For 40 years, we have lived with a situation so bizarre it is almost beyond belief.
U.S. nuclear forces have been controlled by a "launch on warning" strategy. In order to reduce the number of our weapons that would be destroyed by a Russian first strike, our warheads stand ready to be launched while Russian warheads are in flight. No more than 15 minutes can elapse, under the policy, from the time of first warning of a Russian attack and the launching of our missiles, which means the president must evaluate the danger and decide whether or not to push the button with no time to study the situation.
To make that possible, the commander-in-chief of the U.S. Strategic Air Command carries with him a secure telephone, no matter where he goes, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. This telephone is linked to the underground nuclear command post of the North American Aerospace Defense Command, deep inside Cheyenne Mountain in Colorado, and to the president. The president, wherever he happens to be, always has at hand nuclear release codes in the "football," a briefcase carried for him by a U.S. military officer.
The standing orders of the commander of the strategic forces are that he must be able to answer the telephone by the end of the third ring. If it rings, and if he is informed that a nuclear attack of enemy ballistic missiles appears to be underway, he is allowed two to three minutes to decide whether the warning is valid (over the years, we have received many false warnings) and, if it is, to formulate his recommendation to the president. In the next 10 minutes, the president must be located and advised. He must discuss the situation with two or three of his closest advisors (presumably the secretary of defense and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff) and transmit his decision, along with the codes, to the launch sites.
The president's options would essentially be these: He could decide to ride out the attack and defer until later any decision to launch a retaliatory strike. Or he could order an immediate strike, thereby launching U.S. weapons that were targeted on military-industrial assets in Russia. The Russians presumably have analogous facilities and arrangements.
The possibility of nuclear extinction is real. It exists today, this minute, despite the fact that the Cold War ended more than a decade ago. It is true that the U.S. and Russia have made substantial reductions in their arsenals since the late 1980s--between 1987 and 1998, the U.S. reduced its nuclear force from 13,600 strategic warheads to approximately 7,500, with the Soviet Union and Russia moving from 8,600 strategic warheads to about 6,450. Yet in terms of the security of the human race from nuclear holocaust, these reductions still leave the U.S. with the capacity to kill approximately 67 million Russians using only one-third of its forces, while the Russians can kill 75 million Americans, using 40% of their weapons. This assumes that each side's weapons are directed at military targets: Many more people could be killed, with far fewer weapons, if population centers were made the principal objective of an attack.
Nuclear weapons blast, burn and irradiate with a speed and finality that is almost incomprehensible. This is exactly what the U.S. and Russia continue to threaten to do to one another with their nuclear weapons. It is useful to recall what happened when the U.S. dropped one atomic bomb each on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945. These bombs had roughly one-twentieth of the destructive power of the average bomb in our arsenal today. In Hiroshima, approximately 200,000 died--men, women, and children. In Nagasaki, an estimated 100,000 died. On November 7, 1995, Itcho Ito, the mayor of Nagasaki, recalled in testimony to the International Court of Justice his memory of the attack:
"Nagasaki became a city of death where not even the sound of insects could be heard. After a while, countless men, women and children began to gather for a drink of water at the banks of the nearby Urakami River. Their hair and clothing scorched and their burnt skin hanging off in sheets like rags." Begging for help, they died one after another in the water or in heaps on the banks. The radiation began to take its toll, killing people like the scourge of death expanding in concentric circles from the hypocenter. Four months after the atomic bombing, 75,000 had suffered injuries, that is, two-thirds of the city's population had fallen victim to this calamity that came upon Nagasaki like a preview of the Apocalypse.
Why did so many civilians have to die? The U.S. was seeking to end the war without having to fight its way to Tokyo, island by island, and the civilians, who made up nearly all of the victims in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, were unfortunately living and working near military targets. While their annihilation was not precisely the objective of those targeting the bombs, it was an inevitable result of the choice of those targets.