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Crazed Fanboy Presents...
While most of the world's population is justifiably concerned with the current threat of nuclear war in the Middle East, new contributor George Simmons Roth wishes to remind us that an old Cold War enemy may not quite be out of the picture just yet. However, there is hope! Join us as we explore...
"A Simple Solution For Accidental Nuclear War" by George Simmons Roth

"Behold, I am become death, the destroyer of worlds." Atomic scientist Robert Oppenheimer, quoting from the Bhagavad Gita

In the geopolitical world of today, the American people and the media are preoccupied with the immediate threat of terrorism and the war in Iraq. Further down the road looms the danger of a nuclear-armed North Korea, and possibly Iran. Many experts in academia, government and the military consider the growing power of China as the ultimate threat. However, as serious as these threats are, there is one threat, rarely mentioned, which overshadows all the other threats combined. It is the danger of accidental nuclear war with Russia. Most people consider this threat as non-existent. It is not. Granted that the Cold War is over and the United States and Russia are on reasonably good terms; however, this only means that the danger of accidental nuclear war in any given year is very small, but not non-existent.

It should never be forgotten that while the probability of a general nuclear war may be the least of all possible dangers which threaten the United States, the consequences of such an event would be the greatest catastrophe imaginable, greater than all the other dangers combined. A general nuclear war (note: in military parlance the term "general" means global or total war) would undoubtedly destroy both the United States and Western civilization permanently.

Of the nine known nuclear powers (the United States, Russia, China, Great Britain, France, Israel, India, Pakistan, and North Korea), only the United States and Russia keep a large portion of their nuclear arsenal on an alert posture known as launch on warning, or simply, LOW. Some people call this launch under attack strategy, but it is the same thing. Simply put, this strategy mandates that once either nation's early warning satellites and radars have determined that a nuclear attack is underway by the other nuclear superpower, their own ICBMs (intercontinental ballistic missiles) will be launched before enemy warheads can impact on their missle silos. This strategy is meant to deny the possibility of a successful surprise nuclear first strike by the other nuclear adversary. However, this hair-trigger strategy which both nuclear giants practice, carries with it a huge disadvantage: an enormous increase in the danger of accidental nuclear war.

Most people would consider this nuclear strategy dangerous and unnecessary. Perhaps during the Cold War this LOW strategy barely made sense, but it certainly doesn't today. Nevertheless, however incredulously this national defense strategy is perceived, it is the reality of the world in which we live!

It must also be recognized that Russia is the only nation which can now, or in the forseeable future, completely destroy the United States. China could attack he U.S. with no more than a couple dozen warheads, and this is unlikely to change anytime soon. It is conceivable, but by no means, certain, that within a decade, North Korea might be able to attack this country with perhaps a half-dozen nuclear warheads. Attacks from other nations, like Iran, are even more problematic. In contrast, Russia threatens this country with an attack of more than 1,500 nuclear warheads. In fact, the United States and Russia are the nuclear Goliaths of the world with their combined arsenals comprising more than 90% of the world's strategic nuclear weapons.

Many people might ask the question: why have the general staffs of both nations adopted this LOW strategy? In order to answer this question, a little background is necessary.

About 50% of the United States nuclear arsenal on alert (i.e., ready to launch on fifteen minutes notice), and about 85% of Russia's nuclear weapons on alert, reside on ICBMs buried deep in underground concrete silos. At one time, these weapons were secure against a nuclear attack. However, steady improvements in missle warhead accuracy over several decades gradually changed the strategic situation. In the late 1980s, both the United States and Russia's ICBMs had sufficient accuracy to destroy the other side's missiles in their silos. The United States, but not Russia, also achieved this capacity with its SLBMs (submarine launched ballistic missiles) launched from its fleet of nuclear-powered submarines. Russia tried to protect its silo ICBMs by super-hardening their silos. However, because of the steady progress in technology, improving both accuracy and nuclear warhead yields, Russia was only able to delay by a few years their missile silo's vulnerability.

