Inspirations: Living in a nuclear-armed world

  • There have been many false alarms that could have led to nuclear retaliation.
  • A chance of large-scale disarmament was missed in the mid-1990s, when US-Russia relations were good.
  • Former US Defence Secretary William J Perry thinks nuclear catastrophe is likelier now than during the Cold War.
  • American and Russian missile systems remain on a hairtrigger, while China would take longer to retaliate.


William Perry in 2012, photographed by Glenn Fawcett (Reguyla [Wikimedia Commons])

In November 1979, US undersecretary for defence William J Perry took a call from the watch officer at North American Air Defence Command.

the first thing he told me was that his computers were showing two hundred Soviet ICBMs on their way from the Soviet Union to the United States…for one heartstopping moment, I thought we were about to, to see the end of civilisation.

You don’t get trusted in command of NORAD unless you can keep a cool head, and the watch officer immediately added that he thought it was an error. Perry passed his assessment up the chain of command, the president did not order a retaliatory nuclear strike on the Soviet Union, and the end of civilisation was averted.

It was later established that someone had accidentally left a training tape in the system, which ran a simulation intended for a training exercise.

Yeltsin’s flashing briefcase

On 25th January 1995, Boris Yeltsin’s briefcase started flashing. Not his regular briefcase, but the briefcase containing the communications equipment that connected him to the Russian nuclear missile network. Something had activated the early warning system that had been put in place during the recently ended Cold War. In fact, it was only one contact


US Air Force Titan missile silo, now a museum (Aaron Headly [CC / Flickr])

over the Barents Sea. Yeltsin had less than ten minutes to consult with his advisors. Presumably they concluded that no one was likely to attack Russia with a single missile because they did not respond.

It was later established that the contact was not a missile at all, but a Norwegian rocket carrying a scientific mission to study the aurora borealis.

If you were following the last few pontifications, you may have noticed my developing an interest in the worlds’ nuclear arsenals and their capabilities and the more I learn, the less comfortable I get. I talked about the likely effects of a nuclear exchange and also about the potential of nuclear bombs for the more peaceful role of launching spacecraft. I recently ran across a couple of BBC podcasts that had more to say about the nuclear situation today. One was an episode of Radio 4’s Analysis titled Atom Man covering an interview with William J Perry, who has been engaged with US nuclear defence policy in business, government and academia since the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis and remains as engaged as ever at the age of 89. The other is an episode of the World Service’s Inquiry titled How Do you Launch a Nuclear Missile? covering the American, Russian, British and Chinese procedures for firing their nuclear arsenals.

The source has a double significance: the latter podcast mentions that one way the Royal Navy’s patrolling missile submarines use to confirm that Britain has not been wiped out is that Radio 4 and the World Service are still being broadcast.

The great missed opportunity

A recurring theme in the history of nuclear standoff was the monumental missed opportunity in the mid-1990s. No less a figure than Carl Sagan urged that it should be


Decommissioned Soviet Missile Base near Pervomaysk, Ukraine (Clay Gilliland [CC / Flickr])

seized and Perry, who was the US Secretary of Defence from 1994-1997, sounds equally frustrated when he talks about how far nuclear disarmament went and where it stopped. When he took office, there was what he called a ‘loose nukes problem’: much of the former Soviet nuclear arsenal was deployed in the newly independent states of Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan, whose fledgling armies lacked the command structure which had been retained by the Russian army. Perry’s fear was that in the confusion following the breakup of the Soviet Union, some of the warheads would find their way into the hands of rogue states or terrorist organisations.

It was also a high point in diplomatic relations between the USA and Russia. The Russian army was participating in NATO-led peacekeeping operations in Bosnia and the Russian minister for defence was attending NATO meetings. The former Cold War enemies co-operated in the dismantling of more than 4,000 former Soviet warheads and the uranium and plutonium, blended in Russia, was exported to the USA where it still powers more than half of America’s nuclear power stations. At the same time, Perry oversaw the dismantling of a similar number of American warheads.

