Ira Shorr is a funny guy. The character he plays, arch-conservative Sen. Jess Tressme, is running for president in 2004, and promises to build more stealth weapons, “because only with weapons you can’t see can you defeat enemies that don’t exist.” But Shorr’s new campaign, called Back From the Brink, is as serious as it gets. He wants the United States to “de-alert” our nuclear weapons in hopes Russia will do the same. Then neither will be so prone to start a nuclear war by mistake.

Shorr is an old Washington friend of Bill Towe, the Cary peacenik who serves as national co-chair of Peace Action and won a Citizen Award from The Independent last year. That’s how Shorr came to speak the other night at UNC-Chapel Hill to about 50 folks who still think about things like Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) and other Cold War-era subjects that used to keep people up nights but don’t any more, right?

It is true, Shorr says, that the United States and Russia now point their missiles at the oceans rather than, as previously, at each other. What isn’t much talked about is that each keeps about 2,000 nukes on hair-trigger alert. That means we won’t wait for the other side’s missiles to land. We’ll launch before they land. A few keystrokes, and missiles pointed elsewhere can be aimed at their old targets–e.g., Moscow and Washington. “We’re like two gunslingers,” he says. “The other guy has an itch? You shoot.”

It’s this launch-on-warning that gives the United States all of 25 minutes to figure out whether an incoming blip is a Russian warhead or something else entirely. Meanwhile, since we have missiles stationed closer to their borders than they to ours, the Russian response time may be as little as 10 minutes, Shorr says. In 1995, the Russians mistook a U.S. weather rocket launched from Norway–we told them what it was, which is routine, but somebody didn’t pass the information on. Result: Catastophe averted, but not before Boris Yeltsin’s nuclear “suitcase” was activated, meaning the alcoholic ex-president had less than three minutes to call off disaster.

The alternative to launch-on-warning is to separate the warheads from the missiles, or the tritium (the fission component) from the warheads, so that you’re forced to take more time to think before you fire. That means the incoming projectile(s) will arrive first. For the Russians, whose military posture ain’t what it used to be, retaliating after our first strike might be a problem, Shorr concedes. But we have no such fear. If MAD is still our plan, we can achieve it from nuclear submarines and hardened, land-based missile silos even if the Russians hit first. No need to rush to end the world.

By the way, the Chinese only have a few, liquid-fuel rockets capable of reaching U.S. targets, Shorr says. Since the fuel is stored separate from the rocket, they aren’t the hair-trigger threat the Russians are. Yet.

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