A look at the history, and the future, of US nuclear weapons - Albuquerque Journal

A look at the history, and the future, of US nuclear weapons

Many historians conclude that World War I occurred almost haphazardly when, in 1914, European leaders made decisions whose tragic consequences they did not foresee.

On Oct. 8, former Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz made a presentation to the Albuquerque International Association. Remembering World War I history and considering the present state of international relations, Moniz posed the question: “Are We Sleepwalking Toward the Nuclear Precipice.”

My own understanding of the relevant issues, based on several sources, follows.

During the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union engaged in a stalemate based on the policy of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD). Nevertheless, during these decades, numerous events occurred – “close calls” – that could have led to a devastating nuclear exchange.

One of the most famous happened in September 1983. An early-warning system near Moscow reported that five U.S. missiles had been launched. Fortunately, a lieutenant colonel of the Air Defense Forces did not consider the threat legitimate and convinced his superiors it was a false alarm, which it indeed was.

Another well-known case occurred in November 1979 at Colorado’s North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD). Staff at the site received an urgent alert that the Soviets had launched a barrage of missiles at North America. Fortunately, again, before acting on this alert, staff were able to confirm this was a false alarm. In this case, a technician had accidentally run a training program simulating a Soviet attack on the United States.

Incidents such as these have long suggested that more rigorous controls over our warning systems and nuclear procedures are necessary.

During the Cold War, several arms-control treaties between the U.S. and the Soviets worked to prevent the two nations from misinterpreting such events as the above. These agreements included the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty and the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START).

These treaties provided extensive opportunities for regular dialogue and discussion among high-level professional staff of each nation: foreign-service-officer-to-foreign-service-officer, military-to-military, scientist-to-scientist. As international relationships developed, levels of better understanding and trust were established that worked to prevent misunderstandings. Regrettably, these treaties have now ended.

President Biden has worked with Russia to extend the New Start Treaty for another five years. Although this places limits on the number of strategic nuclear warheads – 1,550 – and provides methods for verifying each nations’ compliance, much more is needed. Unfortunately, after Russia in 2014 annexed Crimea and the U.S. imposed sanctions on Russia, diplomatic communications between the two nations have been greatly reduced; a situation Moniz described as strategic instability.

Going forward, we in the U.S. must remember that, in 1985, President Reagan and President Gorbachev concluded “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.” Diplomacy between nations and communication between individuals are not rewards for good behavior. They are crucial to avoid crises. Regular communication between the U.S. and Russia, and between NATO and Russia must be resumed.

Here, at home, there are also initiatives that can improve safety within our own nuclear program. There are proposals to:

• Remove the “hair-trigger” – launch on warning of nuclear attack – on our ICBM missiles and, perhaps, ICBMs should be eliminated from the Triad.

• Issue a U.S. no-first-use pledge. We would encourage the same from Russia. Currently, only China has an unconditional no-first-use policy and its warheads are reportedly not on alert status.

• Change the U.S. policy that gives the president sole authority to launch a nuclear weapon, except when a surprise attack requires an immediate response. Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., has said “Our Constitution affords Congress, not the president, the exclusive power to declare war and that extends, clearly, to the most catastrophic type of war, nuclear war. No commander-in-chief should be able to act alone to start a nuclear war.”

This brief review should have identified, as did Moniz’s lecture, the many complex issues that need much further discussion.

Those wanting to explore these issues further can start with the report by Moniz and former Sen. Sam Nunn, which can be seen here: https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/united-states/2020-12-15/sleepwalking-toward-nuclear-precipice.


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