Though Russia and the U.S. agreed five years ago to reduce their nuclear arsenal to just 1,500 weapons each, they still have more than 2,000 “ready-to-fly” nuclear warheads to destroy each other at a moment’s notice. The rising distrust between the Cold War foes has increased the risk of a miscalculation leading to a nuclear disaster.
What could trigger an accidental attack?
According to a report published by the disarmament group Global Zero, Russia and the U.S. face a serious risk of “accidental” nuclear confrontation. The report was authored by James Cartwright, the former vice chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff and retired Russian Major General Vladimir Dvorkin. They have appealed the United States and Russia to “de-alert” their nuclear arsenals.
They said that the accidental confrontation could be spurred by a misreading of the other side’s intentions or a flawed intelligence. Moscow and Washington still practice the Cold War doctrine of “launch on warning.” Under this strategy, a country keeps its warheads ready for launch. Upon detecting the launch of an enemy rocket, they have just a few minutes to decide whether to retaliate with a counter-strike as strategic missiles have a flight time of only about 15 minutes.
How Russia and the U.S. can avoid accidental confrontation
The problem is there could be misleading indications of imminent enemy attack. The emergence of cyber warfare has increased the risk of false alerts from early warning systems. So, there is a significantly high potential for an error and opportunities for panicky decisions are quite real. Other risks include unauthorized launches and accidental detonations.
Cartwright and Dvorkin told Politico that the two countries should “de-alert” their warheads and require more steps to be taken to prepare the nuclear weapons for launch. It will allow them develop better information before reacting. In March, Western countries were alarmed after reports surfaced that Russia was fully prepared to launch nuclear bombs during the Crimea crisis.