President Obama's new Nuclear Posture Review is being hailed as a commonsense acknowledgment that in the modern age, nuclear proliferation and nuclear terrorism are of greater concern than an apocalyptic battle between superpowers, and that no country, including our own, should use nuclear weapons except in the case of a threat to its very survival.
But the review doesn't recommend any change in the alert status of our nuclear arsenal. That leaves over 2,000 American and Russian nuclear weapons ready to launch on a few minute's notice, a dangerous legacy of the Cold War that not only puts about 100 million of us potentially less than an hour away from annihilation at any moment, but also hugely increases the risk of a mistaken launch or a weapon falling into the hands of terrorists.
During the presidential campaign, Obama promised he would do something about that. In an April 2007 speech, he was crystal clear: "[I]f we want the world to de-emphasize the role of nuclear weapons, the United States and Russia must lead by example. President Bush once said, 'The United States should remove as many weapons as possible from high-alert, hair-trigger status -- another unnecessary vestige of Cold War confrontation.' Six years later, President Bush has not acted on this promise. I will. We cannot and should not accept the threat of accidental or unauthorized nuclear launch."
But according to the Washington Post, the military balked, and the new nuclear posture document only recommends "evaluating additional options to increase warning and decision time."
And the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) with Russia that Obama will sign on Thursday, while reducing the overall arsenals of both countries -- and decreasing the number of deployable warheads by about a third, to 1,500 -- doesn't change their alert status.
So make that one more campaign promise broken.
Bruce G. Blair, a long-time arms control activist who now lead the World Security Institute, tells HuffPost that keeping all those American and Russian nuclear weapons in constant readiness hugely increases the risk of something going terribly wrong.
Our own command-and-control of nuclear warheads isn't that great -- remember the six armed nuclear missiles that were unwittingly loaded onto a B-52 a couple years back? But it's still a lot better than the Russians'.
What happens if there's a false alarm on the Russian side? Or if terrorists capture one of the many warheads routinely being transported to and fro to maintain readiness?
"The two sides continue to posture as if this Cold War lunacy is still operative," Blair says. "We've really got to come to grips with what it means to say that nuclear proliferation and nuclear terrorism are our top priorities."
If those are indeed the real threats -- not a preemptive strike by the Russians -- "then let's make the trade-off here, and the trade-off is that we lock down the weapons. Take them off alert, lock them down. But of course we have to do that together."
Blair adds: "We don't want to set a bad example for other countries that are going down this road," Blair said, noting that, for instance, "both India and Pakistan are moving in the direction of having a higher ability to deploy and use nuclear weapons.
"As the world proliferates, this is magnifying the danger of mistaken launch, of accidental use, of unauthorized use -- and of capture," Blair said. "I think this is the single most serious danger that we are dealing with."
Dan Froomkin is senior Washington correspondent for the Huffington Post. You can send him an e-mail, bookmark his page; subscribe to RSS feed, follow him on Twitter, friend him on Facebook, and/or become a fan and get e-mail alerts when he writes.