Every day since Sept. 26, 1983 has to some extent been borrowed time.
The Petrov Incident
That was when—during one of the most tense periods of the Cold War—Soviet warning systems announced an incoming attack by U.S. nuclear missiles. Urgent checks and rechecks of the warning system showed it was operating correctly and the attack was real. The Soviets kept their nuclear missiles on hair-trigger alert so in a situation like this they could launch them before incoming U.S. missiles landed and destroyed them. This left only minutes for the Soviet launch officers to decide what to do.
The officer on duty, Lt. Col. Stanislav Petrov, knew this situation was what the entire Soviet nuclear weapons enterprise had been built for. His job as a launch officer was to follow orders and set in motion a retaliatory nuclear launch. It was what all his training was about.
He also knew that once the U.S. detected the launch of Soviet missiles, it would respond with whatever nuclear weapons it had left. The exchange would likely destroy both countries and, we now know, put enough soot into the atmosphere to disrupt global agriculture for years and add perhaps billions to the death toll.
We’re here today because—despite the data he was getting—Petrov had doubts and broke the rules: He told his superiors it was a false alarm before he actually knew that to be true.
Soon after Petrov’s decision it became clear that it had been a false alarm: The Soviet warning satellites had been fooled by reflections of sunlight no one had anticipated. Luckily, Petrov ignored protocol and literally saved the world.
A movie about this incident—The Man Who Saved the World—is now showing in New York City, Los Angeles, Detroit, and Portland (OR).
Unfortunately, this was not the only time the world came close to a nuclear war due to false warning, misperceptions, etc. And this problem is still with us since the U.S. and Russia each keep many hundreds of nuclear missiles on hair-trigger alert.
But another anniversary—this one on Sept. 27—shows how the U.S. can take steps to end this threat.
The Bush Initiatives
By Sept. 27, 1991, the Iron Curtain had fallen and the Cold War was ending. President George H. W. Bush decided to take dramatic steps to reduce nuclear risks, and decided that the U.S. could take these initiatives on its own, independent of what the Soviet Union did. President Bush withdrew thousands of nuclear weapons from around the world.
His initiatives also included taking U.S. nuclear bombers off high alert. During the Cold War, fear of a surprise first strike by the Soviets led the U.S. to keep nuclear-armed bombers on alert. Initially this meant several B-52s were in the air 24-7. Accidents, including bomber crashes, came close to causing nuclear explosions on multiple occasions, and had in fact spread toxic plutonium in a couple cases. So after 1968, airborne alert was cancelled but dozens of bombers were kept on ground alert at all times—fueled, loaded with nuclear bombs, and ready to take off at a moment’s notice.
This policy grew out of the deepest fears of the Cold War, but to President Bush it had outlived any usefulness, and could be ended without affecting deterrence. In a single stroke, he ordered all bombers—and all the nuclear weapons they carried—to be taken off high alert.
President Obama: End Hair-Trigger Today
Today President Obama is in a similar situation as President Bush. While bombers are no longer on alert, the U.S. continues to keep many hundreds of nuclear missiles on hair-trigger alert—another policy left over from the Cold War. Unfortunately, Russia does as well.
This policy increases the risk that nuclear weapons will be used, as the Petrov Incident and other incidents have made painfully clear. The policy has outlived whatever usefulness it had and is simply too risky.
President Obama should follow the example of President George H.W. Bush and do the sensible thing: take all silo-based missiles off alert. It would clearly be best if Russia did the same, but the U.S. would be safer even if acts alone, since a mistaken U.S. launch would lead to a Russian retaliatory launch. And taking the first step would help encourage Russia to follow suit, as it did in 1991.
President Obama, just like President Bush, has the authority to do this. Until he does, he continues to gamble with the safety of the U.S. public—and the fate of the world.
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