Archive for the ‘War’ Category

The World Faces a Historic Opportunity to Ban Nuclear Weapons

In Nuclear abolition, Nuclear Guardianship, Nuclear Policy, Peace, War on March 25, 2017 at 10:08 am

On Monday 27 March, UN talks will begin on a global nuclear ban treaty.

VIENNA/Oxford/LONDON, Mar 24 2017 (IPS) – Nuclear weapons are once again high on the international agenda, and experts note that the risk of a nuclear detonation is the highest since the Cold War.

As global tensions, uncertainty and risks of conflict rise amongst nuclear-armed states, nuclear weapons are treated as sabres to rattle, further heightening the risks of intentional or inadvertent use.

Nuclear weapons are the most destructive, inhumane and indiscriminate weapons ever created. Both in terms of the scale of the immediate devastation they cause and the threat of a uniquely persistent, pervasive and genetically damaging radioactive fallout, they would cause unacceptable harm to civilians.

But while the nuclear-armed states are implementing policies based on unpredictability, nationalism and weakening of international institutions, the majority of the world’s states are preparing to finally outlaw nuclear weapons.

Setsuko Thurlow, a survivor of Hiroshima, described the nuclear bombing as blinding the whole city with its flash, being flattened by a hurricane-like blast, and burned in the 4,000-degree Celsius heat.
She said a bright summer morning turned to a dark twilight in seconds with smoke and dust rising from the mushroom cloud, and the dead and injured covering the ground, begging desperately for water, and receiving no medical care at all. The spreading firestorm and the foul stench of burnt flesh filled the air.

A single nuclear bomb detonated over a large city could kill millions of people and cause catastrophic and long-term damage to the environment. The use of tens or hundreds of nuclear bombs would be cataclysmic, severely disrupting the global climate and causing widespread famine.

Strikes of this kind would invariably violate international humanitarian law and international human rights law, yet, these weapons are still not explicitly and universally prohibited under international law. Nine states are known to possess them and many more continue to rely on them through military alliances.

The alarming evidence presented by physicians, physicists, climate scientists, human rights organisations, humanitarian agencies, and survivors of nuclear weapons attacks have been successful in changing the discourse, and opened space for greater engagement from civil society, international organisations, and states.

Because the humanitarian and environmental consequences of using nuclear weapons would be global and catastrophic, eliminating such dangers is the responsibility of all governments in accordance with their obligation to ensure respect for international humanitarian law.

The world is now facing a historic opportunity to prohibit nuclear weapons.

In October last year, a majority of the world’s states at the United Nations General Assembly agreed to start negotiations of a new legally binding treaty to prohibit nuclear weapons, in line with other treaties that prohibit chemical and biological weapons, landmines and cluster munitions.

As we’ve seen with these weapons, an international prohibition has created a strong norm against their use and speed up their elimination.

The negotiations will start at the United Nations in New York on 27-31 March, and continue on 15 June-7 July, with the aim of concluding a legally binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons.

Amnesty International, Oxfam and the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) believe that it is time to negotiate a treaty that would prohibit the use, possession, production and transfer of nuclear weapons, given their indiscriminate nature. No state, including permanent members of the UN Security Council, should possess nuclear weapons.

This is the moment to stand up for international law, multilateralism and international institutions. All governments should seize this opportunity and participate actively in the negotiations of a treaty prohibiting nuclear weapons in 2017.

The Coming Ban on Nuclear Weapons

In Human rights, Justice, Nuclear abolition, Nuclear Guardianship, Nuclear Policy, Peace, War on March 25, 2017 at 12:08 am

By Zia Mian, Project Syndicate, Marcg 24m 2017

PRINCETON – On March 27, the United Nations will start negotiations on an international treaty to ban nuclear weapons. It will be a milestone marking the beginning of the end of an age of existential peril for humanity.
This day was bound to come. From the beginning, even those who set the world on the path to nuclear weapons understood the mortal danger and moral challenge confronting humanity. In April 1945, US Secretary of War Henry Stimson explained to President Harry Truman that the atomic bomb would be “the most terrible weapon ever known in human history.” Stimson warned that “the world in its present state of moral advancement compared with its technical development would be eventually at the mercy of such a weapon. In other words, modern civilization might be completely destroyed.”
Soon afterwards, the newly created UN, established with the express purpose “to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war,” took the threat posed by nuclear arms as its first priority. In January 1946, in its very first resolution, the UN called for a plan “for the elimination from national armaments of atomic weapons.”
The Soviet Union submitted such a plan that June. Now largely forgotten, the Gromyko Plan included a “Draft International Convention to Prohibit the Production and Employment of Weapons Based on the Use of Atomic Energy for the Purpose of Mass Destruction.” At the time, only the United States had nuclear weapons, and it chose to maintain its monopoly. But it couldn’t hold onto it for long. Where it led, others soon followed, forcing humanity to endure the decades of weapons development, arms races, proliferation, and nuclear crises that followed.
Anti-nuclear movements took root, and, in a phrase made famous by the historian E.P. Thompson, began to protest to survive. They found allies in a growing number of countries. In November 1961, the UN General Assembly declared that “any state using nuclear and thermonuclear weapons is to be considered as violating the Charter of the United Nations, as acting contrary to the laws of humanity, and as committing a crime against mankind and civilization.”
As the number and destructive power of nuclear weapons grew, and as even developing countries began to acquire them, recognition of the danger gave rise to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which entered into force in 1970. “Considering the devastation that would be visited upon all mankind by a nuclear war,” the NPT begins, there is a “consequent need to make every effort to avert the danger of such a war and to take measures to safeguard the security of peoples.”
To this end, the treaty committed all signatories to “undertake negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament.” The US, the Soviet Union, and Britain signed the NPT. France and China, the only other nuclear weapon states at the time, held out for more than 20 years, until 1992. Israel, India, and Pakistan have never signed, while North Korea signed and then withdrew. Although all professed support for achieving a nuclear-weapon-free world, disarmament negotiations never began.
Countries without nuclear weapons – the overwhelming majority – took matter into their own hands. Through the UN General Assembly, they asked the International Court of Justice to rule on the legality of the threat or use of nuclear weapons. In July 1996, the ICJ issued an advisory opinion, with two key conclusions. First, “the threat or use of nuclear weapons would generally be contrary to the rules of international law applicable in armed conflict, and in particular the principles and rules of humanitarian law.” And, second, “There exists an obligation to pursue in good faith and bring to a conclusion negotiations leading to nuclear disarmament in all its aspects under strict and effective international control.”
But, in the 20 years since the highest court in the international system issued its judgment, the states affected by it have still failed to launch “negotiations leading to nuclear disarmament.” Instead, they have set out on long-term programs to maintain, modernize, and in some cases augment their nuclear arsenals.
Non-weapon states began to take action through a series of international conferences and UN resolutions. Finally, in October 2016, the UN General Assembly’s First Committee, which is responsible for international peace and security, voted “to convene in 2017 a United Nations conference to negotiate a legally binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons, leading towards their total elimination.” On December 23, the General Assembly ratified the decision, with 113 countries in favor, 35 opposed, and 13 abstentions.
The Year Ahead 2017 Cover Image
The new resolution’s instructions are straightforward: “States participating in the conference” should “make their best endeavors to conclude as soon as possible a legally binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons, leading towards their total elimination.” The treaty could be ready before the end of the year.
The nine nuclear weapon states will finally be put to the test. Will they keep their promises to disarm and join the treaty, or will they choose their weapons over international law and the will of the global community? The non-weapon states that join the treaty will be tested, too. How will they organize to confront those countries in the world system that choose to be nuclear outlaws?

The Middle East for Dummies

In Human rights, Nuclear Guardianship, Nuclear Policy, Peace, War on March 24, 2017 at 11:08 pm

By David Swanson

The first point I’d like to touch on is the idea that the Middle East is a culturally violent place that can be made less violent by bombing it. The first problem with this is that bombing places makes them more violent, not less. Nobody is shocked or awed into nonviolence, not 14 years ago and not for the past century. The second problem is that the Middle East’s violence cannot be compared with that of other cultures without figuring out how to factor out the influence of the West. A hundred years ago, Britain and France carved up Western Asia, and not to spread democracy.

The West has been propping up brutal kings and dictators ever since. Outside of Israel, which is essentially a Western colony, the Middle East does not manufacture weapons. Just as the West once pushed opium on China or alcohol on the native peoples of this land we’re sitting on, the West pushes weapons on Western Asia, and the top weapons dealer to the world, to poor nations, and to the Middle East is the United States — with records set under President Obama likely to be smashed under Trump. Virtually all the weapons used in all the wars around the world — and all the major wars around the world, apart from Afghanistan and Mexico, are in the Middle East and Northeast Africa — come from six nations. They are the five permanent members and saboteurs of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany. These are the nations that will be working hard to defeat and disrupt the treaty negotiations beginning Monday in New York to ban nuclear weapons. They are also the nations whose weapons dealers profit from the blood of millions of innocent people too far away to see and too valueless to be reported on U.S. television.

Yesterday a racist drove up to New York to kill black men, thinking that would make big news. He forgot that someone white might be attacked in London. At the same time, the U.S. government was busy murdering scores of people in the Middle East. Guess which of these three killing sprees is labeled terrorism, and which other two see the media slander the victims and completely ignore the terror and trauma to the survivors. Imagine being a black man walking in Manhattan today. Imagine being anyone living in the Middle East today. U.S. weapons flow to Israel, Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Oman, United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Kuwait, and Turkey, not to mention Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India, and to non-governmental organizations that the U.S. government itself calls terrorists in places like Syria. Most if not all forces against which these weapons are used also use U.S. weapons previously given, sold, traded, or stolen. The U.S. military brings its own weapons to Libya, Egypt, Sudan, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Somalia, and in fact every single nation of the region, plus the Mediterranean, the Persian Gulf, the Red Sea, and the skies above, with the possible exception of what’s left of Palestine to which genocidal cause the United States philanthropically donates billions of dollars of weapons to the Orwellianly named Israeli Defense Forces. Each overthrow that the U.S. leads, including those in Iraq and Libya, leads to massive proliferation of weapons, creating chaos and death as far off as places like Mali. But of course the people of the region appreciate the effort, right? Yeah, about as much as the people of Fergusson appreciate the police.

