UCS Blog - The Equation (Nuclear Weapons)

We’ve Said It, the Post Says It, Now SciAm Too: Take Weapons Off Alert

In the March 2017 issue of Scientific American, the editorial board calls for the United States to take its nuclear missiles off hair-trigger alert as a way to reduce the risk of mistaken or accidental launch of nuclear weapons.

Minuteman launch officers in an underground command center (Source: US Air Force)

It joins the editorial boards of the New York Times and Washington Post, among others, in supporting this step.

Both the United States and Russia keep about 900 nuclear weapons on hair-trigger alert, ready to be launched in minutes. If satellites and radars send warning of an incoming attack, the goal is to be able to launch their missiles quickly—before the attacking warheads could land.

But the warning systems are not foolproof. The Scientific American editors point to some of the real-world cases of false warning of nuclear attack—in both the Soviet Union/Russia and the United States—that led the countries to begin launch preparations and increased the risk that nuclear weapons would be used.

This risk is exacerbated by the very short timeline for responding to such warning. Military officers would have only minutes to determine whether the warning that shows up on their computer screens is real. Defense officials would have maybe a minute to brief the president on the situation. The president would then have only minutes to decide whether to launch.

Former Secretary of Defense William Perry warned recently that land-based missiles are simply too easy to launch on bad information.

Taking missiles off hair-trigger alert and eliminating options to launch on warning would end this risk.

Cyber threats

The editors also note an additional set of concerns that calls for taking missiles off hair-trigger alert:

The need for better preventive steps has also become more acute because of sophisticated cybertechnologies that could, in theory, hack into a command-and-control system to fire a missile that is ready to launch.

This risk was highlighted in an op-ed in yesterday’s New York Times by Bruce Blair, a former missile launch officer who has spent his career studying the command and control of US and Russian nuclear forces.

He points to two cases in the past two decades in which vulnerabilities to cyberattacks were discovered in US land- and sea-based missiles. And he warns of two possible sources of cyber-vulnerability that remain today. One is the possibility that someone could hack into the “tens of thousands of miles of underground cabling and the backup radio antennas used for launching Minuteman missiles.”

On the other possibility he says:

We lack adequate control over the supply chain for nuclear components—from design to manufacture to maintenance. We get much of our hardware and software off-the-shelf from commercial sources that could be infected by malware. We nevertheless routinely use them in critical networks. This loose security invites an attempt at an attack with catastrophic consequences.

A 2015 report chaired by General James Cartwright, former commander of US Strategic Command, put it this way:

In some respects the situation was better during the Cold War than it is today. Vulnerability to cyber attack, for example, is a new wild card in the deck. … This concern is reason enough to remove nuclear missiles from launch-ready alert.

It’s time to act

Even current Secretary of Defense James Mattis, in testifying to the Senate Armed Services Committee two years ago, raised the issue of getting rid of US land-based missiles in order to reduce the risk of mistaken launch, saying:

Is it time to reduce the Triad to a Diad, removing the land‐based missiles?  This would reduce the false alarm danger.

The Trump administration may not yet be ready to get rid of land-based missiles. But it could—today—take these missiles off their current hair-trigger alert status.

Taking that one step would significantly reduce the nuclear risk to the US public, and the world.

What’s the Skinny on President Trump’s Skinny Budget? All Bark, No Bite

It’s alarming to read headlines like: “EPA budget may be cut by 25% under Trump;” “DOE targeted for massive cuts in Trump draft budget;” “White House proposes steep cut to leading climate science agency;”and  “Trump wants 37% cut to State, USAID.” But if you find yourself getting swept up in the hysteria, just remember that the president doesn’t rule by fiat; he’s president, not emperor.

There is certainly reason for concern about the vulnerability of specific federal programs and line items to spending cuts. People who care about science and research, public health, innovation and clean energy, international diplomacy, extreme weather and climate change need to be vigilant in articulating the importance of these priorities to their congressional delegations.

But the reality is that our system of checks and balances, as well as good ole’ fashioned local politics, will make enacting the president’s budget nearly impossible.

Running the gauntlet of congress is hard

The president only controls one of the three co-equal branches of government. He doesn’t make law and he doesn’t hold the purse strings; that’s congress. And congress can’t pass a spending bill to fund the government without bipartisan support; 60 votes are needed and that means the Republicans need at least 8 votes from the other side of the aisle.

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Photo: Wikimedia

Reaching agreement on federal spending has always been challenging and congress is more divided now than ever. That’s why federal legislators have relied more and more in recent years on “continuing resolutions,” which keep the government going at the previous year’s spending levels.

