What are intercontinental nuclear missiles

On January 25, 1995, a light spot suddenly appeared on the screens of some radar stations in northern Russia, which excited the staff on duty: unmistakably, a rocket, launched somewhere off the coast of Norway, rose at great speed into the night sky (Fig. 1).
The operators knew that if it were a ballistic missile from a US submarine operating in these waters, eight nuclear warheads could detonate over Moscow in less than 15 minutes. They immediately informed their superiors in accordance with regulations. The news quickly reached Boris Yeltsin via the top of the military apparatus, who can use an electronic device to order a nuclear counter-attack. The President hastily conferred over the telephone with his most important advisors. It was the first time in the history of the superpower confrontation that the so-called atomic case was activated for emergency use.
For a few tense minutes, the Russian decision-makers remained uncertain about the flight path of the mysterious rocket. The concern increased when the propulsion stages separated, creating the impression that it might be a multi-launch attack. Only after about eight minutes - just before the deadline after which a counterstrike was to be ordered in response to an imminent nuclear attack - did senior officers decide that the missile posed no danger to Russia because it flew far out to sea.
As it was soon found out, it was a civil, namely scientific object: an American sounding rocket, with which the Northern Lights phenomenon was to be investigated. Weeks earlier, the Norwegians had dutifully informed the Russian authorities of the planned shooting down from the island of Andøy, which belongs to the Vesterålen, but this information had not reached the relevant authorities.
On the US side, too, the strategic armed forces have been activated by false alarms in the past. These terrifying incidents clearly demonstrate the dangers associated with the nuclear arsenals that are kept in permanent readiness for launch: it cannot be ruled out that one day someone will fire missiles mistakenly equipped with nuclear explosives - be it due to a technical error or because someone in charge sends a harmless signal as Misinterpretation of surprise attack.
For a long time, the military in the United States and Russia have taken precautions to prevent such a disaster. The planners of the Russian command system, for example, went to great lengths to ensure central control over the use of nuclear weapons (Spektrum der Wissenschaft, February 1991, page 40). However, the technology used is not completely immune to errors.
In addition, Russia's nuclear early warning and command systems are practically in the process of disintegration. In February 1997, for example, the institute responsible for the construction of the highly developed control systems of the Raketnije Woiska Strategitscheskowo - the strategic missile troops to which the land-based ballistic intercontinental and medium-range missiles are subordinate - went on strike for one day: wages were outstanding and funds for upgrading the equipment absence. Three days later, Defense Minister Igor Rodionov assured that "if Russia were to cut funding further, it could soon reach a critical threshold beyond which its missiles and nuclear systems would become uncontrollable".
Although Rodionov's warning may have been aimed at demanding political support for higher defense spending, recent reports from the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) confirm that Russia's Strategic Missile Forces are actually going through tough times. Local utility companies have repeatedly turned off power to various nuclear weapons facilities after military authorities failed to pay the bills. More worrisome, nuclear weapons control equipment frequently fails, and computers or other critical electronic equipment occasionally switches to combat mode for no apparent reason. In the fall of 1996, the operation of some nuclear weapons facilities was seriously disrupted seven times when thieves tried to cut and steal pieces of telecommunications cables in order to sell the copper they contained on the black market.
Much of the early warning systems built by the former Soviet Union to detect a missile attack are no longer operational, making information from such sources less and less reliable. Even the nuclear trunks, which must always be within reach of the president, the defense minister and the chief of staff, are reportedly in dire need of repair. In short, the systems that were put in place to control Russian nuclear weapons are now collapsing.
The leaders of the Russian nuclear complex are also grappling with numerous human and organizational problems. The operating teams are less trained than before and are therefore less experienced and trained in the safe handling of nuclear weapons. The often inadequate supply of housing and food, as well as the government's empty promises, annoy and demoralize the members of the strategic missile forces, the soldiers of the strategic submarine fleet and the guards of the nuclear warheads camps. This increases the risk that frustrated lower-ranking officers in the meander will disregard security regulations or, worse still, tamper with unauthorized nuclear weapons - which could hardly prevent a deteriorating central control. Most of the units responsible for rocket launches require special secret codes that are administered by the General Staff in an emergency; however, a recent CIA report warns that some submarine crews may be able to fire the on-board ballistic missiles without this key information.
Even the top of the chain of command could lose control of the strategic arsenals. Relations between the Russian politicians and the military are strained. So it could not be ruled out that senior officers might acquire the launch codes for missiles during an internal crisis. During the coup against the then Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev on August 19, 1991, responsibilities at the highest level shifted within a short time and the usual chain of command was broken. For three days, the responsibility for deploying the nuclear missiles lay in the hands of Defense Minister Dimitri T. Yasov and Chief of Staff Mikhail Moiseyev. As a result of the present disrupted conditions in Russia, something similar could happen again.