The global policeman headquartered in Arlington is less popular in the places policed than a congressman at a healthcare rally. In December 2013, Gallup surveyed 65 countries around the world, and most said the United States was the greatest threat to peace on earth. In eight countries in or near the Middle East, four said the United States was the greatest threat to peace, three placed the U.S. second behind Israel, and in Afghanistan those surveyed placed the U.S. second behind Pakistan. It’s nice to be appreciated. It wouldn’t take much to actually be appreciated. Stop selling weapons. Stop giving weapons. Stop bringing weapons. Withdraw troops. Send food, medicine, farm equipment, clean energy equipment. Doing that would cost a tiny fraction of what it costs to keep making everything worse.

Trump says the U.S.-initiated wars of the past 16 years have made everything worse, so we should have more of them. He’s drone murdering at 4 times Obama’s pace. He’s moving more troops into Syria and Kuwait. And he wants to defund everything else to fund a yet more expensive military. Charlottesville City Council to its great credit has opposed this, but one of its five members would only do so if the resolution pretended that all the killing protects U.S. rights. When we get to Q&A I’d love someone to explain to me how murdering Yemeni children gives me more rights, and how demonstrating inside a free speech cage instead of in the open the way we used to constitutes an expansion of freedom. The mayor of Charlottesville refused to support the resolution because it mentioned the U.S. military, and he wants to have some higher office purchased for him some day. Several weeks back both the ACLU and the Council on American-Islamic Relations on the same day sent out national fundraiser emails quoting a Gold Star father from Charlottesville claiming that U.S. warmaking in Iraq serves to protect the Bill of Rights. These are organizations whose entire purpose is to oppose some of the symptoms of the wars, yet they promote the wars because they have so internalized the propaganda that they literally cannot imagine questioning it.

That’s the purpose of my book War Is A Lie, which Helena’s company was good enough to publish, to encourage questioning — questioning of the sort that stopped a bombing of Syria in 2013 and supported a treaty with Iran in 2015, but completely fell apart and inserted its head into its posterior the moment an ISIS video was shown on television. Mike Signer is not the only coward among us. Our entire foreign policy and public budget are shaped by irrational fear. More likely than ISIS killing you are each of the following: a U.S. police officer killing you, the stairs in your house killing you, pollutants in your environment killing you, a toddler who finds a gun killing you, or Donald Trump retweeting you. I make no comment on which of those fates would be the worst.

As you’ve heard about Yemen and Syria, let me add a couple of comments about Afghanistan and — if there’s time — Iraq. The current U.S. war in Afghanistan is well into its 16th year, though U.S. violence there began much earlier. The U.S. military now has approximately 8,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan , plus 6,000 other NATO troops, 1,000 mercenaries, and another 26,000 contractors (of whom about 8,000 are from the United States). That’s 41,000 people engaged in a foreign occupation of a country 15 years after the accomplishment of their stated mission to overthrow the Taliban government. Afghanistan is the most heavily bombed country of all current U.S. wars, the bulk of that bombing done under President Barack Obama, who also tripled the level of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, before reducing them. During each of the past 15 years, our government in Washington has informed us that success was imminent. During each of the past 15 years, Afghanistan has continued its descent into poverty, violence, environmental degradation, and instability.

The United States is spending $4 million an hour on planes, drones, bombs, guns, and over-priced contractors in a country that needs food and agricultural equipment. Thus far, the United States has spent nearly $800 billion with virtually nothing to show for it except the death, injury and displacement of millions of Afghans, and the death of thousands of U.S. soldiers plus the injury of tens of thousands and the endangerment of people in the United States, the erosion of our rights, the shame of Guantanamo, and destruction of the earth’s environment.

Before Faisal Shahzad tried to blow up a car in Times Square, he had tried to join the war against the United States in Afghanistan. In numerous other incidents, terrorists targeting the United States have stated their motives as including revenge for the U.S. terrorism in Afghanistan, along with other U.S. wars in the region. In addition, Afghanistan is the one nation where the United States is engaged in major warfare in a country that is a member of the International Criminal Court. That body has now announced that it is investigating possible prosecutions for U.S. crimes in Afghanistan. Over the past 15 years, we have been treated to an almost routine repetition of scandals: hunting children from helicopters, blowing up hospitals with drones, urinating on corpses — all fueling anti-U.S. propaganda, all brutalizing and shaming the United States. U.S. and allied soldiers now being ordered into Afghanistan were in pre-school on September 11, 2001. Ordering young American men and women into a kill-or-die mission that was accomplished 15 years ago is a lot to ask. Expecting them to believe in that mission is too much. That fact may help explain this one: the top killer of U.S. troops in Afghanistan is suicide. The second highest killer of American military is green on blue, or the Afghan youth who the U.S. is training turning their weapons on their trainers. Candidate Trump said: “Let’s get out of Afghanistan. Our troops are being killed by the Afghans we train and we waste billions there. Nonsense! Rebuild the USA.” President Trump is acting contrary to every part of that.

At 14 years since the launch of Operation Iraqi Liberation (to use the original name with the appropriate acronym, OIL) and over 26 years since Operation Desert Storm, there is little evidence that any significant number of people in the United States have a realistic idea of what our government has done to the people of Iraq, or of how these actions compare to other horrors of world history. A majority of Americans believe the war since 2003 has hurt the United States but benefitted Iraq. A plurality of Americans believe, not only that Iraqis should be grateful, but that Iraqis are in fact grateful.

A number of U.S. academics have advanced the dubious claim that war making is declining around the world. Misinterpreting what has happened in Iraq is central to their argument. By the most scientifically respected measures available, as of some years ago, though the death and destruction has continued, Iraq had lost 1.4 million lives as a result of OIL, had seen 4.2 million additional people injured, and 4.5 million people become refugees. The 1.4 million dead was 5% of the population. That compares to 2.5% lost in the U.S. Civil War, or 3 to 4% in Japan in World War II, 1% in France and Italy in World War II, less than 1% in the U.K. and 0.3% in the United States in World War II. The 1.4 million dead is higher as an absolute number as well as a percentage of population than these other horrific losses. U.S. deaths in Iraq since 2003 have been 0.3% of the dead, even if they’ve taken up the vast majority of the news coverage, preventing U.S. news consumers from understanding the extent of Iraqi suffering.

In a very American parallel, the U.S. government has only been willing to value the life of an Iraqi at that same 0.3% of the financial value it assigns to the life of a U.S. citizen.

The 2003 invasion included 29,200 air strikes, followed by another 3,900 over the next eight years. The U.S. military targeted civilians, journalists, hospitals, and ambulances It also made use of what some might call “weapons of mass destruction,” using cluster bombs, white phosphorous, depleted uranium, and a new kind of napalm in densely settled urban areas.

Birth defects, cancer rates, and infant mortality are through the roof. Water supplies, sewage treatment plants, hospitals, bridges, and electricity supplies have been devastated, and not repaired. Healthcare and nutrition and education are nothing like they were before the war. And we should remember that healthcare and nutrition had already deteriorated during years of economic warfare waged through the most comprehensive economic sanctions ever imposed in modern history.

Money spent by the United States to “reconstruct” Iraq was always less than 10% of what was being spent adding to the damage, and most of it was never actually put to any useful purpose. At least a third was spent on so-called “security,” while much of the rest was spent on corruption in the U.S. military and its contractors.

The educated who might have best helped rebuild Iraq fled the country. Iraq had the best universities in Western Asia in the early 1990s, and now leads in illiteracy, with the population of teachers in Baghdad reduced by 80%.

For years, the occupying forces broke the society of Iraq down, encouraging ethnic and sectarian division and violence, resulting in a segregated country and the repression of rights that Iraqis used to enjoy, even under Saddam Hussein’s brutal police state.

Without Bush and Obama there would be no ISIS. Obama shifted to air war, and dropped more bombs and missiles on Iraq than Bush did. Obama set records for military spending and for weapons sales and gifts abroad. He created drone wars including in Pakistan and Somalia and Yemen. He ended the idea that presidents need Congress for wars, with his war in Libya fueling the violence in Syria and Iraq among other places. He put more troops in more countries. He bombed eight countries and bragged about it. He firmly established warrantless spying, baseless imprisonment, torture, and assassination as policy choices rather than crimes. He wrote secret and public so-called laws that his successor is picking and choosing from without input from the legislature. He created a new cold war with Russia. He did these things willingly or he permitted his subordinates to do them.

Now Trump says he’ll destroy ISIS, and the U.S. Secretary of Exxon-Mobil said yesterday: “Hard-fought victories in Iraq and Syria have swung the momentum in our coalition’s favor, but we must increase the intensity of our efforts and solidify our gains in the next phase of the counter-ISIS fight.” We’re winning so we need more war is a stand-by. In distant second is, of course, We’re losing so we need more war.

David Swanson is an author, activist, journalist, and radio host. He is director of WorldBeyondWar.org and campaign coordinator for RootsAction.org. Swanson’s books include War Is A Lie.

Is Australia violating the Non-Proliferation Treaty?