More to the point, the kind of budget cuts the administration is proposing have the potential of uniting Democrats and Republicans in opposition, since they negatively impact both red and blue states indiscriminately. Fiscal conservatism, like talk, is cheap when it’s your own constituents threatened by proposed budget cuts.

Budget 101

How does the budget process work, in theory?

  • The president releases his annual budget request, which typically happens in early February, kicking off the budget process. Current budget law says that it should be submitted between the first Monday in January and the first Monday in February, although it’s not uncommon for this process to be delayed when a president is serving in his first year.
  • Congress then holds hearings on the budget, and the house and senate budget committees report out their own “non-binding” budget resolutions, which set the overall spending caps for the spending bills.
  • Congress passes the budget resolution, usually in April, and that kicks off the appropriations process.
  • The 12 Appropriations Subcommittees develop 12 separate annual bills that fund the government. Consideration of these bills begin in May and they are usually voted out of committee before the August recess.
  • Congress then has until September 30th (the end of the fiscal year) to pass the 12 appropriations bills. Differences between the senate and house bills must either be reconciled in conference, or one of those bills must pass both chambers, prior to reaching the president’s desk and being signed into law, or the government effectively shuts down.
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Photo: Wikiwand

Budget 102

This is 2017, though, and things are more likely to work like this:

Breaking from the tradition of a comprehensive budget request, President Trump is taking a piece-meal approach to the budget this year, the first piece of which is expected this week, focuses on defense and “discretionary spending.” We are likely to see a request for big increases in defense spending, paid for with steep cuts to other agency spending, like what we’ve been reading in the headlines. Additional pieces of his budget focused on “mandatory spending,” including big programs like Medicare and Social Security, are expected in April.

Congress doesn’t always pass a budget resolution, especially when one chamber is controlled by Republicans and the other is controlled by Democrats. But even with their own party currently in control of both the house and senate, the administration may have a hard time garnering the support of some Republican budget committee members, who have already publicly expressed opposition to draconian spending cuts at some agencies. If congress does pass a budget, it will likely contain very different spending levels from the president’s budget.

All indications are that the budget committees will move forward without the president, their only guidance being the fiscal year 2018 (fy18) sequestration caps in the 2011 Budget Control Act, which they will probably try to get rid of so they can increase military spending.

Appropriators in both chambers have indicated a desire to pass a spending package that avoids a government shutdown before April 28th, when the continuing resolution passed last year for fy17 expires.  But big differences between the house and senate make it just as likely that congress has to pass another continuing resolution to keep the government operating at level spending for the rest of fy17.

Appropriators will develop their fy18 bills and move them out of committee (in most cases along party lines), but controversial amendments, known as “riders,” and the 60 vote filibuster, all but assure that many of those 12 funding bills won’t pass the senate. Even in the Republican-controlled house where only a simple majority is needed to pass legislation, the “Freedom Caucus,” consisting of conservative Republican members who advocate for smaller government, has sometimes made it hard for Republican spending bills to move forward without receiving Democratic support.

Congress hasn’t made the September 30th deadline in over 20 years, so they’ll probably need to pass another continuing resolution to keep the government operating when the regular appropriations process again falls short.

And at some point, this will likely come down to a showdown where Republicans can’t pass a bill that is acceptable to both their right-wing base in the house and senate Democrats, who will hold tight in opposition to a budget that doesn’t reflect their interests.  Reaching agreement is going to be extremely difficult, and I can already see the blame game over the government shutdown. Will the country blame the Democrats or the Republicans? Personally I think they’re likely to blame the party in control.

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Photo: Wikimedia

If the president wants to gut National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) satellite programs, he’s going to have to convince Senator Richard Shelby (R-AL), the Chair of the Appropriations Subcommittee of jurisdiction, that his constituents in Mobile and along their coast won’t be harmed by reduced capacity to forecast hurricanes and plan for extreme weather that floods communities, destroys homes and ruins livelihoods.  He’s also going to have to convince subcommittee members and coastal senators Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), Susan Collins (R-ME), and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) of the same thing.  These senators are also likely to have concerns over impacts these cuts would have on fishing commerce, which is a big industry in all of these states.

