Co-convenors: John Burroughs, Lawyers' Committee on Nuclear Policy
Stephen Young, Coalition to Reduce Nuclear Dangers
We must not allow ourselves to be mesmerized and deluded by the numbers game - those vaguely comforting plans about reductions to 1000 warhead, then 200 warhead arsenals, then lower.
Pending their complete elimination, it is just as or even more important to focus on how nuclear weapons are possessed and deployed, on qualitative disarmament measures and policies that reduce risks and set the stage for abolition.
Existing pledges of non-use against NPT non-nuclear weapon states must be fully respected. The nuclear weapon states should formally acknowledge that their negative security assurance declarations are legally binding - after all, they were given to induce acceptance of the indefinite extension of the NPT. The determination of whether a state is in good standing under the NPT and protected by the assurances is a matter for an authoritative international body, not unilateral decision by a nuclear weapon state. Exceptions should be ruled out. No planning for preemptive nuclear uses against chemical or biological weapon capabilities. No planning for reprisals against chemical or biological attacks. No other exceptions. The security assurances are an integral part of the NPT regime.
The security assurances further should be expanded into unconditional no first use commitments as against any state, whether possessing nuclear weapons or not. If nuclear arsenals are held only because other states have such arsenals, the logic of eliminating arsenals altogether rather than running the appalling risks that go under the label "deterrence" will become unassailable.
De-alerting of nuclear forces, most centrally through separation of warheads from delivery systems, must commence. This process is vital in its own right, to diminish dramatically the chance of accidental, unauthorized, or miscalculated detonations of nuclear explosives. It would reinforce and actualize existing security assurances and no first use commitments. It would allow the cessation of ongoing threats of use of force which would inflict indiscriminate harm, unnecessary suffering, and disproportionate damage to the environment - threats which the International Court of Justice held to be generally illegal. Finally, in lowering the political value of nuclear arsenals, it would smooth the way to reduction and elimination.
The facts regarding de-alerting are nothing less than compelling.
On 25 January 1995, the routine launch of a US scientific rocket off the western coast of Norway set off alarms in Russia, and almost led to global disaster. The first reports from Russia's early warning system indicated the rocket was potentially a Trident submarine-launched missile. For the first time ever, President Yeltsin activated his nuclear suitcase. Russia was literally minutes away from deciding whether to order a retaliatory strike. Finally, Russian officials correctly determined that the missile was not a threat, and the emergency passed. In 1997, reports in the US media indicated that deteriorating Russian command and control systems might have led to missiles switching to "combat mode" without warning. US systems have made related problems in the past, including a 1980 explosion that blew an intercontinental ballistic missile, with its warhead, out of its silo. These incidents demonstrate the dangers of maintaining the high alert status typical of the Cold War era.
In fact, despite the end of the Cold War, Russia and the United States still maintain thousands of warheads on high alert, ready to launch within minutes. A "paralysis of policy" exists in both countries, despite the fact that the two countries now cooperate on a wide range of economic, military, and political issues.
The United States and Russia have already taken steps to reduce the alert status of some nuclear systems, particularly tactical weapons. Thousands of warheads have been withdrawn from Europe and are being destroyed or stored. In Europe, NATO aircraft no longer sit on Quick Reaction Alert, with their electronics preheated and loaded with nuclear weapons, ready for immediate take-off. The UK announced that its Trident nuclear-armed submarines will now be "routinely at a 'notice to fire' measured in days rather than the few minutes' quick reaction alert sustained throughout the Cold War". According to UK officials, however, this step is not a de-alerting measure. It will not be verifiable externally. Instead, the UK views it as a confidence-building measure, similar to the agreements to detarget nuclear missiles reached with Russia. Because the "notice to fire" status is not verifiable, its benefits are minimized.
Other steps are possible. For example, it is known that US submarines en route to their launch stations are on a modified alert status from which it takes approximately 18 hours to bring the submarine to full alert, ready for launch within minutes. It should be possible to verify this status externally without revealing the submarine's location. Steps to reduce the alert status could include leaving in place the flood plates that block missile launch tubes, removing guidance systems from missiles, or shutting down power to the missiles. These would increase the amount of time required to deliver missiles to their targets by hours or days.
More far reaching steps are also possible, such as removing warheads from missiles and storing them separately.
De-alerting is made more urgent by the well-known problem of the "millennium bug", when computers may be unable to identify correctly the date as the calendar goes to 2000. It may lead to widespread confusion, system failures, and accidents. The danger is not only precisely at midnight of the year 2000. Computer roll- over dates can take place at any time, and depend a number of internal, difficult to verify, timing mechanisms. Problems could occur months or even years after 2000.
Fortunately, the fictional "worst case", where nuclear weapons will explode or missiles launch because of computer failures, is incredibly unlikely. However, there is a substantial chance that some systems critical to maintaining nuclear arsenals especially communications and early warning systems - may face unpredictable failures. The real "worst case" scenario is that human operators, in a time of crisis, will be given inaccurate or misleading information, and react in ways that only make any problem worse. An "accidental" nuclear war is not impossible. There are also risks associated with maintaining operational nuclear reactors.
Russia and the United States are aware of the danger caused by the combination of nuclear forces on high alert and potential Y2K failures, and were taking steps to attempt to address it. However, following the NATO attacks on Serbia, Russia announced that it was ending cooperation with the US on Y2K issues.
The simplest way to reduce the dangers associated with the Y2K problem would be to take de-alerting steps like those described earlier.
Since of the beginning of the nuclear era, the world has seen the timeframe for potential nuclear catastrophe decline from weeks to days to hours to minutes. It is high time that all countries, but particularly Russia and the United States, take steps to remove the threat of global nuclear annihilation. Now, as during much of the Cold War, the chance of an
immediate massive nuclear war exists as a policy option. It is time to remove that option, and reduce the likelihood of accident, mistake, or miscalculation, by taking nuclear weapons off alert.
In conclusion, we stress that qualitative disarmament measures and policies like de-alerting and no first use commitments, as well as quantitative reductions, can never substitute for the elimination of nuclear arsenals and capabilities. Since the Berlin Wall came down, the demand from all parts of the world for abolition has been escalating. The outrage over nuclear explosive testing after the 1995 Extension Conference is one example. Another is that there are now over 1400 groups who have endorsed the Abolition 2000 statement whose first point calls for conclusion by the year 2000 of a nuclear weapons convention that requires the phased elimination of all nuclear weapons within a timebound framework, with provisions for effective verification and enforcement.
The civil rights movement in the United States had a slogan: "keep your eyes on the prize". So long as we keep our eyes on the prize of abolition, qualitative disarmament can help create a path to get us there.