FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Hair-Trigger Nukes Risk Catastrophic Terrorism

by Dr. BRUCE G. BLAIR Center For Defense Information

While the efforts of the U.S. government to assist Russia in preventing the theft of nuclear materials from storage sites and research institutes have been inadequate, the opportunities for nuclear terrorism presented by U.S. and Russian nuclear weapons on hair-trigger alert represent an even greater peril that receives even less attention and effort. In an era of potential nuclear terrorism, the theft of a nuclear weapon from a storage site could spell an eventual disaster for an American city, but the seizure of a strategic missile or group of missiles ready for immediate firing could be apocalyptic for entire nations.

Our two governments have not yet overcome the mutual suspicion that is severely impeding their cooperation in preventing nuclear materials theft. They had better leap this hurdle soon, because even greater cooperation is necessary to protect their populations against the multitude of potential terrorist threats to launch-ready nuclear forces.

The distrust stems partially from disputes such as the Iraq war, but it persists in large part because the United States and Russia remain in each other’s nuclear cross-hairs. War planners in both countries remain, believe it or not, preoccupied with preparing to fight a large-scale nuclear war with each other on short notice. Both sides keep thousands of weapons aimed at each other and poised for immediate launch. U.S. spy planes still routinely lurk off the Russian border looking for holes in the air defense network through which U.S. heavy bombers and cruise missiles could fly to drop nuclear bombs on Russia in wartime. Russian missile submarines still find themselves trailed by U.S. submarines as soon as they leave port on patrol. Two massive leadership posts inside mountains in the Urals built to withstand a U.S. nuclear strike are just coming online. Russia is equipping the one at Kozvinsky Mountain with an underground antenna for radioing a launch order to a “dead hand” communications rocket designed to ensure quasi-automatic Russian missile retaliation in the event of a U.S. strike that decapitates the nuclear chain of command.

It behooves the former enemies to kick these old habits and stand down their obsolete confrontation. Nuclear terrorism is the real enemy, and fostering cooperation in tackling it requires that both countries move away from their nuclear confrontation. Taking U.S. and Russian missiles off of hair-trigger alert, moreover, would itself automatically reduce if not remove many of the biggest terrorist threats–which stem largely stem from the extremely high launch-readiness of strategic missiles. Both U.S. and Russian intercontinental ballistic missiles remain fueled, targeted, and waiting for a couple of computer signals to fire. They fly the instant they receive these signals, which can be sent with a few keystrokes on a launch console.

What kind of terrorist threats? The most obvious is the loss of physical control over such missiles. If scores of armed Chechen rebels could slip into the heart of Moscow and hold a packed theater hostage for days, could terrorists infiltrate missile fields in rural Russia, seize control over a nuclear-armed mobile rocket roaming the countryside, and launch it at Europe or America? It’s an open question that warrants candid bilateral discussion of the prospects of terrorists capturing rockets and circumventing the safeguards designed to foil their illicit firing.

Another specter concerns terrorists spoofing radar or satellite sensors, or cyber-terrorists hacking into early warning networks. Could sophisticated terrorists generate false indications of an enemy attack that results in a mistaken launch of nuclear rockets in ‘retaliation?’ False alarms have been frequent enough on both sides under the best of conditions. False warning poses an acute danger as long as Russian and U.S. nuclear commanders are allowed, as they still are today, only several pressure-packed minutes to determine whether an enemy attack is underway and decide whether to retaliate. Russia’s deteriorating early warning network coupled to terrorist plotting against it only heightens the risks.

Russia is not the only crucible of risk. The early warning and control problems plaguing Pakistan, India, and other nuclear proliferators are even more acute. As these nations move toward hair-trigger stances for their nuclear missiles, the terrorist threat to them will grow in parallel.

In addition, U.S. nuclear control is also far from fool-proof. For example, a Pentagon investigation of nuclear safeguards conducted several years ago made a startling discovery–terrorist hackers might be able to gain back-door electronic access to the U.S. naval communications network, seize control electronically over radio towers such as the one in Cutler, Maine, and illicitly transmit a launch order to U.S. Trident ballistic missile submarines armed with 200 nuclear warheads apiece. This exposure was deemed so serious that Trident launch crews had to be given elaborate new instructions for confirming the validity of any launch order they receive. They would now reject a firing order that previously would have been immediately carried out.

