Take Nuclear Weapons off Alert

NATO is attempting to flesh out a new security order for Europe. Yet, how can we have a new relationship with Russia while nuclear weapons are kept ready to fire at a moment's notice? Together with Russia, NATO should seek to minimize the risk that nuclear weapons are used. The NATO-Russia Permanent Joint Council is an ideal forum to work on the topic.

NATO and Russia still have thousands of nuclear weapons on hair-trigger alert. On land, intercontinental ballistic missiles are ready to launch within minutes, while at sea nuclear-armed submarines are on 24-hour patrol. NATO and Russia continue to deploy tactical warheads in Europe.

Although nuclear weapons in Europe have been greatly reduced since the 1987 Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty and unilateral initiatives by Presidents Bush and Gorbachev announced in 1991, NATO and Russia have largely been conducting nuclear business as usual.

The dangers of high-alert status are clear. The decline of the Russian command-and-control system increases the risk of technical malfunctions and early-warning system failures. The continued, unnecessary reliance on high-alert status increases the danger of inadvertent or accidental use of nuclear weapons, with disastrous consequences. With the cold war over, such dangers between friendly nations are unnecessary. Nuclear weapons should be taken off alert.

De-alerting is intended to prolong the time needed to prepare a weapon for use from minutes at present to hours, days, weeks, or longer. Not all weapons would have to be de-alerted at the same time or by the same mechanism. De-alerting could proceed gradually.

As a first step, NATO and Russia should agree to reduce the number of submarines on patrol. They also should download all warheads from submarines in port, especially submarines on 15-minute launch readiness at pier-side, and place them in local or central storage. Warhead downloading would take several days to reverse and could be observed by satellite surveillance. With more sophisticated verification measures in place, more ambitious steps could be undertaken, such as storing tactical weapons (bombs, air-delivered missiles, and anti-aircraft nuclear missiles) away from the planes that are earmarked to deliver them.

Political signs are encouraging. NATO and Russia seem willing to talk about de-alerting. At the Paris summit, Russian President Boris Yeltsin said Russia was ready to curb the alert status of its nuclear forces if the West followed suit. This message was later reiterated by his foreign minister, Yevgeny Primakov, and picked up by French President Jaques Chirac, who seemed ready to come on board. NATO Secretary-General Javier Solana recently said NATO "will talk about that issue [de-alerting]" in the NATO-Russia Joint Council.

NATO and Russia have an interest in reducing the risk of accidental nuclear war. De-alerting would reopen a dialogue with Russia on nuclear weapons. It also could demonstrate the efficacy of new NATO-Russia cooperation and help to overcome the tensions created by NATO enlargement.

The NATO-Russia Joint Council is well positioned to focus on de-alerting. NATO and Russian foreign ministers will convene the first substantive meeting of the Joint Council in late September in New York. There, the ministers should agree to install a permanent high-level task force that will work out concrete steps that can be taken by the nuclear weapon states. De-alerting is the right thing to do, and this is the right time to do it.

* Dan Plesch and Lutz Hager are director and research assistant, respectively, at the British American Security Information Council, an independent research organization.

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