by Robert S. Hopkins, III
To paraphrase Nobel-laureate and Manhattan Project physicist Joseph Rotblat, the Cold War is over, but Cold War thinking is not. No better example illustrates this anachronistic thinking than the belief that the President of the United States has but 15 minutes to decide to launch a retaliatory nuclear strike, a notion now deeply enshrined in both academic and public canon over the use of nuclear weapons. Former President Ronald W. Reagan summarized this presidential dilemma in his autobiography, saying “everything would happen so fast that I wondered how much planning or reason could be applied in such a crisis …how to respond to a blip on a radar scope and decide whether to unleash Armageddon! How could anyone apply reason at a time like that?” However much a mind-boggling conundrum that may have been for Reagan, it is utterly irrelevant today.
It is fitting to explore this issue in October, the anniversary month of the launch of Sputnik. It wasn’t just that the Soviets had been first to orbit a satellite and kick-start the space race, it was that the very same R-7 Semyorka rocket which boosted Sputnik into orbit was the very same SS-6 SAPWOOD ICBM that would hurl atom bombs at New York and London. This necessitated a profound shift in US preparedness strategy. Before Sputnik, America enjoyed the luxury of eight to ten hours’ early warning of an incoming Soviet bomber strike. Distant Early Warning (DEW) sites in Alaska and the United Kingdom would detect Tu-16 BADGERs and Tu-95 BEARs near the start of their trans-polar flights to targets in the United States (European targets, however, were another matter entirely). These precious hours would afford the president a final opportunity to reach a peaceful entente with the Soviet First Secretary, who would then recall his bombers. If not, then the president would direct Strategic Air Command (SAC) bombers to launch in retaliation. After Sputnik the time sequence for a presidential decision to retaliate compressed to just 30 minutes, the time needed for Soviet ICBMs to travel from their launch pads to US targets.
Parsing this half hour into what would become the central dogma of US nuclear retaliatory procedures demonstrates the five underlying assumptions behind the 15-minute rule formulated in the late 1950s:
(1) Any Soviet attack would be a “bolt from the blue” surprise ICBM salvo with no advance political or military warning;
(2) Initial detection of Soviet ICBMs would come from the as-yet to be completed Ballistic Missile Early Warning System (BMEWS) in remote locations such as Thule, Greenland, or Clear, Alaska;
(3) The only fully operational US retaliatory capability was SAC’s B-47 and B-52 bomber force on ground alert;
(4) Results of SAC’s HURRY HURRY tests showed that it would take approximately 15 minutes to launch every alert B-47 and B-52;
(5) Subtracting the time needed to launch SAC’s alert force bombers from the 30-minute time from launch until first warhead impact left just 15 minutes for the president to make the decision to retaliate.
These 15 minutes, however, included the 2-3 minutes needed for initially detecting the ICBMs based on radar look angles and where the ICBM launch pads were relative to the BMEWS horizon. These 15 minutes also included the 2-3 minutes needed to verify that a valid launch was under way, such as the number of radar returns. These 15 minutes also included the 1-3 minutes (with some overlap in the verification time) needed to inform the president that an attack is underway (with two or three military leaders connecting in turn via copper-wire telephone lines with the president’s national security advisor or other official, all subject to the time of day (awake/asleep) or venue (in the Oval Office or on the golf course or yachting of Cape Hatteras or even in the shower). In the best case, the president would have 10 minutes to decide the fate of the Soviet Union (a destroyed America is already a foregone conclusion, all that remains is to launch the US scorched-earth retaliation). In the worst case, the president might have just 6 minutes. Fortunately, presidents from Dwight Eisenhower to George Bush (père) never had to face that humanity altering decision. The reality today is far more unpleasant, but the decision-making process is far easier.
Each of the five original assumptions is no longer valid. Critics cite the spurious nature of “bolt from the blue” logic, arguing that US warning systems are sophisticated enough to detect launch preparations. The now-defunct satellite-based GAMMA GUPPY program, for example, eavesdropped on Kremlin officials as they sped around Moscow in the Zil limousines, and would surely detect any discussions about attacking the United States. Additionally, critics claim that the Soviets had no intention of attacking the United States in general, and would only do so if provoked as part of some international crisis. Indeed, nearly every US or NATO wargame begins with the assumption of some flashpoint erupting into direct confrontation between the two major nuclear powers. A “bolt from the blue,” critics charge, was little more than an excuse for military leaders to demand more bang for the buck and to support Congressional pork-barrel politics to fund jobs back home through fearmongering (never mind the events in November 1983 as part of ABLE ARCHER and Operation RyAN, when Yuri Andropov was on the brink of launching a pre-emptive Soviet ICBM strike on an oblivious United States). Moreover, in an evolving crisis situation, US leaders would have ample time to consult among themselves and allies, gradually preparing the mental framework necessary to approve a retaliatory strike should it become inevitable.