In Nuclear abolition, Nuclear Guardianship, Nuclear Policy, Peace, War on March 24, 2017 at 9:45 pm

BY Tim Wright

23rd March, 2017

On 27 March, most of the world’s nations will begin work on a UN
treaty to prohibit nuclear weapons. This will be the first time in
more than two decades that multilateral nuclear disarmament
negotiations have taken place. Australia, regrettably, will not be
represented. It announced last month that it plans to boycott the
historic talks, as the treaty is not in our ‘national interests’.

Successive federal governments have argued that US nuclear weapons are
indispensable for Australia’s security – shielding us, like an
umbrella, from nuclear attack. Based on this misguided belief,
Australian officials have voiced strong opposition to the proposed UN
treaty, which would require Australia, upon joining, to reject any
role for nuclear weapons in its military doctrines.

But is Australia’s boycott of this process – that 123 other UN member
states have endorsed – compatible with its obligations under
international law? As a state party to the 1968 Non-Proliferation
Treaty (NPT), Australia is legally required to pursue negotiations ‘in
good faith’ on effective measures relating to nuclear disarmament.
Fulfilment of that obligation cannot be delayed indefinitely.

In a Senate committee on 2 March, Labor parliamentarian Lisa Singh
asked the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade whether ‘failing to
participate in the upcoming negotiations will put us in breach of our
obligations under the [NPT]’. Jane Hardy, the head of the arms control
and counter-proliferation branch, responded: ‘We do not believe so.
That is our assessment.’

But not everyone is convinced. Professor Ramesh Thakur, a disarmament
expert at the Australian National University, told ABC radio on 16
March that Australia is required to be there. ‘Every NPT state party,
including Australia, has a legal obligation to work for complete
nuclear disarmament. Therefore, not to take part is arguably a
violation,’ he said.

John Carlson, who served as director general of the Australian
Safeguards and Non-Proliferation Office for two decades, made the same
argument on The Interpreter last month. ‘Boycotting the forthcoming
negotiations, which are supported by the great majority of NPT
parties, is inconsistent with this obligation,’ he wrote, noting that
the new UN treaty would constitute an ‘effective measure’ for

But Hardy told the Senate committee that Australia’s participation
‘would send the wrong signal’. ‘We would not be able to negotiate in
good faith, so we do not believe – and the government has decided –
that this would be the wrong thing to do,’ she said. However, the
requirement of ‘good faith’ applies not simply to the conduct of
negotiations, but also to the pursuit of negotiations.

Is Australia ‘pursuing’ negotiations in good faith, within the meaning
of article VI of the NPT? The boycott certainly casts serious doubt on
Australia’s commitment to implementing that provision. Refusing to
participate in a process that is widely supported by the NPT
membership and likely to produce the kind of disarmament outcomes
envisaged by the treaty is clearly at odds with its object and

The government claims, disingenuously, that the proposed treaty does
not constitute an ‘effective measure’, as nations armed with nuclear
weapons will refuse to join it. In explaining why it voted against the
UN General Assembly resolution last year that established the mandate
for negotiations, Australia said that the treaty will ‘be ineffective
in eliminating nuclear weapons’.

But the treaty need not eliminate nuclear weapons in order to be an
‘effective measure’. Under article VI, it must merely relate to – or
be in the direction of – nuclear disarmament. Whether or not
nuclear-armed states agree to join, it clearly satisfies that
requirement. (Even so, it makes no sense for Australia to prejudge the
effectiveness of the outcome of the negotiations before they even

Experience with other types of weapons has shown that negotiating a
prohibition facilitates progress towards disarmament. It is difficult
to imagine, for example, that the great gains made towards eliminating
chemical weapons and anti-personnel landmines would have been possible
without a decision by states to impose global prohibitions on those
weapons, which stigmatised their use and stockpiling.

Weapons that are outlawed are increasingly seen as illegitimate,
losing their political status and, along with it, the resources for
their production, modernisation and retention. Arms companies find it
more difficult to obtain contracts and financing for work on illegal
weapons, and such work carries a great reputational risk. It defies
logic that the new treaty on nuclear weapons will have no impact on

But Australia’s argument about the supposed ineffectiveness of this
widely supported treaty is simply a cover for its true – and rarely
stated – reason for opposing the ban: it wants to continue,
indefinitely, claiming ‘protection’ from US nuclear forces. Under the
terms of the NPT, that certainly is not an acceptable legal
justification for boycotting multilateral nuclear disarmament

What You Need to Know About the Future of Nuclear Weapons Under Donald Trump

In Nuclear Guardianship, Nuclear Policy, Peace, War on March 23, 2017 at 11:44 pm

Emma Sarron Webster, TEENVOGUE, March 22, 2017

In late January, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists moved the “Doomsday Clock” 30 seconds closer to midnight. The clock is symbolic, with midnight representing the end of the world; the group moves the minute and second hands based on its analysis of various threats to humanity. Now, at two and a half minutes to midnight, the Doomsday Clock’s minute hand is closer to the catastrophic hour than it’s been since 1953. The decision to move it was in part because of Trump’s recent comments on nuclear arms, as well as nuclear tests by North Korea and new ballistics missiles being built by Russia.

Right now, nearly 15,000 nuclear weapons are estimated to exist in the world (that’s down from the 70,000-plus that existed in the Cold War era), with the U.S. and Russia owning approximately 93% of those. The remaining 7% is owned by six other countries: France, China, the United Kingdom, Pakistan, India, and Israel.

Here’s what you need to know about nuclear weapons.

What are nuclear weapons and proliferation?

Nuclear weapons are explosive devices that derive their destructive force from a combination of chemical explosives and nuclear reactions. They can be fired using airplanes, submarines, or missiles launched from silos. They can destroy entire cities, wipe out millions of people, and cause long-term, devastating effects to the environment and to human health.

The first nuclear weapons were developed during World War II, and they’ve only been used in warfare twice, when the United States bombed the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. Since then, other countries have acquired nuclear weapons, and more than 2,000 nuclear tests have been conducted.

Under the Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), the term “nuclear proliferation” refers to the spread of nuclear weapons (including weapon material, information, and technology) to states that don’t already have them, while nonproliferation refers to preventing such a spread.

What is the Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons and why is it important?

The Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) is an international agreement covering three pillars: disarmament, nonproliferation, and peaceful uses of nuclear energy. The core of the NPT states that “countries with nuclear weapons will move towards disarmament; countries without nuclear weapons will not acquire them; and all countries can access peaceful nuclear technology.”

The NPT was developed in the aftermath of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis (when the U.S. and the Soviet Union teetered on the brink of nuclear war following the discovery of Soviet missiles in Cuba) and has been in effect since 1970. There are 190 countries that are signatories to the NPT, including five nuclear states: the U.S., Russia, the U.K., France, and China. North Korea signed the NPT in 1985 but withdrew in 2003. India, Israel, and Pakistan have never signed the agreement.

“This treaty is just a piece of paper, but it has done a great deal in terms of limiting the creation of new nuclear capable states and fostering international cooperation,” Angelica Gheen, a radiation-health physicist at a large research university, tells Teen Vogue. Along with nonproliferation, “this has led to an environment of global cooperation on nuclear security…and it allowed for [South Africa] to successfully disarm with international resources,” a process that took place from 1989 to 1991, culminating in South Africa joining the NPT in ’91.

Some believe that nuclear proliferation can actually prevent war, with the dangerous weapons acting as deterrents to countries considering attacks. However, some studies state otherwise. Research has also shown that the closer a country is to acquiring nuclear weapons, the more likely it is to be attacked.

What are the main concerns with nuclear weapons?

Despite treaties and presumptions of deterrence, the fear that nuclear weapons could end up in the wrong hands or that existing nuclear states could choose to attack is real. “Terrorists are working every day to try to get their hands on weapons-grade materials that they could use in a bomb,” John Tierney, executive director at the Center for Arms Control & Non-Proliferation, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization “dedicated to enhancing peace and security” through policy analysis and research, tells Teen Vogue.

There are also concerns associated with nuclear states that aren’t bound by the NPT, like North Korea, which has conducted several nuclear weapons tests over the years, as well as India and Pakistan, which have both conducted nuclear tests and are pursuing new nuclear delivery systems.

Though Syria and Iran don’t currently have nuclear weapons, both are believed to have taken steps toward proliferation, in violation of the treaty’s terms. (The 2015 Iran nuclear deal among Iran, the U.S., and five other countries was developed to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons.) And then there are China and Russia. A Chinese state-run newspaper, Global Times, recently called for an increase in nuclear capabilities, and U.S. officials believe that China — North Korea’s only major ally — has supplied nuclear technology and materials to other countries. Russia has also caused concern recently: In 2014, U.S. officials said Russia violated the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty by testing a ground-launched cruise missile capable of carrying a nuclear warhead. The treaty bans missiles capable of traveling between 310 miles and 3,400 miles, and experts believed the weapon Russia tested had that capability. And in December 2016, Russian president Vladimir Putin said the country needed to “strengthen the military potential of strategic nuclear forces.”

And though in 2010 the U.S. and Russia signed the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) to further limit nuclear arsenals (requiring each state to limit its number of deployed warheads to 1,550 by February 5, 2018), both countries (as well as China) are undergoing modernization of their nuclear arsenals. But if the goal is to eliminate nuclear weapons, what’s the point of updating them? From the looks of it, some people believe Russia’s modernization is a sign that they’re working on a new bomb and that America’s modernization is in response to that. Then again, the Center for Arms Control states that the U.S. modernization plans are based on maintaining the amount of nuclear weapons (as deterrents) agreed upon under the New START Treaty — and those goals may be necessary, considering some systems still currently exist on floppy disks. “I don’t think anybody would have an objection [to modernization] as long as [the weapons are] serving the purpose of deterrent, and if we’re committed to eventually reducing the numbers and eliminating them, you want them to be safe and secure,” Tierney says. “But if people are using this modernization process as a guise to proliferate [and] to create more dangerous and risky weapons, then that just escalates the risk of a nuclear mistake or a nuclear incident.”

