terrifying dilemma will be in the spotlight again. Sources tell me that President Obama's new Nuclear Posture Review, which is expected to come out before he heads to Prague to sign the new strategic arms treaty, will make a fresh effort to address the issue of nuclear weapons on alert. The posture review is a document intended to establish the U.S. strategy and policy on nuclear weapons for the next five to 10 years. This is the third such review since the end of the Cold War, and is being closely watched for signs of change from the old days of superpower standoff. Both the United States and Russia keep their missiles ready to launch, a practice from the days when deterrence required each side face the other with cocked pistols.

Now that the Soviet Union is no more, many analysts have asked whether such a procedure is justified. It is inherently risky if a president must make a fateful decision to launch nuclear weapons in 20 minutes or even less, depending on the threat. Since relations with Moscow are no longer so hostile, the thinking goes, what would be the harm in building some kind of reversible, physical change in the weapons -- verifiable, on both sides -- so they could not be fired for a longer period? Presidents Clinton and Yeltsin took a symbolic step in 1994 with an agreement to retarget the missiles toward the open oceans instead of each other. But this agreement did not make it difficult to retarget the missiles, nor did it take them off alert.  Today, the length of those alerts range in time from minutes to hours and days.

According to a study published last October, the United States keeps roughly 1,000 nuclear warheads on alert atop land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles and submarine launched ballistic missiles. This includes the warheads on all 450 Minuteman III ICBMs and those on perhaps four Trident submarines at sea. The study said, "Although there is nothing automatic about the process, the U.S. president could launch these missiles promptly after receiving warning of an impending attack." The launch time could be as short as four minutes for the land-based missiles and 12 minutes for the submarine-based. Russia keeps approximately 1,200 warheads on alert, nearly all on land-based missiles. France and Britain together keep about 112 warheads on alert, the study said. All U.S. and Russian strategic bombers are off alert.

The study, published by the East-West Institute, which brought together American and Russian participants, noted that military forces have been on heightened readiness for centuries, so it is not surprising that at least some nuclear forces today remain so. But, the study added, nuclear alert levels "have remained immune to major change" since the end of the Cold War.

In his campaign, the president's statement on defense issues declared: "[W]e should take our nuclear weapons off hair-trigger alert. ... Maintaining this Cold War stance today is unnecessary and increases the risk of an accidental or unauthorized nuclear launch. As president, Obama will work with Russia to find common ground and bring significantly more weapons off hair-trigger alert."

The classic idea of de-alerting would be a technical fix, perhaps removing some part of the weapon to another location. Bruce G. Blair, then of the Brookings Institution and now president of the World Security Institute, outlined the case for dealerting in a 1995 publication, Global Zero Alert for Nuclear Forces.  It is an appealing idea, but has consistently run into strong opposition from the military, which fears that the whole process of putting the pieces back together again -- realerting -- could create more unnecessary panic and uncertainty. It could also be very difficult to verify; if submarines are invulnerable because they are hidden under the seas, how would the other side know if they were being re-alerted?

Obama's nuclear posture review looked at de-alerting the missiles, but the president has decided not to propose it in the sense of physically altering the weapons. Rather, the review is expected to highlight the need to get to the root of the problem: move away from nuclear doctrines and postures that would lead to a prompt launch. The Obama review is expected to seek ways to give the president more "early warning and decision time" in the event of an emergency situation, such as receiving a report of an incoming missile.  The logic is this: If a president has more time to gather information, to check the data, and to consult with others, he will be less likely to make a catastrophic mistake.  Former Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), has advocated this as an alternative to earlier de-alerting ideas.

This topic has always been exceedingly difficult to negotiate with Moscow-it touches the sensitive and secret nuclear weapons command and control procedures of each country. Yet it cries out for mutual action. An agreement in 2000 between the United States and Russia to set up a center to monitor ballistic missile and space launches never got off the ground. Reviving it would be a good idea, and in the age of high-speed communications, it might prevent some lost paperwork leading to a terrible error.

It might also give the president more time for a calm, sane decision if his military aide suddenly begins uttering the words: "Alpha, Bravo, Charlie."

AFP/Getty Images

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