The Aug. 26 op-ed “US nuclear weapons poised for catastrophe” by James Carroll points out an important, often overlooked vulnerability in our defense strategy. Since the end of the Cold War, the most likely launch of nuclear weapons by either the United States or Russia is by accident, followed by purposeful reprisal.
Independently of who fired the initial salvo, both the United States and Russia would be devastated by the weapons’ explosive force, radioactive fallout, and nuclear winter. The latter two impacts would affect much of the world.
Carroll’s suggestion of unilaterally eliminating all of our vulnerable land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles is a potentially useful step in solving this problem. However, the Russians may not reciprocate because approximately half of our nuclear weapons are based in invulnerable nuclear submarines while their forces are mainly of the land-based type.
Perhaps a more effective first step to reduce our mutual danger would be to reduce the alert status of these weapons, so that the decision to launch would be less time-urgent. This could significantly reduce the possibility of an accidental launch, and much of this reduction in alert status could be accomplished within the inspection procedures of the new START treaty.
The writer, a professor emeritus of physics at MIT, is a member of the university’s Laboratory for Nuclear Security Analysis.