What is the risk of a nuclear mistake or incident?

Which brings us to another important point: Aside from acts of aggression, there’s the very real concern about simple mistakes that could have catastrophic effects. Between 1950 and 2013, there were 32 nuclear weapon accidents, or “broken arrows,” in which weapons were accidentally launched, fired, detonated, stolen, or lost; six lost weapons were never found. Fortunately, those accidents haven’t resulted in a nuclear explosion, but there have been close calls. In 1980, a missile technician dropped a socket from a socket wrench, which fell 70 feet and pierced the side of the underground Titan II missile, causing it to explode, killing one person. But had the incident caused the missile’s nuclear warhead to detonate, it would have wiped out all of Arkansas.

And then there are the close calls that come with making the decision to detonate a nuclear weapon. In 1983, the Soviet Union’s missile-detection systems mistakenly detected an incoming strike from the U.S. that was triggered by the sun’s reflection off of cloud tops. Instead of registering the supposed nuclear attack, the Soviet duty officer, Lt. Col. Stanislav Petrov, acted on a gut feeling and instead registered it as a false alarm, avoiding a nuclear disaster. There have been other close calls with similar outcomes: narrowly avoided catastrophes based on human decisions.

And making that decision is something that has to be done in an incredibly short time frame, given that if a nuclear weapon is on its way, it’s only a matter of minutes before it hits. Thus, the U.S. has weapons that are on “hair-trigger alert,” which enables them to be launched within minutes, but it also means an increased likelihood of accidental launches or launches in response to false alarms.

When an alert happens, the military chain of command has less than 30 minutes to go through the process of assessing the threat, communicating with the president, and launching a retaliation if the president gives the go-ahead. “One of the reasons why these weapons are so dangerous is that unlike sending people to war and having a little bit of process and hopefully a congressional debate, and then a vote about whether or not to go into war, this is a decision that one person is making and in such a short time frame,” Tierney says.

Why is there concern surrounding Donald Trump and nuclear weaponry?

The U.S. has a “first strike” nuclear weapon policy, meaning America can activate weapons against another country without being attacked first. And President Donald Trump has the final say. Though national security advisors can brief him, it’s ultimately up to the president whether or not to attack, a point that came up during the presidential campaign when Hillary Clinton called out Trump’s impulsivity and how it could affect his decisions with the nuclear codes.

And though Trump said that receiving the nuclear codes was “sobering,” his various statements on the topic are cause for concern. Just one month before his inauguration, Trump tweeted that the U.S. should “greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability,” a statement in direct contrast with Obama’s stated policy of nonproliferation. When asked about the tweet, Trump told MSNBC in a statement, “Let it be an arms race.” He seemingly reinforced those views just a few weeks ago, telling Reuters that the U.S. nuclear arsenal should be at the “top of the pack.”

“When Donald Trump tweets casually about the U.S.’s need to ‘strengthen and expand its nuclear capability,’ it drastically undermines all of these efforts and years of work to denormalize the escalation of nuclear weapon proliferation,” Gheen says. She notes that the NPT was already weakened by the loss of North Korea, and if the U.S., one of the two remaining major nuclear powers in the agreement, were to ever withdraw, the NPT would likely be dissolved.

On the campaign trail, Trump vowed to do away with the Iran nuclear deal, though his more recent lack of comments on the deal give the impression that he may keep the agreement intact. Even if he does try to renegotiate or withdraw from the deal — which, Tierney says, has already been a success — he’ll likely face pushback from U.S. officials and other countries that support it. “The fact of the matter is … [the deal] has worked,” Tierney says. “It’s done what it was intended to do: It’s put us in a much less risky situation, and the other [nations] that were partners in negotiating this…they want it to stay.”

Not long after that tweet, Trump took to Twitter again, in response to North Korea’s recent missile test, dismissing the country’s claims that it is developing a weapon capable of hitting the U.S. Some experts, however, believe it’s only a matter of time before North Korea develops such a weapon. “With an unpredictable Kim Jong Un [North Korea’s leader]…it is time for a very delicate diplomacy,” Gheen says. “With Donald Trump tweeting without thought for consequence, you have a scenario with two prideful, impulsive, nuclear-armed leaders. Add China into the mix, which is pretty much DPRK [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea]’s only ally and [a nation that] has nuclear capabilities, and [there’s] a growing anxiety over Donald Trump.”

Part of that also has to do with Trump’s hiring — and firing — decisions. The president nominated former Texas governor Rick Perry to lead the Department of Energy (DOE), which oversees the country’s nuclear programs. But unlike his predecessors, like MIT nuclear physicist Ernest Moniz, Perry — who once advocated for abolishing the DOE — has minimal education or experience in the field. During his confirmation hearings, Perry gave vague responses to questions about the U.S. nuclear warheads program, and it turns out he may not have been clear on what his role would be when he accepted the offer. Tierney noted that between Trump and Perry, “there’s concern that there’s a lack of technical knowledge [and] a lack of appreciation for the complexity and for the risk involved.”

And those concerns are heightened when you consider the fact that aside from his one-off tweets and eyebrow-raising statements, Trump hasn’t really shared a clear vision for the future of nuclear arms. “Effective nuclear and radiological emergency response, detection, and prevention requires a well-coordinated national effort,” Gheen says. “A unified national message is essential to maintain funding and efficacy of these programs…. The Trump transition team [showed] little interest in making the continuation of these programs a priority.”

What’s next?

Clearly, the issue of nuclear weaponry and proliferation is a sensitive and dangerous one. To maintain safety and avoid large-scale destruction, Tierney believes Trump needs to continue President Obama’s efforts in nonproliferation, and that he and Perry need to hire experts in the DOE and the administration who have significant knowledge and understanding of nuclear weapons necessary to advise the president and the secretary of energy.

As for the weapons themselves, Tierney and others believe the U.S. needs to take weapons off high alert and work with Russia to do the same. “No matter who’s the president, it’s almost too huge a task to expect anybody to encumber and have 100% accuracy all the time,” Tierney says. “If you’ve only got about 30 to 45 minutes to make a decision as monumental as that, that clearly isn’t enough time in most instances for somebody to have a full appreciation of all the facts that are going on and to make good judgment.” Multiple leaders as well as scientists have called for weapons to be taken off high alert.

And in January, Democratic senator Ed Markey and congressman Ted Lieu introduced legislation to restrict the “first use” policy and prohibit Trump from launching a nuclear first strike without a declaration of war from Congress.

Ultimately, Gheen says, Trump and the U.S. need to continue to partner with other countries, particularly nuclear states, to help avoid a disaster. “There is a great tradition of international nuclear cooperation, especially within organizations like the International Atomic Energy Agency, an international organization that promotes “safe, secure, and peaceful uses of nuclear science and technology,” she says. “Together we can propose creative solutions for [nuclear] issues.”

Tierney notes, though, that this is something that may also require a grassroots effort. “We need to get a public movement in gear again to understand that these risks are out there, and as frightful as they are, they can be dealt with,” he says. “We’ve had success in the past and we need to get people together, but it’s [going to] take a voice of people, a movement, to get people to speak up loudly enough that the people who make these decisions in the capitals of various countries react as they did in the ’80s and start taking action to stop the proliferation of these weapons and eventually keep on decreasing them, and put us in a safer environment.”

Russia’s foreign minister says ready to discuss reducing nuclear arms

In Jefferson Parkway, Nuclear Guardianship, Nuclear Policy, Peace, War on March 23, 2017 at 10:12 pm

Reuters, March 23, 2017

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Thursday Russia was willing to discuss reducing nuclear weapons, news agency RIA reported.

“We are ready to discuss the possibility of further reducing nuclear capacity, but only if all factors are taken into account and not only the number of strategic offensive weapons,” Lavrov was quoted as saying.

He said it was “absolutely clear the time had not yet come” for eliminating all nuclear arms, news agency TASS reported.

(Reporting by Denis Pinchuk; Writing by Alessandra Prentice)

U.S. first strike advantage heightens risk of nuclear war: Polanyi

In Nuclear Guardianship, Peace, War on March 23, 2017 at 12:32 am

By John Polanyi Mon., March 20, 2017

American’s first strike capabilities are a legitimate threat to Russia, eliminating the desired balance between nuclear superpowers.

At the dawn of the nuclear age, its principal architect, Robert Oppenheimer, spoke of a stable standoff between nuclear powers. They would be held back from attacking one another by mutual fear, instead circling endlessly “like a pair of scorpions trapped in a bottle.” Subsequently, political scientist Albert Wohlstetter pointed out that this stability would be lost if a situation arose in which advantage accrued to the first to attack. Then deterrence would at best be “a delicate balance of terror.”
Unknown to most, the balance is today at its most delicate. President Trump has inherited from previous administrations a balance of power tilted so far in favour of the U.S. that it might be advised at some awful moment of crisis to resort to a “first strike.”

Maintaining peace between the superpowers under these conditions will demand the highest level of skill and restraint from the two leaders. The auguries for this are not promising, since the delicacy of the balance has been hidden from public view.

What brought about this new imbalance? We owe it to a substantial increase in lethality of U.S. nuclear-armed submarine-based missiles. This makes it possible that a U.S. strike might destroy most of Russia’s missiles, still largely land-based. This new situation is described by three weapons experts in the March 1 issue of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

The Bulletin’s authors characterize the new U.S. first-strike capability as “revolutionary.” The increase in U.S. ballistic missile lethality resulted from attachment to the warheads of an altitude-measuring device (called a superfuse) that ensures it will explode above a targeted missile, with 90 per cent probability of destroying it.

