50 cents away from nuclear war?

American pharmacist John Pemberto, who in 1886 mistook ingredients for a gastric potion and thus invented Coca-Cola, certainly deserves a monument for his brilliant error. However, there might be no one to erect monuments to errors in the combat control computer systems of modern strategic weapons and nothing to erect them of.

This thought has taken on a new urgency today, given that the Moscow-Washington dialogue on nuclear security has again become the stuff of acute polemics. In response to the Americans' decision to launch production of low-yield nuclear warheads, which in essence means returning to the possible use of tactical nuclear weapons, Russian First Deputy Chief of Staff Colonel-General Yuri Baluyevsky told journalists that Russia was going to adjust the development of its strategic nuclear forces depending on US plans.

"Nuclear weapons that were seen only as a political tool of deterrent are now becoming battlefield weapons," Baluyevsky pointed out.

So far this is not quite accurate, as there is no "battlefield" per se, but the trend is nevertheless dangerous. This is especially true, if we remember that most of both countries' nuclear arsenals have historically been kept in a high state of readiness in line with the retaliation concept. Today, as in those times, Russian and US land-based missiles can be launched a few minutes after the order is received, while submarines can launch their ICBMs within 15 minutes.

Moreover, the high combat readiness, the retaliation concept and the huge destructive capabilities of nuclear weapons, have given rise to a fundamentally new problem: the accidental nuclear war.

Why is it fundamentally new? The threat of an unsanctioned launch has theoretically existed ever since the first nuclear unit was put on alert.

However, today's situation is different because in the past it took far more time to prepare missiles for launch than it does now. Moreover, there was no highly automated missile warning system based on complicated radio-technical and infrared ground- and space-based complexes with many high-speed computers.

It is these systems, not Gorbachev and Reagan (as in the previous years), that decide everything today. They emit a primary signal that provides the grounds for taking a decision to launch when under attack. Experts warn that, in the event of a fatal error in the system, there will be no time to analyse the situation, which means that a nuclear war may start even against the will of the political leaders of one or another country.

The most obvious way to prevent the consequences of such an error or wrong interpretation of the system's data is mutually to lower the combat readiness of strategic nuclear arsenals, thus increasing the time necessary to take a decision on launching a nuclear attack.

There have been plenty of examples when failures in the system's work made leaders of both countries sweat with fear. The 1980s were the most memorable in this respect. For example, in June 1980 the indication system at the Strategic Air Commandment post near Omaha, Nebraska, produced a signal about a large number of ballistic submarine missiles approaching US territory. All alert crews of B-52 strategic bombers were launched with an order to attack targets in the USSR. Only three minutes later did it become clear that it was a false alarm and the attack order was rescinded. The investigation showed that the reason was a burnt out microchip worth 50 cents.

Space-based warning systems are also far from perfect. A steel spillage at a metallurgical plant can look like a missile launch from space. According to US Air Force experts, in the 1980s there were an average of six primary false signals a day.

The current situation is aggravated by the fact that the basis of Russia's warning system, the space systems, has been significantly weakened in recent years due to economic problems and is working in a reduced mode. At the same time, there is no absolute certainty that the computers are in perfect working order.

Deputy Chairman of the State Duma Defence Committee Alexei Arbatov believes that a decision to decrease combat readiness will contribute to progress in strategic nuclear cuts, while simultaneously preserving the deterrent potential. He expressed this opinion in a special report in 2001. Moreover, if the nuclear arsenals of both parties are in a lower state of readiness, there is no need to maintain a large number of carriers and warheads, due to the fear that a significant part of the arsenal could be destroyed by the opponent's sudden preventive strike.

Nevertheless, another part of Baluyevsky's statement inspires a certain degree of optimism. He pointed out that the USA, with the world's most powerful army, should be the first to place the bar for using nuclear weapons at the super-maximum height. This means that Russia will not have to be convinced to make any moves in response.

Andrei Kislyakov, RIAN

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Author`s name Petr Ermilin