Risky Business

Even though the Cold War is supposed to have ended, the US and Russia still test each other’s air defenses. How much risk is there in such actions? More than one might think. 

According to an NBC News report: “Two Russian bombers, capable of carrying nuclear cruise missiles, circled the U.S. island of Guam in the Western Pacific this week, U.S. military officials told NBC News. U.S. Air Force F-15 jets scrambled from Andersen Air Force Base on Guam to intercept the bombers.” While those same U.S. military officials played down the seriousness of the incident, Stanford’s Dr. Pavel Podvig explained how a similar Russian military exercise scheduled for September 11, 2001, entailed far greater risk than anyone might have imagined:

One of the [American] fighter pilots who was scrambled into the air on September 11, 2001 [after the Pentagon was hit by one of the hijacked airliners] was reported to testify that: “I reverted to the Russian threat – I’m thinking cruise missile threat from the sea. You know, you look down and see the Pentagon burning and I thought the bastards snuck one by us.” 

If on September 10, 2001 someone would suggest that a U.S. pilot would assume that Russia might attack the United States, that person would have been laughed out of the room. But this is exactly what happened. Two more “coincidences” of that day – NORAD was scheduled to conduct an exercise, known as Vigilant Guardian, “which postulated a bomber attack from the former Soviet Union,” while Russian strategic bombers were indeed conducting an exercise that involved flights in the direction of the United States. As far as we know, NORAD never began the exercise that day and the Russian military grounded the bombers as soon as they learned about the events in the United States, but the number of coincidences is quite alarming.

Not that there are any signs that the military on both sides have changed their plans and no longer practice attacking each other. Just recently Russia conducted a large-scale exercise of its strategic bombers, in which they got close enough to the United States to be intercepted by NORAD fighter planes. The United States also routinely conduct exercises that involve a nuclear exchange with Russia.

The Cold War should be over, so isn’t it time we worked with the Russians to end such dangerous practices?

Martin Hellman

Risky Business, Part II highlights another nuclear risk caused by the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Reference 1 For the American pilot’s testimony, see the 9-11 Commission Report, page 61, or Kindle Location 1290.

Reference 2 For Vigilant Guardian, see the 9-11 Commission Report, page 565, or Kindle Location 9480.

Reference 3 For the Russian Air Force grounding its bombers, see “Ядерный конфликт отставить,” 12 SEP 2001. The English translation of the relevant part states:

As Air Force Headquarters had announced, immediate corrections had been made to the currently ongoing training of the Russian strategic bombers.  According to Russian Air Force spokesman Colonel Drobushevsky, “practical measures as part of the maneuvers have been canceled”; meaning that Russian strategic bombers will stop flying towards the United States, Canada, Norway, Great Britain, and Iceland.

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About Nuclear Risk

I am a professor at Stanford University, best known for my invention of public key cryptography -- the technology that protects your credit card. But, for almost 30 years, my primary interest has been how fallible human beings can survive possessing nuclear weapons, where even one mistake could be catastrophic.
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2 Responses to Risky Business

  1. jkmhoffman says:

    Reblogged this on kjmhoffman.

  2. Russ Wellen says:

    It seems to serve the purposes of Russia and the U.S. to keep the embers of their enmity burning.

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