Share this article

print logo

TAKE THE U.S. AND RUSSIA BACK ANOTHER STEP FROM THE NUCLEAR BRINK

One of the hot-button lines President Clinton developed in the 1996 campaign was something about how, for the first time since the Cold War began, no Russian missiles are pointed toward American children as they sleep in their beds at night.

Pause for applause.

Conveniently, the president did not expand the thought. He did not mention that the United States and the Russians have nuclear missiles pointed toward the open seas that could be repositioned to target each other's mainland in 30 seconds.

There has been great progress in reducing the size of U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals. The move to point the missiles out to sea is a vital step back from the hair-trigger alert of the past. But the nukes are far from gone.

"This morning's alert rate is 99.6 percent," an Air Force officer announced at a Burns, Wyo., missile base visited recently by a reporter for the New York Times.

Nuclear missiles loaded with huge nuclear payloads are still ready to go on both sides. It's a good bet most Americans are not aware of the magnitude of the arsenal or the quickness with which it can be deployed. Surely Clinton's campaign oratory did not enlighten them.

The United States spends about $28 billion a year to maintain about 7,500 nuclear warheads at the ready in bombproof underground stations in lightly populated areas of Wyoming, Colorado and Nebraska. That's the same punch as about 145,000 Hiroshima bombs, the Times calculates.

Any dangers?

While military personnel insist there is virtually no possibility of an accidental missile firing on this side, human error is never vanquished altogether from any endeavor. The most serious possibility is an accident somewhere or terrorism at the hands of renegades who violently take over nuclear facilities. It takes very little to get the missiles targeted toward a mainland again.

Another danger is in the very weakness of Russia's economy and government -- ironically, the same weakness that has reduced it from superpower status. It is harder for a country with a weakened and disaffected military to ensure that its nuclear force will be responsibly managed. At the same time, because its regular military forces have been greatly reduced, Russia's missile arsenal takes on more importance in its national defense.

The time has come for the United States and Russia to negotiate the next step in falling back from preparedness for instant missile war, something that would make it more time-consuming for each side to put its warheads into action, something that eases the hair-trigger position.

It's called de-alerting. It could be something as basic as removing guidance circuit boards from the missiles. A Pentagon committee is studying the range of de-alerting possibilities.

Fortunately, there is growing support of a bipartisan nature in Congress for de-alerting measures. Russia and NATO are studying them, too.

With eased tensions between the two nations, and with Russia eager to become part of the Western economic system, there is less reason than ever for enmity. Meanwhile, U.S. military planners are talking about whether the nuclear arsenal should be considered something broader and more flexible than an anti-Russia weapon.

Washington and Moscow are positioned for a negotiated step-back -- something both nations could do to lessen the possibility of accidents or terrorism. It should be carefully considered and done in good faith. In the end, though, it would make the world safer for everyone.

And it would put Clinton's campaign boast a bit closer to being accurate.