View from Brussels: Trump's atomic priority

Thousands of nuclear missiles are on hair trigger alert, ready to launch in the time it takes to send a Tweet. We urgently need an international deal with nuclear states to make the world a little bit safer, argues Pelle Neroth

Believe it or not, there are other important things besides Brexit in the world. One of those is the question of how to move nuclear weapons off their hair-trigger alert, something that President Obama promised to do in 2008 but which has now been pushed over to the Trump presidency. Is Trump going to succeed where Obama failed?

At the moment a thousand warheads could be launched within minutes of a presidential order. The Ploughshares Fund, a San Francisco-based NGO devoted to disarmament, has played on the anxieties many feel about a Trump presidency by referring to the incoming president’s itchy fingers when it comes to responding to perceived slights on Twitter. Might he wake up at four in the morning and press the nuclear button as he has been so quick to press the “respond to tweet” button at that ungodly hour?

A petition that has over 85,000 signatures observes that: “President Trump could launch 140 warheads in the time it takes to write 140 characters.” It then adds bathetically: “A tweet can be deleted but the devastation of a nuclear warhead cannot be undone.”

I actually think Trump will prove to be far more cautious than his detractors believe. There is, in some circles, a tendency to believe almost anything of the new president. Nevertheless, the existence of nuclear weapons on a hair-trigger alert – not only in the United States but also in Russia and other countries – is a real problem.

The whole nuclear weapons stand-off is technologically truly stuck in the Cold War, as is some of the Mutually Assured Destruction rationale. The logic in the old days was that only if you had missiles ready to launch immediately upon warning of an impending attack would it deter the opponent from striking first with the goal of wiping out their nuclear arsenal as well as large numbers of people and then being able to the dictate the terms of the peace on the contaminated but still surviving target land. There was a thinking for a while that you could win a limited nuclear war – provided you struck first and eliminated the enemy’s weapons of mass destruction.

That thinking was made largely redundant by the existence of nuclear submarines that launched ballistic missiles. Today roaming across millions of square kilometres in the vast oceans, undetected by Russia, they have basically given the United States a second strike capacity, whatever happens to its nuclear missiles on the ground.

A Pentagon briefing essentially admits that the logic of “launch on warning” – to avoid one’s own missiles being taken out – no longer holds. The paper says that Russian deployment of additional warheads “even if significantly above the current START treaty limits would have little or no effect on the assured US second strike capabilities that underwrite our strategic deterrence posture.”

However strategic thinking still hasn’t caused caught up and the vast arrays of ground-based intercontinental nuclear missiles remain on a hair-trigger. They can be launched within a minute. Submarine-based missiles at least take twelve. Removing the hair-trigger alerts on the land missiles would make the world more secure while not making any difference to American security. It is rather amazing that the Obama administration never found the time or the political will to do it – and the relationship with Russia has got so bad in the last four years that there’s been no successful political dialogue on the subject either. Because of course it always takes two.

The hair-trigger problem has actually been a bipartisan issue in America. George W Bush, when candidate, called it a relic of the Cold War. While Barack Obama said in 2008: “We must address this dangerous situation – something that President Bush promised to do with the campaign for president but did not do once in office.” Well, Obama did nothing either.

Memoirs have been written and the archives are now been opened up on the Cold War and reveal a number of chilling near misses due to the existence of the hair-trigger alert. At 2:30am on 3 June 1980, computers at the National Military Command Center beneath the Pentagon issued the warning that the Soviet Union had just launched a nuclear attack on the United States. Tensions were running high after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan six months earlier. US Air Force missile crews removed the launch keys from their boxes while bomber crews went to their planes. President Carter’s special security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, was asleep when the phone rang. He was informed that several hundred Soviet missiles were heading towards the United States. A counter-strike would have had to be launched almost immediately as Washington would be destroyed within minutes, as would American missile facilities.

Brzezinski has said he did not wake his wife since it was better if she died in her sleep. He sat with his legs over the bed, pondering the situation. He was about to pick up the phone to ring the President when the call came through that this was a mistake, a false alarm. It was later discovered that a defective communications computer chip had generated the false warning. As the writer Eric Schlosser puts it in his recent book featuring nuclear near-disasters, Command and Control, the defective computer chip costs 46 US cents.

There have been other near misses. High-altitude clouds reflecting sunlight misperceived as the heat from mass-launched Soviet missiles, faulty telephone switches in remote locations. The fact that it is American incidents that have been publicised may ultimately be down to the fact that the American society is more open than most. I can’t imagine that the other nuclear states, including Britain, Pakistan and Russia, haven’t had their own little nightmares. We survived the Cold War by dint of luck.

The younger generations are, I believe, not sufficiently aware of the extent to which nuclear fears were part of our lives until 1989. Growing up in the1980s, I well remember the enormous peace demonstrations that took place in various European cities. The atmosphere of dread that pervaded popular culture – chart-topping songs about nuclear holocaust like Two Tribes by Frankie goes to Hollywood or 99 Luftballons by Nena in West Germany. The Greenham Common women’s camp in which hundreds of women camped outside a Berkshire missile base for months at a time, performing stunts that got them arrested, was constantly on TV. Numerous European cities announced themselves to be nuclear-free, which to many observers seemed rather fatuous as nuclear fallout would hardly respect a no nukes road sign placed at the city limits. I remember that my younger sister won a prize for a poem which was read out at morning assembly: a heartfelt appeal to Presidents Reagan and Chernenko for world peace. It was all a bit strange; but perhaps our nuclear awareness was better than the alternative of the worrying indifference of the effects of war that today’s young Europeans and Americans seem to have.

Further, in the 1980s, most politicians remembered the Second World War. Perhaps today’s politicians lack the insight into the human condition that this war brought. I’ve even read the odd article where some clever official or academic attached to a think tank speculates irresponsibly on war with Russia, as if such a war could possibly be won. Thankfully, I don’t think those views prevail at the top in any of our countries, at least.

While Eric Schlosser’s stories of failing morale and drug problems among the soldiers still manning America’s ballistic missile bunkers are enough to make one’s hair stand on end, the problems in Russia may well be worse, only we don’t know about them. Its satellite early warning system has actually been degraded since the 1990s as has its capacity to respond with a second strike. Its reinsurance policy, the nuclear missile submarine fleet, apparently spends most of its time in port. That gives the Russians even less margin for error than the Americans. Lacking early warning, they might launch on no warning – or even pre-emptively.

Therefore it is very encouraging that the Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said this week, according to Reuters, that he expects to have a dialogue with the Trump administration on nuclear weapons. I think Trump is more aware than he lets on, while he has appointed as Secretary of Defense the veteran general James Mattis, who has offered cogent remarks at Senate Armed Services Committee meetings about revamping US nuclear forces to reduce the dangers of a false alarm. The media have called Mattis a serious thinker on nuclear issues. Let’s hope so.

What the two sides could do is this: they could start by taking the strategic missiles off the hair trigger by moving warheads to storage in order to extend the time required to launch from the current period of minutes to days. They would not be returned to high alert unless they were used in exercises or other exceptional activities, for which prior notification to the opponent would be necessary. The first stand-down could take place within hours of Trump taking office and the small symbolic gesture might mean a lot in this year of jangled nerves.

Recent articles

Info Message

Our sites use cookies to support some functionality, and to collect anonymous user data.

Learn more about IET cookies and how to control them