Since all these developments occured during the end of the Cold War, most political leaders, academics, the media, and most military officers were unconcerned. The majority of the populaton was not even aware of the situation. However, the generals commanding America's Strategic Command and Russia's Strategic Missile Forces, the people actually responsible for the operational planning and control of each nation's nuclear forces, saw the situation quite differently. They believed in Napoleon's maxim, that one "should never concern one's self with the intentions of the potential enemy, which are unknowable, only their capability." Each nation saw the other side as the only credible nuclear threat and so planned accordingly. Nothing has changed since then and the LOW strategy remains in effect.

However, the situation has become asymmetrical in that the danger of Russia accidentally causing a nuclear war is probably greater than the United States. There are five separate reasons for this.

First, as previously stated, only about 50% of U.S nuclear forces on alert are on ICBMs in silos that are vulnerable to enemy attack. The other half of America's nuclear forces on alert are SLBMs on nuclear submarines at sea where they are completely invulnerable to a surprise nuclear attack! In the interest of brevity, I'll not go into the myriad legitimate reasons why submarines are considered invulnerable, except to state that no authoritative person disputes this claim. The United States also has a nuclear force of bombers, but they are not kept on alert. Russia's situation is considerably different. Like the United States they also have bombers (also not kept on alert), ICBMs in silos, and nuclear submarines. Russia, unlike the United States, has truck-mounted, mobile ICBMs. As is the case with submarines, mobile missiles in the field are not targetable and thus invulnerable to a surprise missile attack. However, there is a big problem. Submarines at sea, and mobile missiles in the field are several times more expensive to operate than silo missiles, submarines in port, or mobile missiles at their bases...and Russia is very short of funds for the operation of its strategic nuclear forces. Consequently, only a small portion of Russia's nuclear forces on alert are invulnerable to surprise attack. Only about 5% of Russia's nuclear forces on alert are either deployed on submaries at sea or mobile missiles in the field. All the rest are deployed in silos, submarines in port, or mobile missiles at their bases, where they are vulnerable to surprise nuclear attack.

Second, again, due to lack of funds, Russia's early warning system of satellites and radars are operating far below standard, and thus are not very reliable. This is true for both the human and mechanical elements.

Third, both the United State and Russia can launch a surprise attack with their ICBMs, but only the U.S. can launch a surprise attack with its submarine SLBMs. It takes about thirty minutes for ICBMs to transit over the North Pole to their targets. However, submarines can launch an attack in less than half that time, and so the Russians have much less time to react and launch a counter-attack.

Fourth: Russian generals have more autonomy from their political leaders than do American generals, and are more able to attack on their own.It doesn't help that Russians are generally more paranoid than Americans.

Finally, and most dangerous of all, the Russians, unlike the Americans, have a computer-controlled semiautomatic launch system called Perimeter. In order to save precious time, this sytem allows the Russian generals in their underground headquarters at Kosvinsky Mt., located in the Ural Mountain Range, to launch all land-based missiles (both silo and mobile) directly, bypassing the missile crews in their bunkers. In fact, it is reported, that when put in a full automatic mode, Perimeter is capable of launching all of Russia's land-based missiles without any human intervention. Using satellites and radars to warn of enemy missiles, and seismic devices to detect nuclear detonations, Perimeter, once it has determined that an attack was in progress, would automatically launch communication rockets over Russia missile fields which, in turn, would automatically launch their ICBMs.

The danger of an accidental launch should be apparent to all. A simple mechanical and/or electrical malfunction could start a nuclear war. The danger is even greater because this system is twenty years old and no longer fully reliable. The Russians are aware of the danger and that is why the system has never been turned on. But the fact that this system has not been dismantled proves that Russia is prepared to activate it if a serious international crisis should ever occur. Since the future is unknowable, no one can be sure that such a crisis will never happen. The Russian crews who operate this system have a nickname for it, It is called the Dead Hand.

