The very existence of nuclear-weapon systems, even under the most sophisticated command-and-control procedures, obviously is a source of constant concern. Despite the most elaborate precautions, it is conceivable that technical malfunction or human failure, a misinterpreted incident or unauthorized action, could trigger a nuclear disaster or nuclear war. In the course of the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT), the United States and the Soviet Union reached two agreements that manifest increasing recognition of the need to reduce such risks, and that complement the central goal of the negotiations.
In early sessions, discussions parallel to the main SALT negotiations showed a degree of mutual concern regarding the problem of accidental war that indicated encouraging prospects of accord. These preliminary explorations resulted in the establishment of two special working groups under the direction of the two SALT delegations. One group focused on arrangements for exchanging information to reduce uncertainties and prevent misunderstandings in the event of a nuclear incident. The other addressed a related topic -- ways to improve the direct communications link between Washington and Moscow. By the summer of 1971, major substantive issues had been resolved, and draft international agreements were referred by the SALT delegations to their governments. Both agreements were signed in Washington on September 30, 1971, and came into force on that date.
The Agreement on Measures To Reduce the Risk of Outbreak of Nuclear War between the United States of America and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics covers three main areas:
The agreement provides that for urgent communication "in situations requiring prompt clarification" the "Hot Line" will be used. The duration of the agreement is not limited, and the parties undertake to consult on questions that may arise and to discuss possible amendments aimed at further reduction of risks.
- A pledge by each party to take measures each considers necessary to maintain and improve its organizational and technical safeguards against accidental or unauthorized use of nuclear weapons;
- Arrangements for immediate notification should a risk of nuclear war arise from such incidents, from detection of unidentified objects on early warning systems, or from any accidental, unauthorized, or other unexplained incident involving a possible detonation of a nuclear weapon; and
- Advance notification of any planned missile launches beyond the territory of the launching party and in the direction of the other party.