In November 1997, the highly respected journal “Scientific American” published an article “Taking Nuclear Weapons Off Hair-Trigger” (pp.74-81), which included a “Nuclear Weapons on Hair-trigger Timeline for Catastrophe.” The following are the various time elements for U.S. and Russian nuclear attacks on each other’s homelands:
• Amount of time the Russian military has to decide that U.S. missiles are headed for Russia — three minutes;
• Amount of time the U.S. military has to decide that Russian missiles are headed for the U.S. — 14 minutes;
• Amount of time the Russian president has to make the decision to order
a missile attack against the U.S. — three minutes;
• Amount of time the U.S. President has to make the decision to order
a missile attack against Russia — eight minutes;
• Amount of time it takes to launch Russian missiles — four minutes;
• Amount of time it takes to launch U.S. missiles — three minutes;
• Amount of time it takes Russian missiles to hit the U.S. — 25 minutes;
• Amount of time it takes U.S. missiles to hit Russia — 10 minutes.
The timeline reflects the continuing level of nuclear threat that exists between the U.S. and Russia. Many, if not most, Americans seem to have forgotten that we are still faced with a possibility of either purposeful or accidental nuclear war with the Russians. If that war occurs, it will result in instant extinction without representation. There will be no parliamentary or congressional deliberations and no declarations of war.
Unfortunately, when George W. Bush assumed the presidency, he adopted the neoconservative strategy of indefinite reliance on nuclear weapons instead of measures to reverse the arms race as agreed to by the United States at the 2000 Non-proliferation Treaty Review Conference. Russia’s response to Bush’s policies, especially to his deployment of a ballistic missile defense system, has been the development and deployment of even more dangerous intercontinental missiles, some of which are based in silos, others that are mobile, and that constantly roam the forests of Russia. Additionally, the Russians are apparently reactivating some of their nuclear-weapons-capable submarines that had been effectively “mothballed,” so that the launch to landing time of their missiles may now also fall within the 10 minute time frame. Clearly this situation represents a mutual death wish of insane proportions.
Today, past high-level U.S. officials such as former Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and George Schultz, as well as former Defense Secretary William Perry and former U.S. Sen. Sam Nunn are calling for the abolition of nuclear weapons from the planet. They are joined in that call by former U.S. Strategic Command Generals George Lee Butler and Eugene Habiger. As commanders of STRATCOM, Butler and Habiger were the top officers in charge of U.S. nuclear war planning and nuclear war fighting.
All of the aforementioned officials agree that taking U.S. and Russian nuclear missiles off high alert status is a first confidence-building step toward a well planned, systemic, mutually verifiable regimen of nuclear disarmament. Space does not permit a detailed listing of various missile “de-alerting” strategies, but one method simply involves the separation of nuclear warheads from their missile delivery systems. (For other strategies, go to a search engine and enter “De-alerting nuclear missiles”).
The urgency of de-alerting is demonstrated by an event that occurred Jan. 25, 1995. On that day, a Russian radar mistook a U.S. weather research rocket from Norway as an incoming nuclear strike from a U.S. Trident submarine. Even though Russia had been notified a non-military research rocket would be launched, those in control of Russia’s strategic nuclear forces did not receive the message. Fortunately, Russian President Boris Yeltsin, elected to “ride out” the crisis and did not launch the thousands of nuclear-tipped missiles at his command.
Given the potential catastrophic consequences of such “early warning” errors, it is imperative that citizens everywhere focus on the U.S./Russian nuclear roulette problem. An effective first step is to go to www.wagingpeace.org and order a free copy of a 25 minute DVD “Nuclear Weapons and the Human Future: How You Can Make a Difference” for showing to friends, neighbors and various civic and religious organizations in the community. Then, at that same Web site, sign the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation’s petition to the next U.S. president, which calls for immediate U.S./Russian “de-alerting” and a systematic, mutual approach for U.S./Russian nuclear disarmament, to be followed by other nations who also possess nuclear weapons. Please address this problem. It surely demands the same kind of dedicated effort we give to other local problems. If mid-Missouri is nuked, the other problems won’t matter.
Bill Wickersham is an adjunct professor of Peace Studies at MU, a member of Veterans for Peace and a member of the national steering committee of Global Action to Prevent War.