It's perhaps impolite to dwell on it, but throughout Vladimir Putin's visit last month to President Bush's ranch in Crawford, Texas, the US military had nuclear missiles aimed unwaveringly at his office back home in Russia.
Overall, there are still 2,000 strategic nuclear weapons poised for launch on extremely short notice–in just minutes–and aimed at 2,360 Russian targets, according to Bruce Blair, president of the Center for Defense Information.
This may sound like a passive situation–missiles standing around waiting to be used, as they have been for decades–but it's actually quite active. The US military still sends frequent reconnaissance planes prowling the edge of Russian air space, looking for entry corridors for strategic B-2 and B-52 bombers, should that sad day ever come. "They fly around the borders checking the performance of air defense radars, assessing coverage, looking for where the holes are," said Blair.
Several months ago, Blair–a former Minuteman missile launch officer–spoke with a flight crew in Omaha, Nebraska, that was fresh back from just such a Russian border-probing exercise. The crews told him they hadn't seen a Russian fighter jet come up to challenge them in years.
Meanwhile, a launch somewhere in the world just about every day sends crews at NORAD, the strategic command outfit, into "three-minute huddles." They are supposed to emerge in that time period with an evaluation of the threat, if any, and recommendations for the President, if appropriate.
Blair, on a recent visit to NORAD, said he watched just such an emergency huddle in response to a Russian missile launch report. It turned out to be a Russian Scud missile fired into Chechnya, he said.
Blair was speaking at a conference in New York on weapons of mass destruction, "Cold War Legacies in a Post-9/11 World," sponsored by the Nation Institute, the Institute for Policy Studies and three New York universities, which also featured remarks by Jonathan Schell, Frances FitzGerald, Michael Klare and many others.
To a rapt audience Blair recounted how two years ago he watched junior officers in Wyoming performing the same job Blair had performed thirty years ago: rehearsing a nuclear missile launch. For Blair and a film crew, two young officers in their 20s simulated turning the keys to launch fifty ICBMs carrying a total of 500 nuclear warheads–a task they would be expected to accomplish within just two minutes of receiving orders.
The occasion of Blair's Wyoming visit was the Y2K problem–remember that? Washington and Moscow had judged it prudent to have Russian military observers present in Colorado Springs on New Year's Eve at a Y2K center, where they could track US military activity.
There was much talk afterward of a joint missile warning center to be built near Moscow, but work on it ground to a halt about a year ago. "The Russians got the signal from the Bush Administration that they were not interested in continuing with this," Blair said in an interview after his New York talk.
But aren't we friends with the Russians now? And didn't candidate George Bush talk about de-alerting nuclear weapons? And aren't we getting rid of a whole bunch of missiles now after the Crawford handshake?
Well, if we are friends with the Russians, our nuclear policies are only slowly catching up. A classified Nuclear Posture Review drawn up by the Bush Administration should soon be in the hands of key members of Congress. Sources familiar with the report's contents say it does indeed downgrade the Russian threat–part of the justification for Bush's announcement in Crawford that we will stand down our current 6,000-missile arsenal to as low as 1,700.
But what's odd is that Bush said this would take ten years –even though his Administration is not dismantling the missiles, only "de-alerting" them, i.e., taking the warheads off and storing them. "Why that would take ten years is beyond me," said John Isaacs of the Council for a Livable World, a disarmament group focused on lobbying Congress. (And as to those 1,700 missiles, there are still another 4,000 tactical nukes on hand, Isaacs said, nearly all of them many times larger than the bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki.)
De-alerting missiles means keeping them but making them much harder to launch in just minutes. Candidate Bush had talked about de-alerting nearly all of the missile fleet. But in the new Nuclear Posture Review, Blair said, "They've categorically rejected de-alerting. [Bush] has reversed himself completely."