(OT) Whose bright idea was this?

Message posted by Chris McDowell on October 05, 2006 at 23:56:42 PST:

Experts warn of accidental nuke war

Web Posted: 10/06/2006 12:12 AM CDT

Eric Rosenberg
Hearst Newspapers

WASHINGTON A Pentagon project to modify its deadliest nuclear missile for use as a conventional weapon against targets such as North Korea and Iran could unwittingly spark an atomic war, two weapons experts warned Thursday.

Russian military officers might misconstrue a submarine-launched conventional D-5 intercontinental ballistic missile and conclude that Russia is under nuclear attack, said MIT's Ted Postol, a physicist and professor of science, technology and national security policy.

"Any launch of a long-range non-nuclear armed sea or land ballistic missile will cause an automated alert of the Russian early warning system," he said.

The triggering of an alert wouldn't necessarily precipitate a retaliatory hail of Russian nuclear missiles, Postol said.

Nevertheless, he said, "there can be no doubt that such an alert will greatly increase the chances of a nuclear accident involving strategic nuclear forces."

Pavel Podvig, a physicist and weapons specialist at Stanford University, said launching conventional versions of a missile from a submarine that normally carries nuclear ICBMs "expands the possibility for a misunderstanding so widely that it is hard to contemplate."

Mixing conventional and nuclear D-5s on a U.S. Trident submarine "would be very dangerous," Podvig said, because the Russians have no way of discriminating between the two types of missiles once they're launched.

Russian President Vladimir Putin warned that the project would increase the danger of accidental nuclear war.

"The media and expert circles are already discussing plans to use intercontinental ballistic missiles to carry non-nuclear warheads," he said in May. "The launch of such a missile could ... provoke a full-scale counter-attack using strategic nuclear forces."

Accidental nuclear war isn't so far-fetched. In 1995, Russia first interpreted the launch of a Norwegian scientific rocket as the onset of a U.S. nuclear strike. Then-President Boris Yeltsin activated his "nuclear briefcase" in the first stages of preparation to launch a retaliatory strike before the mistake was discovered.

The U.S. and Russia have acknowledged the possibility that Russia's equipment might mistakenly conclude the U.S was attacking with nuclear missiles.

In 1998, the two countries agreed to set up a joint radar center in Moscow manned by U.S and Russian forces to supplement Russia's aging equipment and reduce the threat of accidental war. But the center hasn't opened.

A major technical problem exacerbates the risk of using the D-5 as a conventional weapon: the decaying state of Russia's nuclear forces.

Russia's nuclear missiles are tethered to early-warning radars that have been in general decline since the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. And Russia, unlike the U.S., lacks sufficient satellites to supplement the radars and confirm whether missile launches are truly under way or are false alarms.

The scenario that worries weapons experts is what might happen if the U.S. and North Korea come to blows and a conventional D-5 is launched against a target there from a submerged Trident submarine.

Depending on the sub's location, the flying time to Russia could be under 15 minutes, so the Russians would have little time to confirm the trajectory using decaying equipment before deciding to launch a nuclear strike on the U.S.

The D-5 missile project involves the removal of nuclear warheads from as many as two-dozen D-5 ICBMs carried aboard the U.S. fleet of 12 Trident subs. The Pentagon's goal is to field the weapons alongside their nuclear variants in two years.


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