Friday, December 14, 2001

Nuclear threat

The old terror is still there

        What's the most dangerous nuclear terror facing the United States? A bomb built by a rogue state such as Iraq or North Korea? Some al-Qaida fanatic sneaking a dirty nuke over the border in a suitcase?

        Wrong. Even though President Bush said Thursday that “the Cold War is long gone,” the most dangerous nuclear threat to the United States still is a missile launch from Russia. That's according to Bruce Blair, president of the Center for Defense Information in Washington D.C., and former senior fellow with the Brookings Institution.

        Mr. Blair deals in threat assessments. For 13 years at Brookings he was a senior fellow in the Foreign Policy Studies Program. He is an expert on the security policies of the U.S. and Russia, specializing in their nuclear command and control systems. His experience is more than academic. From 1970-74 he was an Air Force Minuteman ICBM launch control officer with the Strategic Air Command — one of the people with his finger on the button.

        Last week he addressed a group of editorial writers during a seminar on the world of terror. He told us that to understand the risk of nuclear assault, we should understand just who controls the forces.

        In this country, it is likely to be two guys in their 20s sitting in a bunker under the Wyoming prairie with 500 high-yield warheads at their fingertips. For them, the cold war has never ended. The missiles still are aimed at the same Eastern Bloc targets they always were (even though the Eastern Bloc isn't there any more). These guys still operate as though the security of the American way of life depends on their ability to fight large scale nuclear war on a moment's notice.

        Actually, two moments' notice — that's how much time is supposed to elapse between the order and when the missiles leave the silos. Mr. Blair notes that in the 25 years since he was a missileer in such a bunker the protocols for unleashing world-ending destruction remain unchanged. Those protocols weren't affected by Thursday's announcment that we no longer need the 1972 ABM Treaty.

        Each side could fire 4,000 missiles with the combined power of 80,000 Hiroshima bombs. All they have to do is run down the checklists.

        Under Cheyenne Mountain, the Colorado control center made famous in Fail Safe, others stand watch, looking for possible launches from “the other side.” They go through the drill two or three times a day. Sometimes what they see are communication satellites or missile tests. There is a three-minute assessment to see if the situation is serious enough to call the president.

        If the president got such a call, it would be followed by a briefing from a duty officer at SAC headquarters in Omaha. There are 30 seconds allocated for the briefing. The president then gets 12 minutes to decide if he wants to get our missiles off before they are hit by what might be incoming.

        A big safeguard on this system is the high level of skill, training and alertness of all the people involved. But now look at the other side.

        Somewhere in Russia is another missile bunker, manned by another pair of young soldiers with similar hair-trigger protocols. According to Mr. Blair, the Russian rocket force suffers from a high level of alcoholism. It is also underpaid, which means many of the soldiers manning the silos spend their off-duty hours working a second job. So when they come on duty, there is a good chance they might be tired or hung over. Not exactly the level of alertness we might hope for to prevent an accidental holocaust.

        The scariest part of the assessment is that few people disagree with it. The day after hearing the talk, the same group of editorial writers asked Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to respond to Mr. Blair's risk estimate. He acknowledged the seriousness of the threat.

        The good news is that the Russians aren't the bad guys any more. Presidents Bush and Putin realize their biggest worries aren't are each other.

        With that in mind, maybe it would be a good idea to reassess our launch protocols. If we no longer have to fear a first strike from Russia, let's ease the hammer down on the nukes.Why not give those guys in the silos 10 minutes instead of two? Let's give the presidents an hour to think instead of 12 minutes.

        Then let's make our top priority the people who really want to hurt us, instead of those who might just do it by mistake.

        Contact David Wells at 768-8310; fax: 768-8610; e-mail: Cincinnati.Com keyword: Wells.


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