A new nuclear arms race has begun

Mikhail Gorbachev
The New York Times, October 25, 2018

Over 30 years ago, President Ronald Reagan and I signed in Washington the United States-Soviet Treaty on the elimination of intermediate- and shorter-range missiles. For the first time in history, two classes of nuclear weapons were to be eliminated and destroyed.

This was a first step. It was followed in 1991 by the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, which the Soviet Union signed with President George H.W. Bush, our agreement on radical cuts in tactical nuclear arms, and the New Start Treaty, signed by the presidents of Russia and the United States in 2010.

There are still too many nuclear weapons in the world, but the American and Russian arsenals are now a fraction of what they were during the Cold War. At the Nuclear Nonproliferation Review Conference in 2015, Russia and the United States reported to the international community that 85 percent of those arsenals had been decommissioned and, for the most part, destroyed.

Today, this tremendous accomplishment, of which our two nations can be rightfully proud, is in jeopardy. President Trump announced last week the United States’ plan to withdraw from the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty and his country’s intention to build up nuclear arms.

I am being asked whether I feel bitter watching the demise of what I worked so hard to achieve. But this is not a personal matter. Much more is at stake.

A new arms race has been announced. The I.N.F. Treaty is not the first victim of the militarization of world affairs. In 2002, the United States withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty; this year, from the Iran nuclear deal. Military expenditures have soared to astronomical levels and keep rising.

As a pretext for the withdrawal from the I.N.F. Treaty, the United States invoked Russia’s alleged violations of some of the treaty’s provisions. Russia has raised similar concerns regarding American compliance, at the same time proposing to discuss the issues at the negotiating table to find a mutually acceptable solution. But over the past few years, the United States has been avoiding such discussion. I think it is now clear why.

With enough political will, any problems of compliance with the existing treaties could be resolved. But as we have seen during the past two years, the president of the United States has a very different purpose in mind. It is to release the United States from any obligations, any constraints, and not just regarding nuclear missiles.

The United States has in effect taken the initiative in destroying the entire system of international treaties and accords that served as the underlying foundation for peace and security following World War II.

Yet I am convinced that those who hope to benefit from a global free-for-all are deeply mistaken. There will be no winner in a “war of all against all” — particularly if it ends in a nuclear war. And that is a possibility that cannot be ruled out. An unrelenting arms race, international tensions, hostility and universal mistrust will only increase the risk.

This is the time to expand, not abandon, an important nuclear weapons agreement with Russia.

Is it too late to return to dialogue and negotiations? I don’t want to lose hope. I hope that Russia will take a firm but balanced stand. I hope that America’s allies will, upon sober reflection, refuse to be launchpads for new American missiles. I hope the United Nations, and particularly members of its Security Council, vested by the United Nations Charter with primary responsibility for maintaining international peace and security, will take responsible action.

Faced with this dire threat to peace, we are not helpless. We must not resign, we must not surrender.

Mr. Gorbachev is the former president of the Soviet Union.

In a similar op-ed, George P. Shultz, a secretary of state in the Reagan administration, wrote, “Now is not the time to build larger arsenals of nuclear weapons. Now is the time to rid the world of this threat. Leaving the treaty would be a huge step backward. We should fix it, not kill it.”

– PeaceMeal, Nov/December 2018

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)


Artificial intelligence, cyberattack, and nuclear weapons — a dangerous combination

Pavel Sharikov

Pavel Sharikov is a senior research fellow at the Institute for USA and Canada Studies at the Russian Academy of Sciences. He also teaches as an associate professor at Moscow State University.

The development of computers has reached such a sophisticated level that some computers and applications have to teach themselves to some extent, an approach that is called machine learning technology, or artificial intelligence (AI). Self-learning machines may be taught to execute different functions, including those related to military purposes on strategic, tactical and operational levels. The military use of artificial intelligence can increase the possibility of war in a number of ways, for example, by allowing more targets for computer hacking or threatening critical infrastructure.

