This article was originally published by Truthdig.
Fifty years after the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, and more than 20 years after the end of the Cold War, the US and Russian nuclear confrontation continues. Both nations still keep a total of approximately 800 intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and submarine launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), armed with more than 1,700 strategic nuclear warheads at launch-ready status, able to be launched with only a few minutes warning.
The US now has 450 land-based Minuteman III missiles that carry 500 strategic nuclear warheads. As their name implies, they require at most several minutes to be launched. The US also has 14 US Trident submarines and normally 12 are operational. Each Trident now carries about 96 independently targetable warheads and 5 Tridents are reportedly kept in position to fire their missiles within 15 minutes. This adds another 120 missiles carrying 480 warheads that qualify as being “launch-ready”.
The missiles and warheads on the Trident subs have been “upgraded” and “modernized” to make them accurate enough for first-strike weapons against Russian ICBM silos. Missiles fired from Trident subs on patrol in the Norwegian Sea can hit Moscow in less than 10 minutes.
Russia is believed to have 322 land-based ICBMs carrying 1,087 strategic nuclear warheads; at any given time, probably 900 of these are capable of being launched within a few minutes warning. Many of the Russian ICBMs are more than 30 years old. According to a former high-ranking Soviet officer, the commanding officers of the Russian Strategic Rocket Forces have the ability to launch their ICBMs directly from their headquarters, by-passing all lower levels of command.
The Russians also have nuclear submarines with ballistic missiles kept at launch-ready status, although Russian subs are not always kept in position to launch (unlike the US Tridents). Missiles launched from Russian submarines on patrol off the US East Coast can, however, hit Washington, D.C., in about 10 minutes.
The combined explosive power of US and Russian launch-ready nuclear weapons is roughly equivalent to 250 times the explosive power of all the bombs exploded during the 6 years of World War II. It would require less than one hour for the launch-ready weapons to destroy their targets.
Both the US and Russian presidents are always accompanied by a military officer carrying “the nuclear football” (called cheget in Russia), a communications device resembling a lap-top computer, which allows either president to order the launch of his nation’s nuclear forces in less than one minute. Both nations still have officers stationed in underground ICBM command centers, sitting every moment of every day in front of missile launch-consoles, always waiting for the presidential order to launch.
For decades, hundreds of US and Russian ICBMs have been kept at high-alert primarily for one reason: fear of a surprise attach by ICBMs or SLBMs. Since a massive nuclear attack will surely destroy both the ICBMs and the command and control system required to order their launch, the military “solution” has always been to launch their ICBMs before the arrival of the perceived attack. And once an ICBM is launched, it cannot be recalled.
Following the Cuban Missile Crisis, both the US and Russia developed and deployed highly automated nuclear command and control systems, which work in conjunction with a network of early warning systems and their nuclear-armed ballistic missiles. The possession of this complex integrated network of satellites, radars, computers, underground missile silos, fleets of submarines, and bombers give both nations the capability and option to launch most of their ICBMs upon warning of attack.
This creates the possibility of an accidental nuclear war triggered by a false warning of attack. During peacetime, when political tensions are low, conventional wisdom has it that there is essentially no chance that a false warning of nuclear attack could be accepted as true. However, during an extreme political crisis, or after the advent of military hostilities, such a false attack warning could become increasingly likely and vastly more dangerous.
ICBMs remain out of the sight and the minds of most Americans, yet all the necessary military ingredients for Armageddon remain in place. And despite past presidential announcements that another Cuban Missile Crisis is “unthinkable,” it certainly remains possible.
In March, 2012, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov wrote to one of us (in a personal letter), “One cannot help agreeing to the conclusion that the deployment of missile defense system at the very borders of Russia, as well as upbuilding the system’s capabilities increase the chance that any conventional military confrontation might promptly turn into nuclear war.”
What happens if NATO collides with Russia somewhere in Georgia, Kaliningrad or perhaps Ukraine, shots are fired and Russia decides to carry out its threats to take out US/NATO Missile Defense installations? What happens if the US should have a president who considers Russia the US’s number one geopolitical foe?
For many years it has been standard Russian military procedure to preemptively use nuclear weapons in any conflict where it would be faced with overwhelming military force, for example, against NATO. The Russians oddly call the policy nuclear "de-escalation,” But it would be better described as “limited nuclear escalation. It was developed and implemented after the US broke its promise not to expand NATO eastward (following the reunification of Germany) and NATO bombed Serbian targets.
The Russian “de-escalation” policy presumes that the detonation of nuclear weapons upon the opposing side will cause them to back down; it is essentially a belief that it is possible win a nuclear war through the “limited” use of nuclear weapons. But in the case of NATO, the war would be fought against another nuclear power.
Suppose that NATO responds instead with its US tactical nuclear weapons now based in five European countries (Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and Turkey)? Once an exchange of nuclear weapons takes place, what are the chances that the war will remain “limited”?
US and Russian strategic war plans still contain large nuclear strike options with hundreds of preplanned targets, including cities and urban areas in each other’s nation. As long as launch-ready ICBMs exist, these plans can be carried out in less time than it takes to read this article. They are plans that spell disaster for both countries and for civilization.
Cooperation, rather than conflict, still remains possible. Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov writes, “Despite the growing hardship we do not close the door either for continuing the dialogue with the US and NATO on missile defense issues or for a practical cooperation in this field. In this respect we find undoubtedly interesting the idea of a freeze on US/NATO deployments of missile defense facilities until the joint Russian-US assessment of the threats is completed."
This could be an important step towards lowering US-Russian tensions, which continue to revolve around their more than 60-year nuclear confrontation. Ending this confrontation can prevent the next Missile Crisis. Another important step would be the elimination of first-strike ICBMs that continue to threaten the existence of our nation and the human race. This would increase the security of the American people, even if it were done unilaterally.
The US and Russia remain obligated under the terms of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty to pursue negotiations in good faith on nuclear disarmament in all its aspects. Fifty years after the Cuban Missile Crisis, it is well past time to conclude these negotiations. No issue confronting humanity is more urgent than bringing such negotiations to a successful conclusion and moving rapidly to zero nuclear weapons.
Steven Starr is a NAPF Associate and author of the website www.nuclearfamine.org. David Krieger is President of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation. Daniel Ellsberg is a former nuclear strategist who released the Pentagon Papers in 1971.