There are 506 submarine-based nuclear warheads, each equipped with super-fuses, routinely deployed at sea in U.S. submarines. (Each warhead yields 100 kilotonnes — eight times the Hiroshima bomb.) As a consequence, the full complement of 136 Russian silo-based ICBM’s might be destroyed by attacking each with two warheads.

This would leave the U.S. with a surplus of 234 super-fused warheads in their submarines, together with an additional 400 submarine-based “heavy” warheads (455 kilotonnes each) free to attack further targets, such as underground command centres, and forests sheltering mobile missiles. This catalogue of overkill does not include U.S. firepower on hundreds of land-based ICBM’s nor nuclear weapons on bombers.

The question today is not whether this guarantees U.S. “success” in the appalling eventuality of a nuclear first strike, but the effect it has on Russia’s faith in its deterrent. Absent assured second-strike capability, Albert Wohlstetter likened the standoff to a gun dual between armed cowboys — nothing could be less stable.

Due to limitations in the Russian early-warning system, which cannot see over the horizon, their military would have less warning time of a strike than the U.S. — a pathetic 10 to 15 minutes instead of 30.

Russian doubts as to the deterrent value of its retaliation will be compounded by its estimate of the capability of U.S. missile defences to blunt it. Most observers are unimpressed by the effectiveness of U.S. missile defences. Russia clearly takes a different view.

The weakening Russian position in the nuclear weapons equation is known to Russia. In September 2015 President Putin “accidentally” revealed on television Russian plans for a 40-ton nuclear-powered super-torpedo with a range of thousands of kilometres that could carry a 100 megaton nuclear warhead. Such monstrous weapons could render the east coast of the U.S. uninhabitable. Testing began in December. The Russian intention in developing this new weapon is surely to start redressing the nuclear imbalance.

In 1962, in a previous time of imbalance, an inexperienced president, John F. Kennedy, brought the world to the edge of the nuclear abyss. The imbalance that triggered the Cuban Missile Crisis was less than that of today. The two sides remained equally vulnerable. “What did it matter,” Kennedy asked at the time, “whether you got blown up by a missile based in Cuba, or an ICBM from the Soviet Union?” It was the perception of imbalance that mattered, and mattered hugely.

Driving the crisis was the erosion of confidence between the two sides. Even the scorpions in their bottle are reliant on mutual understanding. Putin asserts this when he refers, as he often does, to his “partners in the West.” Trump does the same when he expresses the wish to forge a new deal with Russia. The need for that has never been greater.

Ultimately, the superpowers must reject threats of Armageddon for something more worthy of their civilizations, legislating Gorbachev’s assertion last fall “that nuclear weapons must be prohibited.”

This proposition, fervently endorsed by President Obama, will soon be debated in the UN General Assembly. But while we lay the foundations for a more humane world, we must see to it that the present order does not crumble.
John Polanyi is a Nobel laureate at the University of Toronto who has written widely on the dangers of nuclear war.

India may abandon its ‘no first use’ nuclear policy: Expert

In Human rights, Nuclear Guardianship, Nuclear Policy, Peace, War on March 21, 2017 at 10:24 pm

The Indian Express, March 17, 2017
India may abandon the policy if it feels that Pakistan is going to use nuclear weapons or tactical nuclear weapons against it
India may abandon its ‘no first use’ nuclear policy and launch a preemptive strike against Pakistan if it feared that Islamabad was likely to use the weapons first, a top nuclear expert on South Asia has claimed.
The remarks by Vipin Narang, an expert on South Asian nuclear strategy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, before a Washington audience was though a negation of India’s stated policy of ‘no first use’.
During the 2017 Carnegie International Nuclear Policy Conference, Narang said, “There is increasing evidence that India will not allow Pakistan to go first”.
He said India “may” abandon the policy and launch a preemptive strike against Pakistan if it believed that Pakistan was going to use nuclear weapons or most likely the tactical nuclear weapons against it.
But, he pointed out, India’s preemptive strike may not be conventional strikes and would also be aimed at Pakistan’s missiles launchers for tactical battlefield nuclear warheads.
“India’s opening salvo may not be conventional strikes trying to pick off just Nasr batteries in the theatre, but a full ‘comprehensive counterforce strike’ that attempts to completely disarm Pakistan of its nuclear weapons so that India does not have to engage in iterative tit-for-tat exchanges and expose its own cities to nuclear destruction,” Narang said.
He said this thinking surfaces not from fringe extreme voices or retired Indian Army officers frustrated by the lack of resolve they believe their government has shown in multiple provocations, but from no less than a former Commander of India’s Strategic Forces, Lt Gen BS Nagal.
It also comes perhaps more importantly and authoritatively, from the highly-respected and influential former national security adviser Shivshankar Menon in his 2016 book ‘Choices: Inside the Making of Indian Foreign Policy’, the nuclear strategist said.

“Serious voices, who cannot be ignored, seem to suggest that this is where India may be heading, and certainly wants to head,” Narang said.
“So our conventional understanding of South Asia’s nuclear dynamics and who, in fact, might use nuclear weapons first and in what mode may need a hard rethink given these emerging authoritative voices in India who are not content to cede the nuclear initiative to Pakistan,” he said, adding that this would mark a major shift in Indian strategy if implemented.
“In short, we may be witnessing what I call a ‘decoupling’ of Indian nuclear strategy between China and Pakistan.”
Sameer Lalwani, senior associate and deputy director South Asia at the Stimson Center, an American think-tank, said Narang’s remarks challenged the conventional wisdom of South Asia’s strategic stability problem.
Based on recent statements and writings of high-level national security officials (serving and retired), Narang argued that India may be exhibiting a “seismic shift” in its nuclear strategy from ‘no first use’ to a preemptive nuclear counterforce allowing for escalation dominance or a “splendid first strike” against Pakistan, Lalwani said.

How US nuclear force modernization is undermining strategic stability: The burst-height compensating super-fuze

In Nuclear Guardianship, Peace, War on March 19, 2017 at 12:18 am

This article from the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists contains several figures not available in this post. To see the figures, go to http://thebulletin.org/how-us-nuclear-force-modernization-undermining-strategic-stability-burst-height-compensating-super10578
By HANS M. KRISTENSEN: Kristensen is the director of the Nuclear Information Project with the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) in Washington, DC. His work focuses on researching and writing about the status of…
MATTHEW MCKINZIE: McKinzie is the director of the Nuclear Program of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) in Washington, DC. He and Kristensen recently co-authored…
THEODORE A. POSTOL: A physicist, Postol is professor of science, technology, and national security policy at MIT. His expertise is in ballistic…
The US nuclear forces modernization program has been portrayed to the public as an effort to ensure the reliability and safety of warheads in the US nuclear arsenal, rather than to enhance their military capabilities. In reality, however, that program has implemented revolutionary new technologies that will vastly increase the targeting capability of the US ballistic missile arsenal. This increase in capability is astonishing—boosting the overall killing power of existing US ballistic missile forces by a factor of roughly three—and it creates exactly what one would expect to see, if a nuclear-armed state were planning to have the capacity to fight and win a nuclear war by disarming enemies with a surprise first strike.

Because of improvements in the killing power of US submarine-launched ballistic missiles, those submarines now patrol with more than three times the number of warheads needed to destroy the entire fleet of Russian land-based missiles in their silos. US submarine-based missiles can carry multiple warheads, so hundreds of others, now in storage, could be added to the submarine-based missile force, making it all the more lethal.

The revolutionary increase in the lethality of submarine-borne US nuclear forces comes from a “super-fuze” device that since 2009 has been incorporated into the Navy’s W76-1/Mk4A warhead as part of a decade-long life-extension program. We estimate that all warheads deployed on US ballistic missile submarines now have this fuzing capability. Because the innovations in the super-fuze appear, to the non-technical eye, to be minor, policymakers outside of the US government (and probably inside the government as well) have completely missed its revolutionary impact on military capabilities and its important implications for global security.

Before the invention of this new fuzing mechanism, even the most accurate ballistic missile warheads might not detonate close enough to targets hardened against nuclear attack to destroy them. But the new super-fuze is designed to destroy fixed targets by detonating above and around a target in a much more effective way. Warheads that would otherwise overfly a target and land too far away will now, because of the new fuzing system, detonate above the target.


FIGURE 1. The deployment of the new MC4700 arming, fuzing, and firing system on the W76-1/Mk4A significantly increases the number of hard target kill-capable warheads on US ballistic missile submarines.
FIGURE 1. The deployment of the new MC4700 arming, fuzing, and firing system on the W76-1/Mk4A significantly increases the number of hard target kill-capable warheads on US ballistic missile submarines.

The result of this fuzing scheme is a significant increase in the probability that a warhead will explode close enough to destroy the target even though the accuracy of the missile-warhead system has itself not improved.

As a consequence, the US submarine force today is much more capable than it was previously against hardened targets such as Russian ICBM silos. A decade ago, only about 20 percent of US submarine warheads had hard-target kill capability; today they all do. (See Figure 1.)

This vast increase in US nuclear targeting capability, which has largely been concealed from the general public, has serious implications for strategic stability and perceptions of US nuclear strategy and intentions.

Russian planners will almost surely see the advance in fuzing capability as empowering an increasingly feasible US preemptive nuclear strike capability—a capability that would require Russia to undertake countermeasures that would further increase the already dangerously high readiness of Russian nuclear forces. Tense nuclear postures based on worst-case planning assumptions already pose the possibility of a nuclear response to false warning of attack. The new kill capability created by super-fuzing increases the tension and the risk that US or Russian nuclear forces will be used in response to early warning of an attack—even when an attack has not occurred.

The increased capability of the US submarine force will likely be seen as even more threatening because Russia does not have a functioning space-based infrared early warning system but relies primarily on ground-based early warning radars to detect a US missile attack. Since these radars cannot see over the horizon, Russia has less than half as much early-warning time as the United States. (The United States has about 30 minutes, Russia 15 minutes or less.)