There are only three countries which are reported to be developing serious military AI technologies: the United States, China and Russia. The use of AI can provide a significant military advantage to a nation’s military. Military AI may be used as a part of an offensive cyberattack capability to damage or destroy an opponent’s computer network – an especially alarming develop-ment, as it has a strong potential to be a destabilizing element to the balance of power.

A new Cold War, with a cyber twist

The cyberthreat problem is of special concern in Russia-US relations. Cybersecurity – protecting a nation’s hardware, software and data against attack – has become another issue in bilateral relations on a par with the problems of nuclear arms control.

Today, the owners of the largest stockpiles of nuclear weapons, Russia and the United States, are living through a crisis, where many of the traditional contacts between the two countries (including military ones) have ceased, making for one more element upsetting the model of mutual assured destruction (MAD) that had provided so much of the stability and predictability that existed in the past. Indeed, a confrontation similar to that of the Cold War is coming back, destabilizing the entire international system. And due to the existence of new technologies (including cyber and AI), this new form of standoff becomes much less predictable and much more dangerous from what we have known before.

This new arms race already may have begun, but in the technological field rather than the nuclear one. Artificial Intelligence may be especially dangerous in combination with other information technologies – cloud computing, big data and the Internet.

In my view, this cyberthreat has at least four elements: the source of attack; the means of attack; the target of attack; and the defenses against attack. Each of them should be considered in working out cybersecurity strategies.

The source of attack

Because the United States, China, and Russia are the countries most actively pursuing AI military capabilities, it is logical to assume that the most likely source of attack would originate from within these countries or their close allies. According to the information available, AI is a priority in the national security strategies of all three countries, which are each trying to develop their own comprehensive approach to using AI for military purposes on all levels – strategic, tactical and operational.

In the United States, AI is considered a strategic priority for the Defense Department, and one “that could transform the way the department operates.” This objective clearly demonstrates the fact that AI technologies are a top priority in national security, and that these technologies are likely to become part of a new arms race. That is why, in 2018, the Defense Department announced creation of the Joint Artificial Intelligence Center (JAIC), and why it currently conducts 592 projects that involve some form of AI.

The Chinese approach to AI capabilities in the military is more operational in its approach, focusing less on basic fundamental research and development in comparison with the United States. And the Chinese approach seems more focused on dealing with tactical rather than strategic problems. The Chinese military is pursuing relatively low-tech approaches in its use of AI, such as the use of large swarms of unmanned aerial vehicles on the battlefield in order to offset the high-tech prowess of its rivals. China is also pursuing smart weapons and autonomous robotic soldiers.

In Russia, AI development is apparently not as advanced, though it is hard to be certain. Little is known beyond the official pronouncement in the Russian Military Encyclopedia that the priorities of AI include “creation of knowledge systems, neuro-systems and systems of heuristic search” – though what that statement means in a boots-on-the-ground sense is unclear.

Means of attack

There are a variety of ways in which AI can be used as both a strategic and a tactical offensive weapon. High-performance computers can be used to attack and disrupt strategic military targets as well as critical infrastructure. For obvious reasons, such research is highly classified. But while we do not know the details about how today’s automated systems might be used as a means of attack, we can make some general observations about the field as a whole. While the Cold War nuclear arms race was about quantity and quality of warheads, the cyberweapons arms race will be about maintaining informational (machine learning) superiority over the enemy.

In a report for the non-partisan governmental agency, Congressional Research Service, researchers Daniel Hadley and Nathan Lucas outlined a comprehensive list of areas in which this advantage could be applied for military purposes: intelligence, logistics, cyberspace, command and control, autonomous vehicles, and lethal autonomous weapon systems (LAWS). Nearly all of them may be used to enhance the scale and speed of a cyberattack.

