Nuclear Disarmament with Low-Tech Approach Arms-Control Advocates See a Way to Prevent US or Russian Missile Attacks: Rocks and Dirt

By Jonathan S. Landay, writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, February 2, 1998 | Go to article overview

Nuclear Disarmament with Low-Tech Approach Arms-Control Advocates See a Way to Prevent US or Russian Missile Attacks: Rocks and Dirt


Jonathan S. Landay, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


Rocks and dirt don't sound like a recipe for averting an atomic cataclysm.

Yet, piling tons of debris atop the lids of nuclear-missile silos that would take days to clear is among a host of steps - collectively called "de-alerting" - gaining support as ways in which the United States and Russia might advance post-cold-war stability.

The idea: The more time the sides require to mount massive nuclear attacks, the less danger of inadvertent conflict. Furthermore, advocates say, taking most missiles off the high-alert hair-triggers on which they remain six years after the Soviet Union's demise would encourage the former foes to slash armories below levels now being contemplated. Other de-alerting measures include storing warheads, batteries, and guidance units apart from missiles; pinning open ignition switches so that rockets could not be fired until the pins are manually extracted; removing shrouds that shield warheads in flight; and placing mobile Russian launchers up on blocks after removing their tires. Other measures are more complex, and all involve trade-offs between different US and Russian capabilities. The concept's success also hinges on the development of reliable ways to ensure against cheating by either side. Arms controllers have been advocating de-alerting for several years, contending that it would create a more accurate reflection in strategic terms of the new political relationship between Moscow and Washington. Some say the US should take such steps unilaterally to induce a still-insecure Russia to follow. The concept is winning new adherents as concerns grow that a lack of funds is seriously eroding Russia's nuclear command-and-control systems, raising the danger of an errant or unauthorized launch that could trigger a US response. Within 30 minutes, the sides could plunge into a nuclear holocaust, exchanging the more than 5,000 warheads they still keep on 24-hour high alert. Difficult to implement While de-alerting sounds appealing, other experts say it would be hard to implement. Facing deep decay in its conventional forces as the NATO alliance expands into its backyard, Russia is becoming more reliant on nuclear weapons for its security. Among other things, it has a "launch on warning" policy that requires its leaders to authorize a devastating counterstrike within minutes of detecting an attack but before the incoming warheads land. Says a senior US official: "The Russians are ... shifting their nuclear doctrine in the direction of greater reliance on nuclear weapons. One of the factors we have to consider is that they may be very suspicious, not to say negative, about ideas that would make their nuclear forces slower to generate." Congressional conservatives are dead set against de-alerting. They say it would be difficult to verify Russian compliance with the combinations of measures proponents are advocating. Only by maintaining a nuclear deterrent and building a multibillion-dollar missile-defense system can the US be safe, they insist. "There is, indeed, a danger from an accidental or unauthorized launch from Russia. But the appropriate response ... is to build a nuclear defense, not to render our nuclear deterrent un-credible," says Frank Gaffney, a conservative analyst and former Pentagon official. …

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