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On various occasions, there have been “close calls” to annihilation:
[In 1995] President Boris Yeltsin was informed that a nuclear missile was speeding towards the heart of Russia. Russian nuclear forces, already on a hair-trigger alert, were put on even higher alert, ready to launch at his command.
The fate of the planet hung in the balance as hundreds of millions of people were going about their daily lives.
Russian policy called for a “launch on warning.” “Use them or loose them.”
Yeltsin wisely waited. And within those fateful moments, the Russians were able to declare a false alarm. An unimaginable nuclear disaster had barely been avoided.
— Innovation In Arms Control: De-Alerting, America’s Defense Monitor, Center for Defense Information, December 26, 1999
And over a decade earlier than that:
In 1983 the American investigative journalist Jack Anderson revealed the following:
On November 19, 1980, Capt. Henry Winsett and 1st Lt. David Mosley were conducting a reliability test of their Titan missile at McConnell Air Force Base near Wichita, Kan. The drill was to be a simulated launching. To fire the liquid-fueled Titan, both missile officers in the command capsule must turn keys simultaneously after receiving the proper “enabling” code. This unlocks a butterfly valve, allowing two chemicals to combine and ignite, launching the missile. This time, when Winsett and Mosley went into their prescribed drill, strange things started happening. “We had a green light on the butterfly valve lock control that was not supposed to have a light at all,” Mosely recalled. The two officers turned the keys.
“Instead of giving us the lights that said the test had begun, it said, ‘Launch OK’ and ‘Launch Sequence Go’ which means you're actually in the launch sequence,” Mosely said. In desparation, Winsett shut the missile down—pulled the plug. It was the only way to keep the thing from taking off, he said. The incident was confirmed by both men. Mosely said they couldn’t be absolutely certain the missile’s guidance system would have steered it to a target in the Soviet Union, which would have invited certain retaliation. But he said that “it probably would have gone north”. It was a close call that still gives Mosley the tremors. As he puts it, he and Winsett “saved the world” that day.
— Jack Anderson, Parade, August 14, 1983. Quoted by John Pilger, Heroes, (Vintage 2001), pp 143 - 144
Nuclear Proliferation Treaties Under Pressure
There have been a number of significant and controversial treaties to try and control nuclear weapons:
- The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT)
- The NPT was ratified in 1975. It has been ratified by 187 countries, more than any other arms limitation and disarmament agreement. The objective is “to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons and weapons technology, to promote co-operation in the peaceful uses of nuclear energy and to further the goal of achieving nuclear disarmament and general and complete disarmament.” Some 180+ countries thus agreed not to pursue nuclear weapons in exchange for the nuclear powers to adhere to treaties that would have the goal of eliminating nuclear weapons. However, as others have put more bluntly, this treaty was to prevent new members from joining the “nuclear club.”
- The Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty
- The ABM Treaty, signed in 1972, prohibits the use of defensive systems that might give an advantage to one side in a nuclear war. The Mutually Assured Destruction scenario was invoked here to assure that each nation had enough weapons to survive a nuclear attack and therefore have the ability to annihilate the other. Their rationale was that as long as both sides remained defenseless, in this respect, neither country would dare attack the other.
- The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT)
- The CTBT was designed to prevent testing of nuclear weapons and hence reduce the chance of an arms race.
- The Strategic Arms Reduction Treaties, START I and START II
- START I and II were designed to reduce the weapons that Russia and the US have.
All four of these have been under pressure for a few years:
- The NPT is seen by some critics as a means for the five nuclear powers at that time to retain their weapons while telling others not to develop them, and thus allow these five to remain militarily more powerful than other nations. This is feared to then provide a pretext for other countries to develop their own nuclear weapons. For example,
- India, Pakistan, Israel and Cuba did not sign the NPT.
- India and Pakistan went nuclear in 1998.
- Israel is known to have nuclear capabilities too.
- North Korea went nuclear in 2006. (More on this below.)
- The US is currently looking at developing an expensive national missile defense system, which goes against the ABM treaty. [Since writing this page initially, the U.S. has withdrawn from the ABM Treaty.]
- Although President Clinton had signed it in 1995, the US Senate rejected the CTBT in 1999. Other countries such as China and Iran are also “balking” on the idea, using the excuses of U.S. policies and costs, for example, as reported by Reuters (March 7, 2002).
- Russia initially stalled on START II because of the USA’s national missile defense program. However, they finally endorsed the treaty in April 2000, but warned that if the US still pursues its missile defense program, which goes against the ABM treaty, then Russia would pull out of the arms negotiations.
While the major nuclear powers have agreed to eliminate their nuclear arsenal at a UN review of the NPT, it remains to be seen how much of that will be rhetoric and how much real political will there will be to follow it through.
The US Nuclear Superpower
North Korea and Nuclear Weapons
Iran and Nuclear Weapons
Ultimately, the threat of more nuclear weapons, of increased arms races and insecurity are all diversions of precious resources that lots of countries can ill-afford. Close calls on nuclear annihilation, such as the two examples at the beginning of this article, may become harder to avoid.
5 articles on “Nuclear Weapons” and 1 related issue:
Last updated Thursday, September 15, 2005.
Read “The US Nuclear Superpower” to learn more.
Last updated Sunday, October 29, 2006.
Read “North Korea and Nuclear Weapons” to learn more.
Last updated Tuesday, December 06, 2011.
Iran has had a turbulent history in just its recent past. From a democracy in the 1950s, Iran seems to have moved backwards, from an authoritarian regime (backed by Britain and the US) that overthrew the democratic one, to a religious fundamentalist regime toppling the authoritarian one and taking an anti-US stance.
The US ended its support for Iran and instead supported Iraq in a brutal war through the 1980s against Iran where over 1 million people died. More recently, Iran was described as being part of an “axis of evil” by US President George Bush, as part of his “war on terror.”
The US has also accused Iran of pursuing the development of nuclear weapons, while Iran says it is only pursuing peaceful development. Internally, movements towards moderate policies and democratic values are gaining traction, but not with hardliners in power trying to hold on. This section looks into these and related issues.
Read “Iran” to learn more.
Last updated Sunday, October 08, 2000.
Read “India and Pakistan go Nuclear” to learn more.
Last updated Monday, August 07, 2000.
Read “The US and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty” to learn more.
Last updated Sunday, June 30, 2013.
Read “Arms Control” to learn more.