If Russian and U.S. experts could instill trust in each other, then they could identify the real deficiencies in the system of early warning and control over nuclear forces on high combat alert. They could also allay unwarranted fears. The value of trust was illustrated two years ago when Russian scientists at the renowned Kurchatov Institute alerted their American counterparts in the Department of Energy to software flaws they feared had compromised the U.S. computer system used to keep track of the U.S. inventory of nuclear materials.

The stakes today are too high to let old habits of mind and obsolete practices of nuclear confrontation stand in the way of protecting ourselves against the biggest threat faced by both the United States and Russia. Washington and Moscow need to stop playing Cold War-like games and confront nuclear terrorism instead. Both need ironclad safeguards against the terrorist exploitation of their hair-trigger arsenals. They should each stand down, and work together not only to protect their own arsenals but also to keep other nations off of high alert, before it’s too late.

Dr. Bruce Blair is president of the Center for Defense Information, where this article originally appeared.

More articles by:

CounterPunch Magazine

minimag-edit

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550

zen economics

Weekend Edition
July 28, 2017
Friday - Sunday
Joseph Natoli
Choosing the ‘Arteries that Make Money’
CJ Hopkins
Intersectionalist Internet Blues
Pepe Escobar
China and India Torn Between Silk Roads and Cocked Guns
Ralph Nader
Can the World Defend Itself From Omnicide?
Howard Lisnoff
Agape While Waltzing at the Precipice
Musa Al-Gharbi
Want to Shake Up Status Quo? Account for the Default Effect
Angela Kim
North Korean Policy Must Focus on Engagement Not Coercion
David Macaray
Talking Union
Binoy Kampmark
Refugee Conundrums: Resettlement, the UN and the US-Australia Deal
Robert Koehler
Opening Gitmo to the World
David Jaffee
No Safe Space for Student X
Thomas Knapp
The State is at War — With the Future
David Swanson
What’s Missing from Dunkirk Film
Winslow Myers
There Is Still Time, Brother
Robert J. Burrowes
Biological Annihilation on Earth Accelerating
Frederick B. Hudson – Dr. Junis Warren
Robot Scientists Carry Heavy Human Hearts 
CP Editor
Not My Brother’s Reefer
Sam Lichtman
Where are the Millennials?
Louis Proyect
Death Race: the Cruelties of the Iditarod
Charles R. Larson
Review: Norman Lock’s A Fugitive in Walden Woods
July 27, 2017
Edward Curtin
The Deep State, Now and Then
Melvin Goodman
The Myth of American Exceptionalism
Nozomi Hayase
From Watergate to Russiagate: the Hidden Scandal of American Power
Kenneth Surin
Come Fly the Unfriendly Skies
Andre Vltchek
Philippines: Western Media is Distorting Reality, People and Army Unite to Battle “ISIS”
Robert Fisk
Out of the Ruins of Aleppo: a Syrian Community Begins to Rebuild
Andrew Moss
What is Adelanto?
Thomas Mountain
Free Speech or Terror TV? Al Jazeera’s Support for ISIS and Al Queda
Robert J. - Byers
Jamboree Travesty
Thomas Knapp
Send in the Clown: Scaramucci Versus the Leakers
Rob Seimetz
Because the Night Belonged to Us in St. Petersburg (Florida)
Paul Cantor
Momentum Not Mojo
Patrick Walker
In Defense of Caitlin Johnstone (Part Two)
July 26, 2017
John W. Whitehead
Policing for Profit: Jeff Sessions & Co.’s Thinly Veiled Plot to Rob Us Blind
Pete Dolack
Trump’s Re-Negotiation Proposal Will Make NAFTA Worse
George Capaccio
“Beauty of Our Weapons” in the War on Yemen
Ramzy Baroud
Fear and Trepidation in Tel Aviv: Is Israel Losing the Syrian War?
John McMurtry
Brexit Counter-Revolution Still in Motion
Ted Rall
The Democrats Are A Lost Cause
Tom Gill
Is Macron Already Faltering?
Ed Kemmick
Empty Charges Erode Trust in Montana Elections
Rev. William Alberts
Fake News? Or Fake Faith?
James Heddle
The Ethics and Politics of Nuclear Waste are Being Tested in Southern California
Binoy Kampmark
Slaying in Minneapolis: Justine Damond, Shooting Cultures and Race
Jeff Berg
Jonesing for Real Change
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail