TAKING THE APOCALYPSE OFF THE MENU
For well over a decade now, the issue of the operating status of nuclear
weapon systems, (otherwise known as 'operational readiness' or
nuclear 'posture'), has been an arcane-sounding item on the global
nuclear disarmament agenda: An arcane item that just happens to be
about the end of the world.
Since before the turn of the century, it has been a regular component of
disarmament initiatives at NPT review conferences: It was part of the
Year2000 NPT Review Conferences '13 points', and once again figured (
a bit more prominently this time), in the Final Declaration of the
2010 NPT Review Conference. It features in a number of regular UN
resolutions, notably India's Reducing Nuclear Dangers, the NAM
resolution, the Japan-Australia Renewed Determination resolution, and
of course in the Chile-Malaysia-New Zealand-Nigeria-Switzerland
resolution on Operational Readiness of Nuclear Weapons Systems.
So why is an 'obscure' concern about 'arcane' aspects of US and Russian
nuclear 'posture', of such literally apocalyptic importance?
The US and Russia have, since the early 60's, maintained their nuclear
forces in a 'ready-to-launch' posture. Back in the 60s, this still
meant that once a decision had been taken to launch, the actual
process might still take up to 24 hours. Colonel Yarynich credits
this with a positive outcome to the Cuban Missile crisis – Mush
shorter launch times, he suggests, might, possibly, have been fatal.
since the '70s or maybe even the late 60's however, it has been
possible to launch missiles at literally minutes, and finally
seconds, notice. (Russian ICBM launch times are now, according to Col
Valery Yarynich, specified in seconds).
Together with the computerization of the entire nuclear command and control
system that has taken place since the 60's, the emphasis by
cold-warriors on both sides (and now by post-cold-warriors), on the
need to launch in seconds if your early warning systems tell you that
the other fellow has launched, had led to the terrifying possibility
of nuclear war by computer error. Indeed, I would argue that it has
created a situation in which:
--'deliberate' nuclear war is hardly credible at all
--INADVERTENT nuclear war via malfunction and miscalculation is all too credible.
Via the large-scale destruction of cities, cities being the 'default'
target of nuclear weapons, and the 150 million or so tonnes of very
black soot injected into the stratosphere by their incineration, this
would in turn bring about the destruction of both civilization and
much else besides. Given large enough arsenals and the destruction of
enough cities it could possibly be (human)species-ending.
And it has come awfully close to taking place on a number of occasions,
not all of them during the cold war.
An examination of some of the exact details of some of these events may
lead the more theologically inclined of us to ponder divine
providence. However, I seem to remember writing somewhere that while
looking at these events MAY lead some of us to believe in miracles,
(or just that we have been most improbably lucky and that we really
shouldn't be here), even if we do decide to believe in miracles,
maybe we ought not to rely on there being an infinite supply of said
Let's look at a couple of examples of what I mean. Both these events took
place in Russia. However, there is an ample supply of equally
terrifying near–misses from the USA, and data on these from 1985
onwards is now classified.
At half-past-midnight Moscow time, Colonel Stanislav Petrov, a young,
bright, rapidly rising designer of nuclear command and control
systems, was starting his regular 'hands–on-experience' monthly
shift at the Serpukhov-15 early warning station near Moscow. He
shouldn't really have been on duty at that particular time – He'd
swapped his shift with someone junior to him who inevitably would
have 'gone by the book', and we wouldn't be here to talk about it.
Suddenly, lights flashed, sirens wailed, and a large map of the USA on the wall
of the station lit up showing that the US had launched from North
It was the height – or depth – of the cold war at the time. Reagan
had just given the 'we've outlawed the Soviet Union, we start bombing
in five minutes' quip over a radio show. The Kremlin was utterly
paranoid that the US and NATO would mount a first strike. KAL-007 had
just been shot down over Kamchatka. The apocalypse was most
definitely on the agenda.
Colonel Petrov had a big decision to make – and some very short minutes to
make it in.
He said later 'I had a feeling in my gut that there was a mistake
So, contrary to the standing orders he'd helped to write, he did not take
the steps that would have initiated a nuclear response from between
5000 and 15000 warheads, and turn the US and its allies to rubble and
dust roughly 60 times over. Instead, Colonel Stan reported a 'glitch'
and sat down to wait the longest 20 minutes a human could wait. As he
waited he felt his commanders chair to be 'on fire'. As the last
seconds ticked out and nothing happened he felt his body turn to
A highly unusual formation of exactly vertical clouds directly over the
US launch sites in North Dakota had looked to the then state of the
art Soviet satellite surveillance system, exactly like a series of US
In 1995, the Norwegians decided to launch a weather research rocket to
study the Aurora Borealis. It just happened to be the first stage of
a cast-off US ICBM. The Norwegian Ministry of Science DID send a
letter to the Russian defense ministry – evidently it did not reach
the right people.
