Did you know the United States and Russia have hundreds of nuclear missiles pointed at each other?
"No way," said a friend who lives near me in Oakton. "That's Cold War stuff. The Soviet Union collapsed in 1991."
Another neighbor said she didn't realize the United States still has silos in the heartland of our Great Plains states, filled with pencil-shaped intercontinental ballistic missiles — called ICBMs — that are on "launch-ready" status.
That means they can be launched in minutes.
One missile typically is equipped with three warheads.
According to Russian government figures, the Russian Strategic Rocket Forces — an independent military service branch — have 332 ICBMs that carry a total of 1,092 nuclear warheads. According to the Congressional Research Service, U.S. Global Strike Command (a component of the Air Force) has 450 ICBMs, each deployed with between one and three warheads; the U.S. ICBMs are to be reduced to only one warhead each over the next few years. These totals do not include Russian and U.S. bombers or submarine-launched missiles.
An ICBM moves like an unguided bullet that has been shot into the air, runs out of momentum, and falls back to earth.
Once launched, it can't be called back. No nation has ever developed a defense against it.
It takes as little as 30 minutes for a nuclear-armed ICBM to reach the United States after being launched from Russia. That's why the United States has plans for a quick response and for continuity of government in an emergency.
At any given time, someone could push the button and everything would blow up 30 minutes later. If U.S. commanders knew the Russians had launched, they would have to launch our missiles to prevent them from being caught in their silos.
A typical nuclear warhead in use today can inflict about 150 times the damage of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, Aug. 6, 1945, which killed 66,000 initially, according to the website atomicarchive.com
The United States has traditionally relied on a triad of nuclear delivery systems to deter attack — ICBMs, bombers and submarine-launched missiles. My thoughts are focused on the ICBMs. Their big flaw always has been that they're on hairtrigger status.
The Obama administration is searching for ways to reduce nuclear arsenals. Instead of consulting cold warriors like former defense secretary James Schlesinger, who chaired a commission on nuclear issues a few years ago, the White House now is turning to former Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, retired Marine Corps Gen. James E. Cartwright, who has called for deep cuts in nuclear arms. Cartwright, 62, who lives in Burke, favors taking deployed weapons off high alert and eliminating all ICBMs.
Oakton resident retired Navy Vice Adm. Jerry Miller, 93, the author of " Stockpile: The Story Behind 10,000 Strategic Nuclear Weapons " (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2010) said in a July 17 telephone interview that we no longer need the land-based ICBM force.
"The ICBMs are questionable," Miller said. "The Russians know exactly where they are and can target them very easily. I would have gotten rid of them a long time ago."
Some experts say both the United States and Russia should follow the example of China, which has fielded only a few dozen ICBMs, even though it could easily have many more. A few dozen, after all, is enough to destroy the world.
Miller believes submarine-launched missiles constitute the only strategic nuclear force we need.
The 2010 Nuclear Posture Review, or NPR, a congressionally mandated study that takes place every few years, concluded that, "as long as nuclear weapons exist, the United States must maintain a safe, secure and effective nuclear arsenal."
Nothing in the NPR or in study groups chaired by Schlesinger, Cartwright and others would prevent us from disposing of ICBMs and lowering the alert threshold of remaining bomber and submarine forces.
About me: I'm an author on military topics. My current book is a history of U.S. bomber crews in World War II history, "Mission to Berlin." I've been writing for years about nuclear weapons and my belief that we need to de-alert the ICBM force.