The deterrent dilemma

Although international relations have changed dramatically since the end of the Cold War, both Russia and the United States continue to keep most of their long-range nuclear weapons immediately operational. Within a few minutes of receiving a launch order, most of the land-based missiles (the American missiles have around 2,000 warheads, the Russian around 3,500) could begin their 25-minute flight over the North Pole to their pre-programmed targets. Less than 15 minutes after receiving an attack order, six US Trident submarines could launch another 1,000, and the Russian submarines 300 to 400 warheads. In total, the two nuclear powers are able to fire more than 5000 nuclear weapons within half an hour.
Why do two states in peacetime persist in such an aggressive stance that carries the risk of erroneous or unauthorized use of nuclear weapons? The military strategists on both sides are still fixated on the unlikely scenario that the former enemy could deliberately launch a surprise nuclear attack on its own strategic weapons and command centers. In order to prevent the other side from such a first strike, according to the deterrent doctrine that has been valid for decades, one must be able to respond at any time with a powerful counterstrike in good time: Before the aggressor's explosives detonate, one's own should be on the way in order to also target all important military facilities Destroy territory, including nuclear facilities. The military strategists are faced with a task that is in principle identical to ensuring first-strike capability: they must design the arsenal and logistics in such a way that they can destroy thousands of widely spaced targets within a short period of time.
That is why both the United States and Russia rely on the so-called launch-on-warning strategy: the red button that has become proverbial is to be pressed as soon as an enemy nuclear strike is apparent or is likely to be imminent. Because the flight time of enemy missiles is perhaps only 15 minutes if they are launched from a submarine near their own coast, the situation must be correctly assessed and the right decision made in an even shorter period of time after receiving a warning.
It would be unavoidable that the company's own missile silos and command systems as well as the political and military leadership would be largely destroyed by a surprising first strike; but the submarine-supported missiles on the high seas would be essentially immune to it - and it is precisely such a horrific potential for retaliation that is supposed to maintain the balance of terror in order to prevent the ultimate aggression from one side or the other. But although the United States has several thousand warheads on its nuclear submarines and thus has sufficient second strike capability, it too is always ready to deploy all of its remaining arsenal in a matter of minutes.
The Russian decision-makers apparently see it as even more urgent to fire their missiles as soon as a first strike warning is given. The command centers and missile silos in Russia are just as vulnerable to massive attack as those in the United States; but because the number of sea-based nuclear missiles is lower, the General Staff must fear that only a few dozen would survive a first strike and would still be available for a counter-attack.
In addition, the second strike capability of Russia is further reduced by the fact that many of the submarines are currently stuck in ports and the mobile land-based missiles are in hangars instead of being undetectable by the enemy at sea or in the field. The lack of resources and qualified personnel has forced the Russian Navy to severely curtail its operations; At the moment only two of a total of 26 Russian submarines equipped with nuclear missiles are in permanent combat readiness on patrol. Similar difficulties prevent more than one or two of the ICBM launch systems mounted on special vehicles from actually being kept operational in unknown locations. The multi-axis self-propelled guns of the remaining 40 regiments, each with nine missiles equipped with a single nuclear warhead, are simply parked in garages. These missiles are even more susceptible to first strike than those stationed in underground silos. Russia also has 36 ICBMs, each with ten nuclear warheads, which are mounted on railroad cars and are actually supposed to be hidden on the country's huge rail network; but already in 1991 the then President Gorbachev decided to leave these wagons in fixed bases.
These weaknesses caused Russia to keep some submarines in ports and mobile missiles in their garages in addition to silo-based ICBMs. The time span within which a decision about their launch must be made is less than 15 minutes: American as well as British and French submarines with strategic weapons on board are cruising in the North Atlantic only about 3,200 kilometers from Moscow. The Russian decision-makers and the operating teams of the launch systems are trimmed to this time frame and practice the procedure regularly. The US nuclear forces are also not entitled to longer reaction times.
Obviously, in the rush to decide what to do and what to do after receiving a warning, mistakes can easily be made - with potentially catastrophic consequences. The risk of a misjudgment is exacerbated because some of the Russian early warning systems have failed and the officers responsible are therefore less able to judge whether a suspicious event is a natural phenomenon, a civilian rocket launch or actually an attack: only a third Russia's modern early warning radar systems are in operation at all, and of a total of nine planned early warning satellites, at least two are missing.
This shortcoming is partly offset by the reduction in international tensions after the end of the Cold War; policy makers on both sides now have less reason to hold up a suspicious missile strike signal. Nevertheless, the close coupling of the arsenals held ready for a quick counter-attack harbors the danger that one day a shooting will be accidentally triggered and a chain of mutually escalating retaliatory strikes will be set in motion. Such an accident of apocalyptic proportions cannot be ruled out even under normal conditions; and if the Russian nuclear weapons control system were to be shaken by an internal or international crisis, the danger could suddenly become far more acute.
During the Cold War, these risks were subordinated to the overarching demand to deter an enemy believed to be ready for a nuclear first strike. At the latest under today's conditions, this can no longer be justified. At a time when both great powers are striving for normal economic relations and cooperative security agreements, the national security strategy must no longer be based on the desire and ability to use nuclear weapons in response to a mere warning of attack. But this doctrine is so ingrained in decision-makers that only constant public pressure on the respective political leadership - especially the presidents - can initiate sensible, less risky policies.

Turning away from the old paradigm

The reduction in the American and former Soviet nuclear arsenals achieved through the two bilateral arms control treaties START I and II (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaties) was intended to reduce the threat of an erroneous nuclear exchange; but these improvements will only gradually become noticeable. As part of a future START III agreement, for which Presidents Boris Yeltsin and Bill Clinton campaigned in Helsinki in spring 1997, the strategic nuclear arsenals of the USA and Russia are to be reduced to around 2,000 warheads each by 2007. Only, if the deterrent practice still common today is not changed, at least half of the nuclear weapons available today could still be ready to be launched within a few minutes at any time in ten years' time (Fig. 2).
The risk of an accidental missile launch could be reduced much more quickly if the permanent readiness of the missiles were canceled, thus increasing the time required to prepare for a launch. The United States and Russia should take this path to a safer world independently of one another, even if rapid and parallel measures would be preferred. Two well-known proponents of this approach on the American side are the former US Senator Sam Nunn from Georgia and the now retired General George L. Butler, who was Commander in Chief of the US Strategic Command from 1991 to 1994; This proposal is also gaining support among non-governmental organizations dealing with nuclear safety issues and some members of the US Congress. On the Russian side, the Ministry of Defense is also seriously considering such an alternative.
At the end of September 1991, the then US President George Bush gave a clear signal for the withdrawal of the nuclear weapons alert when the Soviet Union began to break up in the wake of the August coup. On the advice of General Butler, he ordered the immediate cessation of the US strategic bombers, which had been ready for decades to take off within a few minutes. Shortly thereafter, members of the Luftwaffe began to unload the nuclear armament of these long-range bombers and store them in depots.In addition, President Bush lifted the alert of the strategic launch vehicle systems to be destroyed as part of START I - 450 Minuteman II stationed in silos and the missiles stationed on ten Poseidon submarines. It only took a few days to carry out these important measures.
A week later, President Gorbachev responded by ordering the deactivation of more than 500 land-based missiles and six strategic submarines. At the same time he promised to keep the Soviet strategic bombers in a reduced state of alarm and to bring the missiles mobile by rail to fixed locations. In the following months, both countries withdrew many thousands of tactical short-range nuclear weapons, which their army and naval units had mainly stationed in Europe, and stored them in central depots.
In 1994, Presidents Clinton and Yeltsin went one step further: they agreed not to keep their strategic missiles aimed at targets in each other's country. This welcome gesture was of little practical importance - the commanders of the missile units can re-enter the target coordinates into the control computer within seconds. The deal does not even reduce the fear of mistaken launch in Russia, as an unprogrammed missile in that country would immediately switch to its primary target in case of war - it could be a Minuteman silo in Montana or a command center in Washington, London, Paris or Beijing. Moreover, once it had been launched, a Russian missile could no more be destroyed by a radio command than an American missile.
The US government, which has the most robust armed forces and the most powerful command system, should therefore take the first step in a series of voluntary measures (box on page 83): It could withdraw those warheads that most threaten the Russian nuclear forces (especially those whose explosive energy is sufficient to destroy the underground missile silos and command bunkers). These include above all the 500 warheads with which the 50 MX missiles in silos are equipped, and the 400 W88 warheads on missiles of the Trident submarines. We also propose deactivating all 500 or so land-based Minuteman III missiles, each equipped with three warheads, and halving the number of peacetime submarines and the number on each submarine-based missile Reduce warheads from eight to four. Furthermore, the operations of the submarines armed with ballistic missiles should be changed so that the crews need about a day to prepare the weapons for launch.
In this scenario, the US would still have nearly 600 invulnerable warheads at sea, each of which could destroy the central area of ​​a major city. The deterrent potential would thus be preserved; but the United States had credibly demonstrated that it did not want to strike Russia first. We believe that such a fundamental shift in nuclear policy could lead Russia to take similar measures and lift the alert on most of its missiles. At the same time, this would create a climate that would facilitate the implementation of disarmament agreements, as they were already negotiated in START II and START III. We believe the whole process could be completed in a year or two.
For certain types of weapons it can already be checked at present whether they have been taken out of the permanent operational state. For example, the number of missile submarines in ports could be determined by satellites. In most other cases, random on-site inspections, as agreed in the START I agreement, would be an option. In order to be able to check more frequently in the long term, further technical processes could be developed. For example, electronic seals could be used to ensure that a component removed from a missile was not used again; The integrity of these seals could be checked by the inquiring office using encrypted signals via satellite radio.

