One of the most dangerous aspects of today's nuclear debate is the deeply skewed ratio of fact versus opinion. Disarmament advocates, many with a poor understanding of nuclear game theory, operational concepts, even basic weapon capabilities, too often posture themselves as experts in a debate that's clearly over their heads.
In an ABC News report, Debora MacKenzie--perhaps unintentionally--makes this point for me:
This is Obama's opportunity to end one of the most dangerous legacies of the cold war: the nuclear missiles the US and Russia keep ready to fly in minutes. The signs are that he is unlikely to take it...
Missiles on alert are worrying, partly because a malfunction could lead to accidental launch, or they could be hijacked - but mostly because they could be launched by misinformed or pressurised military leaders or politicians during a fast-evolving situation...
Such is prime directive number one for the disarmament crowd: create a crisis out of nothing.
For five decades the United States has kept thousands of missiles on alert --now down to 450, though MacKenzie reported between 1000 and 1200-- without a single accidental launch or "hijacking" (it's impossible to hijack a missile, anyway). The reason for this remarkable record of safe handling is that the Minuteman III missile, on alert since the Nixon administration, is an extraordinarily well designed system with a robust series of safeguards in place. Launch actions, which can indeed be processed swiftly, require direct authorization from the president and flawless launch procedures from no less than four missile launch officers. Without those directives accomplished in proper order and sequence, it is mechanically impossible for a Minuteman III missile to fly.
Subs are only considered "on alert" once they're positioned in a predetermined launch box, a swath of ocean with trajectory optimized for their Trident SLBMs. Bombers must be generated to alert by presidential directive, as most of the bomber fleet is busy supporting a conventional war.
So this concept of a highly unstable nuclear force on "hair trigger alert" is completely false. Decades of safe, responsible nuclear control and custody prove as much. But that's the central dogma of the "go to zero" crowd, as well as many in the Obama administration.
Part of this is a failure of experts to clearly articulate the need for a flexible nuclear force, which would be able quickly to adapt to a rapidly evolving crisis. We still maintain a nuclear triad because there's an inherent stability in the redundancy of systems. We keep missiles on alert because they're the strongest, most secure leg of that triad (subs can be torpedoed, bombers shot down by SAMs or interceptors). And they're fast. "Delivery in 30 minutes or less, or the next one's free," brag the ICBM jocks. This security equation which protects America and dozens of non-nuclear allied nations rests on America's frightening ability to deliver horrific violence swiftly and accurately. Scaring off the bad guys, in this sense, is a good thing. But it's also a double edged sword. That power also spooks people on the home front, who in turn lose sight of our nuclear inventory's purpose (never to be used).
Allowing that emotion to seep into such a critical national security debate is unwise. And it should never be injected into the military procedures which have safely guided the custody of our nuclear arsenal for decades.