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Towards true insecurity, Part I

By Linda A. Prussen-Razzano
web posted July 23, 2001

Just last month, the Federation of American Scientists, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and the Union of Concerned Scientists issued a report entitled, "Towards True Security: A US Nuclear Posture for the Next Decade." The purpose of the report was to examine our current post-cold war posture, compare it to changes in the World Theater, and adjust America's defense policy to accommodate these changes. It should come as no surprise that while certain recommendations are quite sound, others reflect hopefully optimistic and quite unrealistic point of view, especially in light of human nature and world history.

The pinnacle event forcing scientists to re-examine America's current nuclear posture occurred over six years ago. Quite literally, only eight minutes stood between Russia's decision not to launch its nuclear arsenal and the destruction of the world as we know it.

On January 25, 1995, NASA researchers launched a Black Brant XII missile from Norway to investigate the Northern Lights phenomena. Announcements were made to the appropriate countries advising them of this launch; however, a miscommunication inside Russia's defense department caused their systems and personnel in Olenegursk, some 470 miles away, to regard this research launch as a potential nuclear attack. Then Russian President Boris Yeltsin had already opened his nuclear suitcase as military monitors watching Russia's nine early warning satellites struggled to determine whether a first strike was nearing Russian soil. Just eight minutes shy of giving the command, a positive identification was made and Russian forces came off alert.

The continuing deterioration of Russia's early warning system saw five satellites fall into disrepair, leaving only four satellites available for future confirmations. Compared to America's extensive system, Russia's is now more prone to misinterpretation and error than it was in the past. Obviously, this vulnerability in detection and confirmation poses a risk to America, and the world.

It comes as a great surprise, therefore, that none of the "recommendations" include providing Russia with the technology to upgrade their current early warning system. As miscommunication and false identification were the primary causes of this proverbial "close call," one would think we would take steps to improve these on Russia's behalf. In truth, the scientific community appears to be suggesting the opposite; instead of securing Russia's ability to confirm a non-attack, they recommend America scale back it's own abilities to respond to a first strike and scoff at the notion of a National Missile Defense.

If anything, the Norway experience stands as proof positive why a National Missile Defense is not only sapient, it's necessary.

Of the nine proposals offered, the following appear to have the greatest merit:

  1. Declare that the sole purpose of US nuclear weapons is to deter and, if necessary, respond to the use of nuclear weapons by another country.
  2. Replace its reliance on pre-set targeting plans with the capability to promptly develop a response tailored to the situation if nuclear weapons are used against the United States, its armed forces, or its allies.
  3. Announce its commitment to further reductions in the number of nuclear weapons, on a negotiated and verified multilateral basis.
  4. Reaffirm its commitment to pursue nuclear disarmament and present a specific plan for moving toward this goal, in recognition that the universal and verifiable prohibition of nuclear weapons would be in the US national security interest.

    The remaining proposals are questionable, at best.

  5. Reject rapid-launch options, and change its deployment practices to provide for the launch of US nuclear forces in hours or days rather than minutes.

    Since 1962, America's nuclear weapons have operated under a PAL (Permissive Action Link). A specific code must be inserted into the system before a launch vehicle is released. Further, a separate code is required for detonating the nuclear warhead. Even if a weapon is accidentally launched, the warhead will not detonate without the code. America also possesses the ability to destroy the weapon before it lands on foreign soil.

    Further, tucked into the body of the report is the scientific community's own recognition of potential terrorism or massive capturing of Russia's nuclear forces. They estimated that terrorist forces would, more than likely, launch multiple missiles against the United States.

    While defense experts suggest that America has a sufficient arsenal to sustain a first strike and still be able to effectively destroy any aggressor, rapid-launch capabilities ensure that our nukes exit the silos before either they, or command headquarters, are destroyed. In short, Americans may not have precious hours or days to retaliate.

  6. Unilaterally reduce its nuclear arsenal to a total of 1,000 warheads, including deployed, spare, and reserve warheads. The United States would declare all warheads above this level to be in excess of its military needs, move them into storage, and begin dismantling them in a manner transparent to the international community. To encourage Russia to reciprocate, the United States could make the endpoint of its dismantlement process dependent on Russia's response. The deployed US warheads should consist largely of a survivable force of submarine-based warheads.

    A reduction in our nuclear arsenal would be advisable if said arsenal was receiving proper maintenance. According to Dr. John S. Foster, Chairman, Panel to Assess the Reliability, Safety, & Security of the United States Nuclear Stockpile, "The United States is the only nuclear weapons state that cannot produce plutonium pits for its weapons. Milestones continue to slip for production and certification.."

    Further, the 2000 scramble over Tritium production, a decaying element necessary to maintain the viability of a nuclear stockpile, is still being hammered out. According to Strom Thurmond (R-SC), "At this rate of decay, the tritium supply of the United States will be depleted in approximately 10-years resulting in the unilateral disarmament of the nation unless new production is started by 2007."

  7. Promptly and unilaterally retire all US tactical nuclear weapons, dismantling them in a transparent manner. In addition, the United States would take steps to induce Russia to do the same.

    Unfortunately, history has clearly shown that transparency in military transactions has not always been successful. In a June 17, 1997 floor statement made by Sen. Cochran, he advised that "based on statements from the Russian Minister of Atomic Energy and from United States Government officials, there are at least five American supercomputers in two of Russia's nuclear weapons labs: Chelyabinsk-70 and Arzamas-16. Minister Mikhailov of the Russian Ministry of Atomic Energy has not been reluctant to proclaim what these high-performance computers will be used for, and he said in a speech in January [that] they will be used to simulate nuclear explosions. The computers are, in his words, '10 times faster than any previously available in Russia.'"

    It was originally presumed that these supercomputers would be used to control Russia's nuclear stockpile, not enhance it.

    The last two proposals are, by far, the most questionable.

Linda Prussen-Razzano is an advisory board member and frequent contributor to Rightgrrl and a columnist for The American Partisan.

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