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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Nukes Without Targets

One of the most dramatic results of the Russian-American summit held in Moscow earlier last month was the presidents' announcement that they have ordered the detargeting of strategic offensive arms, or SOA, under their respective commands so that by May 30, 1994 their missiles would no longer be targeted at each other.

The agreement was labeled be some observers as purely symbolic, totally unverifiable and a mere political declaration rather than a concrete military accord. But it has far-reaching implications for strategic concepts and planning not only in Washington and Moscow, but for other nuclear powers.

Both presidents gave high marks to the agreement. The deal will no doubt enhance the global strategic environment and improve Russo-American relations in the years to come. For the first time in decades -- since the dawn of the nuclear and space age -- Russia and the United States will stop operating their strategic weapons in a manner that presumed that they were enemies.

The idea of taking Russian and American strategic nuclear missiles off alert is not a new one.

In Moscow, the notion occurred in a small office of the foreign ministry soon after the abortive coup attempt during the three rainy days of August 1991, and later shared in an interview with the head of the Los Angeles News Fax Moscow office.

At the end of January, 1992 President Boris Yeltsin, in a letter sent to the U.N. Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, noted that Russia considered the situation in which Russia, the United States and other NATO nuclear nations aim their nuclear sights at each other to be obsolete. "We must by joint efforts decisively deliver ourselves from the legacy of the period of confrontation and Cold War," he stressed.

Addressing the Geneva-based Conference on Disarmament in February of the same year, Russian Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev added that it would be good if the Russian and American strategic weapons remaining after implementation of the relevant START accords would be targeted not only at each other's territory but at other nations as well.

Then Nezavisimaya Gazeta published an article by a Russian diplomat who advocated the idea of switching off computer programs at nuclear missiles launching sites as a simpler and less costly measure than scrapping nukes.

The detargeting plan was discussed by presidents Yeltsin and Clinton at the April 1993 Vancouver summit, and since then both sides have begun debating the issue at special meetings with their military and civilian experts.

So, the detargeting initiative was launched, despite the assertion of a number of Russian military and political analysts who questioned its practicability and the possibility of verification. The missiles, once detargeted, they claim, can be retargeted on short notice and are not verifiable at all.

It is true that both Russian and American strategic missiles can be promptly retargeted at each other even after the May 30 deadline. Despite the zero targeting agreement, their officers will still be on 24-hour duty in hardened silos and in the war-rooms of ballistic missile subs waiting for orders to press the "fire" button. In a matter of minutes they can reload their computers if they receive encoded signals from the main strategic command and control center, the latter from the presidential "nuclear attache-case."

Nevertheless, both sides admit that after the detargeting phase the constant psychological pressure will be reduced. In Russia, by May 30, flight combat mission programs will be withdrawn from all SOA missiles. By that time, three American strategic missiles systems -- submarine-launched ballistic missiles Trident-1, Trident-2 and land-based intercontinental ballistic missile MX (Peacekeeper) will contain no targeting information. The older technology Minuteman-3 missile computers, which require a constant alignment reference, will be set to ocean "targets" -- located far from populated areas, shipping lines and fishing zones.

It is also true that verification, though difficult, is attainable. Verification specialists advocate a monitoring and control method that involves tagging the computer system of each missile with special hi-tech, fake-proof tags that can be checked by the other side remotely, through a communication relay device connected via satellite link to a distant monitoring center. The outstanding feature of this design is that it opens the possibility for less intrusive monitoring procedures.

While such technology can be applied to land-based ICBMs in silos or to ICBMs on mobile installations, it can hardly be used in strategic missile submarines, especially while they are submerged. But even subwater platforms can be verified if there is good will on both sides.

There are two ideas that might stem from the Russian-American statement on detargeting.

First, it is expedient to convert this bilateral pact between Moscow and Washington into a universal one, by inviting all other nuclear powers -- United Kingdom, France and continental China -- to join. This measure will surely improve strategic stability on the global scale, increase mutual confidence, step back from Cold War nuclear force postures, and diminish the possibility of unauthorized or accidental launch.

Second, the detargeting statement signed in Moscow produces other food for thought: potential modifications in deterrence policy -- a concept that is gradually losing its political and military meaning for the nuclear powers who are quitting old nuclear equations.

Vladimir Kozin is a senior counselor at the Arms Control Department in the Russian Foreign Ministry. The views expressed here are his own. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.