While Russia and the U.S. agreed in 2010 to reduce their nuclear arsenal to about 1,500 warheads each, the two countries are aggressively upgrading their nuclear weapons. The U.S. and Russia together have 93% of the world’s nuclear stockpile. Ukraine crisis has brought down the relations between Moscow and Washington to historic lows.
Russia and the U.S. still practice Cold War-era nuclear doctrine
In a column published in The New York Times, the former US Marine Corps General James E. Cartwright and former Russian Major General Vladimir Dvorkin said that a nuclear war was a serious and real threat. They believe that rising tensions between the two countries, modern technologies, and Cold War-era nuclear doctrines all point to the possibility of a nuclear war. Last month, reports surfaced that Russian President Vladimir Putin had put nuclear warheads on alert during the Crimea crisis last year.
Cartwright and Dvorkin say that the Cold War-era nuclear doctrine is still practiced by the U.S. and Russia. It dictates three strategic options: first strike, post-attack retaliation and launch on warning. Of them, launch on warning is the riskiest scenario. Under this strategy, a country fires its nuclear missiles upon detecting the launch of enemy rockets. It relies on ground radar and early-warning satellites for information about the launch of enemy missiles.
Russia and U.S. should eliminate launch on warning from their strategies
Strategic missiles have a flight time of about 15-30 minutes, so the target country has only a few minutes to decide whether to launch after detection of an apparent attack. Due to the emergence of cyber-warface, there is a significantly high potential for false alerts from early warning systems. So, there is a likelihood of error and the opportunities for ill-considered decisions are quite real.
Cartwright and Dvorkin said that the presidents of Russia and the United States should discuss and eliminate the launch on warning option from their nuclear strategies. The two countries should restart military-to-military talks, which were suspended due to the Ukraine crisis, “to pursue this stand-down as an urgent priority.” A joint decision on this will not affect either country’s nuclear deterrence, they said. Once the Russia-U.S. relations are restored, they can explore detailed verification measures.