A world without a nuclear alert

These proposed measures would essentially deprive the United States and Russia of the ability to strike first. This would also eliminate the motive for the launch-on-warning strategy, because the nuclear strategic arsenals would no longer be threatened in their entirety. After an attack warning, so much time elapsed before one's own nuclear weapons were activated that a false alarm could be safely recognized as such. The risk of an erroneous or unauthorized launch would therefore be considerably reduced.
We are well aware that the military strategists of the United States and Russia might insist on keeping at least a small part of their current arsenal - perhaps a few hundred warheads - permanently operational until the other nuclear-weapon states Great Britain, France and China become similar Measures resolved to reduce the operational readiness of their arsenals. But if the United States and Russia really want to achieve the highest possible level of security, they should lift the alarm status of all their nuclear weapons as soon as possible and take further steps to increase the time required to reactivate these systems.
The real goal, however, should be to separate the nuclear warheads from their launch vehicles, to store them and ultimately to destroy most of them. The state of these weapons systems should, however, be able to be checked by the other nuclear weapon states through verification measures in order to rule out that nuclear missiles are secretly made ready for launch.
Our proposals will no doubt meet with massive opposition from those whose main concern is still a covert surprise attack. These concerns, as unfounded as they are now, should certainly be taken into account. But it is much more urgent to develop and agree procedures as quickly as possible that will eliminate the ongoing acute danger of accidental or unauthorized launching of nuclear missiles.


- The Logic of Accidental Nuclear War. By Bruce G. Blair. Brookings Institution, 1993.
- Global Zero Alert for Nuclear Forces. By Bruce G. Blair. Brookings Institution, 1995.
- Caging the Nuclear Genie: An American Challenge for Global Security. Made by Stansfield Turner. Westview Press, Boulder, Colorado, 1997.
- The Future of U.S. Nuclear Weapons Policy. National Academy of Sciences. National Academy Press, 1997.

From: Spektrum der Wissenschaft 4/1998, page 76
© Spektrum der Wissenschaft Verlagsgesellschaft mbH

This article is contained in Spectrum of Science 4/1998