The above brief summary illustrates that the danger of accidental nuclear war, though obviously very small on a yearly basis (otherwise it would already have occured), is very real. Unless this danger is reduced to zero, the odds of accidental nuclear war will slowly but surely accumulate upwards to an eventual certainty. If nothing changes, and at this point there is no indication that it will, then sooner or later the world will experience its first nuclear war.

History is replete with examples of communities which lived for centuries adjacent to an inactive volcano. They lived in blissful ignorance of their danger until that eventful day when the volcano suddenly erupted and they were destroyed. often they had only hours, or even minutes, to contemplate their folly. Like the people who lived next to these volanoes, the American people, indeed the population of the entire Northern Hemisphere, live in the silent shadow of nuclear extermination, serenely unaware of the danger. As with the communities destroyed by volcanic eruption, there is no opportunity to learn from experience. Once it happens, there will never be a second chance!

Part Two: The Solution to the Problem

Although the danger of accidental nuclear war is not generally appreciated, this author is neither the first, nor the most eloquent in warning of the threat. Many experts have warned of this danger for years. However, the solution offered here and now for this threat, so far as is known by the author, is original. No treaties, agreements or technical fixes of any kind are required. The solution can be implemented both easily and quickly and at no financial cost or loss of security. The solution can be stated in three words: nuclear strategic stability.

The opposite of strategic stability is strategic instability, which may be defined as the "payoff" for launching a first strike.

The only conceivable way a nation might win a nuclear war would be to launch a surprise nuclear attack on the nuclear forces of the other side. If successful, most of the enemy's forces would be destroyed before they could retaliate in what is called a second strike. Destruction would never be 100%, of course, but if a first strike could eliminate 90 - 95% of the other side's ICBMs in their silos, bombers on the ground, mobile missiles in their garrisons, and submarines in port, then the attacking nation might survive a retaliatory second strike. Death and destruction could never be completely eliminated, but a nation which lost 10 - 20% of its population (with considerably less industrial and ecological damage as well) would certainly be better off than one which lost 80 - 90%.

Losing 10 - 20% of one's population could hardly be called a victory in a traditional sense, but these figures are within historical experience (note, Russian lost about 15% of its population and half its industrial capacity in World War II and survived). A nation suffering this range of losses would probably survive as a society and ultimately recover.

On the other hand, a nation losing between 80% and 90% of its populatuion would probably be destroyed as a functioning society forever. The situation is quite analagous to some of the famous gunfights of the old west (the one at the OK Corral comes to mind), except that it would be on a cosmic scale. Under certain circumstances, like a serious international crisis, an escalating conventional war, or even worse, the detonation of one or more nuclear weapons, when a nuclear war seemed probable, if not inevitable, a government might rationally conclude that launching a first strike was its best option.

Now let's be clear about one point: this author does not believe that either the American or Russian governments would ever actually seriously consider launching a nuclear first strike under any but the most provocative circumstances; circumstances which are exceedingly unlikely ever to occur. The historical documents and testimony of the major participants of the Cold War prove the validity of this claim.

However, the reciprocal of this statement is not true. The history of the Cold War shows conclusively that while neither side ever seriously considered launching a nuclear first strike on its opponent, both sides were obsessed by the fear that the other side would launch a first strike against them! Even though the Cold War has ended, nothing has changed. The proof of this statement is the fact that both sides are still on a launch on warning (LOW) strategy.

The obvious solution to this terrible threat is simple: for the world to be safe, both the United States and Russia must abandon their current counter-force nuclear strategy. The question now becomes, how to accomplish this goal, or "how do we establish strategic stability"? The answer is, the United States must abandon its current counter-force nuclear strategy (which is the strategy of obtaining a first strike capability), and instead, opt for a simple deterrent nuclear strategy (which is the strategy of having only a second strike capability).

The greater strategic stability becomes, the less becomes any advantage of either nation for launching a first strike, and thus the less either side would fear a first strike by the other side. If strategic stability were near 100%, there would be no payoff whatsoever for launching a first strike and neither side would have any reason to continue with the LOW strategy and the world would be safer.

