The US and Russia each have about 2,000 powerful nuclear weapons set for hair-trigger release. The enormous nuclear overkills of these weapons present the greatest danger to all countries.1 While groups working to rid the world of nuclear weapons such as Abolition 2000 are growing in size and number of supporters, still, much more remains to be done to achieve a nuclear free world. Hopefully, as more nations whose leaders become aware of what is the greatest danger to all countries, then the more they will work toward eliminating nuclear weapons. Their leadership could be invaluable.

Nuclear Weapons Overkills

The US and Russia each maintain enormous nuclear weapons overkills. A massive nuclear attack, whether intentional or accidental, by Russia or the US or both, could destroy all countries by turning the world into a dark, cold, silent, radioactive planet. Russia and the U.S. have more than 90 percent of the world’s strategic nuclear weapons.2

Explosive Power – A nuclear warhead can be far more destructive than is generally realized. One average size U.S. strategic nuclear warhead on an Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles is:

  • Equal to 250,000 tons of dynamite (250 kilotons).3
  • Or 50,000 World War II type bombers each carrying 5 tons of bombs.
  • Or 20 Hiroshima size nuclear warheads.
  • One average size Russian strategic nuclear warhead has an explosive power equal to 400,000 tons of dynamite or 80,000 bombers each carrying 5 tons of bombs. The terrorists’ truck bombs that exploded at the NY World Trade Center and in Oklahoma City each had an explosive force equal to about 5 to 10 tons of dynamite.4

Out Of Touch With Reality – When General Lee Butler (USAF Ret.1994) first became head of the US Strategic Air Command, he went to the Omaha headquarters to inspect the list of targets in the former Soviet Union. Butler was shocked to find dozens of warheads aimed at Moscow (as the Soviets once targeted Washington). At the time that the target list was contrived, US planners had no grasp of the explosions, firestorms and radiation effects from such an overkill. We were totally out of touch with reality. Butler said, “The war plan, its calculations, and consequences never took into account anything but cost and damage. Radiation was never considered.” 5

If one average sized strategic nuclear bomb hit Washington DC today, in a flash it could vaporize Congress, the White House, the Supreme Court, the Pentagon, and destroy many federal programs like Social Security. If another nuclear bomb hit New York City, it could vaporize the United Nations headquarters, international communication and transportation centers, the New York Stock Exchange, etc. And that would only take two of the more than 2,000 warheads that Russia has ready for hair-trigger release.

One Percent Is Too Much – General Butler said, “ is imperative to recognize that all numbers of nuclear weapons above zero are completely arbitrary; that against an urban target one weapon represents an unacceptable horror; that twenty weapons would suffice to destroy the twelve largest Russian cities with a total population of twenty-five million people — one-sixth of the entire Russian population; and therefore that arsenals in the hundreds, much less in the thousands, can serve no meaningful strategic objective.” 6

Twenty nuclear warheads is less than one percent of the nuclear weapons that the US has set for hair-trigger release.

Nuclear Winter – A nuclear exchange between Russia and the U.S. could destroy all 192 nations in the world by filling the sky with very dense smoke and fine dust thereby creating a dark, cold, hungry, radioactive planet. The late Dr. Carl Sagan and his associates estimated that a nuclear winter could be created with a nuclear explosive force equal to 100 million tons of dynamite. Such a force could ignite thousands of fires.7

The US and Russia each have a nuclear explosive force many times more powerful than that needed to create a very dark, global nuclear winter. Nuclear explosions can produce heat intensities of 3,000 to 4,000 degrees Centigrade at ground zero. Nuclear explosions over cities could start giant flash fires leaving large cities and forests burning with no one to stop them. Nuclear explosions can lift an enormous quantity of fine soil particles into the atmosphere, more than 100,000 tons of fine, dense, dust for every megaton exploded on a surface.8

Why Nuclear Overkill

It is hard to believe that nations would build a defense on something as crazy as the huge nuclear overkills that exist. One factor that allows the creation of suicidal overkills is that most people do not like to think about the possibility of mass destruction. While this reluctance is readily understandable, it allows the following factors to dictate humanity’s drift toward extinction: building and maintaining nuclear weapons provides profits and wages; nuclear weaponry is a complex technical subject; much of the nuclear weapons work is done in secrecy; and the end of the Cold War has given some the idea that the danger is past.

Hopefully, if the leaders of governments and their staff start widely discussing the danger, and progress is made in getting rid of nuclear weapons, the world will be glad to join in supporting further agreements to rid the world entirely of nuclear weapons.

Accidental Nuclear War

The danger of launching based on a false warning could be growing. During a major part of each day Russia’s early warning system is no longer able to receive warnings. It has so decayed that Moscow is unable to detect US intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) launches for at least seven hours a day, US officials and experts say. Russia also is no longer able to spot missiles fired from US submarines. At most, only four of Russia’s 21 early-warning satellites were still working.

This means Russian commanders have no more than 17 hours — and perhaps as little as 12 hours — of daily coverage of nuclear-tipped ICBMs in silos in Colorado, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota and Wyoming. Against Trident submarines, the Russians basically have no warning at all.9

What makes the current situation so dangerous is that in the heat of a serious crisis Russian military and civilian leaders could misread a non-threatening rocket launch or ambiguous data as a nuclear first strike and launch a salvo.