Russian perimeter radar picked up the rocket, as it was trained to do,
seconds after launch.
And, as it was trained to do, it assumed it was a US submarine-launched
missile that would either
(a) 'Take out' (vaporize) the Kremlin and much of Moscow
(b) Explode in space over European Russia and take things back to
pre-electrical days with electromagnetic pulse.
The alarm this time went right up to the top, and Boris Yeltsin and his
aides opened the nuclear briefcase, and, panic-stricken, debated what
Finally somebody suggested waiting an extra minute, and in that extra minute,
the rocket plunged back into the arctic ocean just like the letter
from the Norwegian ministry of science said it was going to do.
This incident in fact led to the negotiation of an agreement between the
US and Russia to establish a 'Joint Data Exchange Center'(JDEC), in
which, as it was originally envisaged, Russian officers would watch
US radar screens, and US officers would watch Russian radar screens.
The agreement is such a wonderful idea that the US and Russian
governments have reaffirmed it in various forms four times, most
recently between Obama and Medvedev.
There is just one problem.
It has not actually been done, even now. JDEC, agreed by everyone to be
a great idea, does not actually exist.
By now, in 2012, the last time the Operational Readiness resolution
went through, 152 governments put their names on the side of those
who want US and Russian nuclear weapons taken off high alert and only
three (US, France and the UK), voted 'NO' (and with France and the UK
having already changed the 'notice to fire' from 'minutes' to
'days'). With such a nearly unanimous call for de-alerting, in which
even two out of three naysayers have in fact de-alerted, it is
reasonable to ask what is it that prevents progress on this truly
Why, in 2012, with the cold war supposedly 23 years in the past, do the US
and Russia 'need' to keep just under 1000 warheads each (yes, the
numbers have gone down and that is good) – on the same high alert
that they did in the 1980s – in a nuclear posture that but for
Colonel Stan and maybe other unknown heroes, could have ended the
human species? Do the US and Russia STILL need to launch silo-based
ICBMs in 'a few dozens of seconds'?
The reason that is usually given – and that was cited in the 2010
Nuclear Posture review as the reason for not lowering nuclear posture
– is that during a crisis, there might be a 're-alerting race'.
It is generally not asked what kind of crisis between the US and Russia
might now involve threats of mutual incineration over timescales
measured in minutes, or what might be the credible political or
security context for such a crisis. Indeed, there isn't one.
There are two powerful responses to this 're-alerting race' crisis
One is that in any case during such a crisis, even forces that are NOT
routinely kept on high alert would be 'generated'. Submarines would
put to sea. Mobile Topol-M's would rumble out into the Taiga. These
would send exactly the same 'signals' to the other side as a
're-alerting race' would. There really is no difference, except that
with missiles off high alert, fatal errors are much much less likely.
In this sense, the 're-alerting race' argument is a 'straw man'.
The other response is to war-game it, with missiles off alert. A real
nuclear war, as Colonel Yarnich remarks, can take place only once,
But we can do computer simulations as often as we like.
This shows decisively, and with quantitative rigor, by means of a
computer-generated '100 nuclear wars', that even if one side remained
de-alerted, and the other side launched a surprise attack completely
'out of the blue', (A 'splendid first strike'), (again we must ask
where could such an event sequence credibly come from, even with a
Romney presidency – from perhaps, a latter-day Jesse Helms, wanting
to speed up the second coming ???) - always, the response from the
de-alerted side, even without re-alerting at all, and completely
excluding any contribution from submarine launched missiles or mobile
Topol-M's – will be utterly devastating to the cities of the
There is thus no DELIBERATE way this would ever take place, while the fact
that nuclear weapons are off alert would exclude INADVERTENT
apocalypses. In effect, the apocalypse would be off the menu of
A furious rearguard action has been fought by conservative forces and
some military leaders to prevent de-alerting.
However a number of retired military leaders embrace it. Former STRATCOM
commander General Eugene Habiger, and General Cartwright, as well as
Bruce Blair, and in Russia, Generals Esin, Zolotarev, and Dvyorkin
favor taking US and Russian land-based ICBMs off alert.. Cartwright
is-along with Blair- (I believe quite rightly)- in favor of getting
rid of land-based ICBMs altogether.
The arguments made in favor of retaining current nuclear postures for US
and Russian land-based ICBMs are, I believe, quite without substance.
Taking those vulnerable and de-stabilizing silo-based ICBMs off high
alert (or as Cartwright suggests getting rid of them completely),
would be a giant leap toward nuclear zero that would take the
apocalypse off the global menu.
It should have been done decades ago.