But how do we get to that condition? The answer has already been given by both the British and the French, the only other western nations that have their own nuclear arsenals (with the possible exception of Israel, which is a special case). It is in two parts. First, the United States should completely eliminate all its land-based silo ICBMs! When the Moscow treaty takes effect in a few years, the U.S. will have about 450 ICBMs deployed (with about 700 300-kiloton warheads). They serve no useful purpose whatsoever. Like deadwood in a forest, they vastly increase the danger of a "nuclear forest fire", so to speak. They have no second strike capability, which is why they're on LOW in the first place. They do have a first strike, but that is exactly what we should not want! They are only targets for Russian missiles and reduce our security.

The U.S. Air Force (the service which operates the missiles) may object, but their primary mission has always been to fly airplanes, not sit in underground bunkers. If the Air Force wants a nuclear role in America's defense, let them keep the bombers. Bombers are too slow for a first strike, and being manned, have a flexibility and margin of safety that missiles can never have.

Of course, America's primary nuclear deterrent would reside in the U.S. Navy's fleet of nuclear ballistic submarines. Being absolutely invulnerable to a Russian first strike, they have no need for a LOW strategy.

All that matters for deterrence to work is the certainty of retaliation not its swiftness. If anyone doubts the validity of this statement, then they should observe that this is exactly how the police and criminal law operate in our society. Most people, who otherwise might be tempted to commit a serious crime are deterred by the certainty that they will be apprehended by the police. It is unnecessary that the police catch them a few minutes after they have commited a crime (for the deterrent to be effective). Whether it's days, weeks, months, or even years, all that really matters is that, sooner or later, they will be caught! In the same way, it is irrelevant to Russia (or any other nation) how soon retaliation would come -- the only critical knowledge is that it will inevitably come.

Secure in the deep abyss of the ocean depths, nuclear submarines, with a virtual limitless fuel supply, have no need to make any hasty decision about a retaliatory nuclear attack. Unlike land-based silo missiles which have only minutes to launch, submarine officers have hours, days, weeks, or even months to make a decision, and thus are far less likely to mistake a false alarm for a real attack. The danger of accidental nuclear war is thus reduced to a minimum.

This strategy is exactly what both the British and French governments have already done. France did have 18 land-based silo missiles during the Cold War. However, recognizing the absurdity of their deployment, they dismantled all their land-based missiles in the 1990s. The British, on the other hand, have never deployed land-based missiles, preferring to depend solely on their nuclear submarines. Thus, while the French nuclear arsenal consists of both bombers and submarines, and the British have only submarines, neither has any land-based missiles. The United States would do well to follow their example.

[Note: Because bombers have much more flexibility than ballistic missiles (especially submarine-launched ballistic missles) in a limited nuclear conflict, this author feels that the French nuclear strategy is somewhat superior to the British strategy. However, this is another matter and will not be discussed further.]

This eliminates half the problem: the chance that the U.S. might accidentally launch a nuclear attack.

The second part of the solution to accidental nuclear war is what do we do about Russia's vulnerable silo missiles and the danger that they might accidentally launch a nuclear attack. Their situation is even more precarious than the United States, because as previously stated, their ICBMs in land-based silos comprise about 85% of their nuclear forces on alert, rather than the more-or-less 50% of the U.S. arsenal. Of course, it would be nice if the Russians simply followed the example of the British and French and eliminated all their silo-based missiles. But unfortunately, the Russians have a gross domestic product around one-twentieth of the United States and, because silo-based ICBMs are the cheapest system, simply cannot afford another strategy. Some have argued that we need treaties, officer exchanges, better communications, etc., and other confidence-building measures to reduce the danger of a nuclear war. But while these ideas are not exactly wrong, there is a much simpler and more effective solution, and again, the British and French have shown the way, and it is simply this: eliminate all first-strike weapons.

