From Nuclear Deterrence to Mutual Safety

As Russia's Arsenal Crumbles, It's Time to Act

By Sam Nunn and Bruce Blair

Sunday, June 22, 1997; Page C01
The Washington Post

After Russian President Boris Yeltsin announced in Paris on May 27 that warheads would be taken off Russian strategic nuclear missiles targeted against the United States and NATO countries, his spokesmen immediately scrambled to say, "He didn't mean it," and Yeltsin soon disowned his words.

But the Russian president had it right the first time. Removing nuclear warheads is precisely what both the United States and Russia should do -- on a reciprocal and verifiable basis -- to reduce the danger of accidental or unauthorized nuclear missile launch. It is time for the United States and Russia to cast off the mental shackles of deterrence, to "de-alert" our strategic forces and embrace a new formula that makes our nuclear relationship more compatible with our political relationship.

The United States and Russia are no longer enemies, but almost six years after the end of the Soviet Union and communist rule there, we remain stuck in the Cold War logic of "mutual assured destruction." By this formula, the security of each side depends upon the certain knowledge in Washington and in Moscow that their strategic forces could survive a nuclear attack by the other and answer with a devastating retaliatory strike. Accordingly, each country still maintains roughly 3,000 strategic nuclear warheads poised and ready to launch. These deterrent practices may have been necessary during the Cold War. Today they constitute a dangerous anachronism, for three fundamental reasons.

First, Russia's severe budget crunch has strained its nuclear posture to the point that Russian generals can no longer be confident of reliable retaliation after absorbing a systematic U.S. first strike.

As bizarre as the idea of a U.S. nuclear strike may seem in today's world, from the conservative perspective of the Russian military, the only way to preserve Russia's deterrent credibility is to declare -- as Russia recently did -- its readiness to "launch on warning." Despite its inherent danger, the option of launching a retaliatory salvo against an apparent aggressor during the small window of time between a hostile launch and the arrival of the incoming warheads 15 to 30 minutes later is now the centerpiece of Russian nuclear strategy.

Nuclear deterrence, after all, assumes "worst-case" scenarios in which capability counts far more than intention. Concern over possible adverse military consequences of NATO expansion toward Russia's western border put more pressure on the Russian nuclear trigger finger, especially given the steep decline in Russia's conventional military might.

Second, Russia is moving to a quick-draw nuclear posture at a time when its ability to decide rationally whether to pull the nuclear trigger is diminishing. The ability of Russian warning sensors to detect an incoming missile attack accurately and in a timely fashion (i.e., in a very few minutes) is in bad shape. Russia's network of ground radar and its constellation of early warning satellites are deteriorating because of the country's economic crisis, increasing the risk that Russian commanders might receive false signals of an attack and launch their missiles on an unsuspecting United States.

Third, the budget crunch facing the Russian military threatens to undermine the entire Russian system of command and control over its nuclear arsenal. A discernible erosion has already occurred, and the process could readily accelerate if Russia fails to make adequate, judicious investments, particularly in the critical area of safeguards against unauthorized use and accidental launch.

After discussing the nuclear situation at length with many Russian security officials, we believe the nuclear policies of both our countries need to change. Instead of threatening Armageddon to avoid war, we should pursue "mutual assured safety" as our paramount goal.

By de-alerting, we mean adopting measures that increase the amount of time needed to prepare nuclear forces for launch. Although such measures could be reversed if circumstances change and national security requires it, de-alerting would create a judicious delay in the capacity for launch in order to assure more reliable control over nuclear weapons, to reduce daily nuclear tensions, and to strengthen mutual confidence in each other's nuclear intentions. De-alerting does not mean the elimination of nuclear weapons, but it would eliminate their hair trigger, unlike the "de-targeting" steps taken under the 1994 Clinton-Yeltsin agreement which can be reversed in a matter of seconds. At the same time, it would preserve a basic (albeit residual) deterrent effect virtually as powerful as the Cold War variant.

Here are some steps that could be taken soon:

The United States could remove guidance units from MX missiles and store them inside their silos.

Heavy objects could be placed on the lids of Russian and U.S. missile silos, and the explosive charges that are now in place to blow the lids off the silos prior to launch could be removed.

Russia could remove essential in-flight batteries from its silo-based and mobile land rockets.

Russian mobile land rockets could be taken out of their garages and faced south to prevent their rapid firing in a northerly direction (i.e., toward the United States). The erector launchers could also be put on blocks with their tires removed. While in their garages, mobile rockets could be prevented from launching on warning by setting up large heavy metal beams above the sliding roofs of the garages.

The United States could reduce from two-thirds to one-third the fraction of its strategic submarine fleet at sea at any time.

Russia could separate and put in storage the warheads from its vulnerable submarine missiles on dockside alert poised for immediate launch. Several of the hatches on each submarine in port could be left open each day on a rotational basis to permit verification.

Both Russian and U.S. submarines at sea could operate on modified instead of full alert, ensuring that they would require a number of hours to ready their missiles for launch.

We should consider immediately removing a few hundred warheads from missiles on each side to encourage the adoption of such measures. If the United States would de-alert MX missiles and also place in verified storage the submarine-based W-88 warheads which Russian generals view as first-strike weapons, then Russia would likely be willing to de-alert the vast majority of its strategic forces configured for launch on warning. The number of launch-ready Russian warheads would drop from several thousand to the low hundreds.

All of these measures could be rapidly implemented on a reciprocal basis without a protracted arms control negotiation. They are equitable, inexpensive, and lend themselves to direct observation using normal surveillance methods and existing arrangements for on-site inspections. And the procedures needed to reverse them would be slow and transparent.

Although these measures are adequately verifiable, a substantial number of de-alerted forces would remain invulnerable in any case. If either side is reluctant to de-alert all of its nuclear forces, keeping the alert arsenal small could at least focus attention on the operational safety of this force.

As confidence builds on both sides, we should take the large and verifiable step of separating all nuclear warheads from their delivery vehicles. This step could be implemented in a number of months.

To address concern about the vulnerability of warheads stockpiled at a few storage sites, a portion of these separated arsenals could be protected by dispersed hardened storage -- for instance, warheads from silo-based missiles could be stored in nearby vacant silos that have been partially filled with concrete so that they could not hold a missile.

De-alerting would lead to much safer nuclear postures. It would not solve the world's problem of safeguarding detached nuclear warheads, nuclear materials and know-how, but it would greatly reduce the serious dangers associated with the deterioration of Russian nuclear control -- as well as relegate to history the already remote threat of a sudden deliberate nuclear first strike.

We may now have a rare window of opportunity to move to a new joint doctrine. Until his recent appointment as Russian minister of defense, General Igor Sergeyev commanded the Russian Strategic Rocket Forces. He well understands the dangers of the current situation. Yeltsin has appointed a new generation of key national security advisers. Together we should take the path he suggested: We should move beyond the hair trigger, launch on warning and assured destruction, to a world of mutual safety.

Sam Nunn, a Georgia Democrat, was chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. Bruce Blair is the author of "Global Zero Alert for Nuclear Forces" (Brookings Institution).

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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