To this list, two other possible AI cyberoffensive technologies can be added. One is infiltration, that is, autonomous agents capable of “remembering” the information gathered during reconnaissance and using it to plan an infiltration path. And the other is the use of swarms – sets of decentralized, cooperating, autonomous agents that can form a whole new kind of botnet where there is no need for a centralized command and control. In a sense, these technologies show how human hackers can be replaced with software that can heal its own bugs and vulnerabilities, while simultaneously searching for and exploiting bugs in adversary systems.

The applicability of existing international laws to AI weapons was discussed at a recent meeting of the UN Group of Governmental Experts. While there was no consensus about lethal autonomous weapons systems, there was a general understanding that human intelligence should remain as the key decision maker on the battlefield. At the same time, this is not a cure-all. If AI lethal weapons systems will not be autonomous but controlled by humans, there still remains the chance that the adversary may hack and misuse these technologies. The bottom line is that it is important to work out new rules of engagement, in order not to make the new arms race uncontrollable.

Targets of the attack

The most dangerous feature of an AI cyberattack is that it may target civilian infrastructure as well as military targets. The problem is that, because this infrastructure is most likely to be commercial and hence not subject to government control, it is likely to be less secure and more vulnerable. It is easier for potential attackers to find these vulnerabilities, and harder for the government to guarantee security from them. Artificial intelli-gence, together with big data analysis, may be used to figure out the most vulnerable infrastructure or choose the best timing to make an attack most catastrophic.

Of all the possible targets for a cyberattack, arguably the most worrisome is the use of AI to target nuclear weapon command and control systems. There is no evidence today that military nuclear facilities may be attacked by cyberweapons, but one should never exclude such a possibility. Besides, the problem may not only be about unauthorized access, but also about compromising the systems, deceiving the computers, or sending false signals.

Such actions interfere with the underlying principles of Mutually Assured Destruction and, as such, could provoke either Russia or the United States to launch a nuclear attack based on false data. Logically, neither Russia nor the United States would have such intentions, but a third party may. And a third party is not necessarily a nation, but could be a non-state actor, such as Al Qaeda. The fact that nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missiles are still ready to launch in both the United States and Russia within minutes after an order is given makes the probability dangerously more likely.

Defense against cyberattacks

The whole process of ensuring cybersecurity is very dynamic. Unlike conventional and even nuclear weapons, cyberoffense is constantly changing, and hence the defense against it also must be constantly developing. A robust cyberdefense is the one that can adjust to the constantly changing environment. Defense against an AI cyberattack, especially from an autonomous system like a bot, often requires novel solutions; consequently, the defense has to be self-learning, so it can learn the specifics of an offensive technology.

Deterring a cyberthreat is very different from deterring a nuclear attack. First of all, cyberthreats as well as cyber-vulnerabilities are asymmetrical, which means that no parity can be reached. Nuclear weapons can be counted by the number of warheads, launchers and delivery vehicles, while there are hardly any indicators that allow comparing AI capabilities. Second, the threat must be credible, so that the enemy is sure that either its attack would be ineffective or retaliation would be destructive.

In order to make sure that the threat is credible, a weapon must be either tested or used. But if a cyberweapon is actually demonstrated, then the enemy may create a remedy and the offender would lose superiority. The idea of cyberdeterrence, therefore, is nearly unfeasible. So, the artificial intelligence arms race, rather than being about cyberdeterrence, is about achieving and maintaining superiority in getting and analyzing information and making decisions.

Our cyberfuture?

Even though it is impossible to reverse the advances of AI development, it is still possible to work out the rules of an arms race involving thie technology. In this regard, it is worth thinking about the experience of Soviet-American agreements when anti-ballistic missile technologies were introduced in the 1970s. Instead of getting into an arms race centered around this new technology, the Soviet Union and the United States instead agreed to forego development and accept mutual vulnerability, thus preventing both parties from a nuclear attack. This logic was used in the ABM treaty and remained an element of strategic stability until 2002, when the George W. Bush administration unilaterally withdrew from the treaty.

