On January 25, 1995, Russia came within four minutes of launching a full-scale nuclear attack against the United States. Mistaking a weather rocket launched from Norway for a U.S. submarine-launched missile, President Yeltsin, a man with serious substance abuse and health problems, was pondering whether to make total war against the United States when he was informed that it was all a misunderstanding.
Such near-catastrophic mistakes have also been made by the United States. When a nuclear warfare training tape was recently run by accident on the Pentagon military command center computer, it was mistaken for the real thing and a nuclear attack against Russia was almost launched.
Although the United States and Russia are no longer enemies, their nuclear forces are still on hair-trigger alert. Each side has about 3,000 weapons, poised on submarines and mobile land vehicles, which are designed to survive a preemptive attack. Even after absorbing a massive surprise first-strike, both Russia and the United States would have sufficient strategic forces left to totally destroy their enemies. This is the old cold war "balance of terror" . It is also called "mutual assured destruction," which bears the familiar and appropriate acronym MAD.
MAD is mad enough but the even loonier launch-on-warning policy contradicts it in its assumption that if a nuclear power does not use its forces when it appears to be under attack, it may lose them. Most independent experts on nuclear strategy today agree that this doctrine is a dinosaur, and might turn us into dinosaurs too, if we don't get rid of it. Former Chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee Sam Nunn argued in the Washington Post that "mutual assured destruction " should be rapidly replaced with "mutual assured safety." This means that the United States and Russia should proceed immediately to "de-alert" their strategic forces, to make it less likely that either side would start an accidental nuclear war.
Since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, the control of Russia's strategic weapons has deteriorated at pace with the disintegration of its political and economic institutions. As a result, the threat of accidental or terroristic use of nuclear weapons has increased, even while we are lulled by a sense of danger passed. An April 3, 1998 study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, reports that an accidental nuclear attack launched from a single Russian submarine off the East Coast of the United States would initially kill about eight million people. This mortality estimate is based on the predicted failure of half of the underwater-launched missiles, and does not include long-range fatalities caused by radiation and the destruction of vital civilian infrastructure such as power, transportation, medical care, fresh water and food.
Stepping back from the brink is a first but vital step. Experts on military strategy like Sam Nunn are not advocating unilateral nuclear disarmament but only a safer way to deploy our strategic forces and a less adversarial posture towards any real and potential "enemies" like Russia. But other experts on military policy embrace more ambitious and far-sighted goals. General Colin Powell, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, says that the policy of the United States should be to work for global abolition of all nuclear weapons. Coming as that does from the very highest levels of the military, Powell's vision of a world free of nuclear weapons is a sign of sanity and hope for us all. back