Perry believes that relations with Russia could have taken a very different path if successive American governments had not taken the new improved relationship with Russia for granted. The first mistake was in the eastward expansion of NATO,


USAF MGM-13 Mace cruise missile, operational between 1959 and 1975 (US Air Force [Wikimedia Commons])

incorporating most of the Eastern European nations that had recently been members of the Warsaw Pact. Where the American and Western European governments saw enemies becoming friends, Russia saw the American sphere of influence expanding toward its border.

The return of Star Wars

Worse was to come when, in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, the government of George W Bush withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. Signed in 1972, the treaty formed an agreement between the USSR and USA to limit their development of missile defence systems. It was intended to preserve the delicate balance of mutually assured destruction: if one side developed an effective defence system, they would be able to attack the other without fear of retaliation. The other side would then have a strong reason to launch a pre-emptive strike before the missile shield was complete.

Bush’s reasons for withdrawing from the treaty was the fear of a missile being launched from one of the USA’s enemies in the Middle East but once again, Perry believes the government had failed to consider how the USA’s actions would be interpreted in Russia. A defence shield over what was now the world’s largest nuclear arsenal would place the USA in a position of global domination that centuries of dictators have only dreamed of. At the same time, the new government of Vladimir Putin was dominated by men who were the products of the Soviet era, who had no wish to see their own nuclear deterrent rendered irrelevant by the country they had spent their careers deterring.

Today, the idea of a missile shield remains as speculative as when Ronald Reagan was


Tupolev Tu-160 nuclear bombers (Dmitry Terekhov [CC / Flickr])

proposing the Strategic Defence Initiative, derisively dubbed ‘Star Wars’, but the mere fact that the Bush government was entertaining the idea looked like sabre-rattling when viewed from Moscow. Putin and US president Donald Trump have both been talking about expanding their nuclear arsenals recently, suggesting that another nuclear arms race may be imminent.

Perry said that the US-Russia deadlock has now reached the stage where further disarmament is a political impossibility, and that much of the US military’s ageing nuclear arsenal will need to be modernised if it is not to be dismantled. He hopes that the modernisation program will not include the ballistic missiles, presumably because they are the main threat to Russia and so are most likely to trigger an arms race.

The greatest chance of catastrophe

Perry quoted John F Kennedy as saying he believed that during the Cuban Missile Crisis, there was one chance in three of a nuclear war. He added that based on what he now knows, he believes Kennedy’s assessment was optimistic. Yet he also said:

The danger of some kind of nuclear catastrophe is greater than it was during the cold war.

That is chilling.

He does not say that the greatest danger comes from deteriorating relations between Washington and Moscow, although he does not rule it out. The ‘poster child for regional nuclear war has to be Pakistan and India’. Relations between them have varied from frosty to open warfare over the last fifty years, and now they have around 100 warheads each. That is sufficient to kill tens of millions of people if they are used, and to cause a nuclear winter that will be felt around the world.

A further concern of Perry’s is the danger of nuclear terrorism. He made a short film titled Nuclear Nightmare DC to describe how such an attack might play out:

It carefully avoids suggesting where such an attack might come from, although the idea of a rogue faction getting hold of a weapon from an unsecured facility inevitably brings Iran to mind. It’s also significant that in the scenario he describes, the collapse of government and imposition of martial law is at least as destructive as the nuclear blast in Washington.

The football and the gold code

It also begs a question of the procedure described for launching the American nuclear weapons as explored by Ruth Alexander, presenter of How Do You Launch a Nuclear Bomb? The US president is followed everywhere by a military officer carrying the ‘nuclear football’, a briefcase containing communications equipment. In his suit is a plastic card containing the ‘gold code’, which the president uses to identify himself when ordering a launch. If he decides a launch is necessary, he will break open the card and use the communications equipment to give the order using the football. The operators are trained to take their orders directly from the president so even a countermand from the joint chiefs of staff is unlikely to be heeded.


President Ronald Reagan in Venice in 1987, with military aide carrying the ‘nuclear football’ behind him (William Fitzpatrick [Wikimedia Commons])

The system has been known to go wrong: Jimmy Carter once forgot to take the gold code out of his suit pocket when he sent it to the dry cleaner.

