Rein in loose nukes

Six U.S. nuclear bombs went joy-riding across the Midwest last week. The advanced cruise missiles, each packing 10 times the power of the Hiroshima bomb and each marked with bright red symbols, were mistakenly loaded onto a B-52 bomber and flown from North Dakota to Louisiana.

Now, nuclear weapons are not supposed to be jetting through American skies in peacetime; the Air Force banned their transport by air in 1968 after several scary crashes. So after Congress raised a bipartisan ruckus and the Pentagon had to admit that it didn’t know how such a snafu could have happened, the Air Force relieved a munition squadron commander from duty at Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota. It’s convenient but implausible to blame any individual for such a systemic collapse of command and control.

That no one was injured by this lapse makes it no less important as a wake-up call for U.S. nuclear policy. There are lessons the Bush administration is unlikely to heed -- but the next administration should. First, if such a slip-up can occur in the United States, which boasts the best nuclear command-and-control systems in the world, how likely are mishaps in the other eight declared and de facto nuclear states, which now include Pakistan, India and North Korea? Very likely. “Loose nukes” that could be lost, stolen or sold to terrorists are a serious threat that has only become harder to address amid deteriorating relations between the U.S. and Vladimir Putin’s Russia, the most likely source for purloined nuclear materiel.

Second, the sheer number of nuclear weapons in the world makes it a near statistical certainty that accidents will happen. Like loaded pistols and open microphones, nuclear weapons do not become less dangerous merely because the risk of human error is known. Yet the Bush administration has rejected the arms-control framework that produced triumphs under Republican presidents during the Cold War, and the nuclear momentum now runs in the wrong direction. Russia has threatened to pull out of the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe, hinted at scrapping the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty and, last month, announced that it had permanently resumed long-distance patrol flights of strategic bombers.

Third, the continued reliance on nuclear weapons as a cornerstone of U.S. defense offers a false sense of security. Nuclear weapons are useless against terrorists and rogue regimes, so why does the U.S. still need 10,000 of them -- an arsenal vastly out of proportion to any potential military targets and absurdly unnecessary as a deterrent? The administration’s insistence on maintaining such a large stockpile only inspires imitation by Iran and North Korea under the guise of a deterrent against regime change. The enduring threat of nuclear disaster can only be reduced when the U.S. leads a new push for multinational, verifiable reductions in the global nuclear arsenal.