Rocks and dirt don't sound like a recipe for averting an
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
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
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
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
"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. …