Rocks and dirt don't sound like a recipe for averting an atomic cataclysm.
Yet, piling tons of debris atop the lids of nuclear-missile silos that would take days to clear is among a host of steps - collectively called "de-alerting" - gaining support as ways in which the United States and Russia might advance post-cold-war stability.
The idea: The more time the sides require to mount massive nuclear attacks, the less danger of inadvertent conflict. Furthermore, advocates say, taking most missiles off the high-alert hair-triggers on which they remain six years after the Soviet Union's demise would encourage the former foes to slash armories below levels now being contemplated.
Other de-alerting measures include storing warheads, batteries, and guidance units apart from missiles; pinning open ignition switches so that rockets could not be fired until the pins are manually extracted; removing shrouds that shield warheads in flight; and placing mobile Russian launchers up on blocks after removing their tires.
Other measures are more complex, and all involve trade-offs between different US and Russian capabilities.
The concept's success also hinges on the development of reliable ways to ensure against cheating by either side.
Arms controllers have been advocating de-alerting for several years, contending that it would create a more accurate reflection in strategic terms of the new political relationship between Moscow and Washington.
Some say the US should take such steps unilaterally to induce a still-insecure Russia to follow.
The concept is winning new adherents as concerns grow that a lack of funds is seriously eroding Russia's nuclear command-and-control systems, raising the danger of an errant or unauthorized launch that could trigger a US response. Within 30 minutes, the sides could plunge into a nuclear holocaust, exchanging the more than 5,000 warheads they still keep on 24-hour high alert.
Difficult to implement
While de-alerting sounds appealing, other experts say it would be hard to implement. Facing deep decay in its conventional forces as the NATO alliance expands into its backyard, Russia is becoming more reliant on nuclear weapons for its security. Among other things, it has a "launch on warning" policy that requires its leaders to authorize a devastating counterstrike within minutes of detecting an attack but before the incoming warheads land.
Says a senior US official: "The Russians are ... shifting their nuclear doctrine in the direction of greater reliance on nuclear weapons. One of the factors we have to consider is that they may be very suspicious, not to say negative, about ideas that would make their nuclear forces slower to generate."
Congressional conservatives are dead set against de-alerting.
They say it would be difficult to verify Russian compliance with the combinations of measures proponents are advocating. Only by maintaining a nuclear deterrent and building a multibillion-dollar missile-defense system can the US be safe, they insist.
"There is, indeed, a danger from an accidental or unauthorized launch from Russia. But the appropriate response ... is to build a nuclear defense, not to render our nuclear deterrent un-credible," says Frank Gaffney, a conservative analyst and former Pentagon official.
For its part, the Clinton administration insists that Russian leaders are not losing their grip on their atomic armory. It also discounts as too difficult the sweeping de-alerting plans endorsed by former and current political and military leaders who have joined the global movement for total nuclear disarmament.
But that does not mean it is ignoring the concept altogether. In fact, the US is considering adapting de-alerting steps to help implement the 1993 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START II), which is languishing unratified by the Russian parliament.
START II originally required the sides to cut their warheads to no more than 3,500 each by 2003. But the Russian parliament's foot-dragging forced them last year to push the deadline to 2007. Worse, Moscow can scarcely afford the huge expenses of destroying the missiles and warheads due to be scrapped. Accordingly, the US is looking at de-alerting as a low-cost alternative that would take those systems off-line as close to the original deadline as possible.
A high-level administration panel is reviewing a range of options, including some forwarded by the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The goal is to formulate proposals to present to Moscow once START II is ratified, senior officials say. They decline to discuss options under review but note Russia's objection to removing warheads. "We have not reached any conclusions," says one official. "All of the ideas that you have heard in the public discussion are among those that we have been looking at, and there are others."
A key difficulty, another official says, is designing reliable arrangements to verify that each side abides by any agreement because de-alerting - as opposed to outright destruction - is reversible. Furthermore, it is easier to monitor Russian missiles, most of which are based on land, than US weapons, many of which are aboard submarines.
Overcoming verification hurdles is critical for the administration effort. Legislation passed by the GOP-led Congress prohibits it from spending funds on de-alerting unless the president certifies that any accord can be monitored effectively and subjects the US and Russia to the same rigorous standards.
Still a threat?
De-alerting advocates are not happy with the way the administration is exploring the concept. "It will do nothing to get the Russians off hair-trigger," asserts Frank Von Hippel, a former White House official and a leading de-alerting proponent.
He says the threats posed by the dire state of Russia's nuclear command-and-control systems must be addressed.
They say Moscow's serious economic problems have left its systems beset by neglect, technical problems that inadvertently switch missiles to combat mode, and an unreliable early-warning radar network. Meanwhile, the officer corps is seething over poor pay and a loss of privileges. As evidence, they cite an incident in 1995, when President Boris Yeltsin came within minutes of ordering an attack on the US after Russian officers mistook a scientific rocket from Norway as a nuclear missile targeted at Moscow by an American submarine.