The inability of Russia to globally monitor missile launches from space means that Russian military and political leaders would have no “situational awareness” to help them assess whether an early-warning radar indication of a surprise attack is real or the result of a technical error.

The combination of this lack of Russian situational awareness, dangerously short warning times, high-readiness alert postures, and the increasing US strike capacity has created a deeply destabilizing and dangerous strategic nuclear situation.

When viewed in the alarming context of deteriorating political relations between Russia and the West, and the threats and counter-threats that are now becoming the norm for both sides in this evolving standoff, it may well be that the danger of an accident leading to nuclear war is as high now as it was in periods of peak crisis during the Cold War.

How the new accuracy-enhancing fuze works. The significant increase in the ability of the W76-1/Mk4A warhead to destroy hardened targets—including Russian silo-based ICBMs—derives from a simple physical fact: Explosions that occur near and above the ground over a target can be lethal to it. This above-target area is known as a “lethal volume”; the detonation of a warhead of appropriate yield in this volume will result in the destruction of the target.

The recognition that the killing power of the W76 warhead could be vastly increased by equipping it with a new fuze was discussed in a 1994 alternate warhead study conducted by the Defense and Energy departments. The study calculated the number of warheads that would be needed for the W76 to attack the Russian target base, if START II were implemented. At the time, W76/Mk4 warheads had a fixed height-of-burst fuze (meaning the fuze could not adjust its detonation at an optimal location if it were falling short or long of a target). With those fixed-height fuzes, submarine-launched nuclear missiles were mainly aimed at softer targets such as military bases.

But the study found that an enhanced Mk4A reentry-body with a new fuze that provided for an adjustable height-of-burst as it arrives would have significant capabilities against harder targets, compared to warheads with the earlier fuzes. The study assumed that a smaller number of Mk4 nuclear warheads with higher killing power per warhead could cover the Russian target base and be more effective than multiple attacks on targets with less destructive warheads. In other words, an enhanced fuze would allow the United States to reduce the number of warheads on its ballistic missile submarines, but increase the targeting effectiveness of the fleet.

Figure 2 illustrates the kill distribution of US submarine-launched nuclear missiles equipped with the earlier, fixed height-of-burst fuzes. The dome-shaped volume outlined in gray shows the lethal volume within which a 100-kiloton nuclear explosion will generate 10,000 pounds per square inch or more of blast pressure on the ground. In other words, if a target on the ground cannot survive a blast of 10,000 pounds per square inch or more, it will be destroyed if a 100-kt nuclear weapon detonates anywhere within that dome-shaped volume.

FIGURE 2. Missiles with fixed height-of-burst fuzes can overshoot or undershoot the “lethal volume” (shown here by a gray, dome-shaped line), limiting their ability to destroy hardened targets.

To show the physical relationship of the lethal volume for a particular ground target of interest—in this case a Russian SS-18 ICBM silo—Figure 2 was drawn to scale. Also shown to scale is the approximate spread of warhead trajectories that correspond to a missile that is accurate to 100 meters, a miss distance roughly the same as what is achieved by the Trident II sea-launched ballistic missile.

Miss distances are typically characterized in terms of a quantity called the “circular error probable,” or CEP, which is defined as the radius of a circle around the aim point within which half of the warheads aimed at a target are expected to impact. In the case of a Trident II 100-kt W76-1 ballistic missile warhead, the lethal distance on the ground and the CEP are roughly equal. As a result, roughly half of the warheads equipped with the old, fixed-height fuze system could be expected to fall close enough to detonate on the ground within the lethal range.

The new super-fuze for W76-1/Mk4A has a flexible height-of-burst capability that enables it to detonate at any height within the lethal volume over a target. Figure 3 shows how the new fuze vastly increases the chances that the target will be destroyed, even though the arriving warheads have essentially the same ballistic accuracy.

The super-fuze is designed to measure its altitude well before it arrives near the target and while it is still outside the atmosphere. This measurement would typically be taken at an altitude of 60 to 80 kilometers, where the effects of atmospheric drag are very small. At this point, the intended trajectory is known to very high precision before the warhead begins to substantially slow from atmospheric drag. If the warhead altitude measured by the super-fuze at that time were exactly equal to the altitude expected for the intended trajectory, the warhead would be exactly on target. But if the altitude were higher than expected, the warhead could be expected to hit beyond the intended aim point. Likewise, if the altitude is lower than that expected, the warhead would likely hit short of the intended aim point.

Testing has established the statistical shape and orientation of the expected spread of warhead locations as they fly towards the target. In the case of Trident II, the spread of trajectories around the intended trajectory is so small that the best way to increase the chances of detonating inside the lethal volume is to intentionally shift the aim point slightly beyond the location of the target. (Note that the intended trajectory in Figure 3 is shifted slightly down range.)

By shifting the aim point down range by a distance roughly equal to a CEP, warheads that would otherwise fall short or long of the target using the conventional Mk4 fuze instead will detonate—at different heights dictated by the super fuze—within the lethal volume above a target. This shift in the down-range aim point will result in a very high percentage of warheads that overfly the target detonating in the lethal volume. The end result is that with the new Mk4A super-fuze, a substantially higher percentage of launched warheads detonate inside the lethal volume, resulting in a considerable increase in the likelihood that the target is destroyed.

FIGURE 3. The tilted ellipse in the left upper corner of Figure 3 depicts the spatial distribution of incoming warheads at the time the super-fuze measures its altitude. In this particular case, the orientation of the ellipsoid indicates that the errors leading to a miss at the target are mostly due to a mix of small discrepancies in the velocity and direction of the warheads when they are deployed from the rocket upper stage outside the atmosphere. The orientation and dimensions of this ellipse are well known to a ballistic missile designer, so the altitude measurement can provide information that leads to an estimate of the distance from the lethal volume above the target.

The ultimate effect of the super fuze’s flexible burst-height capability is a significantly increased target kill probability of the new W76-1/Mk4A warhead compared with the conventional warhead of the same type. Figure 4 shows the probability that warheads will detonate close enough to destroy the ground-target for both the conventional fuze and the super-fuze.

FIGURE 4. The probability of destroying a fully hardened Russian target with the super-fuzed W76-1/Mk4A warhead atop an American submarine-launched ballistic missile is about 86 percent—far higher than would be the case with the previous fuzing for the warhead.

As can be seen from figure 4, the probability of kill using a submarine-launched warhead with the new super-fuze (W76-1/Mk4A) is about 0.86. This 86 percent probability is very close to what could be achieved using three warheads with conventional fuzes to attack the same target. To put it differently: In the case of the 100-kt Trident II warhead, the super fuze triples the killing power of the nuclear force it has been applied to.

Many Russian targets are not hardened to 10,000 pounds per square inch blast overpressure. Figure 5 shows the same probability of kill curves for the case of a target that is only hard to 2,000 pounds per square inch or more of blast overpressure, which is the actual case for almost all targets hardened to nuclear attack—ICBMs and supporting command posts, hardened structures at strategic airbases, submarines at pierside or in protected tunnels, hardened command posts at road mobile missile bases and elsewhere, etc. In this case, the super-fuze achieves a probability of kill of about 0.99—or very near certainty. This case also is equivalent to achieving a probability of kill associated with using three warheads with a 0.83 probability to achieve a 0.99 probability of kill.

FIGURE 5. The likelihood that a submarine-launched ballistic missile will destroy all but the most hardened targets approaches 100 percent.

The probability of kills revealed by figures 4 and 5 have enormous security ramifications.

The US military assumes that Russian SS-18 and TOPOL missile silos are hardened to withstand a pressure of 10,000 pounds per square inch or more. Since with the new super-fuze, the probability of kill against these silos is near 0.9, the entire force of 100-kt W76-1/Mk4A Trident II warheads now “qualifies” for use against the hardest of Russian silos. This, in turn, means that essentially all of the higher-yield nuclear weapons (such as the W88/Mk5) that were formerly assigned to these Russian hard targets can now be focused on other, more demanding missions, including attacks against deeply-buried underground command facilities. In effect, the significant increase in the killing power of the W76 warhead allows the United States to use its submarine-based weapons more decisively in a wider range of missions than was the case before the introduction of this fuze.

The history of the US super-fuze program. The super-fuze is officially known as the arming, fuzing and firing (AF&F) system. It consists of a fuze, an arming subsystem (which includes the radar), a firing subsystem, and a thermal battery that powers the system. The AF&F is located in the tip of the cone-shaped reentry body above the nuclear explosive package itself. The AF&F developed for the new W76-1/Mk4A is known as MC4700 and forms part of the W76 life-extension program intended to extend the service life of the W76—the most numerous warhead in the US stockpile—out to the time period 2040-2050.

The new super-fuze uses a technology first deployed on the high-yield W88/Mk5 Trident II warhead. The Navy’s Strategic Systems Program contracted with the Lockheed Missile and Space Corporation in the early 1980s to develop a new fuze that included “a radar-updated, path-length compensating fuze … that could adjust for trajectory errors and significantly improve the ability to destroy a target. This was an early and sophisticated use of artificial intelligence in a weapon.”

It was the radar-updated, path-length compensating fuze—combined with the increased accuracy of the Trident II missile—that gave an SLBM the ability to hold a hardened target at risk.

Efforts to incorporate the W88/Mk5 fuze capability into the W76/Mk4 was part of the Energy Department’s Warhead Protection Program in the mid-1990s to permit “Mk5 fuzing functionality (including radar-updated path length fuzing, and radar proximity fuzing) as an option to replacement of the much smaller Mk4 AF&F,” according to the partially declassified 1996 Stockpile Stewardship and Management Plan (emphasis added).

