Published on Thursday, June 15, 2000 in the Manchester Guardian
The Secrets Are Unveiled Of America's Nuclear Madness
by Hugo Young
The world is supposed to be safer than it was. No big enemy, only one super-power, the capitalist conversion of Russia, the absorption of China into world trade, an overarching nuclear détente. Bestriding the globe unchallenged, the United States can surely be trusted with its peace. It should be so. Many people perhaps think it is so. But two glimpses of reality show us it isn't so. These exposures seem important to register.
The first snapshot comes from the old world. The nuclear threat, it turns out, has not changed. You might think that, with the end of the cold war, the US would have reduced its nuclear plans. Instead it has expanded them. The American war plan, according to a stunning new revelation, shows not fewer but more targets on which US nuclear missiles are trained. The 2,500 in 1995 have grown, incredibly, to 3,000 now. Of these, 2,260 are in Russia: only 1,100 of them nuclear arms sites, the rest "conventional" sites - 500 bases of the disintegrating Russian army, 500 arms factories that mostly did not produce arms in the last year, and 160 "leadership targets", another word for the offices and command posts of Vladimir Putin and his government.
We know this thanks to insiders breaking cover, principally Bruce G Blair, for 25 years a specialist in strategic operations, who was once a missile launch officer in Strategic Air Command. He published classified details from the war plan in the New York Times this week, following a Senate speech, drawing on his research, by Senator Robert Kerrey in the week Clinton met Putin: a meeting designed among other things to persuade Putin to modify the 1972 anti-ballistic missile treaty and pave the way for the latest American venture into global instability, a national missile defence system.
Kerrey imagined the conversation. "These are the guys to whom we talk," he noted incredulously. "We have a meeting with them. 'President Putin, would you agree to modify ABM? And, oh by the way, we have 160 nuclear weapons of 100 kilotons or more targeted on you and the rest of the Russian leadership.' " As Mr Blair also laid out for the first time in public detail, the targeting has proliferated to take in China, Iran, Iraq and North Korea. All are now in the sights of hundreds of warheads.
Each land-based missile, moreover, is on trigger-alert, designed to be launched in two minutes. In the years he's studied the subject, Mr Blair has been preoccupied with the danger of an accidental war, resulting from a hair- trigger launch in response to mistaken signals from the other side. Though the numbers of warheads have been reduced by treaty, further cuts are being resisted by the Senate, and the expanded range of targeting, in defiance of all political reality, sustains the gravity of the risk, as well as a level of mistrust totally at odds with Washington's entreaties to Moscow for a new relationship.
As Mr Blair remarks, no thoughtful general or politician accepts the analysis that lies behind the focus on Russian nuclear deterrence. "They do not believe that a cold-blooded, deliberate nuclear strike by either Russia or the US is remotely plausible." But the targets are unrevised, a principal reason being the determination of navy and air force to maintain "the vaunted triad" - land missiles, and nuke- bearing submarines and bombers - to maximise their service clout. Though both Clinton and George W Bush have spoken for fewer nuclear warheads, the war plan, based on a 1997 presidential directive, still invokes so many targets that further reductions, as long as it obtains, are impossible. Old concepts rule the new world, irrespective of the danger.
A second glimpse, of similar discomfort, looks to the future. Another expert comes forward from the inside to challenge the politicians. Theodore A Postol, a professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, worked on anti-missile defence in the Reagan administration. He knows his stuff, and surely bears no taint of the liberal elite. He has examined the infamous $60bn national missile defence (NMD) proposition, and delivered one of the most excoriating judgments of a defence programme ever to come from such a source.
The technical feasibility of NMD is being subjected to a series of tests. The next, maybe politically decisive one is due next month. Dr Postol denounces the previous tests, in a word, as fraudulent, and the coming test as designed not to fail. The crucial challenge for NMD is to identify incoming missiles - the basic hypothesis is that they will come from North Korea, or China, or at some later stage the Middle East - as against the decoys likely to accompany them. That's what the Pentagon has been testing. If NMD cannot do that, it will be a waste of money, as well as a heavy threat to America's relations both with its allies in Europe and its increasingly defiant counterpart in Russia.
But Dr Postol got hold of data that showed the tests being rigged. To make the antimissile weapon succeed, the decoys were made fewer in number and simpler to recognise. Dr Postol proved this from the Pentagon's own documents. An organised test can in any case only imperfectly replicate the real-life hazard of an attack without warning from one of the "rogue" states against which these perilous defences are being constructed. But, so great is the pressure to build NMD, the testing had to be slanted still further in favour of the right outcome, without, of course, this ever being revealed, possibly even to the president.
Officials, Dr Postol told the New York Times, were "systematically lying about the performance of a weapon system that is supposed to defend the people of the US from nuclear attack . . . They've been caught in one outright lie after another." In a letter to the White House, he likened the procedures to "rolling a pair of dice and throwing away all outcomes that did not give snake eyes, and then fraudulently making a claim that [the testers] have evidence to show that they could reliably predict when a roll of the dice will be a snake eyes." (Snake eyes: double ones, often the victory roll.)
What these two stories show, I think, is the undiscussed recklessness that can begin to grip a global hegemon. Maybe Bruce Blair's exposure of the targeting details in the hitherto top secret SIOP (Single Integrated Operational Plan) will compel more energetic study of its irrationality. For a start, it throws wide open the case for drastic cuts in the US nuclear arsenal. The Postol attack on NMD, so far answered only by military whimpering for more time, should blow a hole in the bipartisan macho politics that have driven it so far. When the next test happens, will anyone believe the triumph that's already being programmed into the system? The late phase of a tight election campaign is a bad time to ask that question. But these revelations open up secret worlds, against which an accountable president is supposed to be our best defence.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2000