Policy makers together with technical experts may think about similar vulnerabilities to prevent a cyber AI attack. It is critical to work out similar rules of engagement, taking into thorough consideration the specifics of artificial intelligence, where the problem of verification is nearly impossible. AI technology threats should be explored as a part of the national security strategy.

The international community should be involved in working out the international norms of using AI technologies. Deploying artificial intelligence technologies in the armed forces requires strong public-private partnership, thus allowing for the outside world to somewhat see what is going on in the secretive world of military AI.

It is also important to note that military AI research and development must remain under total government in order to exclude unauthorized use of an attack, and it must also remain transparent to civil society to the extent possible.

Google has published a set of AI principles, which remind me of Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics: “A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm. A robot must obey orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.” These three precepts can serve as a useful tool in determining the moral guidelines for research into artificial intelligence.

The most concerning element of AI use in the military is how it integrates artificial intelligence into the decision-making process. In a crisis situation, when the decision should be made quickly, AI may make a decision that would lead to escalation of a conflict, rather than its resolution.

– edited from Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, October 2018
PeaceMeal, Nov/December 2018

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)


U.S. general considered nuclear weapons in Vietnam War

In one of the darkest moments of the Vietnam War, the top American military commander in Saigon activated a plan in 1968 to move nuclear weapons to South Vietnam until he was overruled by President Lyndon B. Johnson, according to recently declas-sified documents cited in a new history of wartime presidential decisions. The documents reveal a long-secret set of preparations by Gen. William C. Westmoreland to have nuclear weapons at hand in case American forces found themselves on the brink of defeat at Khe Sanh, one of the fiercest battles of the war.

With the approval of the American commander in the Pacific, General Westmoreland had put together a secret operation, code-named Fracture Jaw, that included moving nuclear weapons into South Vietnam so that they could be used on short notice. President Johnson’s national security adviser, Walt W. Rostow, sent an “eyes only” memo-randum alerting the president, who rejected the plan and ordered a turnaround.

“Discontinue all planning for Fracture Jaw,” he commanded in a February 12, 1968, cable to General Westmoreland, with copies to the Joint Chiefs of Staff. “Debrief all personnel with access to this planning project that there can be no disclosure of the content of the plan or knowledge that such planning was either underway or suspended.”

Tom Johnson, then a young special assistant to the president, said in an interview, “When he learned that the planning had been set in motion, he was extraordinarily upset and forcefully sent word through Rostow, and I think directly to Westmoreland, to shut it down.” He said the president’s fear was “a wider war” in which the Chinese would enter the fray, as they had in Korea in 1950. “Johnson never fully trusted his generals,” said Mr. Johnson, who is no relation to the president. “He had great admiration for General Westmoreland, but he didn’t want his generals to run the war.”

The story of how close the United States came to reaching for nuclear weapons in Vietnam is contained in Presidents of War, a new book by presidential historian Michael Beschloss.

“Johnson certainly made serious mistakes in waging the Vietnam War,” said Mr. Beschloss, who found the documents during his research for the book, “but we have to thank him for making sure that there was no chance in early 1968 of that tragic conflict going nuclear.” Had nuclear weapons been used, it would have added to the horrors of one of the most tumultuous and violent years in modern American history.

Mr. Beschloss’s book also reveals that at the same time the nuclear debate was underway, senators were outraged to discover that the president and his aides had misled them about progress in the Vietnam War. The chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, J. William Fulbright, Democrat of Arkansas, told his fellow senators that “we were just plain lied to,” and that the lying meant that the United States had lost “a form of democracy,” according to transcripts obtained by Mr. Beschloss. There was even discussion of the possibility of impeaching the president for those lies. That discussion was terminated by Johnson’s decision, announced later that spring, not to seek re-election.

– edited from The New York Times, October 6, 2018
PeaceMeal, Nov/December 2018

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)


Mini-nukes are still a horrible and dangerous idea

Perhaps the most dangerous weapons program the United States government has recently pursued is a low-yield nuclear warhead for submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs). The arguments against development of such “small nukes” are overwhelmingly compelling. In short, the availability of “small” nuclear warheads increases the likelihood that nuclear weapons will be used, and any use of nuclear weapons easily could (some experts might say “inevitably would”) lead to general nuclear war and the end of civilization.