Apart from the inherent drive to improve military capabilities whenever possible, the motivation for increasing the target kill capability of the submarine-borne W76 was that the Air Force’s hard-target killer, the MX Peacekeeper ICBM, was scheduled to be retired under the START II treaty. The Navy only had 400 W88 hard-target kill warheads, so a decision was made to add the capability to the W76.

In an article in April 1997, Strategic Systems Program director Rear Adm. George P. Nanos publicly explained that “just by changing the fuze in the Mk4 reentry body, you get a significant improvement. The Mk4, with a modified fuze and Trident II accuracy, can meet the original D5 [submarine-borne missile] hard target requirement,” Nanos stated.

Later that same year, the Energy Department’s Stockpile Stewardship and Management Plan formally described the objective of the fuze modernization program “to enable W76 to take advantage of [the] higher accuracy of [the] D5 missile.”

FIGURE 6. The first of the new MC4700 AF&F super-fuzes for the W76-1 were completed at the Kansas City Plant in 2007. Delivery of the W76-1/Mk4A warhead to the Navy began in 2009.

By 1998, the fuze modernization effort became a formal project, with five SLBM flight tests planned for 2001-2008. Full-scale production of the super-fuze equipped W76-1/Mk4A began in September 2008, with the first warhead delivered to the Navy in February 2009. By the end of 2016, roughly 1,200 of an estimated 1,600 planned W76-1/Mk4As had been produced, of which about 506 are currently deployed on ballistic missile submarines.

The implications. The newly created capability to destroy Russian silo-based nuclear forces with 100-kt W76-1/Mk4A warheads—the most numerous in the US stockpile—vastly expands the nuclear warfighting capabilities of US nuclear forces. Since only part of the W76 force would be needed to eliminate Russia’s silo-based ICBMs, the United States will be left with an enormous number of higher-yield warheads that would then be available to be reprogrammed for other missions.

Approximately 890 warheads are deployed on US ballistic missile submarines (506 W76-1/Mk4A and 384 W88/Mk5). Assuming that the 506 deployed W76-1s equipped with the super-fuze were used against Russian silo-based ICBMs, essentially all 136 Russian silo-based ICBMs could be potentially eliminated by attacking each silo with two W76-1 warheads—a total of 272 warheads. This would consume only 54 percent of the deployed W76-1 warheads, leaving roughly 234 of the 500 warheads free to be targeted on yet other installations. And hundreds of additional submarine warheads are in storage for increasing the missile warhead loading if so ordered. The Trident II missiles that are deployed today carry an average of four to five W76-1 warheads each. However, each missile could carry eight such warheads if the US were to suddenly decide to carry a maximum load of W76 warheads on its deployed Trident II ballistic missiles. And the missile was tested with up to 12 warheads.

Essentially all the 384 W88 “heavy” Trident II warheads, with yields of 455 kt, would also be available for use against deeply-buried targets. In addition, about 400 Minuteman III warheads, with yields of about 300 kt, could be used to target hardened Russian targets. In all, the entire Russian silo-based forces could potentially be destroyed while leaving the US with 79 percent of its ballistic missile warheads unused.

Even after Russia’s silo-based missiles were attacked, the US nuclear firepower remaining would be staggering—and certainly of concern to Russia or any other country worried about a US first strike.

Because of the new kill capabilities of US submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), the United States would be able to target huge portions of its nuclear force against non-hardened targets, the destruction of which would be crucial to a “successful” first strike. One such mission would likely involve the destruction of road-mobile ICBMs that had left their garrisons to hide in Russia’s vast forests in anticipation of attack. The garrisons and their support facilities would probably be destroyed quickly, and some of the dispersed road-mobile launchers would also be quickly destroyed as they were in the process of dispersing. To destroy or expose the remaining launchers, United States planners would have the nuclear forces needed to undertake truly scorched-earth tactics: Just 125 US Minuteman III warheads could set fire to some 8,000 square miles of forest area where the road-mobile missiles are most likely to be deployed. This would be the equivalent of a circular area with a diameter of 100 miles.

Such an attack would be potentially aimed at destroying all road-mobile launchers either as they disperse or after they have taken up position some short distance from roads that give them access to forested areas.

Many of the nearly 300 remaining deployed W76 warheads could be used to attack all command posts associated with Russian ICBMs. A very small number of Russia’s major leadership command posts are deeply buried, to protect them from direct destruction by nuclear attack. The US military would likely reserve the highest-yield warheads for those targets. Figure 7 below shows an example of a structure that is roughly the size of the US Capitol building that is postulated to have rooms and tunnels as deep as 800 feet or more. Shelters that have rooms and tunnels at even greater depths could be sealed by using multiple nuclear warheads to crater every location where an entrance or exit might conceivably have been built.


The situation with regard to the retaliatory potential of Russia’s ballistic missile submarines is problematic from the point of view of a conservative Russian planner. Although Russia currently has 11 ballistic missile submarines, currently two or three of these missile-carrying submarines are in overhaul and do not carry nuclear warheads. If the full force of available operating submarines not in overhaul could be deployed to sea, Russia could deliver roughly 592 of the full 768 warheads theoretically deployed in its submarine force. At some as yet unforeseen time in the future, Russia might be able to deploy 600 to 700 submarine-based warheads to sea, but a realistic number given the limited availability of crews and equipment might instead be 400 to 500 warheads.

By 2030 to 2040, the United States could easily have built enough Aegis ships to carry 500 to 700 of the newly introduced SM-3 Block IIA interceptor. These new interceptors have a 50 percent higher burnout speed than the older SM-3 Block IA interceptors, giving the Block IIA a greater engagement range and theoretically making it possible to provide missile defense for the continental United States via Aegis ships stationed off the country’s Atlantic and Pacific coasts.

For all practical purposes, the intercept capability of the SM-3 Block IIA is negligible. Both the infrared homing sensors on these interceptors and the US early warning tracking radars that cue the interceptors to their targets have no practical ability to distinguish between warheads, pieces of rocket upper stages, and decoys. But the appearance created by the vast expansion of this missile defense program can and will contribute to perceptions among Russians that the United States is seeking nuclear dominance.

The Russians have most recently reacted to this ongoing program by publicly displaying and implementing a new and novel sea-based nuclear weapons delivery device as a hedge against US missile defenses.

In particular, Russia is now in the process of testing a 40-ton nuclear-powered underwater unmanned vehicle (UUV) that could robotically deliver, across thousands of kilometers, a 100-megaton nuclear warhead against the coastal cities and ports of the United States. The technical details of this bizarre system were released by Putin himself in September 2015—apparently intentionally—and testing began in December 2016. Such actions by the Russian government clearly indicate a grave concern about the unpredictable character of ongoing US missile defense programs.

In addition to upgrading the hard-target kill capability of the W76 warhead, the US military also appears to be working to increase the targeting capability of the warheads on the land-based Minuteman III ICBM force. The Minuteman III is much less accurate than Trident II, with a CEP of about 160 meters, compared to the roughly 100-meter CEP now achieved by Trident II. These differences mean that the probability of kill could be two to two-and-a-half times higher for the same weapon carried by a Trident II with a 100-meter CEP versus a Minuteman III with a 160-meter CEP. Without a major guidance upgrade, Minuteman III could not be expected to achieve nearly the nuclear warfighting capacity of the Trident II.

The Air Force is working on an upgrade to the AF&F used on the Mk21 reentry vehicle containing the W87 warhead. The W87/Mk21 warhead arms about half of the ICBM force, with the other half carrying the W78/Mk12A.

Our analysis shows that fitting Minuteman III warheads with super-fuzes will give the Minuteman III essentially the same hard target kill capability as the MX had with its cutting-edge Advanced Inertial Reference Sphere (AIRS) guidance system; the MX was retired in 2005. The first production unit Mk21 fuze is planned for early 2020s with production expected to continue through 2029. The Air Force is planning to use the W87/Mk21 on a new ICBM planned for deployment in 2030.

Shortfalls in Russia’s early warning system. In January 1995, a lone sounding rocket was launched from an isolated Island off the Northwest Coast of Norway. Even though the rocket was heading toward the North Pole, not at Russia, we now know that as it rose over the horizon of the curved Earth, it was tracked by the Russian early warning radar on the Kola Peninsula at Olenegorsk. Because it was on a near-vertical trajectory, the automated tracking algorithms utilized by the radar interpreted the characteristics of the trajectory as matching a Trident submarine-launched ballistic missile on a mission to detonate a nuclear weapon in front of the radar’s field of view, making the radar incapable of detecting nuclear warheads coming from longer range.

That the Russian early warning system reacted to this innocuous launch unambiguously indicates that the Russian warning system has at least some measures within it to alert Russian forces to events that could indicate an evolving US nuclear preemptive attack.

If the United States were to execute such an attack against Russia, Russia would certainly know that the most dangerous and most quickly arriving nuclear warheads would come from US submarine-launched ballistic missiles on station in the North Atlantic. Given the extremely high lethality of essentially all US submarine-based warheads, a well-coordinated US attack would not need to employ US land-based Minuteman ICBMs if its initial aim was to simply destroy Russia’s silo-based ICBMs before they could be launched.

Such a “warfighting attack” would likely begin with the detonation of a nuclear warhead in front of key early-warning radars. An explosion of a 455 kiloton Trident II warhead at an altitude of 1,300 to 1,400 kilometers would create an area of radar “blackout” that would prevent all Russian radars looking toward the United States and into the northern parts of the North Atlantic from observing US ballistic missiles as they rose over the radar horizon.

US missile launches from the North Atlantic would be coordinated to rise over the radar horizon only after the Russian radars had been blinded. Even if the radars were not rendered ineffective, the Russians could reasonably expect to have no more than seven to 10 minutes of warning before Moscow was destroyed. (See the table showing decision-making timelines below.)

