The aggravation in relations between Russia and the United States weakens the capability of both to confront real, not putative threats. Unfortunately, when observing the development of the situation, one can hardly exclude that the spirit of the Cold War may again set to prevail for quite a long time. Hence, the minimum program is to maintain and enhance the joint experience in the area of armament control aimed to neutralize the main danger, the readiness for immediate and guaranteed mutual destruction.
In a military conflict, the capabilities of non-nuclear fire and radio electronic weapons and cyberattacks are able to create conditions motivating a country to be first to use nuclear weapons. The strategic nuclear arsenals of Russia and the U.S. include missile systems ready for immediate use but vulnerable to the first attack of the opponent.
First, these are ground Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) complexes. In a critical situation, a country’s leader can find himself facing the choice to either use a nuclear weapon or to lose that option and to be inevitably defeated.
It is not an accident that certain experts began to speak of the necessity to develop measures that would prevent country leaders from making such a responsible decision based on the signals of the Ballistic Missile Early Warning Systems within a short time period (5-10 minutes). In fact, it means the reduction of the risk of nuclear weapon use. However, the decision under discussion raises certain doubts. Thus, it is proposed to decrease the readiness of missile systems vulnerable to the first attack, in order to rule out the situation provoking to use the same after obtaining information from early warning systems. However, at the same time, it implies the development of high-precision long-range non-nuclear forces.
Today, when Russia and the U.S. bring their strategic nuclear weapons into compliance with the New START (START III), it is very unlikely that any negotiations regarding further strategic arms reduction will commence. Even more so, because Russia speaks of the necessity of transition to the many-sided format of reduction, which is also highly unlikely in the short term. The unresolved problem of missile defense is also taking its toll. It goes beyond the relations between Russia and the U.S. and affects the interests of China, i.e. has a negative effect on the possible transition to the many-sided format of nuclear arms reduction.
There are goods grounds for believing that in time of peace it is impossible to make a deliberate decision to use nuclear weapon. It was impossible even at the peak of the Cold War. If during an armed conflict and early warning system gives a signal of missile attack, there is a chance that the information may be inaccurate. The reasons for such inaccuracy can include hardware failures, intended jamming, changes in the condition of magnetosphere due to solar perturbations, untimely receipt of notifications of planned missile launch, etc. At the same time, in accordance with the adopted procedures, information of such sort should be escalated to the most senior officer entitled to make a decision to use nuclear weapons. When the condition of mutual nuclear deterrence is maintained and missiles of the opposing side are located at distances ensuring short flying time, a decision on the response to a missile attack is to be made under time pressure.
In times of peace, when a possibility of a sudden nuclear attack is excluded, it is necessary to ensure that senior leaders do not receive alarming information from early warning systems. However, this would require creating conditions for personnel who service the early warning systems as to allow them to foresee false signals or to identify the reasons as soon as possible.
An attempt to organize the work of early warning systems operators in such a manner was made in 2000, when Russia and the U.S. signed a Memorandum of Agreement on the Establishment in Moscow of a Joint Center for Exchange of Data from Early Warning Systems. It envisaged joint work of Russian and American personnel, using national hardware, with a possibility to create its electrical interface later in time.
Even at the initial stage of work organization, the joint council could indeed free the highest authorities from considering false information that could lead to inadequate decisions and using nuclear weapons.
It is necessary to go back to the ideas originated 15 years ago but not to stop there. Both countries build their nuclear weapon management systems using space facilities, which simultaneously perform functions of the first echelon of an early warning system and command information transmitting media. Safety is highly dependent on the reliability of space systems of various purposes. Therefore, the joint monitoring of a situation in the space becomes an objective reality.
Furthermore, it would be expedient to involve representatives of other countries, for example, China, to the work of the Center. This is, in turn, an element of the many-sided mode of control and prevention of nuclear weapon use. It is necessary to move from the idea of creation of the Data Exchange Center to creation of a Joint Center for Prevention of Nuclear War. When it comes to the reduction of the readiness of nuclear weapons in time of peace, it should be aimed, mainly, to use the process of restoration of the combat readiness to strengthen the deterring role of nuclear weapon during war confrontation.
If a war conflict begins, other factors affecting the possibility to use nuclear weapons come into play. Such time requires additional measures aimed to increase the combat readiness of nuclear weapons and livability of both the weapons and their management system. It is important to design a set of measures aimed to restore and to increase the combat readiness, which could be used to restrain further escalation of the conflict. To ensure this, such measures should be demonstrative, i.e. sufficiently open.
Thus, creation of a Joint International Center for Prevention of Nuclear War would include a principally new element into the many-sided mode of control of nuclear armament. The potential of the restraining role of nuclear weapon is increasing while the risk of its use is decreasing.
In general, the Russian-American relations still have no grounds to reanimate the Cold War and to balance on the brink of guaranteed mutual destruction. In the face of common threats, geopolitical interests have distinct boundaries of influence on the process of worsening of the two-sided atmosphere. However, the outlined tendencies do not allow to hope for its fast improvement. Hence, we must not forget the positive experience accumulated during the decades of the Cold War.
• Pavel Zolotarev is a retired general and deputy director of the Institute for U.S. and Canadian Studies of the Russian Academy of Science.