In the last year, however, the Trump administration released a Nuclear Posture Review calling for development of such a warhead. Congress subsequently passed a defense authorization act that includes money for the program, and another bill allocates millions in the Energy Department budget specifically for pursuit of the new warhead.

A group of congressional Democrats introduced bills in the House and Senate in September that would prohibit the Trump administration from following through on the low-yield, submarine-launched nuke. The congressmen made stirring and sensible comments in support of the small nuke ban. California Rep. Ted Lieu said, “There’s no such thing as a low-yield nuclear war. Use of any nuclear weapon, regardless of its killing power, could be catastrophically destabilizing. It opens the door for severe miscalculation and could drag the U.S. and our allies into a devastating nuclear conflict.”

Lieu and his colleagues (and the many military leaders who oppose a sub-launched mini-nuke for all sorts of intelligent reasons) are right. Regardless, there is essentially zero chance the bill banning the low-yield warhead will even be considered in the current Republican-controlled Congress.

But politics change over time. It would be good for the country and the world if major news media focused prominently on the extreme danger the low-yield nuclear warhead program poses. The risk of that program is not theoretical, and the result, if such weapons are developed and fielded, could be truly catastrophic.

The more people become aware of the threat that mini-nukes pose to them, their children, and the planet, the more likely that this misbegotten program can be defunded and put back on the shelf of bad ideas, where it belongs and should stay.

– edited from an article by John Mecklin, editor of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, September 19, 2018
PeaceMeal, Sept/October 2018

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)


2018 Nuclear Posture Review: Dr. Strangelove in the Pentagon

The new Trump Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) report is remarkably different in tone and tenor from its 2010 predecessor, which emphasized nuclear terrorism and nonproliferation as threats. The 2018 NPR places the emphasis on the nuclear forces themselves. It lays out a long-term plan for the United States to develop, test and deploy new nuclear weapons and delivery systems: a new Columbia-class ballistic missile submarine, a new intercontinental ballistic missile, a new long-range bomber, and new air-launched and sea-launched cruise missiles. Included are the nuclear command, control and communication network (NC3) and the plutonium, uranium and tritium production facilities overseen by the National Nuclear Security Administration. The size of the nuclear stockpile is also to be increased. In total, it adds up to a new arms race with other world powers.

The Obama-era predecessor to Trump’s NPR contained an entire section entitled “Reducing the Role of U.S. Nuclear Weapons.” It outlined “a narrow set of contingencies in which such weaponry might still play a role in deterring a conventional or CBW [chemical or biological weapons] attack against the United States or its allies and partners.” But in 2010, to obtain Senate ratification of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty President Obama signed with Russia, he agreed to pour $1 trillion over three decades into the “modernization” of the nuclear triad. That pledge shaped his 2017 defense budget request, leaving Trump a costly nuclear legacy which his new Nuclear Posture Review fleshes out and expands.

The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute estimates that the United States devoted $611 billion to its military machine in 2016. That was more than the defense expenditures of the next nine countries combined, almost three times what second-place China spent. Yet reading the NPR, you would think the United States is the most vulnerable country on Earth. Threats lurk everywhere and, worse yet, they’re multiplying, morphing, becoming ever more ominous. The more Washington spends on glitzy weaponry, the less secure the U.S. turns out to be, which, for any organization other than the Pentagon, would be considered a terrible return on investment.

The Trump NPR unwittingly paints Russia as the epitome of efficient investment, so numerous, varied and effective are the “capabilities” it has acquired in the 17 years since Vladimir Putin took power. Though similar claims are made about China and North Korea, Putin’s Russia comes across in the NPR as the threat of the century, a country racing ahead of the U.S. in the develop-ment of nuclear weaponry, even though it has an annual military budget of only $69 billion — $10 billion less than what Congress just added to the already staggering 2018 Pentagon budget.

