Politics

This Group of Scientists Just Urged the U.S. to do this to its Nuclear Arsenal

March 7th 2017

By:
Mike Rothschild

The editors of Scientific American just took a remarkable stance because of the possibility of accident, as well as some recent controversial comments made by President Donald Trump that the United States should take its nuclear arsenal off high alert.

"[President] Trump should give the U.S. electorate some assurance that he intends to govern with a steady hand by making a commitment to take our nuclear arsenal off hair-trigger alert and buy more time to decide whether to push the button," the non-partisan, non-political magazine editors wrote in an op-ed for its March issue.

Both the U.S. and Russia keep their nuclear weapons on a footing allowing for immediate use should the chief executive order it, and Trump could order a nuclear strike on any country or target in the world. The U.S. military chain of command is trained to carry it out without any discussion.

There has been considerable worry among experts about whether his temperament is suited for such a responsibility.

Beyond that, the U.S. keeps almost a thousand warheads ready to fire at a moment's notice, a posture known as "launch on warning." Should the U.S. detect incoming missiles, current policy is for the president to be informed of the possible attack and to order a retaliatory strike - even before those missiles impact. The editorial puts this decision in stark terms:

"If our early-warning system detects incoming missiles, the president has 12 minutes or less to decide whether to unleash global-scale destruction and take the lives of tens of millions of civilians."

While designed to ensure that U.S. missiles aren't destroyed in their silos by a first strike, launch on warning has resulted in false alarms in both the U.S. and the former Soviet Union. "By taking this step unilaterally, the U.S. could reduce the risk of a mistaken or accidental launch that could lead to nuclear retaliation on the U.S. public," the editors wrote.

And mistakes are a constant worry, with an accidental apocalypse taking place almost once every decade. Some of the most famous incidents include:

  • In 1960, a moonrise in Norway was mistaken for a Soviet nuclear strike by U.S. computers, putting the nuclear armed Strategic Air Command on full alert, ready to launch.
  • In 1979, former President Jimmy Carter was nearly informed that a full-scale Soviet nuclear attack had started because a computer operator put the wrong tape in during a training exercise.
  • In 1983, a Soviet early warning officer deduced that the missiles his computer told him were heading right at him were a false alarm, and it turned out to be phantoms caused by sunlight glinting off clouds.
  • And in 1995, the only time in history that a nuclear code-carrying briefcase was opened for launching purposes, former Russian President Boris Yeltsin was prepared to unleash the unthinkable when a Norwegian scientific rocket was mistaken for an American nuclear first strike.

As the editors went on to write, taking such a step would be an easy process. "Turning a safety switch in the nuclear missile silos, a procedure called safing, used when maintenance workers are on-site, would prevent an unwarranted launch," the op-ed noted. The switches could be flipped back in the case of increased tension, a process that could be done in a few days.

Moreover, both George W. Bush and Barack Obama pledged to do away with launch on warning if they were elected - and neither did.

As the letter points out, even if all the U.S. land-based missiles were destroyed, there are still enough nuclear submarines to counterattack against a first strike. And moreover, the chances of such a full-scale attack by Russia or China (which doesn't keep its missiles on full alert) are remote.

"Taking the U.S. arsenal off high alert [...] could buy enough time to avert the cataclysmic event that once again looms as the most pressing threat to our survival," the editorial concludes.