The Washington Post
Op. Ed.
Tuesday, June 6, 2000, p. A27

"A LONGER NUCLEAR FUSE"

by Frank von Hippel and Bruce Blair

    START II, the latest U.S.-Russian strategic arms reduction treaty,
did not take effect when the Russian parliament finally voted approval
in April. Conditions were attached. One is that the U.S. Senate first
ratify amendments to the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty negotiated
by the Clinton administration in 1997 to allow theater missile defenses.
The Senate's Republican leadership seeks instead to jettison the ABM
Treaty, in order to clear the way for an ambitious
U.S. national missile defense. Therefore, seven years after Presidents
Bush and Yeltsin agreed to reduce deployed ballistic-missile warheads by
about 60 percent, implementation of START II may still be many years
away.

    This means that the United States and Russia are each likely to keep
an extra 1,000 missile warheads on alert, ready to launch within minutes
if space- or ground-based sensors report an incoming missile attack.

    The U.S. nuclear bureaucracy continues to be heedless of the dangers
of this hair-trigger configuration. This was recently revealed in leaked
U.S. government "talking points" from the January session of the
negotiations aimed at persuading Russia to accept a "thin" U.S. national
missile defense.

    Incredibly, the United States argued that, if Russia launched its
missiles on warning of an incoming U.S. missile attack, enough would
survive even a surprise attack to overwhelm U.S. defenses. This would
only reinforce Russia's reliance on hair-trigger readiness and increase
the risk of accidental firing of hundreds to thousands of nuclear
warheads at the United States.

    Presidents Clinton and Putin could dramatically reduce the risk of
accidental launch by repeating the bold actions of Presidents Bush and
Gorbachev when faced with a similar conundrum over START I
implementation in 1991. To reduce the danger quickly, the presidents
ordered immediate removal from launch readiness of a large fraction of
the missiles slated for elimination.

    Presidents Clinton and Putin should similarly accelerate the
downloading and storage of the approximately 3,000 warheads to be taken
off missiles on each side by START II. This could be verified during the
short-notice, on-site inspections allowed by START I. Final irreversible
measures, such as destroying missile launchers, would be taken only
after the START II treaty officially comes into force.

    President Clinton, as the head of the country with much more
invulnerable forces, should initiate this action, just as President Bush
did in 1991. Wearing his hat as commander in chief, Bush announced that
redundant U.S. missiles and bombers would unilaterally be taken off
alert, and called on President Gorbachev to reciprocate. Russia's
nuclear forces have become much more vulnerable since then, and
President Putin probably cannot take the first step. If the United
States led, however, world opinion would press Putin to follow suit.

    In a recent speech, presidential candidate George W. Bush urged the
rapid, even unilateral, de-alerting of nuclear missiles. He should join
forces with a bipartisan effort to overturn Republican legislative
strictures that attempt to limit the president's authority to change
missile alert levels and warhead loadings.

    Former president Bush enjoyed wide latitude in this area. So should
the sitting and future presidents.

    Last weekend, at the Moscow summit, Presidents Clinton and Putin
announced plans for a center in Moscow where early-warning data will be
shared to address the growing danger of false warnings from Russia's
crumbling missile-attack early-warning system. This is a constructive
move. But the United States has only offered data that have been
filtered through U.S. computers. The Russian military would surely
disregard such data if it suspected a deliberate U.S. attack. In any
case, this plan leaves the nuclear hair-trigger in place.

    The immediate removal of the warheads in excess of the START II
deployment limits would substantially reduce the risk of accidental
nuclear attack. The United States would still have an enormous
deterrent, including more than 1,000 survivable nuclear warheads in
submarines at sea. Whoever occupies the White House after the election
should take additional actions to lengthen the nuclear fuse.

    ***

Frank von Hippel is a professor of public and international affairs at
Princeton University. Bruce Blair is president of the non-governmental
Center for Defense Information.