The Nuclear Posture Review also focuses on Russia’s supposed willingness to launch “limited” nuclear strikes to win conventional wars, which makes the Russians seem particularly insidious. Of course, the United States has no reason to fear a massive defeat in a conventional war. And what country would attack the American homeland with nuclear, chemical or biological weapons and not expect massive nuclear retaliation?

Russian nuclear weapons, however, are not the Nuclear Posture Review’s main focus. Instead, it makes an elaborate case for a massive expansion and “modernization” of the U.S. arsenal so that an American commander-in-chief has a “diverse set of nuclear capabilities that provide… flexibility to tailor the approach to deterring one or more potential adversaries in different circumstances.”

The NPR insists that future presidents must have advanced “low-yield” or “useable” nuclear weapons to wield for limited, selective strikes. The stated goal: to convince adversaries of the foolishness of threatening or, for that matter, launching their own limited strikes against the American nuclear arsenal in hopes of extracting “concessions” from us. This is where Strangelovian logic and nuclear absurdity take over. What state in its right mind would launch such an attack, leaving the bulk of the U.S. strategic nuclear force — some 1,550 deployed warheads — intact?

The document gets even loonier. It seeks to provide the commander-in-chief with nuclear options for repelling non-nuclear attacks against the United States or its allies, even to punish massive cyberattacks. Presidents, insists the NPR, require “a range of flexible nuclear capabilities” so that adversaries will never doubt that “we will defeat non-nuclear attacks.” But if Washington were to cross that nuclear boundary and launch a “limited” strike during a conventional war, it would be entering unknown territory. Concepts like “limited nuclear war” and “nuclear blackmail” may be interesting to kick around in war-college seminars, but trying them out in the real world could produce disaster.

The Trump-era Pentagon — the NPR’s protests to the contrary — seeks to lower the threshold for use of nuclear weapons. “Selective,” “limited,” “low yield”: these phrases may sound reassuring, but no one should be misled by the antiseptic termino-logy and soothing caveats. Even “tactical” nuclear weapons are anything but tactical in any normal sense. The bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki might, in terms of explosive power, qualify as “tactical” by today’s standards, but would be similarly devastating if used in an urban area. But not to worry, the NPR’s authors say, their proposals are not meant to encourage “nuclear war fighting” and won’t have that effect.

Behind the new policies to make nuclear weapons more “useable” lurks a familiar urge to spend taxpayer dollars profligately. A November 2017 Congressional Budget Office report projects that President Trump’s nuclear modernization plan will cost $1.2 trillion over three decades, while other estimates put the full price at $1.7 trillion. The NPR’s case for a three-decade spending spree rests on the claim that the “flexible and tailored” choices it deems non-negotiable don’t presently exist, although the document itself concedes that they do. The NPR actually touts the lethality, range and invulnerability of the existing U.S. arsenal of missiles and bombers — an admission that the colossally expensive nuclear modernization program it deems so urgent isn’t necessary for United States national security.

If the Pentagon turns its Nuclear Posture Review into reality, the first president who will have some of those more “flexible” nuclear options at his command will be none other than Donald Trump. We’re talking about the man who, in his debut speech to the United Nations last September, threatened to “totally destroy” North Korea and later, as the crisis on the Korean peninsula heated up, delighted in boasting on Twitter about the size of his “nuclear button.” He has shown himself to be impulsive, ill informed, impervious to advice, certain about his instincts, and infatuated with demonstrating his toughness, as well as reportedly fascinated by nuclear weapons and keen to see the U.S. build more of them.

Should a leader with such traits be given more nuclear “flexibility”? Making it easier for Trump to use nuclear weapons isn’t, as the Nuclear Posture Review would have us believe, a savvy strategic innovation. It’s insanity.

