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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Danger: Aging Arsenal




Unless concerted action is taken soon to reduce nuclear dangers, conditions will be coming into place for a dreadful accident, incident or even a nuclear detonation of Russian origin. The problems posed by Chinese nuclear espionage pale in comparison with the dangers inherent in Russia's domestic plight, its aging arsenal, stressed-out command and control and lax export controls.


Moreover, the current U.S. nuclear posture exacerbates current dangers by requiring the deployment of 6,000 nuclear weapons, approximately half of which are on hair-trigger alert.


Russia, whose gross national product is now the size of Belgium's (and falling), cannot match the nuclear force levels of the United States. Over the next decade, deployed Russian nuclear weapons on strategic forces may well dip below 1,000 f six times below the number allowed by the START II treaty, which has been held hostage by the State Duma since January 1993.


At present, the Kremlin retains as many of its nuclear forces on hair-trigger alert as possible. This is done to compensate for weaknesses in Russia's conventional forces, for gaping holes in the old Soviet early-warning network and for the vast launch readiness of the U.S. nuclear forces. Independent estimates suggest that Russia maintains in excess of 3,000 nuclear warheads in very high states of launch readiness.


This is a recipe for disaster. The Central Intelligence Agency's unclassified assessment of the "fail-safeness" of Russian command and control is not reassuring.


Although the CIA says nuclear safety is not a concern as long as current security procedures and systems are in place, stresses in the Russian command and control system are growing, and are aggravated by the high launch readiness of U.S. nuclear forces.


In January 1995, Russian forces mistook a scientific rocket launched from Norway for a U.S. attack, thus activating President Boris Yeltsin's nuclear "suitcase." In September 1998, a deranged Russian sailor killed seven of his shipmates and barricaded himself inside the torpedo bay of his nuclear attack submarine. Security forces recaptured the boat, which may or may not have had nuclear weapons on board. In September 1998, a guard at a facility holding 30 tons of plutonium shot other guards and then escaped, heavily armed.


The list of incidents of this kind in Russia that we know about is chilling.


How does the U.S. maintenance of 6,000 deployed nuclear weapons, half on hair-trigger alert, help it deal with such dangers? With Russian forces projected to decline dramatically over the next decade, what useful purpose is served by maintaining bloated nuclear arsenals at such high states of launch readiness?


While U.S. nuclear forces have been downsized with the end of the Cold War, U.S. nuclear doctrine and targeting requirements have changed relatively little. Washington still maintains massive attack options, with the potential for many hundreds of nuclear detonations. The U.S. still places Russia's crumbling industrial capacity "at risk," even though these factories have become liabilities rather than assets for the Kremlin.


Washington still maintains its forces at very high launch readiness, even though there is no longer a doctrinal requirement to launch quickly in the event of a nuclear attack from Russia.


Capitol Hill has barely addressed the dangers inherent in interlocking U.S. and Russian nuclear postures. Extensive targeting lists and high Russian alert rates reinforce high U.S. alert rates. This vicious circle will be extremely dangerous as strains on Russian command and control continue to grow.


As long as the United States' strategic posture involves keeping its nuclear guns out of their holsters with the triggers cocked, there is no chance whatever of persuading Russia to take its dangerous and aging nuclear missiles off hair-trigger alert.


These nuclear dangers are badly compounded by congressional insistence that the United States maintain a force level of 6,000 deployed warheads f the maximum allowed under START I f until the 1993 START II accord finally enters into force. In this way, national decisions on the proper size of U.S. strategic forces are determined by the most retrograde delegates of the Duma, who have blocked ratification of START II.


What could the United States conceivably do with 6,000 deployed nuclear warheads in the post-Cold War era? Why is it in the national security interest of the United States to wait for action by Russia's unpredictable and erratic legislature before taking new initiatives to reduce nuclear dangers?


Doesn't it make more sense to accelerate the process of deep reductions now?


Senator Bob Kerrey, a Democrat from the state of Nebraska, has a better idea than waiting for the Duma. He would strike the legislative requirement to remain at 6,000 deployed weapons and proceed instead with parallel, reciprocal, verifiable reductions.


Without accelerated reductions and new initiatives, such as a stand-down of alert nuclear forces, we invite tragedies on a massive scale.


Michael Krepon is president of the Henry L. Stimson Center. He contributed this comment to The Washington Post.