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David E. Hoffman: Take the Nukes off Alert
In a nuclear crisis, the U.S. secret war plan calls for the president to decide in just 13 minutes what he should do in the event there is a serious warning of a missile attack. That's right: 13 minutes to decide the fate of the world. President Obama has the power to change that in his second term, living up to a campaign promise he made, by the way, back in 2008. It won't be as simple as a pen stroke, but with some creative thinking and deft diplomacy, Obama could make the world much, much safer by eliminating this Cold War hangover.
During their decades-long confrontation, both Americans and Soviets set their land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles to be ready for prompt launch. The United States had to threaten certain and large-scale retaliation against the Soviet Union to deter attack. Now, that rationale has evaporated. Yet U.S. land-based missiles remain ready to launch just four minutes after the president gives the order, and submarine launches only a few minutes longer. Presumably, Russia has a similar alert posture.
Why? The only reason is that the other side still does it. Nothing more.
Obama affirmed the absurdity of this in his 2008 campaign when he pledged to take the missiles off launch-ready alert. Then, once in office, he inexplicably dropped the proposal. Admittedly, the military has never been very fond of the idea. Its biggest worry is that in a crisis, a re-alerting arms race would take place, a rush to Armageddon. (The fear is that putting them back on alert would create uncertainty and instability that is just as dangerous as keeping them on alert all the time.)
But there is a way out. To start, the president could order a high-level study on how to achieve de-alerting with Russia. He could even ask President Vladimir Putin to send officers to join. Already, a lot of good ideas have been floated about the means to accomplish this. Software modifications could be used for short delays, or the warheads could be physically separated from the missiles, known as "demating," to lengthen the time before a missile could be launched.
Nor does it have to be every last missile. Just in case, perhaps, a dozen missiles could remain on prompt-launch posture, while the rest could be de-alerted. Today, the United States and Russia each have about 800 to 900 warheads on prompt-launch alert at any given time. Overkill, anyone?
The hard part would be verification to prevent cheating. But perhaps Russia and the United States could find a way to use on-site inspection. Or what about a secure webcam focused 24/7 on the warheads in storage? The most stringent verification measures ever attempted are being effectively implemented under New START, the nuclear arms pact Obama signed during his first term. There must be a way to use these methods for de-alerting. A joint U.S.-Russia commission could figure it out.
Unfortunately, the president can't just throw a switch to get Russia's cooperation, which is essential. Both sides must stand down together. (China doesn't keep its nuclear-armed missiles on such a high state of alert.) And make no mistake, there will be pushback. The military establishments in both countries want to keep the guns cocked, and they will resist change. But that's no reason to let this dangerous Cold War relic persist.
David E. Hoffman is a contributing editor to Foreign Policy and author of The Dead Hand: The Untold Story of the Cold War Arms Race and Its Dangerous Legacy, winner of the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction.
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