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Photo: Wikimedia

If the president wants to gut Department of Energy (DOE) programs, he’s going to have to convince Lamar Alexander (R-TN), the Chair of the Energy & Water Appropriations Subcommittee, that his constituents at Oak Ridge National Laboratory won’t be impacted; which will be a tough argument to make, since a diverse and large amount of DOE’s work is carried out at the national laboratories. The Chair of the House Energy & Water Appropriations Subcommittee, Mike Simpson (R-ID), will also be looking out for his constituents at Idaho National Laboratory. Less funding means less work, which means fewer jobs, which means unhappy constituents in those states. Not to mention, both Chairmen, and many others, have articulated a vision of the absolute necessity of the science and energy innovation work spearheaded by DOE.

What can ordinary citizens do?

The president can’t get 60 votes for anywhere near the kind of budget cuts he’s proposing. But if the American people aren’t speaking up loudly in opposition and raising concerns with their members of congress, the likelihood of cuts to essential areas of science, research, innovation, and programs that protect public health and the environment increases significantly. What can ordinary citizens do?

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Photo: Wikihow

Call, write and meet with your members of congress and/or their staff, and tell them that:

These are the things congress needs to hear, and they need to hear them from constituents, to be empowered to stand firm in opposition to the Trump administration’s budget proposal. As long as the public stays engaged, the president is going to find out very quickly that if you don’t have a plan to work with congress—including Democrats—you’re not going to be able to advance your domestic agenda.

So what’s the administration’s plan?  That remains to be seen.

Photo: Wikimedia

UCS Founder Kurt Gottfried Wins AAAS Award

Kurt Gottfried, a founder of UCS in 1969 and a guiding spirit and intellect since then, has won the prestigious 2017 Scientific Freedom and Responsibility Award given by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). AAAS is the world’s largest general scientific society and publisher of the journal Science.

I can’t think of anyone more deserving of this award, which recognizes Kurt’s lifetime of dedication and achievements. AAAS said it is to recognize Kurt’s “long and distinguished career as a ‘civic scientist,’ through his advocacy for arms control, human rights, and integrity in the use of science in public policy making.”

Source: UCS

Kurt receiving this award also means a lot to me personally, since he has been one of the biggest influences on my professional life. I first met him in 1978 when I took his quantum mechanics course as a physics grad student at Cornell. He was a wonderful teacher and communicator, and generations of students have learned the subject from his classic text book (now in its second edition).

But I actually got to know him a couple years later—early in the Reagan presidency—when we were part of a group at Cornell that brought high-level speakers to campus to talk about the nuclear arms race, which was heating up. I’ve been privileged to have continued to work with him since that time. Kurt’s way of thinking about the world and approaching the problems he worked on have helped shaped my own.

Kurt’s history

I would guess that even the people who know him may not be aware of the range of activities Kurt has taken on over the years.

Kurt was born in Vienna, Austria, in 1929. He has had a long and distinguished career as a theoretical physicist. He received his PhD from MIT, became a Junior Fellow at Harvard, and has been a physics professor (now emeritus) at Cornell since 1964.

At the same time, he has dedicated boundless energy to improving the world, in areas including international security and nuclear arms control, human rights, and preventing political intervention in scientific input in policymaking. For example:

Science, International Security, and Arms Control

On leave at MIT in 1968-9, Kurt helped draft a statement encouraging scientists to consider society’s use of technical knowledge, and calling on scientists and engineers across the country to join a national effort to discuss these issues in university classes on March 4, 1969.

Following the success of that effort, Kurt co-founded UCS that same year. His goal was to help scientists bring their expertise to bear on public policy issues that had an important technical component. From the beginning, the vision was to build a research and advocacy organization that combined technical experts with experts in policy analysis, media engagement, and outreach and education for the public and policy makers, while keeping issues of science and technology at the core of its work.

Today, UCS has grown to more than 180 staff members and has an annual budget of more than $27 million. More than 45 years after UCS’ founding, Kurt remains a valuable member of the Board of Directors.

Over the years, UCS not only helped inform debates and shape policy on a wide range of issues, it also helped legitimize the active role of scientists in these debates and created staff positions allowing scientists to work on these issues full time. And it helped engage a broad set of scientists in part-time policy work, educating them about the issues and training them in writing and speaking for policy makers.

Working with UCS, Kurt was among the first people to raise concerns about the development of missile defenses, co-authoring a report on the topic in 1969. Kurt and UCS were particularly active in the debate in the 1980s and 1990s following President Reagan’s “Star Wars” speech. Kurt weighed in with articles and op-eds in Scientific American, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and elsewhere, and co-authored the influential books The Fallacy of Star Wars (1984) and Countermeasures: A Technical Evaluation of the Planned U.S. National Missile Defense System (2000).

