Nuclear terrorism, thankfully, is still only a specter, not a reality. But the recent wave of bloodshed in Russia underscores the urgency of the need to prevent terrorists capable of indiscriminate slaughter from acquiring nuclear bombs.

To its credit, the Bush administration has finally launched an ambitious initiative to better secure nuclear and radiological materials, particularly in violence-racked Russia. But unless the Global Threat Reduction Initiative, which was introduced in May, becomes part of a far more comprehensive approach to the challenges of nuclear theft and terrorism, it is destined to fall well short of its goal of safeguarding the American people from the threat of nuclear weapons.

The initiative builds on the bilateral nonproliferation efforts of the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction program, a U.S. government-funded, post-Cold War effort that focused on securing Russia’s nuclear arsenal. The new, expanded cooperative effort seeks to collect weapons-grade plutonium and enriched uranium that could be used in nuclear bombs from dozens of additional countries, and to lock them down in secure facilities.

But with U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear forces still on hair-trigger alert, we need to recognize that present policies for reducing the risk of nuclear strikes against the United States by terrorists or rogue countries are inconsistent and self-defeating. On the one hand, in the name of deterrence, U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear forces both comply with their presidents’ instructions to be constantly prepared to fight a large-scale nuclear war with each other at a moment’s notice. On the other hand, in the name of nonproliferation, the United States and Russia cooperate closely in securing Russia’s nuclear weapons against theft.

By keeping thousands of nuclear weapons poised for immediate launch, even under normal peacetime circumstances, the United States projects a powerful deterrent threat at Russia. But at the same time, it causes Russia to retain thousands of weapons in its operational inventory, scattered across that country’s vast territory, and to keep them ready for rapid use in large-scale nuclear war with America. And to maintain the reliability of these far-flung weapons, Russia must constantly transport large numbers back and forth between a remanufacturing facility and the dispersed military bases. This perpetual motion creates a serious vulnerability, because transportation is the Achilles’ heel of nuclear weapons security.

On any given day, many hundreds of Russian nuclear weapons are moving around the countryside. Nearly 1,000 of them are in some stage of transit or temporary storage awaiting relocation at any time. This constant movement between the far-flung nuclear bases and the remanufacturing facility at Ozersk in the southern Urals stems from the esoteric technical fact that Russian nuclear bombs are highly perishable. In contrast to American bombs, which have a shelf life of more than 30 years, Russian bombs last only eight to 12 years before corrosion and internal decay render them unreliable — prone to fizzling instead of exploding. At that point, they must be shipped back to the factory for remanufacturing. Every year many hundreds of bombs, perhaps as many as a thousand, roll out of Russia’s Mayak factory. The United States turns out fewer than 10 per year. In Russia, the rail and other transportation lines linking the factory to the far-flung nuclear bases across 10 time zones are buzzing with nuclear activity and provide fertile ground for terrorist interception.

Keeping a small strategic arsenal consolidated at a limited number of locations close to the Mayak factory would be the ideal security environment for preventing Russian nuclear bombs from falling into terrorist hands. But the ongoing nuclear dynamic between the former Cold War foes creates the opposite environment, which undercuts security. Russian nuclear commanders, confronted with U.S. submarines lurking off their coasts with 10-minute missile-flight times to Moscow and thousands of launch-ready U.S. warheads on land- and sea-based missiles aimed at thousands of targets in Russia, are compelled to match the American posture in numbers, alert status and geographic dispersal. U.S. leaders must decide which goal takes precedence: sustaining the Cold War legacy of massive arsenals to deter a massive surprise nuclear attack, or shoring up the security of Russian nuclear weapons to prevent terrorists from grabbing them (or corrupt guards from stealing and selling them).

And terrorists grabbing such a weapon as it shuttles between deployment fields and factories is not the worst-case scenario stemming from this nuclear gamesmanship. The theft of a nuclear bomb could spell eventual disaster for an American city, but the seizure of a ready-to-fire strategic long-range nuclear missile or group of missiles capable of delivering bombs to targets thousands of miles away could be apocalyptic for entire nations.

If scores of armed Chechen rebels were able to slip into the heart of Moscow and hold a packed theater hostage for days, as they did in 2002, might it not be possible for terrorists to infiltrate missile fields in rural Russia and seize control of a nuclear-armed mobile rocket roaming the countryside? It’s an open question that warrants candid bilateral discussion of the prospects of terrorists capturing rockets and circumventing the safeguards designed to foil their illicit firing, especially since the 9/11 commission report revealed that al Queda plotters considered this very idea.

Another specter concerns terrorists “spoofing” radar or satellite sensors or cyber-terrorists hacking into early warning networks. By either firing short-range missiles that fool warning sensors into reporting an attack by longer-range missiles, or feeding false data into warning computer networks, could sophisticated terrorists generate false indications of an enemy attack that results in a mistaken launch of nuclear rockets in “retaliation?” False alarms have been frequent enough on both sides under the best of conditions. False warning poses an acute danger as long as Russian and U.S. nuclear commanders are given, as they still are today, only several pressure-packed minutes to determine whether an enemy attack is underway and to decide whether to retaliate. Russia’s deteriorating early-warning network, coupled with terrorist plotting against it, only heightens the dangers.

Russia is not the only crucible of risk. The early-warning and control problems plaguing Pakistan, India and other nuclear proliferators are even more acute. As these nations move toward hair-trigger stances for their nuclear missiles, the terrorist threat to them will grow in parallel.

Even the U.S. nuclear control apparatus is far from fool-proof. For example, a Pentagon investigation of nuclear safeguards conducted several years ago made a startling discovery — terrorist hackers might be able to gain back-door electronic access to the U.S. naval communications network, seize control electronically of radio towers such as the one in Cutler, Maine, and illicitly transmit a launch order to U.S. Trident ballistic missile submarines armed with 200 nuclear warheads apiece. This exposure was deemed so serious that Trident launch crews had to be given new instructions for confirming the validity of any launch order they receive. They would now reject certain types of firing orders that previously would have been carried out immediately.

Both countries are running terrorist risks of this sort for the sake of an obsolete deterrent strategy. The notion that either the United States or Russia would deliberately attack the other with nuclear weapons is ludicrous, while the danger that terrorists are plotting to get their hands on these arsenals is real. We need to kick our old habits and stand down our hair-trigger forces. Taking U.S. and Russian missiles off of alert would automatically reduce, if not remove, the biggest terrorist threats that stem from keeping thousands of U.S. and Russian intercontinental ballistic missiles fueled, targeted and waiting for a couple of computer signals to fire. They would fly the instant they received these signals, which can be sent with a few keystrokes on a launch console.

To keep them from flying, we ought to reverse our priorities for nuclear security. The U.S. government should not be spending 25 times more on its deterrent posture than it spends on all of our nonproliferation assistance to Russia and other countries to help them keep their nuclear bombs and materials from falling into terrorist hands. Both the United States and Russia should be spending more on de-alerting, dismantling and securing our arsenals than on prepping them for a large-scale nuclear war with each other.

The current deterrent practices of the two nuclear superpowers are not only anachronistic, they are thwarting our ability to protect ourselves against the real threats.

Bruce Blair is president of the Washington-based Center for Defense Information and a former Minuteman launch officer.

This article first appeared in The Washington Post , September 19, 2004.