The author has already advocated the removal of all land-based missiles which have first-strike capability, and it has previously been established that bombers and cruise missiles are too slow to carry out a successful first strike (i.e., taking hours and not minutes to reach their targets). But the problem remains because U.S. submarine ballistic missiles also have the accuracy and power to destroy Russian silos by themselves.

Submarine missles carry two different kinds of warheads: the "light" (100-kiloton) and the "heavy" (475-kiloton). Only the "heavy" warheads are a threat to the Russian ICBM silos. The "light" ones, the "city-busters", function only as a deterrent. Eliminating the "heavy" silo-busters solves the problem.

The following section in blue contains technical data supporting this article. Readers uninterested in it or simply not technically-minded may skip ahead to the next section
At this point, a little technical information becomes necessary. The primary weapon of the United States Navy's ballistic missile submarine fleet is the SLBM called the Trident-2. Each submarine (of which the U.S. has 14) carries 24 missiles. Within a few years, when the Moscow treaty takes effect each missile will carry four separate nuclear warheads which can impact on a target 4,000 miles away with the incredible accuravy of 400 feet CEP. CEP stands for Circular Error Probable, and simply means that 50% of the time a warhead will land at least 400 feet or closer to its target.

The missiles can carry two types of nuclear warheads: the W-76 with a 100-kiloton nuclear bomb, and the W-88 with a 475-kiloton bomb. For comparison, the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima was 15 kilotons (or the equivalent of 15,000 tons of TNT).

For many people, an accuracy of 400 feet may seem superfluous, and for destroying cities, it is. Above ground, most concrete and/or brick buildings can be completely destroyed with a blast over-pressure of 5 PSI (pounds per square inch). The "heavy" 474 kiloton warheads can achive this effect at the range of about 3½ miles. Even a "light" 100 kiloton warhead can totally destroy its target at the range of about 2 miles.

But Russian missile silos, especially the 40% which are "super-hardened", are another matter. Buried almost 200 feet underground, covered by steel blast-resistant sliding doors weighing a hundred tons, placed on shock absorbers, and consisting of several yards of reinforced concrete and steel, these silos can withstand a blast over-pressure of 15,000 PSI. The super-hardened ones can do even better, withstanding a blast over-pressure of 25,000 PSI. A "heavy" 475-kiloton warhead must come within about 600 feet to destroy a missile silo, and 500 feet to destroy a super-hardened silo. A "light" 100-kiloton warhead must come even closer, or within about 300 feet to destroy a missile silo -- and it cannot destroy a super-hardened missile silo, even with a direct hit.

Now the mechanics of a nuclear attack are such that an attacker can place two warheads on each silo, but no more. To attempt to attack with more than two warheads creates the problem of fratricide (or one warhead destroying its "brother" warheads). The mechanics of a nuclear attack have long ago been worked out by the generals in the Pentagon and, of course, the Russian general staff as well. using calculated strike tables which factor in 1) the accuracy of the nuclear warhead, 2) the yield (or explosive power) of the warhead, and 3) the hardness of the missile silo under attack, they can determine the probability of destroying the silo. It is called the Double Shot Kill Probability or simply, the DSKP.

As it turns out, if the United States were to attack all of Russia's missile silos with two W-88, 475 kiloton warheads, they would probably destroy 90% of Russia's silo-based ICBM force. Less than 10% of Russia's ICBMs would survive to launch a retaliatory attack. (Note: these estimates come from the National Resource Defense Council's June 2001 Report: Tables - 4.1 and 4.2.) It should be noted that submarines in port and mobile missiles in their garrisons (which would be about 2/3 of submarines and mobile missiles on alert) could be virtually 100% destroyed by the 100-kiloton warheads alone.

Like cities, submarines in port, bombers on the ground, mobile missiles at their bases,as well as radar stations and communication facilites, are considered "soft targets" and much easier to destroy than silo missiles and command bunkers which are considered "hard targets". Only the submarines actually at sea or the mobile missiles deployed in the field are invulnerable to a first strike. But as previosuly stated, these forces are only about 5% of Russia's nuclear arsenal on alert. Obviously then, the United States has an excellent first strike capability against Russia's nuclear forces, and thus strategic stability is very low, with potential catastrophic consequences. The United States Navy has about 400 of these heavy silo-buster warheads deployed on its submarines, enough to destroy all of Russia's land-based missile force and their command bunkers.

