New Orleans Times-Picayune
June 28, 2000
President May Lose Nuclear Decision
Missile Defense System Gives Power To Military
By David Wood, Newhouse News Service
"SITE R," PA. -- In a crisis that threatened national security, senior civilian and military officials would relocate from Washington to a nuclear warfighting command center called Site R, built deep inside a solid rock mountain near the bucolic town of Blue Ridge Summit, Pa.
So secret it doesn't have a proper name, the underground command and communications center is part of an extensive, painstaking and costly government effort to secure a cherished American political principle:
Elected civilian leaders are in charge. Not the military, especially in wartime.
But that principle would be overturned by the proposed national missile defense system, which would have to react so quickly to the threat of incoming warheads that its military operators themselves would make the decision to fire.
Thus the decision to go to war, perhaps the most grave that a democracy can face, would be removed from the president in the Oval Office and given instead to an unknown military officer sequestered in an underground command post.
Warheads could detonate on American soil within minutes. And so it would be a snap decision under enormous pressure, based on what little could be learned about the nature and the intention of an apparent attack.
The proposed missile defense system -- meant to detect, track and shoot down enemy missiles as they streak through space -- is scheduled for a test July 7 as the Clinton administration weighs a decision to begin it.
Even though the idea of missile defenses has been endorsed by both major presidential candidates, the concept has been enormously controversial, with bitter disputes over the potential effectiveness of the system and its ramifications for global stability.
But no one has raised the more fundamental issue of who is in charge.
Some White House confusion
The White House, asked for comment, was initially flummoxed. After several days, Army Lt. Col. David Stockwell, spokesman for the National Security Council, said in a statement that the president "would be involved" in the command and control arrangements of a national missile defense system.
But Stockwell declined to say that the president would take part in a decision to actually fire interceptor missiles. "It's all under development at this time and to say anything more would be speculation," he said.
The proposed system will rely heavily on sophisticated computer software to detect missile launches, track the devices as they arc toward space, and try to determine if they are hostile and where they will land. Then it will launch and guide interceptor missiles to collide with the warheads before they streak down toward their targets.
But officials stressed that there will be a human in the decision- making loop.
Some analysts, however, believe the relentless time pressure of the perceived missile attack will drive the system toward full automation. That is particularly true, they said, for a "boost-phase" missile defense system advocated by, among others, Texas Gov. George W. Bush, the likely Republican presidential nominee. This second phase of the system would intercept missiles within the first five minutes of launch, even before they released their warheads and decoys -- perhaps leaving too little time for any human decision at all. But even under the first phase of the system, projected to be in operation by 2005, the decision to open fire would be made entirely within the military.
"There's not enough time to call back and say, 'Can I shoot?' " said Vice Adm. Herbert Browne, deputy commander of U.S. Space Command, which would control the missile defense system from its warfighting headquarters inside Cheyenne Mountain near Colorado Springs, Colo.
That decision would fall to the commander in chief of Space Command, Browne's boss. At present, that position, called "CINC Space," is held by Air Force Gen. Ralph "Ed" Eberhart.
President to get call -- later
Later, the president would learn from a phone call that the country had gone to war, with consequences already set in motion.
"There's going to have to be special trust and confidence placed in the hands of the CINC," Browne said at a recent press briefing.
The time pressure of a missile attack is unrelenting, as it was for much of the Cold War. Even so, one option has always been to "ride out" a limited nuclear attack -- to wait until the warheads detonated and the smoke cleared before ordering a counterattack.
The rationale for this "ride-out" option was to give civilian authorities time to assess the severity of a small attack, to ascertain whether it was accidental, and to weigh appropriate responses.
It was specifically to preserve this option for civilian authorities that the United States invested so heavily in protecting its nuclear forces from attack, by encasing them in underground silos and in submarines hidden at sea and by building fortified underground bunkers, such as Site R, for civilian and military commanders.
The proposed missile defense system will not eliminate the "ride-out" option. But it will increase the pressure for a quick-draw response, said Stan Norris, an analyst at the Natural Resources Defense Council, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington. Norris is the author of numerous books on nuclear weapons and strategy.
Sequence starts at launch
The sequence of detection and interception in the system currently under consideration would look like this:
- U.S. early-warning satellites detect a foreign missile launch with infrared sensors less than a minute after launch, as the missile soars above 50,000 feet.
- Satellites and ground radars immediately begin tracking and analyzing the threat as the missile roars toward space. From its trajectory, sophisticated computer programs make guesses about where the missile's payload will land and draw conclusions about what the missile is carrying.
If the missile nose cone is projected to splash down harmlessly in the south Pacific Ocean, the missile probably is launching a satellite. But if the payload looks like it will land on the Washington Monument or on the U.S. nuclear missile submarine base at Bangor, Wash., it's safe to assume it's not harmless.
- About five minutes into its flight, the missile engines burn out, and as the missile coasts into space, its nose cone "shroud" opens to free its payload -- perhaps a satellite, perhaps one or more warheads carrying conventional explosives, or nuclear or chemical weapons. Decoys or dummy warheads might also be released to confuse defense interceptors.
- The warheads of land-based missiles begin to explode on American soil roughly 20 to 25 minutes after launch, depending on their launch location. Warheads fired from submarines could detonate in America within 10 minutes of launch, if the submarines were lurking close offshore. Russia has ballistic missile submarines, and China is developing a new sub-launched nuclear missile.
Today, at least for now, authority to go to war rests entirely with the "national command authority," the military designation for the president and his secretary of defense and their deputies.
But the idea of keeping a civilian, or any human being, "in the decision-making loop" may become obsolete.
"In the real world, the human in the loop basically serves as little more than a circuit breaker to prevent the system from going off half- cocked," said John Pike, a space and military policy analyst for the Federation of American Scientists in Washington.
Software will make decisions
By the time the missile defense system is operational, the computer software that assesses an attack and analyzes response options "will be the culmination of many thousands of work-years of modeling and calculation and simulation and refinement and testing," Pike said.
"The software is going to be in an infinitely better position to make a considered judgment about what should be done than the few human beings sitting in the room," Pike said. "There will be too much stuff going on too fast for any human operators to figure it all out.
"There just won't be any time for mere human meddling."