Four Minutes to Armageddon
Richard Nixon, Barack Obama, and the nuclear alert.
by David E. Hoffman
April 2, 2010
Just one week into his presidency, on Jan. 27, 1969, Richard M. Nixon got an eye-opening briefing at the Pentagon on the nation's secret nuclear war plans -- the Single Integrated Operational Plan, as it was known then. "It didn't fill him with enthusiasm," Henry Kissinger, the national security advisor, said later. The briefers walked Nixon through the absolutely excruciating decision a president would face upon receiving an alert of impending attack: whether to launch nuclear missiles.
The slides used to brief Nixon that day have been partially declassified and released by the National Security Archive, and they suggest how complex the whole decision process would be. In the event of nuclear war, Nixon was told, he would have three functional tasks: Alpha, for strikes on the most urgent military targets; Bravo, for secondary military targets; and Charlie, for industrial and urban targets. If the president ordered an attack of Alpha and Bravo, urban areas would be spared. But beyond these were dozens of decisions, attack options, targets, and variations. There were committed forces and coordinated forces, hard-core forces and theater forces. Nixon was shown the "decisions handbook" or black book, with tabs, which was open in front of him.
At the end of the briefing, Nixon was shown a slide marked "Conclusion." He was reassured the war plan was flexible and responsive. "Procedures for execution are straight-forward and in themselves neither new or unusually complicated," Nixon was told. "It is in the decision-making process, the evaluation and selection of the many attack responses available, wherein the problem becomes complex."
Then the briefer warned:
"In a crisis mounted over a period of time, it should be possible to eliminate early some of the alternatives, such as whether or not to attack particular countries. In a long, drawn out crisis, with highly intensified force readiness on one or both sides, it may be even possible to eliminate from further consideration some of the attack options. But in a sudden emergency, with little or no warning, all of these considerations must be entertained and discussed with the president [pause] and perhaps in no more than a very few minutes."
Such a nightmare scenario hung over the Cold War until the very end, and even beyond. No one really could predict how a president or Soviet leader would react when faced with a do-or-die choice in just minutes. The imponderables troubled every American and Soviet leader of the nuclear age. And the high state of readiness of the weapons, on alert to fire in a short period, reflected the very deep tensions of the era.
In the early 1980s,
Next week, this terrifying dilemma will be in the spotlight again. Sources tell me that President Obama's new Nuclear Posture Review, which is expected to come out before he heads to
Now that the
According to a study published last October, the
The study, published by the East-West Institute, which brought together American and Russian participants, noted that military forces have been on heightened readiness for centuries, so it is not surprising that at least some nuclear forces today remain so. But, the study added, nuclear alert levels "have remained immune to major change" since the end of the Cold War.
In his campaign, the president's statement on defense issues declared: "[W]e should take our nuclear weapons off hair-trigger alert. ... Maintaining this Cold War stance today is unnecessary and increases the risk of an accidental or unauthorized nuclear launch. As president, Obama will work with
The classic idea of de-alerting would be a technical fix, perhaps removing some part of the weapon to another location. Bruce G. Blair, then of the Brookings Institution and now president of the World Security Institute, outlined the case for dealerting in a 1995 publication, Global Zero Alert for Nuclear Forces. It is an appealing idea, but has consistently run into strong opposition from the military, which fears that the whole process of putting the pieces back together again -- realerting -- could create more unnecessary panic and uncertainty. It could also be very difficult to verify; if submarines are invulnerable because they are hidden under the seas, how would the other side know if they were being re-alerted?
Obama's nuclear posture review looked at de-alerting the missiles, but the president has decided not to propose it in the sense of physically altering the weapons. Rather, the review is expected to highlight the need to get to the root of the problem: move away from nuclear doctrines and postures that would lead to a prompt launch. The Obama review is expected to seek ways to give the president more "early warning and decision time" in the event of an emergency situation, such as receiving a report of an incoming missile. The logic is this: If a president has more time to gather information, to check the data, and to consult with others, he will be less likely to make a catastrophic mistake. Former Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), has advocated this as an alternative to earlier de-alerting ideas.
This topic has always been exceedingly difficult to negotiate with Moscow-it touches the sensitive and secret nuclear weapons command and control procedures of each country. Yet it cries out for mutual action. An agreement in 2000 between the
It might also give the president more time for a calm, sane decision if his military aide suddenly begins uttering the words: "Alpha, Bravo, Charlie."
David E. Hoffman is a contributing editor to the Washington Post and the author of The Dead Hand: The Untold Story of the Cold War Arms Race and Its Dangerous Legacy.