Nuclear Darkness

Cold War Has Thawed Only Slightly

By Steven Starr

Article originally appeared in Columbia Tribune

*Note to readers: the paper changed my original title without my permission, it was:

The Cold War hasn't ended:
Nuclear deterrence versus nuclear disarmament

At the conclusion of their April 2008 summit, Presidents George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin agreed the Cold War was over and that another Cuban missile crisis would be "unthinkable." Standing nearby were U.S. and Russian military officers, each holding a briefcase from which their respective president could quickly transmit a launch order that, in about three minutes, would cause hundreds of ballistic missiles armed with thousands of nuclear warheads to begin their 30-minute flights toward Russia or the United States.

Regardless of public expressions of friendship, the United States and Russia continue to operate under policies that assume each could authorize a nuclear attack against the other. The failure to end their Cold War nuclear confrontation causes both nations together to maintain a total of at least 2,600 strategic nuclear warheads on high-alert, launch-ready status, whose primary missions remain the destruction of the opposing side’s nuclear forces, industrial infrastructure and civilian/military leaders.

Most Americans don’t know these weapons exist. They have no idea a single strategic nuclear warhead, when detonated over a city or industrial area, could ignite an enormous firestorm over a total area of 40 to 65 square miles. The vast nuclear arsenals have effectively been hidden from public view and removed from public knowledge, thus making it easy for smiling U.S. and Russian presidents to proclaim "peace in our time."

Another Cuban missile crisis might be "unthinkable," but the continued U.S.-Russian nuclear confrontation means it certainly isn’t impossible. Presidential assurances to the contrary, the relations between Washington and Moscow are worse than at any time since the fall of the Soviet Union. And nuclear weapons remain at the heart of U.S.-Russian political disagreements.

Eleven months before the April 2008 summit, Putin revealed Russian tests of a new ballistic missile capable of carrying multiple nuclear warheads were a response to the planned deployment of a new U.S. missile defense system in Eastern Europe. Bush said the U.S. system is designed to intercept Iranian missiles aimed at America. Russia argues Iran has no long-range missiles and is not soon likely to have them - and even if it did have them, the sites for the proposed U.S. radar and interceptors are hundreds of miles north of where they should ideally be located.

The U.S. system, however, would be in an ideal spot to track European-based Russian nuclear-armed ballistic missiles. X-band radar in the Czech Republic and missile interceptors in Poland are to be located between 800 and 1,000 miles from Moscow. If the situation were reversed, it would be the geographical equivalent of putting Russian missiles on the northern edge of Lake Superior. Russia views the proposed U.S. system as a direct threat to its strategic nuclear weapons and warns it will target its missiles at the Czech and Polish sites where the system is to be based.

Russian arguments are supported by two respected U.S. physicists, George Lewis and Theodore Postol. They say the U.S. missile defense system would be able to track and engage almost every Russian missile launched toward the United States from Russian sites west of the Urals. The physicists said the only obvious reason for choosing Eastern Europe for a missile defense site is to place U.S. interceptor missiles close to Russia, making it possible for the European-based radar and interceptors to be added as a layer against Russia to the already developing U.S. continental missile defense.

Russia is also deeply threatened by constant efforts to expand NATO and encircle Russia with U.S. military bases. Despite vehement Russian objections, Bush continues to insist the former Soviet republics of Ukraine and Georgia be allowed to join NATO. Should this happen, NATO military forces will be positioned on the borders of Russia. If Ukraine joins NATO and accepts the deployment of U.S. anti-missile defenses on its territory, Russia has threatened to target it with nuclear warheads.

NATO, which began as an anti-Soviet alliance, is locked in a Cold War mentality that regards Russia as the enemy and keeps nuclear weapons as a primary military option. Four hundred eighty U.S. nuclear bombs (a force larger than the entire deployed nuclear arsenals of France, the United Kingdom, China or Israel) are stored at eight European NATO bases. These forward-based U.S. weapons are intended for use, in accordance with NATO nuclear strike plans, against targets in the Middle East or Russia.

The Cold War will not really end until the United States and Russia stand down their high-alert, launch-ready nuclear arsenals and finally cease their nuclear confrontation. This surely will not happen as long as the United States continues to push for NATO expansion while ignoring Russian concerns about its proposed European missile defense system.

Steven Starr is an independent writer who has been published by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists and the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology Center for Arms Control, Energy and Environmental Studies.  He recently retired from the medical profession to work as an educator and consultant on nuclear weapons issues.

Suicide is Not a Defense

Even if President Obama reverses the aggressive military policies of the Bush Administration, it will require new thinking to truly end the U.S.-Russian nuclear stand-off. This is because nuclear deterrence remains the key operational strategy of the U.S. and Russia - and every other Nuclear Weapons State. Deterrence provides the rationale for the continued existence of all nuclear arsenals.

The U.S. Department of Defense Military Dictionary says, “Deterrence is a state of mind brought about by the existence of a credible threat of unacceptable counteraction.” The current “credible threat” posed by operational U.S. and Russian nuclear weapons is equal to 1000 times the explosive power of all the bombs detonated during World War II. It seems quite clear that the “unacceptable counteraction” posed by these weapons includes the destruction of most people on the planet.

Many military and civilian leaders who rely upon deterrence believe that there is no realistic path to the abolition of nuclear weapons. The question they fail to ask is what are the likely outcomes over time of these two alternative courses of action? Is it ultimately more dangerous to persist with nuclear arsenals governed by deterrence policies or to instead earnestly pursue a nuclear-weapons-free world?

Those who see utility and legitimacy in the perpetual maintenance of nuclear weaponry often tend to regard nuclear abolition as a “destabilizing” goal, and apparently assume that deterrence will forever prevent a nuclear war. Their long-term optimism, however, is supported neither by logic nor history.

Deterrence will continue to work only as long as all sides remain rational and fear death. Many extremist groups, however, are undeterred by any credible threat of retaliation, regardless of how large that threat might be. And history is filled with examples of irrational leaders and decisions which lead to war. Nuclear weapons combined with human fallibility not only make nuclear war possible, they will eventually make it inevitable.

If the ultimate goal of national security is to ensure the survival of the nation, then the pursuit of this goal through nuclear deterrence should be viewed as an utter failure. Because deterrence set no rational limits on the size and composition of military forces, tens of thousands of nuclear weapons were created. They still are ready and patiently waiting to destroy not only our nation, but every nation on Earth.

Recent research predicts that fires caused by the detonation of half of the U.S.-Russian nuclear arsenals would produce 50 million tons of smoke, which would rise to the stratosphere and block much of the sunlight from reaching Earth. The resulting nuclear darkness would cause global temperatures to drop to as cold or colder than they were 18,000 years ago at the height of the last Ice Age. The darkness would persist for many years, making agriculture virtually impossible, and would likely lead to the collapse of the Earth's already stressed ecosystems.

Thus the consequences of a single failure of deterrence could be the end of human history. A large nuclear war will make our planet uninhabitable. Even a conflict between India and Pakistan, that detonates less than one half of one percent of the explosive power of the global nuclear arsenal, is predicted to cause catastrophic disruptions of the global climate. A nuclear war cannot be won and must not be fought.

Leaders who choose to “defend” their nations with nuclear weapons must face the fact that nuclear war is suicidal and not an option if their citizens are to survive. Suicide is not a defense.

Should we choose to accept the assertion that “there is no realistic path to a world free of nuclear weapons”, then we sentence the children of the world to a dark future indeed. We must instead reject this 20th century mindset, which is still driving us towards the abyss, through an understanding that nuclear weapons pose a threat to the human species.