The Russian system, as described by Igor Sutyagin of British defence and security think tank RUSI, is essentially similar to the American system, hence Yeltsin’s flashing briefcase as described above. Both systems are structured around responding to each other, before the other side’s missiles land. Either side could expect to have 30min warning of missiles launched from within American or Russian borders and possibly 15min warning of missiles launched from submarines.

A very British apocalypse

Being geographically closer to the Soviet Union, the British system was developed with the expectation that there would be no time to react before the missiles land. All British missiles are based at sea, or rather under it. At least one of the Royal Navy’s Vanguard class submarines is on patrol at all times. It could be anywhere in the world’s oceans and is effectively undetectable for as long as it remains submerged.

HMS Vengeance, one of the Royal Navy’s four nuclear missile submarines (Defence Images [CC / Flickr])

There is a system for the prime minister to order a launch but the British system was designed on the assumption that the British Isles might be reduced to a radioactive wasteland before an order can be given. Every incoming prime minister writes a letter that is sealed and placed in a safe in each submarine, only to be opened in the event that Britain is wiped out. Exactly how a submarine captain is to decide that has happened is a closely guarded secret, although it is widely known that the BBC going off air for an undisclosed period of times is among the warning signs.

When a new prime minister comes into office, her predecessor’s letter is destroyed unopened and replaced with her own. No previous prime minister has ever disclosed what they wrote in the letter. British submarines could be carrying orders not to fire their missiles on any account, or they could be carrying orders to wreak death and destruction across the globe. Although Britain’s 200 warheads make her a minor nuclear power compared to the USA, Russia or China, one submarine still carries more explosive power than all weapons used by all sides during World War II – including the Hiroshima and Nagasaki nuclear bombs. The basis of the British nuclear deterrent is that any potential enemy knows that submarine is out there somewhere, but does not know what is written in the prime minister’s letter.

The Chinese way

As with so many things, China does it differently, at least according to Tong Zhao of the Carnegie–Tsinghua Center for Global Policy. The Chinese policy is not to anticipate an incoming strike but to endure it and respond – or not – after the event. China’s land based missile silos are buried hundreds of metres underground, making it very difficult for them to be destroyed pre-emptively. Some Chinese exercises have involved retaliation as long as a week after the initial attack. The delayed response does depend on some sort of command structure surviving the initial attack, but has the advantage that an attacker dare not attack unless they can be completely sure of disabling China’s ability to strike back.

However it is done, the carnage of even a low-level nuclear war would surpass anything in human history, which leads to possibly the one thing that has prevented the many false


A calm and deliberate temperament? (Gage Skidmore [CC / Flickr])

alarms of the Cold War leading to the catastrophe they led the world to the brink of. As Sutyagin put it, nobody wants to press the button that leads to apocalypse. That human factor is what Alexander calls ‘the final safety catch’.

With that human factor so critical, the final question put to Perry was perhaps inevitable:

Does the new president’s character worry you at all?

His answer is all the less reassuring for being tactfully indirect:

If we have an alarm, the message goes to the president and he has five, at the most ten minutes to consider what to do. If the alarm is a false alarm and he launches, there’s nothing he can do to call them back, there’s nothing he can do to destroy them in flight. He has started a nuclear war…that decision is strictly with the president of the United States. And I particularly worry about it if the person who has to make that decision does not have a calm and deliberate temperament.

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Posted in Inspirations, Wednesday Pontification
2 comments on “Inspirations: Living in a nuclear-armed world
  1. Ben says:

    This was a really fascinating read, thank you. I remember being scared of nuclear war when I was growing up in the 80s – the planes used to break the sound barrier as they headed out to the North Sea while we were in the playground – and that feeling has returned in recent times.

    • DJ Cockburn says:

      Thanks, I remember the 80s feeling of being in the crosshairs, with the occasional IRA bomb to keep us on our toes in case the Soviets didn’t deliver. It’s not a pleasant thought that the nuclear tension’s ramping up again.

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