The false alert of 1995 would not have occurred if Russia had a reliable and working global space-based satellite early warning system. Russian analysts would have been able to observe that there were no US ballistic missile launches from the North Atlantic. The availability of such a system would have caused the initial alert to be called off within minutes or even more quickly.

Detailed analyses, initially stimulated by questions about why the alert went on for so long, showed that a specialized space-based Russian early warning system called Prognoz was then under development. Analysis of the Prognoz satellite constellation and of available Russian infrared sensor technologies indicated that even if the satellite system had been working, it would not have been able to provide surveillance of the North Atlantic. Today, Russia has stopped launching satellites into this constellation and has instead focused enormous resources exclusively into building a highly robust and redundant network of ground-based radars. It is now very clear that Russia’s extreme de-emphasis on satellite early warning systems and its extreme focus on building numerous, technologically varied ground-based radar warning systems is due to the lack of critical technologies needed to implement a space-based ballistic missile warning system.

Facing the existential threat of a short-warning attack with accurate and powerful sea-launched, nuclear-armed ballistic missiles and no ability to quickly detect their launch with space-based early warning systems, Russian leadership would seem to have little choice but to pre-delegate nuclear launch authority to lower levels of command. Many possible ways of pre-delegating authority are possible, but none of them are free of dangers that could increase the chances of accidents that could ultimately result in the mistaken launch of Russian nuclear forces. Forcing this situation upon the Russian government seems likely to be detrimental to the security interests of the United States and its Western allies.

Our conclusions. Under the veil of an otherwise-legitimate warhead life-extension program, the US military has quietly engaged in a vast expansion of the killing power of the most numerous warhead in the US nuclear arsenal: the W76, deployed on the Navy’s ballistic missile submarines. This improvement in kill power means that all US sea-based warheads now have the capability to destroy hardened targets such as Russian missile silos, a capability previously reserved for only the highest-yield warheads in the US arsenal.

The capability upgrade has happened outside the attention of most government officials, who have been preoccupied with reducing nuclear warhead numbers. The result is a nuclear arsenal that is being transformed into a force that has the unambiguous characteristics of being optimized for surprise attacks against Russia and for fighting and winning nuclear wars. While the lethality and firepower of the US force has been greatly increased, the numbers of weapons in both US and Russian forces have decreased, resulting in a dramatic increase in the vulnerability of Russian nuclear forces to a US first strike. We estimate that the results of arms reductions with the increase in US nuclear capacity means that the US military can now destroy all of Russia’s ICBM silos using only about 20 percent of the warheads deployed on US land- and sea-based ballistic missiles.

Eventually, super-fuze upgrades will make it possible for every SLBM and ICBM warhead in the US arsenal to perform the hard-target kill missions that were initially envisioned to be exclusively reserved to MX Peacekeeper ICBM warheads.

The W76 upgrade reflects a 25-year shift of the focus of US hard-target kill capability from land-based to sea-based ballistic missiles. Moreover, by shifting the capability to submarines that can move to missile launch positions much closer to their targets than land-based missiles, the US military has achieved a significantly greater capacity to conduct a surprise first strike against Russian ICBM silos.

The decision by the Obama administration in 2009 to deploy the Aegis ship-based European Phased Adaptive Approach (EPAA) missile defense system has created a program under which the United States could eventually have between 500 to 700 anti-missile interceptors that could in theory be used to defend the continental United States from ships off the country’s coasts. In spite of its severe limitations, this growing defense system could appear to both Russia and China as a US attempt to reduce the consequences of a ragged Russian or Chinese retaliation to a US first strike against them.

We cannot foresee a situation in which a competent and properly informed US president would order a surprise first strike against Russia or China. But our conclusion makes the increased sea-based offensive and defensive capabilities we have described seem all the more bizarre as a strategy for reducing the chances of nuclear war with either Russia or China.

That Russian silos are more vulnerable to W76-1/Mk4A warheads will not come as an earth-shattering revelation to Russian military officials; they would have to expect that the silos would be destroyed anyway, by US land-based ICBMs. But the growing capability of the US forward-deployed sea-based nuclear missiles could raise serious questions in the minds of Russian military planners and political leadership about US intentions—especially when seen in context of growing US cyber, advanced conventional, and missile defense capabilities—almost certainly deepening mistrust and encouraging worst-case planning assumptions in Moscow.

We end this article with quotes from Vladimir Putin, talking impromptu to a group of journalists during the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum in June 2016. His unrehearsed remarks are clear and candid predictors of how he will assess the implications of the super-fuze: [see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kqD8lIdIMRo ]
Putin’s Warning:
Initially, I translated only a small portion of this segment as I felt the key message must be made obvious. However, I have been pleasantly surprised with m…

No matter what we said to our American partners [to curb the production of weaponry], they refused to cooperate with us, they rejected our offers, and continue to do their own thing.

… They rejected everything we had to offer.

… the Iranian threat does not exist, but missile defense systems are continuing to be positioned…

That means we were right when we said that they are lying to us.

Their reasons were not genuine, in reference to the “Iranian nuclear threat.”

Your people [the populations of the Western alliance] … do not feel a sense of the impending danger—this is what worries me.

A missile defense system is one element of the whole system of offensive military potential.

It works as part of a whole that includes offensive missile launchers.

One complex blocks, the other launches high precision weapons, the third blocks a potential nuclear strike, and the fourth sends out its own nuclear weapon in response.

This is all designed to be part of one system.

I don’t know how this is all going to end.

What I do know is that we will need to defend ourselves.



Why Our Nuclear Weapons Can Be Hacked

In Nuclear Guardianship, Nuclear Policy, Peace, War on March 15, 2017 at 11:46 pm

By Bruce Blair, New York Times, March 14, 2017

It is tempting for the United States to exploit its superiority in cyberwarfare to hobble the nuclear forces of North Korea or other opponents. As a new form of missile defense, cyberwarfare seems to offer the possibility of preventing nuclear strikes without the firing of a single nuclear warhead.
But as with many things involving nuclear weaponry, escalation of this strategy has a downside: United States forces are also vulnerable to such attacks.

Imagine the panic if we had suddenly learned during the Cold War that a bulwark of America’s nuclear deterrence could not even get off the ground because of an exploitable deficiency in its control network.

We had such an Achilles’ heel not so long ago. Minuteman missiles were vulnerable to a disabling cyberattack, and no one realized it for many years. If not for a curious and persistent President Barack Obama, it might never have been discovered and rectified.

In 2010, 50 nuclear-armed Minuteman missiles sitting in underground silos in Wyoming mysteriously disappeared from their launching crews’ monitors for nearly an hour. The crews could not have fired the missiles on presidential orders or discerned whether an enemy was trying to launch them. Was this a technical malfunction or was it something sinister? Had a hacker discovered an electronic back door to cut the links? For all the crews knew, someone had put all 50 missiles into countdown to launch. The missiles were designed to fire instantly as soon as they received a short stream of computer code, and they are indifferent about the code’s source.

It was a harrowing scene, and apprehension rippled all the way to the White House. Hackers were constantly bombarding our nuclear networks, and it was considered possible that they had breached the firewalls. The Air Force quickly determined that an improperly installed circuit card in an underground computer was responsible for the lockout, and the problem was fixed.

But President Obama was not satisfied and ordered investigators to continue to look for similar vulnerabilities. Sure enough, they turned up deficiencies, according to officials involved in the investigation.

One of these deficiencies involved the Minuteman silos, whose internet connections could have allowed hackers to cause the missiles’ flight guidance systems to shut down, putting them out of commission and requiring days or weeks to repair.

These were not the first cases of cybervulnerability. In the mid-1990s, the Pentagon uncovered an astonishing firewall breach that could have allowed outside hackers to gain control over the key naval radio transmitter in Maine used to send launching orders to ballistic missile submarines patrolling the Atlantic. So alarming was this discovery, which I learned about from interviews with military officials, that the Navy radically redesigned procedures so that submarine crews would never accept a launching order that came out of the blue unless it could be verified through a second source.

Cyberwarfare raises a host of other fears. Could a foreign agent launch another country’s missiles against a third country? We don’t know. Could a launch be set off by false early warning data that had been corrupted by hackers? This is an especially grave concern because the president has only three to six minutes to decide how to respond to an apparent nuclear attack.

This is the stuff of nightmares, and there will always be some doubt about our vulnerability. We lack adequate control over the supply chain for nuclear components — from design to manufacture to maintenance. We get much of our hardware and software off-the-shelf from commercial sources that could be infected by malware. We nevertheless routinely use them in critical networks. This loose security invites an attempt at an attack with catastrophic consequences. The risk would grow exponentially if an insider, wittingly or not, shares passwords, inserts infected thumb drives or otherwise facilitates illicit access to critical computers.

One stopgap remedy is to take United States and Russian strategic nuclear missiles off hair-trigger alert. Given the risks, it is dangerous to keep missiles in this physical state, and to maintain plans for launching them on early indications of an attack. Questions abound about the susceptibility to hacking of tens of thousands of miles of underground cabling and the backup radio antennas used for launching Minuteman missiles. They (and their Russian counterparts) should be taken off alert. Better yet, we should eliminate silo-based missiles and quick-launch procedures on all sides.

But this is just a start. We need to conduct a comprehensive examination of the threat and develop a remediation plan. We need to better understand the unintended consequences of cyberwarfare — such as possibly weakening another nation’s safeguards against unauthorized launching. We need to improve control over our nuclear supply chain. And it is time to reach an agreement with our rivals on the red lines. The reddest line should put nuclear networks off limits to cyberintrusion. Despite its allure, cyberwarfare risks causing nuclear pandemonium.

Bruce G. Blair, a research scholar in the Program on Science and Global Security at Princeton, is a founder of Global Zero, a group opposed to nuclear weapons.