At the end of a lonely one-lane North Dakota farm road, beneath a squat, unremarkable concrete building, the elevator descends surprisingly slowly. Eventually its doors open to reveal a cramped space occupied by two junior Air Force officers. Their room smells of disinfectant and floor wax. Banks of computers blink silently. The lieutenants are U.S. missile control officers, and it is from their hands that one or more Minuteman III
strategic nuclear missiles might one day burst from their hidden silos and roar toward their targets, each one carrying 20 to 30 times more thermonuclear explosive power than "Little Boy,'' the primitive U.S. atomic bomb that leveled Hiroshima in 1945.
It seemed a little musty down there as I poked around, checking out the fold-up latrine tucked away behind a curtain and gaping at the dirt-choked escape hatch through which the two lieutenants were supposed to dig their way to post-Apocalypse freedom in event their control room was crushed by exploding enemy warheads.
That visit took place some years ago, but the same stale scent now is wafting up from the morning papers. In the first, faint stirrings of political debate about the proposed "new'' Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty
between the United States and Russia have come words I haven't heard since the 1980s: "appease,'' "capitulation,'' "weakness,'' "squander,'' "naïve.''
If this is any indication, the struggle to win ratification of the treaty to be signed April 8 by President Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in Prague will require replaying some of the most annoying rhetorical excesses of the Cold War. Yet proponents of Senate ratification believe time is on their side.
And, most Americans don't seem to be paying attention.
"Oh, is the Cold War over?'' jokes John Isaacs, a veteran observer of arms control politics, and director of the Washington-based Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation.
"The public cared deeply in the 1970s and 1980s about arms control and treaties were a big deal,'' Isaacs told me. I remember: my Quaker mother, late into her 80s, parked her wheelchair once a week beside a Pennsylvania highway with a sign that read, "No to Nuclear Weapons!''
Now, said Isaacs, "the public couldn't care less. People are interested in health care and jobs, and that changes the dynamics'' of the upcoming Senate debate on START. "You have people like Kyl raising questions," Isaacs said, referring to Sen. John Kyl (R-Ariz.), "but their concerns are not being backed up by the public.''
But the nuclear standoff between Washington and the Kremlin, once celebrated as the MAD Doctrine (mutual assured destruction) of joint suicide, lives on. We still maintain missiles meant for them, they have missiles meant for us
Unnoticed by most people, 450 Minuteman III missiles are humming away in their silos, ready to receive their last-minute pre-programmed target coordinates and the launch order. At sea, black-hulled submarines are outfitted with 288 missiles carrying more than 1,000 nuclear warheads. And stored in hardened shelters in the United States are 550 thermonuclear bombs designed to be carried on B-52 bombers.
From one of the Minuteman III silos, arc upwards and north over the Pole (a route forbidden to aircraft lest they be misinterpreted by early-warning radar as incoming enemy warheads) and you will come to an equally impressive array of Russian weapons: 383 silo-based intercontinental ballistic missiles carrying 1,355 warheads, submarines carrying 160 missiles with 576 warheads, 77 bombs, and a stockpile of 856 thermonuclear bombs.
Under the arcane counting rules of arms control, which have taken specialists generations to figure out, the parties will reduce their weapons to 1,550 each, requiring the United States to withdraw 265 weapons and Russia 458 weapons -- more or less, depending on how each chooses to apportion its stockpile among ICBMs, sub-launched missiles and bombers, and whether warheads are mounted singly or in clusters atop each missile.
These details have been difficult to work out because of minor differences in U.S. and Russian nuclear strategy and stockpiles.
Luckily, the more relentless arms reduction incentives have been the rising cost and declining usefulness of nuclear weapons. It used to be the United States could hold at bay its primary enemy, the Soviet Union, with a robust arsenal of nuclear weapons; conventional military forces -- planes, tanks, infantry -- were a lower budget priority. Since the early 1990s, though, conventional forces have been much more in demand, from Afghanistan to Haiti and the Korean peninsula.
And while large nuclear arsenals were once thought to be necessary to deter an attack by anyone -- the U.S. and USSR during the 1970s and 1980s maintained total stockpiles
of more than 20,000 warheads each -- strategists now recognize that deterrence can be had with far fewer weapons.
One reason is the increased precision of today's missiles. Another is that nuclear weapons aren't a credible threat to the Taliban, for instance, or Hezbollah, the Islamist extremist organization based in Lebanon. Blueprints for potential strikes against Iran or North Korea depend for purely tactical reasons more on conventional weapons than nuclear warheads.
For that reason, the Pentagon recently shifted responsibility for nuclear war-fighting from its Strategic Command into a new organization, the excitingly named U.S. Air Force Global Strike Command
. Its mission is to be able to attack "anywhere, anytime'' with conventional or
In this un-Cold War-like world, Defense Secretary Robert Gates
(who watched over Minuteman missiles himself in the 1960s as a young Air Force lieutenant) said last week, the new START treaty "strengthens nuclear stability'' by reducing arsenals on both sides and by providing "effective verification.'' A smaller U.S. nuclear force will easily be able to hold potential enemies at threat and "reassure more than two dozen allies and partners who rely on our nuclear umbrella for their security,'' he told reporters at the White House.
In the Senate, where the Foreign Relations Committee expects to begin hearings sometime before Memorial Day, Kyl has expressed the strongest reservations about the new treaty. He has demanded that the treaty put no limits on U.S. ballistic missile defenses, and that the U.S. should reduce its stockpile only if it replaces aging weapons with new ones. (The Obama administration said there are no constraints on missile defenses in the treaty, and has asked Congress for money for nuclear warhead modernization).
Kyl is not a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, which is expected to recommend ratification of the treaty by the full Senate. But as minority whip and an acknowledged expert on strategic issues
, his is an influential voice.
More strident voices have come from the partisan think tanks in town, including the Heritage Foundation
and Frank Gaffney's Center for Security Policy
. Gaffney, a former nuclear policy official in the first Reagan administration, began a long attack on the proposed treaty this way: "The first thing to note about the Obama treaty is that it confers real advantages on the Russians ...''
But "the biggest problem of all'' with the proposed treaty, Gaffney went on to observe, is that it's a product of President Obama's fixation with "devaluing nuclear weapons'' and ridding the world of them. Obama, he wrote, is "condemning the nation to unilateral disarmament.''
Never mind that President Reagan shared with Obama, and President John Kennedy, the same goal of eventual global nuclear disarmament.
But that remains a lofty goal. For now, the hard work is coming up in the Senate. But with the public opting out of the debate so far, Isaacs doesn't see any gains for the GOP to oppose the treaty. "There are no votes to be gotten by killing START,'' he assured me.
Maybe not. Meanwhile, the Minuteman III missiles and their Russian counterparts will continue on alert, humming quietly in their well-maintained silos and waiting for an electric jolt to start them on their way.