Wake Up -- The Nightmare's Not Over
By Stephen S. Rosenfeld
Friday, January 31 1997; Page A21
The Washington Post

The missiles are still there, an accidental launch still possible.

Should we not enlist other nuclear powers and try to move strategic weapons off alert, Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) asked now-confirmed Secretary of Defense William Cohen at his confirmation hearing.

There are too many nuclear weapons, replied Cohen, putting in a plug for ratifying START II's large cuts.

But can't we separate numbers from alert status?, Bingaman came back.

If it's in the mutual Russian-American interest, said Cohen, it's worth pursuing.

Good, said Bingaman.

The fact is that although the Cold War is over, the nuclear posture it spawned is not. President Clinton boasts that missiles have been retargeted and are no longer trained on children. But the targeting, which is almost instantly reversible anyway, is the least of it. The United States and Russia maintain strategic nuclear forces at reduced but still great Cold War levels. The man with the "football," the signals that unleash Armageddon, still stays 24 hours a day at the heel of the two presidents. The doctrine and the physical capacity for immediate and immense retaliation still drench the nuclear realm.

Add to this the new peril that has risen in Russia since the Cold War ended -- the risk of an accidental or unauthorized launch or theft of a weapon as a result of the frightful societal indiscipline -- and you have plenty for prudent people to be anxious about.

True, prudent people have been addressing parts of the problem. In the first Clinton term, for instance, non-strategic nuclear forces were "de-alerted," and the codes that allow subs to fire their own missiles were removed. Missiles were de-alerted or dismantled in Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan, and -- looking ahead -- we agreed with the Russians to remove warheads from the big land-based missiles once START II is ratified.

So far in the '90s, nonetheless, the hot missiles in the political bazaar are those that might end up in the unfriendly hands of the international rogues -- Iraq, Iran, North Korea. This is the specter that put the United States on a track to a missile defense.

There is no matching concern for missiles that are already in the friendly hands of the United States and Russia. The first-term Clinton review of American nuclear posture, says Reagan defense aide Fred Ikle, "did not go far enough in moving away from mutual assured destruction principles."

Hence the nightmare scenario of an accidental Russian launch that, under prevailing American doctrine, would trigger a first strike or quick second strike aimed at a full range of Russian military targets, including command and control, nuclear and conventional forces and the capacity to wage war. Since Russian missiles are similarly postured, the Henry L. Stimson Center reports, "an accidental Russian launch could trigger an overwhelming and unnecessary disaster for both countries."

Against this remote but imaginable contingency, the much-cited dangers of a rogue missile attack begin to be reduced to size. A rogue attack would presumably involve only a missile or two; an accidental Russian launch, hundreds if not thousands. A defense can be devised against a limited attack, not against a concerted attack. There is a chance of deterring a rogue launch by a credible threat of nuclear response, but by definition an accidental launch cannot be deterred.

And you had thought the world was now a safer place.

Enough has been learned since the Soviet Union disintegrated to warrant a deeper nuclear posture review. The experts, including an expanding corps of former uniformed military officers, have been on this case for years, but have not yet found the broader political welcome that the authentic demon Saddam Hussein galvanized for missile defense.

The first goal would be to take crisis decisions off automatic in doctrine and machinery so as to give policymakers time to make a considered response to nuclear attack. The second would be to reduce the numbers of weapons in arsenals on both sides, from the low thousands still deployed to the low hundreds, and thereby to reduce the lingering tension in the strategic equation, too.

Fred Ikle further argues that NATO should go to a "no first use" nuclear policy. Instead of maintaining an obsolete nuclear deterrence against a no longer conceivable conventional attack in Europe, the alliance should firm up deterrence and make proliferation "less interesting to the proliferators" by making credible preparations to punish a rogue state's first use.

We need a missile defense of reasonable effectiveness and cost. We need as well a sensible appreciation of what Jeff Bingaman identifies as the keener peril arising from uncritical embrace of yesterday's nuclear posture. Secretary Cohen has many pressing issues on his plate. Sen. Bingaman helped out by adding one more.

Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company