Kurt at a 2000 press conference in Washington. Source: UCS

Kurt also worked to prevent the development of anti-satellite weapons and weapons based in space. He wrote and spoke widely about this issue and worked with Dick Garwin to develop a draft treaty banning anti-satellite weapons, which he presented to the Senate and House Foreign Relations Committees in 1983 and 1984.

In addition, he authored or co-authored articles on nuclear weapons, command and control systems and crisis stability, and cooperative security in Nature, the New York Review of Books, and elsewhere. He edited two books on these issues—Crisis Stability and Nuclear War (1988), and Reforging European Security: From Confrontation to Cooperation (1990)—and contributed chapters to several others.

Scientists and Human Rights

Kurt was also very active in human rights issues for many years—activities he undertook outside his work with UCS. During the 1980s he traveled to the Soviet Union to meet with and support refuseniks, and he urged others in the scientific community to actively support these dissidents.

Kurt was a major figure in the American Physical Society (APS) Committee on International Freedom of Scientists (CIFS), which helped oppressed scientists in the Soviet Union and other countries. CIFS described its goal as:

The Committee was formed to deal with those matters of an international nature that endanger the abilities of scientists to function as scientists. The Committee is to be particularly concerned with acts of governments or organizations, which through violation of generally recognized human rights, restrict or destroy the ability of scientists to function as such.

Kurt served as CIFS’ first chair in 1980 and 1981. One of CIFS’ innovations was its use of “small committees,” typically consisting of three or four people, who would pick a persecuted scientist and regularly write to the scientist and his/her family, friends, and local officials.

Even when these letters were intercepted by the authorities, they raised the profile of the scientist and made clear that international attention was focused on this person. By 1983, these committees were writing to 63 scientists, and the number continued to increase through the mid-1980s.

Kurt also helped found the organization Scientists for Sakharov, Orlov, and Sharansky (SOS) to focus attention on three of the most prominent Soviet refuseniks. He served on the SOS Executive Committee from 1978-90. SOS’s call for a moratorium on scientific cooperation with the Soviet Union to highlight concern about the treatment of scientists was joined by nearly 8,000 scientists and engineers from 44 countries, and gained international attention.

Soviet physicist Yuri Orlov was jailed for a decade in the Soviet Union after forming Moscow Helsinki Watch to monitor Soviet actions on human rights after it signed the Helsinki Accords in 1975. Kurt’s involvement in his case led to Orlov coming to Cornell after his release in 1986 and joining the physics faculty.

Kurt was also instrumental in winning the release in 1978 of the physicist Elena Sevilla, who was imprisoned in Argentina because of political activities by her husband, a newspaper reporter. On her release, Kurt arranged for her to come to Cornell to finish her graduate studies in physics.

Kurt’s work not only helped the refuseniks and other oppressed scientists. His actions over the years have helped inspire others in the scientific community to recognize and act on their ability and responsibility to help scientists who were denied basic human rights.

For his work on these issues, Kurt was awarded the APS Leo Szilard Award in 1992.

Scientific Integrity/Science and Democracy

In the wake of growing evidence that some officials in the George W. Bush Administration were distorting scientific knowledge and the scientific advisory process to an unprecedented degree, Kurt recruited 62 preeminent scientists to sign a statement titled Restoring Scientific Integrity in Policy Making, which was released in February 2004.

The statement charged the Bush Administration with widespread “manipulation of the process through which science enters into its decisions” and called out the administration’s misrepresentation of scientific evidence, appointment of unqualified members of scientific advisory committees, and silencing of federal government scientists—actions that threatened the integrity of science in policy making.

The statement drew wide public attention to these issues. It was signed on-line by more than 12,000 scientists.

Subsequently, Kurt led the effort to create a new program at UCS to work on this issue, which researched examples of abuse, engaged the scientific community on this issue, and worked with administration agencies to reform their practices, including writing draft rules on scientific integrity for these agencies. Kurt was also the force behind evolving that program into the UCS Center for Science and Democracy in 2012, arguing there was a need to address a broader set of issues related to the role of science and evidence-based analysis in democratic society.

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Kurt, Hans Bethe, Dick Garwin, and Henry Kendall at a press conference on missile defense, March 22, 1984 (Source: James J. MacKenzie)

For half a century, Kurt has engaged the scientific community, policy makers, and the general public on important issues related to international security, human rights, and the role of science in democratic society. Moreover, he has encouraged his colleagues to become involved, mentored younger scientists in these issues, and created an organization that has magnified his efforts and will continue this work well beyond his lifetime.

Kurt has been an inspiration to me and other scientists who decided to make a career of applying our technical backgrounds to important policy issues, and helped break the ground to make a career of this kind more possible.