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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Strategic Detargeting: A Very Small Comfort

Last January, Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin signed an agreement on "detargeting" their strategic nuclear weapons. As of May 30, thousands of Russian and U.S. warheads are officially no longer aimed at the other superpower. Although outside observers have not been allowed to confirm the new targeting, the agreement does help make an accidental nuclear war less likely. Russia is in the midst of a crisis that, the Americans say, significantly increases the chances that the government could lose control of a nuclear weapon. In that case, it would be better if that weapon was not zeroed in on the United States. Russian military leaders are not at all concerned about the detargeting operation and officially confirm that "the military readiness of our forces remains adequate and Russia's national security has not suffered in the least." Apparently, America's 500 Minuteman III ICBMs have different fixed targets for each warhead, which means that it will take a while to retarget them. Only the latest Peacekeeper ICBMs -- there are about 50 -- are equipped with "zero flight task," which means that they receive their targets just before launching. In the past, the United States had to prepare for a nuclear war with only one country: the Soviet Union. As a result, the Americans did not have to create a flexible strategic force. The targets for their ICBMs were determined in advance and, in the event of a conflict, it was only necessary to decide whether or not to launch. The Soviet Union, on the other hand, had to be prepared for nuclear war with four separate nuclear powers: the United States, Britain, France and China. Unlike the Americans, the Soviets had to be ready for the most varied combinations of antagonists and for conflicts of various intensities. Soviet planners had to prepare a great number of scenarios for strategic nuclear wars and, consequently, for targeting Soviet strategic weapons. All of Russia's strategic weapons, it would seem, are like the American Peacekeepers, receiving targeting information along with the launch signal. This means that the Russians probably had very little to detarget on Monday. The Americans, it would seem, have again overestimated their own technological superiority. Detargeting day has done nothing to alter the threat of an intentional, as opposed to an accidental, war. Russia and the United States today are further from an actual nuclear war than at any time since 1945. However, mutual suspicion continues to separate Washington and Moscow. Instead of coming up with new symbolic acts of good will, politicians must take up more difficult, but more significant problems. Pavel Felgenhauer is the defense and national security editor for Segodnya.