The top national security threat for the past decade has been suicide bombers and other terrorists acting as part of a network linked by ideology, not nationality. Still, the Obama administration is correct in focusing attention on that other national security threat, the one that terrified two generations of Americans — nuclear war.
Nuclear weapons continue to be the currency of choice for some nations as they seek attention on the world stage. Chief among them are North Korea and Iran, whose leaders hope their nuclear prowess will leverage regional influence and keep the U.S. at bay.
But threats remain from an old foe. Dr. Ira Hefland of Physicians for Social Responsibility recently told Maine Public Radio of a near nuclear weapon launch. In 1995, the U.S. launched a rocket in Norway to study the northern lights, but took care to first alert the Russians.
“Somebody in Moscow dropped the ball,” Dr. Hefland said, “and forgot to notify the military authorities.” When the rocket was detected on radar, the Russians worried it was a U.S. attack. “For the only time that we know of in the nuclear era, the ‘football,’ the suitcase that the Russian leader carries with him to respond to a nuclear attack, was activated.” Boris Yeltsin, then-Russian president, “was given five minutes to decide what to do,” Dr. Hefland recounted. “The options ranged from doing nothing to launching a full-scale attack on the U.S. which would have involved about 4,000 warheads.”
What is being called the New START Treaty seeks, among other objectives, to avoid such misunderstandings. The treaty should be endorsed by the Senate. One of its goals is to reduce the stockpile of strategic warheads for both sides, including 30 to 40 percent of Russian warheads. According to defense experts, a launch of just one-eighth of Russia’s nuclear weaponry would kill 90 million Americans.
A report drafted by a bipartisan panel for the Council on Foreign Relations, whose chairmen were Brent Scowcroft, former national security adviser for Presidents Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush, and William Cohen, secretary of defense in the Clinton administration, notes that terrorists are unable “to enrich their own uranium or produce their own plutonium. Instead, they would have to target state stockpiles of these materials. To acquire nuclear weapons, a terrorist group could try to buy or steal existing weapons or weapons-usable fissile material, or convince or coerce a government custodian to hand over these assets.”
Together, the U.S. and Russia hold over 90 percent of the world’s nuclear weapons, so stepping down the stockpiles of these two nations is an obvious place to start.
But other tensions will remain. A nuclear standoff similar to that which plagued the U.S. and Soviet Union for decades now exists between India and Pakistan. If half the nuclear weapons in a conflict between India and Pakistan were deployed, as many as a billion people could die in the resulting famine.
The U.S. began the nuclear era, and it has a responsibility to wind it down. The New START Treaty is a step in that direction.