Women. Power. Peace.

It’s time to de-alert Cold War relics

By Bob Farquhar

The United States and Russia have about 1,800 nuclear-armed missiles on ‘launch-ready alert’ meaning that they can be launched in less than three minutes of notification.  It is a Cold War concept.   If either nation were to see an out-of-the-blue nuclear attack from the other, they would launch their missiles in response to assure massive retaliation in what is called ‘launch-on-warning’ - use them or lose them.    There is less than 15 minutes to decide whether to launch, sometimes only 3 to 4 minutes.

In 1995, Russia came very close to launching a massive retaliatory attack when their radars detected the launch of a missile off the coast of Norway which fit the profile of a U.S. ‘first-strike’ against them.   For the first time in Russian history, the ‘nuclear football’ was opened, codes were inserted, and President Yeltsin was told he needed to enter his code to launch Russian missiles at the U.S. because "we are under attack!"   He refused, something just wasn't right.   And he was right.   It turned out to be a research missile studying the aurora borealis.

There have been other close calls on both sides during the arms race through what President Kennedy called "accident or miscalculation" in his 1961 speech to the United Nations on the Non-Proliferation Treaty and his belief that nuclear weapons needed to be abolished before they abolished us.   Nothing is 100 percent and the probability of a failure increases as time goes on.

In 2012, there is no rational reason or geopolitical reality for U.S. and Russian missiles to be on launch-ready alert, the same posture they were at during the Cold War, which ended 20 years ago.  Maintaining missiles on near hair-trigger alert using outdated scenarios that are implausible today does not give much time for calm, rational thinking when something does go wrong.   Unlike manned bombers, missiles cannot be recalled when launched, they will proceed to their targets, even if it was all a big mistake.

As a result of the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review, former Joint Chiefs vice Chairman General James Cartwright headed up a study released in May that recommends de-alerting nuclear missiles to allow an increase in warning and decision time.   Other equally credible studies since 1998 have stated the same.   A July 8th Washington Post editorial, “13 Minutes to Doomsday” encourages de-alerting and Foreign Affairs has written extensively on the need to do so bilaterally with Russia.    We cannot address 21st century problems using 20th century thinking and behaviors.   It is time to de-alert these relics of the Cold War.

Robert B. Farquhar is a retired Air Force master sergeant who served the United States for over twenty-four years. During his service he studied the effects of nuclear warfare and was trained as a fallout shelter manager. He an anti-nuclear activist in Georgia and a prolific writer, with many op-eds published and his book "Duck and Cover" is in the publishing process now. Bob lives in Bonaire with his partner, Beth.

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