Extremely important to read and understand this
- This information should be read, understood, shared, and acted upon as soon
as possible. If you thought the movie "Dr. Strangelove" was weird, well,
reality is even weirder. The US is mortgaging life on Earth's security for
an ideological trade off.
May 1, 2000, Monday
U.S.-Russian Talks Revive Old Debates on Nuclear Warnings
By WILLIAM J. BROAD
American proposals to change a key arms control agreement have revived some
of the more important, if arcane, debates over nuclear strategy that not long
ago seemed consigned to the dustbin of the cold war.
One of those strategies is called ''launch on warning'' and is widely viewed
as raising the risk of accidental nuclear war.
It was mentioned recently in documents that American negotiators gave Russian
officials in an effort to persuade them to amend the 1972 Antiballistic
Missile Treaty and let the United States build a limited missile defense.
The documents, presented to the Russians in January, were obtained by The New
York Times, which published parts of them last week.
Opponents of changes to the ABM treaty are now charging that the Clinton
administration is encouraging Russia to engage in a high-risk nuclear
strategy. But American officials strongly deny that charge, saying they are
simply acknowledging the reality of what Moscow might do in time of war.
The launch on warning strategy is essentially this: if a defender detected a
nuclear launch, it would send up its own missiles and warheads even before
its enemy's could hit the ground. That way, a country would not be left
defenseless by having its missiles destroyed while they were still sitting in
their submarines and silos.
Launch on warning was once seen as a way to reinforce the idea that all sides
would lose in a nuclear exchange -- and thus deter one -- as modern arms
became increasingly accurate.
The problem, most experts on strategy say, is that it also puts nuclear war
on a hair trigger. And it increases the risks of an accidental nuclear
exchange because early warning systems are notoriously faulty. In 1995, for
instance, the Russians misread the launching of an American weather rocket
from Norway as a surprise nuclear attack. If not caught by vigilant humans,
such false alerts can start an accidental exchange of nuclear missiles.
Despite such dangers, the new American documents mention launch on warning in
an approving context. They say it would help guarantee that the United States
would not strike first in a disarming attack, even if it had a missile
defense, which strategists, as well as the Russians, see as destabilizing
because in theory it can give one side a protective advantage.
A Russian policy of launch on warning would thus continue to insure that both
sides would lose in any nuclear exchange.
''It is highly unlikely,'' the documents said, that an enemy with a shield
would ever attack Russia because Moscow could launch its missiles on warning
of attack, ''which would neutralize the effectiveness of the assault.''
The documents also say Russia is keeping its nuclear forces on ''constant
alert and apparently will do so'' well into the future. High states of alert
are a prerequisite for a policy of launch on warning, but they too can add to
the risks of accidental war.
Critics of an missile defense system say statements like those in the
American documents, coming in the context of reassuring Russia about its
ability to penetrate any American shield, are encouraging risky strategies
and undermining nuclear stability. ''The U.S. position should seek to reduce,
not embrace, Russia's readiness to launch on warning,'' said Bruce Blair,
president of the Center for Defense Information, a private Washington group.
John D. Steinbruner, a nuclear expert at the University of Maryland, said the
Clinton administration's tacit endorsement of Russian launch on warning was
''pretty bizarre'' because ''we know their warning system is full of holes.''
Experts agree that Russia's network of early warning radars, satellites and
computers is decaying and increasingly prone to false alerts.
Lisbeth Gronlund, a scientist at the Security Studies Program of the
Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said the documents show that the
United States, in exchange for what she characterized as an unworkable
antimissile dream, was willing to pay an absurd price: ''the continued threat
of Russian unauthorized, accidental and erroneous launches.''
Instead, the critics say, Moscow should be encouraged to take its nuclear
forces off alert and to disavow launch on warning, and Washington should do
Federal officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity, denied that the
arms negotiators were blessing dangerous practices and said the critics were
being naive. The references in the documents, they said, simply conceded
military realities and what Russia might do in war.
''It's not our job to say it's a bad thing,'' a senior official who works
intimately with the Russians on military matters said of launch on warning.
He said that Washington, eager to lessen the odds of accidental war, is
actively working with Moscow to help Russia improve its early-warning
''We're into lowering the risk'' of war, the official said, ''not raising
it.'' He added that in some cases that meant a nation would adopt arguments
and strategies that might look risky, but over time would prove beneficial.