Saturday, June 28, 2008

Steve Andreasen: With nuclear weapons, a lot can go wrong

Steve Andreasen penned an interesting op-ed in Thursday’s Star Tribune in which he argues that the recent spat of errors involving nuclear weapons underscores the potential dangers associated with maintaining tactical nuclear weapons. Provided below are the key points of his piece.

Most Americans -- including senior government and military officials -- would have thought absurd a sequence of events whereby nuclear-armed cruise missiles could be mistakenly loaded under the wing of a B-52 bomber in North Dakota and flown across the country to a base in Louisiana without anyone knowing the nuclear warheads were aboard the plane, or that they were missing from their base, for 36 hours. Yet, this is exactly what happened in August 2007.

Shockingly, this was only one slip-up with respect to nuclear weapons security that led Defense Secretary Robert Gates to remove the Air Force's top two officials this month. In March, it was disclosed that the Air Force had mistakenly shipped parts for nuclear missiles to Taiwan, believing the equipment to be helicopter batteries. And just last week, another disclosure from an internal Air Force Blue Ribbon Review conducted after the B-52 incident: that "most" bases that store U.S. nuclear weapons in Europe do not meet Department of Defense security requirements.

That U.S. nuclear weapons in Europe have not been under the most stringent lock and key could and should spark a long-overdue discussion within NATO regarding the role of short-range, or "tactical," nuclear weapons in European security -- and whether the benefits of continuing these nuclear deployments outweigh the risks.


One of the most important security threats relevant to those bonds is the threat of nuclear terrorism. The presence of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons in Europe has little if any relevance to dealing with this problem -- terrorists are unlikely to be deterred by the threat of nuclear retaliation. More likely, the continued existence of tactical nuclear weapons exacerbates the terrorist threat, as these weapons are smaller and more portable and thus are inviting targets for theft -- especially if the bases storing these weapons are not adequately secured.

Despite the recently documented failings surrounding the security of U.S. nuclear weapons, the more alarming issue from the standpoint of nuclear terrorism is the security of Russian tactical nuclear arms. Russia continues to deploy its own arsenal of thousands of short-range nuclear bombs opposite NATO -- and claims with Buck Turgidson-like certainty that there is "no" possibility of a security breach "ever" occurring. Moreover, Russia points to the continued presence of U.S. nuclear weapons on European soil as a reason for keeping its own.

Recent events have given the United States, NATO and Russia fair warning that unless we collectively break free from our nuclear autopilot, we may be heading for a nuclear catastrophe. Former Secretaries of State George Shultz and Henry Kissinger, former Secretary of Defense Bill Perry, and former Sen. Sam Nunn have called for a dialogue within NATO -- as the attitudes of European governments and publics on this point are crucial -- and with Russia on consolidating these weapons to enhance their security and as a first step toward their elimination. Both John McCain and Barack Obama have made statements indicating their support for reducing and eliminating tactical nuclear weapons. Let's make sure they don't forget about this in 2009.

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