Russian aircraft make intrusions into the air space of the Baltic states and skirt the air space of Britain. Russian bombers attack targets in Syria, and America is advised to keep its aircraft out of the way. Russia may have designs on the Baltic States, and is certainly playing a role in Syria. Possibilities arise of a clash that could lead to escalation.
Russia and America have scaled down the numbers of their nuclear weapons, from 23,000 American warheads and 36,000 Soviet at the height of the Cold War to fewer than 2,000 on each side deployed today. But one Cold War legacy remains: missiles remain on a hair-trigger alert, ready to go within fifteen minutes.
It was not supposed to be this way. Back in the 1960s, in the middle of the Cold War, US Defence Secretary Robert McNamara was asked when he thought the Soviet Union would catch up with the United States and build a missile-launching submarine to match the Polaris. “The sooner the better,” he replied.
This was Cold War logic. The missile-firing submarine was invulnerable, giving a guaranteed second strike capability and the national leader time to assess whether his nation was under attack and to decide on his response.
The submarines were seen as a stabilizing weapon system. Victory in a nuclear war was meaningless, therefore stability was the aim. In pre-nuclear, pre-missile days, you might want the enemy to be cowed by the strength of your force. But when the weapons at his disposal can kill millions of people, and the flight time of his missiles is measured in minutes, you want him assured that he is under no pressure to act precipitately but can pause and assess.
Today there remains talk of “launch on warning,”, launching missiles on receiving warning of an impending attack, that is, one in which enemy missiles are on their way. In other words, “get your retaliation in first,” in the old street-fighter saying. There is no acceptance of mutual stability. It is as if these invulnerable second-strike weapons did not exist.
Neither Russia nor the Pentagon have spelled out the circumstances in which they would use nuclear weapons. But American men have said that in today’s world there is no invulnerability. A nuclear attack, even if it did not destroy all your weapons, could paralyze electronic communications through the electronic pulse that a nuclear explosion creates, so that an order to launch could not be given, or carried out. In fact, one can envisage an attack in which this is the principal aim rather than the destruction of weapons or anything else.
So nuclear missiles remain on a fifteen-minute alert, ready to go if radar shows that enemy missiles are on their way. But this is a dangerous situation.
There have been false alarms. The most serious since the Cold War was in 1995 when a Norwegian space research rocket was launched in the direction of Moscow. Advance notice of the launch was sent to Moscow in accordance with established procedures, but somehow the message did not get through to the proper authorities. The Russian Government decided quickly that although this was only one missile, it could be a prelude, a missile with a warhead designed to paralyse Russian forces with an electronic pulse, to be followed by an attack. They alerted missile forces and a count-down began. Fortunately, the count-down was aborted when the leaders decided they had made a mistake.
None of these false alarms occurred at a time of crisis. If one had, the consequences could have been catastrophic.
For another, a communications blackout would only be temporary. Surviving weapons could retaliate at some point and inflict unacceptable damage. An attacker would know this. Deterrence is still in place.
Russia’s alert system has been degraded in recent years. It has fewer satellites with sensors, fewer radar stations. This leaves greater chance of error.
Also, in today’s world of cyberwarfare, more things can go wrong. A cyber attack by, say, China could damage America’s defence electronic system in unintended ways, making the system designed to detect an attack unreliable.
A Cuban missile kind of confrontation is unlikely to arise in today’s world. But confrontation could erupt in Europe. That is where Russian and Western forces have conflicting aims and Russia is making provocative moves. American nuclear forces physically stationed in Europe are small: 200 B-61 bombs to be carried by American or Allied aircraft, at five bases. Russia has 2,000 able to reach Western Europe.
If a clash began, a Russian first strike really could destroy the few NATO nuclear weapons in Europe on the ground, though of course this does not account for US, British and French strategic second-strike nuclear capabilities. In a crisis, permission to launch, and the ability to do so, ie, the combination keys to the weapons, might be devolved to local commanders, who would be under pressure.
Samuel Johnson famously said, “When a man knows he is going to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind.” However, experience and psychological experiment shows that this is not true. At a time of great anxiety, people are less likely to behave rationally. Russian nuclear weapons, like American, are locked, but unlike in America the combinations are held by the military chiefs as well as the political ones.
From the 1960s onwards, both sides in the Cold War accepted their mutual interest in avoiding nuclear war, and took a number of measures to make it less likely: arms control agreements, the White House-Kremlin “hot line,” agreements to inform one another of major military exercises, sharing of lock systems. President Putin shows no sign of sharing even this much of a world-view with the West.
President Obama has said several times that his aim is a world without nuclear weapons. Every serious programme with this goal has called for the de-alerting of nuclear weapons as an early step. This could be done unilaterally without any great sacrifice of security, because the US has an assured second strike capability. They do not need a hair-trigger response.
A further step in that direction that is often proposed is the separation of warheads from missiles and triggers from bombs. Realistically, this can only be accomplished by mutual agreement. But the atmosphere at the moment is not conducive to mutual agreement.