BMEWS, as with any other detection system, had crucial weaknesses. The primary site at Thule AB was connected to the US early warning command and control network via a transatlantic cable from Greenland. A fishing trawler off the coast of Newfoundland could cut the cable, or, more ominously, Soviet saboteurs or Danish fifth columnists could destroy the BMEWS power plant, shutting it down. In one effort to counter these threats, SAC had a full-time B-52 or KC-135—known as the THULE MONITOR—orbit above the BMEWS to distinguish between a technical disconnection and a precursor to a nuclear strike. These airplanes used standard high frequency radios, highly vulnerable to atmospheric conditions, to contact SAC headquarters, placing additional links in and several minutes to the detection and verification process.
Beginning with the Kennedy Administration, the Triad became the alert norm. Not only were SAC bombers on 15-minute alert, but US Atlas ICBMs constituted the land-based component along with George Washington-class Polaris sea-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) submarines (SSBNs). Attempts to launch SAC’s early missile force would have been only marginally successful, as the Atlas missile required time-consuming fueling and erection from its “concrete coffin”, and likely would have been destroyed by incoming counterforce warheads. The SSBNs, however, did not suffer from any time limits. In fact, SSBNs radically altered the 15-minute equation entirely.
In 1983, for example, Soviet YANKEE-class SSBNs were ostensibly tracked by US Navy attack submarines, ready to sink them to prevent them from launching their SS-N-6 SERB SLBMs. Unknown to American naval planners, the John A. Walker spy ring (1968-1985) severely compromised US submarine secrecy. The Soviets routinely knew the locations of US hunter-killer subs and, with modest planning, could evade detection or interception long enough to reposition five SSBNs close enough to America to launch 20 SERBs within 24 seconds, with the first warhead impact on Washington DC and other critical targets such as all SAC B-52 bases within 200 miles of the coast in as little as three minutes. Hardly a hypothetical Kobayashi Maru training scenario from Star Fleet Academy for future Jim Kirks, the SSBN presence all but eliminated any time for reasoned, measured decision-making regarding the launch of US retaliatory nuclear forces, which today include only Minuteman ICBMs and Trident SLBM submarines.
The submarine threat has even masked the identity of any attacker. Where once those 15 minutes were meant to approve the decision to retaliate against the only possible attacker—the Soviet Union and its Red Chinese ally, there is no longer an obvious reciprocal target. Imagine an ultra-quiet North Korean diesel-electric submarine that “disappears” somewhere in the Pacific and makes its way undetected via the Cape of Good Hope to the Atlantic seaboard and launches a simple atomic bomb in a crude but effective cruise missile at Washington DC. No warning, no idea who the attacker is, no idea where to respond, no time to find out. Just a splash on the ocean’s surface followed 5 minutes later by the ultimate in urban replanning.
At the beginning of every military flyer’s training, she or he is taught to ask, “When would I eject from my crippled airplane?” Should that time ever come, in the crucial moments amid smoke and warning lights and perhaps even panic, there will be no opportunity to reflect, no opportunity to debate the pros and cons of jettisoning the jet, no opportunity to review bailout procedures. Before the flyer even starts the engines they have already decided in what situation they will eject. When those conditions arise, they will simply “raise the handgrips and squeeze the triggers” or “pull the D-ring”, punch out, and return the jet to the taxpayers.
Today the President of the United States faces a similar time-compressed decision process in ordering the launch of America’s retaliatory forces. With the threat of submarine-launched missiles or even a land-based detonation by a terrorist organization, there is no longer a 15-minute opportunity to ponder the fate of humanity, nor do the original assumptions that defined that 15-minute window still obtain. Instead, whoever is president must decide before standing on the Capitol steps on a cold January day and taking the oath of office under what conditions she or he will, in the heat of an extraordinary moment unparalleled in human history, decide to unleash the other half of Armageddon.
About the Author
Robert S. Hopkins, III, MPH, PhD, is a former USAF pilot who flew—among other missions—Post Attack Command and Control System aircraft. He is an independent scholar focusing on the relationship between capability and policy during the Cold War.