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A Game Of Chicken Gone Wrong

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HoustonChronicle.com -- http://www.HoustonChronicle.com | Section: National

Oct. 8, 2006, 4:27PM

U.S. project could start atomic war, experts warn

Refitted missiles may sound alarm and prompt nuclear response by Russia


Copyright 2006 Hearst News Service

WASHINGTON — A Pentagon project to modify its deadliest nuclear missile for use as a conventional weapon against targets such as North Korea and Iran could unwittingly spark an atomic war, two weapons experts warned Thursday.


Russian military officers might misconstrue a submarine-launched conventional D-5 intercontinental ballistic missile and conclude that Russia is under nuclear attack, said MIT's Ted Postol, a physicist and professor of science, technology and national security policy, and Pavel Podvig, a physicist and weapons specialist at Stanford University.

"Any launch of a long-range non-nuclear armed sea or land ballistic missile will cause an automated alert of the Russian early warning system," Postol told reporters.

The triggering of an alert wouldn't necessarily precipitate a retaliatory hail of Russian nuclear missiles, Postol said. Nevertheless, he said, "there can be no doubt that such an alert will greatly increase the chances of a nuclear accident involving strategic nuclear forces."

Podvig said that launching conventional versions of a missile from a submarine that normally carries nuclear warheads "expands the possibility for a misunderstanding so widely that it is hard to contemplate."

Mixing conventional and nuclear D-5s on a U.S. Trident submarine "would be very dangerous," Podvig said, because the Russians have no way of discriminating between the two types of missiles once they are launched.

Russia, unlike the U.S., lacks sufficient satellites to supplement radar and confirm whether missile launches are false alarms.

Russian President Vladimir Putin warned that the project would increase the danger of accidental nuclear war.

"The media and expert circles are already discussing plans to use intercontinental ballistic missiles to carry non-nuclear warheads," he said in May. "The launch of such a missile could ... provoke a full-scale counterattack using strategic nuclear forces."

Accidental nuclear war is not so far-fetched.

In 1995, Russia initially interpreted the launch of a Norwegian scientific rocket as the onset of a U.S. nuclear attack. Then-President Boris Yeltsin activated his "nuclear briefcase" in the first stages of a retaliatory strike before the mistake was discovered.


What a great way to start a war!


John McCarthy

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