Edited from an article by Rajan Menon on TomDispatch.com, February 25, 2018, and reprinted in PeaceMeal, May/June 2018. Menon is the Anne and Bernard Spitzer Professor of International Relations at the Powell School, City College of New York, and Senior Research Fellow at Columbia University’s Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies.

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)


How a nuclear attack order is carried out now

If the president is not at the White House or other location with secure communication, he or she would use the so-called “nuclear football” to order the use of nuclear weapons. The football, or Presidential Emergency Satchel, contains items including a book laying out various attack options—from striking a small number of military targets to launching an all-out attack against Russian nuclear forces, military installations, leadership facilities, military industry and economic centers. The football is carried by a military aide who stays near the president at all times.

The president carries a card called the “biscuit,” with a code that changes periodically and would be used to authenticate a launch order. To order the use of nuclear weapons, either a first strike or in retaliation, the president would call the Pentagon’s National Military Command Center—known as the War Room, read the code on the biscuit to confirm that he or she is indeed the president, and specify what attack option to use.

After confirming the president’s identity, the Command Center would send an encrypted launch order to aircraft pilots, the underground crews that launch land-based missiles, and/or the submarine crews that launch submarine-based missiles.

For land-based missiles, it would be a matter of minutes from the presidential order to when missiles would leave their silos. If the War Room is unable to function during a crisis, the War Room’s role is taken over by Strategic Command.

To prevent a rash and catastrophic judgment by a president, a proposal has been made to require approval of a nuclear attack order by two officials in the line of presidential succession.

– edited from Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, January 23, 2018
PeaceMeal, March/April 2018

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Doomsday Clock at two minutes to midnight

2018 Doomsday Clock.JPG (9810 bytes)The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has moved the hands of its symbolic Doomsday Clock to two minutes to midnight, indicating that the world is the closest to possible nuclear Armageddon since the height of the Cold War in 1953.

The Science and Security Board of the Bulletin, a group of experts who made the adjustment to the clock, pointed to rising nuclear tensions between the United States and North Korea, specifically “hyperbolic rhetoric and provocative actions on both sides.” The group, which was founded in 1945 by Manhattan Project scientists, specifically notes “the decline of U.S. leadership and a related demise of diplomacy under the Trump administration” as a global concern and a reason for this year’s step closer to midnight.

In addition, major nuclear actors are on the cusp of a new arms race, one that will be very expensive and will increase the likelihood of accidents and misperceptions. Across the globe, nuclear weapons are poised to become more usable rather than less usable because of nations’ investments in their nuclear arsenals.

The Doomsday Clock adjustment highlights the need for nuclear risk reduction measures, such as those being advanced by Senator Ed Markey, co-president of Parliamentarians for Nuclear Non-proliferation and Disarmament. Markey has introduced legislation into the Senate (with companion legislation introduced in the House) to restrict the authority of the President to launch a nuclear attack without first consulting Congress.

Markey has also organized joint congressional letters to the U.S. Secretaries of State, Defense and Energy calling on the current Nuclear Posture Review to include measures to lower nuclear threat postures, reduce the risk of nuclear weapons use, and advance the goal of the global elimination of nuclear weapons.

In May, the United Nations General Assembly will hold the first ever High-Level Conference on Nuclear Disarmament. In light of the increased risks of nuclear war, this conference has become even more important than when it was first proposed to the U.N. five years ago. World leaders participating in this event should be encouraged — and will be expected — to take action to reduce these risks and advance nuclear disarmament.

– edited from Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, January 25, 2018
PeaceMeal, Jan/February 2018

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)


Hawaii false alarm hints at thin line between accident and nuclear war

Nuclear experts are warning, using some of their most urgent language since President Trump took office, that Hawaii’s false alarm, in which state agencies alerted locals to a nonexistent missile attack, underscores a growing risk of unintended nuclear war with North Korea. To understand the connection, which might not be obvious, we need to go back to the tragedy of Korean Air Lines Flight 007.