[Note: when the Moscow Treaty takes effect a few years from now, it has been estimated (and this is only a rough guess by the U.S. intelligence community) that Russia's nuclear arsenal will consist of approximately a half dozen nuclear ballistic missile submarines (with 16 missiles a piece, each with several warheads), 160 mobile missiles (each with one nuclear warhead), and roughly 160 silo ICBMs (loaded with about 800 nuclear warheads), and maybe two dozen command bunkers. Russian ICBM warheads are 750 kilotons.]

The Navy also has about 1200+ of the light city buster warheads, which can destroy all soft targets as well.However, using the same DSKP calculations for the light warheads show they are much less capable for destroying Russia's silo missiles. These calculations indicate that less than 30% of Russian silo missiles would be destroyed. With 70%+ of Russian nuclear warheads surviving to launch a counter attack against the U.S., there would be virtually no "payoff" for an American first strike. Whether it lauchned a first strike or a second strike would make little difference in the casualties the U.S would suffer. Either way, the United States would be destroyed. Of course, once it had become clear to the Russians that the U.S. had eliminated its first strike option, there would be no need for them to maintain Perimeter or a LOW strategy. Furthermore, since the United States dismantled its nuclear warhead manufacturing capacity at the end of the Cold War, once the U.S. had destroyed its W-88 warheads, the Russians would have no fear that the Americans could clandestinely build more of these warheads at a later time.

As stated in the main article, both the French and British governments have already chosen a deterrent nuclear strategy. Currently, the British deploy the American Trident-2 missiles aboard their 4 submarines (each with 16 missile tubes, with each missile carrying 3 warheads). The French will shortly deploy their M-5.1 SLBM with the same number of submarines and missiles as the British, but with twice as many warheads. These missiles will have bascially the same characteristics and capability as the Trident-2. However, the British Trident-2 and the French M-5.1 SLBMs will carry only the "light" 100 kiloton warheads. The French also have three dozen bombers on alert (each with one 300 kiloton bomb), but as previously stated, they are too slow to be a first strike threat. All the United States has to do is follow their lead and the hair-trigger posture of both nuclear superpowers would come to an end. The world will become safe! Of course, many other problems remain, but the danger of accidental nuclear war would pass into history.

To summarize the two-part solution:

1.) The U.S. must eliminate all its land-based missiles and

2.) U.S. submarine SLBMs must only carry "light" warheads.

The Russians don't have to do anything. Once they're aware of these changes, neither the U.S. nor Russia would have any reason to remain on LOW (launch on warning), as neither country would have first-strike capability.

The above essay is this author's solution to the danger of accidental nuclear war. However, there is one, final consideration.There is no objective way to calculate exactly what the probability of accidental nuclear war is. Over time, this author feels that the danger is very high. Many other people may feel that the probability is quite low, though very few would claim it's non-existent. Who knows, maybe they are right. But even assuming that those who claim the odds of an accidental nuclear war are very small are correct, this does not change the logic of following the British and French nuclear strategic doctrine. If the Americans follow the example of the British and French, and the danger of accidental nuclear war is actually very low, they would lose nothing. On the other hand, if the danger of an accidental nuclear war is very high, then by eliminating the land-based missiles and "heavy" submarine warheads, America and the world would gain everything.

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Other articles by George Simmons Roth:
From 2009: The Fallacy of Major Convetional War in the Nuclear Age
From 2011: The Dangerous Delusion of Nuclear Missile Defense

Books by George Simmons Roth:
From 2007: Battle in Outer Space

"A Simple Solution For Accidental Nuclear War" is ©2006 by George Simmons Roth

All contents of Crazed Fanboy and Nolan's Pop Culture Review are ©2006 by Nolan B. Canova

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