Sub collision reminds world there's still a nuclear threat

Friday, February 20, 2009 | 11:47 a.m. CST

Loory: Two nuclear powered submarines, one French and one British, each carrying 16 missiles with nuclear warheads, collided in the North Atlantic Ocean early this month. The story was a one-day wonder. Front-page news for a day, then it disappeared. What really happened? Most importantly, what does that collision mean for attempts to reduce nuclear weapons around the world? It reminds us that not only the United States and Russia have long-range missiles at the ready, but so does the United Kingdom, France and China. Despite all the talk about reducing the number of nuclear weapons and convincing such countries as Iran and North Korea not to build them, proliferation goes on. India has negotiated the lease of a nuclear attack submarine and an aircraft carrier from Russia. Delivery of the sub is not far off. Both the Obama administration and Medvedev/Putin government in Russia are getting ready for a new round of nuclear arms reduction talks. Perhaps this near disastrous collision will make both sides more eager for real success. The original report was that the French submarine collided with a floating or  sinking cargo carrier; did the French know what happened in the collision?

Steven Erlanger, Paris bureau chief, The New York Times, Paris: There is so much secrecy involved it is hard to believe what was said. It appears that both Britain and France knew their submarines had collided with something but didn’t know until later that they had collided with each other. Either that is a great testimony to how silent and secretive they are, or it means they are less technically competent than we thought.

Loory: They are less competent than their boats. The French minister of defense said that these boats are quieter than a shrimp in the water.

Erlanger: I have never heard a shrimp in the water, just sizzling on the plate, but they are very quiet. We still don’t know exactly where they were. The French submarine took three days to get back to port. It suffered a fair amount of damage to its sonar. The British sub returned back with less damage but with scrapes.

Loory: What was said in Washington about what happened?

Sharon Squassoni, senior associate, Carnegie Endowment’s Nuclear Nonproliferation Program, Washington, D.C.: It is not the first nuclear sub collision. U.S. and Russian submarines collided in 1992. It highlights that the French and British are out there with these nuclear-armed submarines. The French and British have never been engaged in strategic arms limitations talks. Is it time to get them into some forum, so we can all sleep a little safer at night?

Loory: The Atlantic Ocean is huge. Isn’t there supposed to be some consultation among the countries that use these boats about where they are and how to keep away from each other?

Squassoni: The effectiveness of the deterrent rests on the secrecy of operations, so it is anybody’s guess.

Loory: It is a deterrent to an attack on London or Paris or Washington because the submarines are out there, somewhere, and cannot be attacked. Is that the idea?

Squassoni: Yes.

Loory:  What has been said about this incident in Moscow?

Fred Weir, correspondent, Christian Science Monitor, Moscow: There has been very little said in Moscow. The Russians are tight-lipped about all military things. I believe that nuclear submarines, American and Russian, used to play chicken all the time.

Loory: At about the same time that this collision occurred, the Pakistani rogue nuclear weapons expert Dr. Kahn was released from house arrest and almost exonerated. What impact could this have on the whole question of nonproliferation?

Naveed Ahmad Rana, investigative reporter, Geo Television Network, Islamabad, Pakistan: The court said he should not be in protective custody. However, his access to telephone and other facilities is limited. He cannot move out of his house because of media presence always outside. Moreover, intelligence agencies of all sorts are looking at his activities. He is 75; he is sick and cannot walk very well. He is just symbolic of what desperate nations have been doing to get nuclear weapons over the past three decades.

Loory: India is soon going to take possession of a nuclear attack submarine from the Russians. Pakistan has to be concerned about that.

Rana: It is more a threat for the bigger navies there like China, Europe and the U.S. because they are competing in the same waters. Pakistan is a small country with an insignificant coastline compared to India. It is an added advantage the Indians will have but doesn’t add significantly to the threat level.

Loory: Is there any possibility that Britain and France will be drawn into future negotiations?

Erlanger: There is a possibility, but that would be some distance down the road. The British constantly debate whether to keep their deterrent or spend the money on new Trident submarines. Like the French, their real deterrent is now submarine-based. They both feel that the Americans and Russians would have to come down considerably first before the figures of their missiles are even relevant.

Loory: During the Cold War, Russia needed deterrence from the West, and the U.S. from the Soviets. Why do we need deterrence now? Who are we deterring?

Squassoni: It depends on which country you are. Pakistan and India have a very different concept of deterrence. It is not the U.S.-Russian classical notion anymore. Nuclear weapons deter the use of other nuclear weapons. There are a lot out there: The Russians have about 14,000, the U.S. has 10,000. About two years ago, George Schulz, William Perry, Henry Kissinger and Sam Nunn wrote an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal suggesting the threat posed by terrorist access to nuclear arsenals was greater than the risk of abolishing nuclear weapons.

Loory: There is a danger (from accidents such as the sub collision) just from the fact these weapons are deployed. Is there any indication that the Russian government is actively pushing for a resumption of these talks?

Weir: Oh yes, there is a possibility of a grand bargain between Washington and Moscow. It must cover quite a few things to arrest the deteriorating relationship, like the anti-missile defense deployment in Poland. But, the Russians could be helpful to a deal with Iran or North Korea. Many urgent things are on the table with a new administration, presumably with a new approach. The START Agreement expires at the end of this year. Both Moscow and Washington have indicated a willingness to negotiate deep cuts in nuclear arsenals.

Loory: The Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty, which provides for more reductions, runs out in 2012. Is that treaty going to be renewed?

Erlanger: There is talk of some radical reductions. Washington has signaled they might go for lowering the arsenal of weapons down to 1,000 on each side. If this happened, it might obviate all these other questions.

Loory: Is Washington as interested in that large a reduction as Moscow?

Squassoni: Not everyone is in place yet. A negotiator has to be confirmed, but there is clear interest in that treaty. There is also interest in stopping fissile material production, which has been stagnating for many years.

Loory: Are Western Europeans still working to convince the Obama administration to abandon the missile defense shield in Poland and the Czech Republic?

Erlanger:  They are hostile to it, partly because Russia is very hostile to it. The Czechs would have the radar, and the Poles would have the missiles. They are interested in it because they are worried about this new rampant rogue Russia as they see it.

Loory: Reducing nuclear weapons is one of those things that almost everyone wants to see accomplished but getting there is another matter.

Producers of Global Journalist are Missouri School of Journalism graduate students Jared Gassen, Brian Jarvis, Sananda Sahoo, and Melissa Ulbricht.  The transcriber is Pat Kelley.

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