In 1983, a Korean airliner bound from Anchorage to Seoul, South Korea, strayed into Soviet airspace. Air defense officers, mistaking it for an American spy plane that had been loitering nearby, tried to establish contact. They fired warning shots. When no response came, they shot it down, killing all 269 people on board.

But the graver lesson may be what happened next. Though it was quickly evident that the downing had been a mistake, mutual distrust and the logic of nuclear deterrence — more so than the deaths themselves — set Washington and Moscow heading toward a conflict neither wanted.

The story illustrated how imperfect information, aggressive defense postures and minutes-long response times brought both sides hurtling toward possible nuclear war — a set of dynamics that can feel disconcertingly familiar today.

Nuclear-armed missiles had recently achieved a level of speed and capability so that one power could completely disarm another in a matter of minutes. This created what’s called first-strike instability, in which firing first — even if you think you might be firing in error — is the only way to be sure of preventing your own obliteration.

The result was that the United States and the Soviet Union repeatedly went to the brink of war over provocations or even technical misreadings. Often, officials had mere minutes to decide whether to retaliate against seemingly real or impending attacks without being able to fully verify whether an attack was actually underway. In the logic of nuclear deterrence, firing would have been the rational choice.

That dynamic is heightened with North Korea, which is thought to have only a few dozen warheads and so must fire them immediately to prevent their destruction in the event of war.

“Today’s false alarm in Hawaii is a reminder of the big risks we continue to run by relying on nuclear deterrence/prompt launch nuclear posture,” Kingston Reif, an analyst with the Arms Control Association, wrote, referring to the strategy of firing quickly in a war. “And while deterring/containing North Korea is far preferable to preventive war, it’s not risk free. And it could fail.”

If similar misunderstandings seem implausible today, consider that an initial White House statement called Hawaii’s alert an exercise — though state officials say it was operator error. Consider that 38 minutes elapsed before emergency systems sent a second message announcing the mistake. If even Washington was misreading events, the confusion in Pyongyang must have been far greater.

Had the turmoil unfolded during a major crisis or period of heightened threats, North Korean leaders could have misread the Hawaiian warning as cover for an attack, much as the Soviets had done in 1983. American officials have been warning for weeks that they might attack North Korea. Though some analysts consider this a likely bluff, officials in Pyongyang have little room for error.

Unlike in 1983, no one died in Hawaii’s false alarm. But deaths are not necessary for a mistake to lead to war. Just three months after the airliner was shot down, a Soviet early warning system falsely registered a massive American launch. Nuclear war may have only been averted because the Soviet officer in charge, operating purely on a hunch, reported it as an error.

North Korea is far more vulnerable than the Soviet Union was to a nuclear strike, giving its officers an even narrower window to judge events and even greater incentive to fire first. And, unlike the Soviets, who maintained global watch systems and spy networks, North Korea operates in relative blindness.

For all the power of nuclear weapons, scholars say their gravest dangers come from the uncertainty they create and the fallibility of human operators, who must read every signal perfectly for mutual deterrence to hold.

William J. Perry, a defense secretary under President Bill Clinton, called the false alarm in Hawaii a reminder that “the risk of accidental nuclear war is not hypothetical — accidents have happened in the past, and humans will err again.”

Mr. Reagan concluded the same, writing in his memoirs, “The KAL incident demonstrated how close the world had come to the nuclear precipice and how much we needed nuclear arms control.”

Mikhail Gorbachev, who soon after took over the Soviet Union, had the same response, later telling the journalist David Hoffman, “A war could start not because of a political decision, but just because of some technical failure.”

Mr. Gorbachev and Mr. Reagan reduced their country’s stockpiles and repeatedly sought, though never quite reached, an agreement to banish nuclear weapons from the world.

But Mr. Trump and North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, remain locked in 1983, issuing provocations and threats of nuclear strikes on push-button alert, gambling that their luck — and ours — will continue to hold.

– edited from an article by Max Fisher in the New York Times, January 14, 2018
PeaceMeal, Jan/February 2018

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