Exclusive: By ratcheting up tensions with Russia, U.S. national security is raising risks of accidental nuclear war with missiles still on hair-trigger alert — despite President Obama’s promises, writes Jonathan Marshall.
By Jonathan Marshall
With little more than a week left in President Obama’s last term, arms control experts still hope he will finally make good on a promise he made in 2008: to make America safer by taking our weapons of mass destruction off hair-trigger alert.
A petition to that effect by Ploughshares Fund, a San Francisco-based foundation dedicated to advancing the control of nuclear arms, has garnered more than 85,000 signatures. Unless Obama acts, it notes ominously, “President Trump could launch 140 warheads in the time it takes to write 140 characters. The grave difference is: a tweet can be deleted, but the devastation of a nuclear warhead can never be undone.”
Experts estimate that about 1,000 U.S. nuclear warheads are currently set to launch within minutes of a presidential order to vaporize an enemy. As Ploughshares Fund President Joe Cirincione observes, “Each is many times the size of the bombs we dropped on Japan. Together, they can explode the equivalent of 22,000 Hiroshima’s on cities all over the planet. In just 30 minutes, they could destroy all that human civilization has created over the millennia.”
There was once a method to this madness. Our ability to launch missiles on warning of an incoming attack prevented any chance that the Soviet Union could strike first, wipe out our nuclear arsenal, and then dictate the terms of (a very radioactive) peace. The same was true in reverse, at least until the United States began pursuing missile defense systems, promoting mutual deterrence.
Changing technology has long rendered “launch on warning” obsolete as a guarantee of our nuclear deterrent, however. In particular, stealthy U.S. submarines, each carrying hundreds of nuclear warheads, today roam thousands of miles of ocean, undetected by Russia. No conceivable sneak attack can wipe them all…