There have been at least three times in the past that the US and Russia almost launched to false warnings. Each time they came within less than 10 minutes of launching before learning the warnings were false. In 1979, a US training tape showing a massive attack was accidentally played.10 In 1983, a Soviet satellite mistakenly signaled the launch of a US missile.11 In 1995, Russia almost launched its nuclear missiles because a Norwegian rocket studying the northern lights was mistakenly interpreted as the start of a nuclear attack.12

False warnings are a fact of life. During an 18-month period in 1979-80, the US had 147 false alarms in its strategic warning system. Two of those warnings lasted three minutes and one lasted six minutes before found to be false.13 How is Russia handling false alarms today? There is no certain nor reassuring answer.

Low Awareness of the Danger

There is a great need to increase public awareness of the danger in order to provide broad, long-term understanding and support for arms agreements that would rid the world of nuclear weapons. The following actions by the US and Russia show low awareness of the current danger. Only 71 out of 435 US Congressional representatives signed a motion calling for nuclear weapons to be taken off of hair-trigger alert.14 Former President Boris Yeltsin said on Dec. 10, 1999 when pressured about the Chechnya conflict, “It seems Mr. Clinton has forgotten that Russia is a great power that possesses a nuclear arsenal.”15 The US Senate rejected ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty in October 1999.16 Moscow leaders say that the US arguments for changing the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty will provoke an arms race.17

Despite US and Russian nuclear weapons presenting the greatest danger to all nations, reference to them in the mass media is not commensurate with the magnitude of the danger. Acting Russian President Putin signed into law a new national security strategy in January that lowers the threshold on first-use of nuclear weapons.18 And at arms control talks in Geneva this January, the US opposed a Russian suggestion that each country cut the size of its nuclear arsenal to 1,500 warheads. James Runis, a US State Department spokesman, said a lower warhead figure would meet opposition from US generals, who would have to adjust their nuclear doctrine.19

How confident should we be with defense planners who have not taken into consideration the self-destructive consequences of their current strategies?

Drawing Attention To The Danger

One way to draw the world’s attention to overkill danger is for the leaders of nations to ask the following questions of the US and Russia:

“Why does Russia and the U.S. each maintain far more nuclear weapons than either can use without destroying all countries including their own?”

“Can they refute any of the consequences of nuclear weapons use described above?”

“If not, what are they doing to reduce the possibility of the accidental destruction of all?”

The more that countries ask the US and Russia these questions, the more difficult it will be for the US and Russia to ignore them. This could be especially so if each nation’s leaders share copies of their questions and the answers they receive with the news media.

General George Lee Butler has said that the world can immediately and inexpensively improve security by taking nuclear weapons off hair-trigger alert.20This action could also stop sending the message that we do not trust each other and could provide a better atmosphere for reaching an agreement in all nuclear arms reduction talks.

Reference and Notes

1.Blair, Bruce C., Feiveson, Harold A. and Huppe, Frank.. “Taking Nuclear Weapons off Hair-Trigger Alert,” Scientific American, Nov 97, p.78.

2. Norris, Robert S. and Arkin, William, “U.S. Nuclear Weapons Stockpile,” Bulletin Of The Atomic Scientists, July/Aug 96. (The percent of all nuclear weapons that belong to the U.S. and Russian was calculated from this source.)

3. Ibid.

4. Babst, Dean. “Preventing An Accidental Armageddon,” Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, Santa Barbara, California, Sep 99.

5. Grady, Sandy. “Can Nuclear Genie Be Stuffed Back In The Bottle,” San Jose Mercury News, Dec.8, 1996.

6. Butler, Lee. Talk at the University of Pittsburgh, May 13, 1999, p. 12.

7. Sagan, Carl. The Nuclear Winter, Council for a Livable World Education Fund, Boston, MA, 1983. 8. Ibid

9. Russia Update, The Sunflower No. 32 Feb 00, Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, Santa Barbara, Calif..

10. Phillips, Alan E. “Matter of Preventive Medicine,” Peace Research, August 1998, p 204.

11. “Twenty Minutes From Nuclear War,” The Sunflower, No. 17 Oct 98, Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, Santa Barbara, Calif.

12. Blair, Op. Cit.

13. Hart, Senator Gary and Goldwater, Senator Barry; Recent False Warning Alerts from the Nation’s Missile Attack Warning System, a report to the Senate Armed Forces Committee, 9 October 1980, pp. 4&5.

14. The Sunflower, No. 31 Jan 00, Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, Santa Barbara, Calif.

15. Burns, Robert. “U.S., Russian relations get chillier,” Contra Costa Times, Dec. 10, 1999.

16. The Sunflower, No. 31 Jan 00, Op. Cit.

17. Gordon, Michael R. “Russia rejects call to amend ABM treaty,” Contra Costa Times, Oct. 21, 1999.

18. “New Russian Defense Plan Lowers Threshold for First Use,” The Sunflower No. 32 Feb 00, Nuclear Age Peace Foundation. Santa Barbara, Calif.

19. “U.S. Opposes Extra Russian Arms Cut, ” Reuters News Service, Jan. 28, 2000.

20. Schell, Jonathan, “The Gift Of Time,” The Nation, Feb. 9, 1998, p. 56.