Sun, Nov 26, 2017 - Page 7 News List

Experts disagree whether land-based nuclear missiles are a safeguard or a threat

In case of a nuclear strike warning, US presidents would have only 10 minutes to decide whether to launch nuclear intercontinental ballistic missiles — and Russia would have even less. Experts said that relying on submarines and bombers instead would increase that time

By Scot Paltrow  /  Reuters, WASHINGTON

Illustration: June Hsu

Imagine it is 3am, and the president of the US is asleep in the White House master bedroom. A military officer stationed in an office nearby retrieves an aluminum suitcase — the “football” containing the launch codes for the US’ nuclear arsenal — and rushes to wake the commander-in-chief.

Early warning systems show that Russia has just launched 100 intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) at the US, the officer informs the president. The nuclear weapons will reach US targets in 30 minutes or less.

Bruce Blair, a Princeton specialist on nuclear disarmament who once served as an ICBM launch control officer, said the president would have at most 10 minutes to decide whether to fire the US’ own land-based ICBMs at Russia.

“It is a case of use or lose them,” Blair said.

A snap decision is necessary, current doctrine holds, because US missile silos have well-known, fixed locations. US strategists assume that Russia would try to knock the missiles out in a first strike before they could be used for retaliation.

Of all weapons in the US nuclear arsenal, the ICBM is the one most likely to cause accidental nuclear war, arms-control specialists say. It is for this reason that a growing number of former defense officials, scholars of military strategy and members of the US Congress have begun calling for the elimination of ICBMs.

They have said that in the event of an apparent enemy attack, a president’s decision to launch must be made so fast that there would not be time to verify the threat.

False warnings could arise from human error, malfunctioning early-warning satellites or hacking by third parties.

Once launched, the US’ current generation of ICBMs, the Minuteman III, cannot be recalled: They have no communication equipment, because the US fears on-board gear would be vulnerable to electronic interference by an enemy.

The critics recommend relying instead on the other two legs of the US’ nuclear “triad”: submarine-launched ballistic missiles and heavy bombers armed with hydrogen bombs or nuclear-warhead cruise missiles, as the president would have more time to decide whether to use submarines or bombers.

Bombers take longer to reach their targets than ICBMs and can be recalled if a threat turns out to be a false alarm. Nuclear missile submarines can be stationed closer to their targets and are undetectable, so their locations are unknown to the US’ adversaries. There is virtually no danger that the submarines could be knocked out before launching their missiles.

Among the advocates of dismantling the ICBM force is former US secretary of defense William Perry, who served under former US president Bill Clinton.

In a recent interview, Perry said the US should get rid of its ICBMs because “responding to a false alarm is only too easy.”

An erroneous decision would be apocalyptic, he said.

“I don’t think any person should have to make that decision in seven or eight minutes,” he added.

Former US secretary of defense Leon Panetta, who served during former US president Barack Obama’s administration, defended the triad while in office.

However, in a recent interview he said he has reconsidered.

“There is no question that out of the three elements of the triad, the Minuteman missiles are at a stage now where they’re probably the most antiquated of the triad,” he said.

The risk of launch error is even greater in Russia, several arms control experts said.

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