Survey results: Students know little about nukes

Each week, The Tartan will print the answers to the previous week?s survey, as well as analysis.

More than 50 students replied to last week?s survey, and most students claimed to know little about the current state of nuclear affairs. Nonetheless, CMU students seemed to have a good idea about how many weapons remain in the U.S. nuclear stockpile, with most answering that 3500 and 7500 weapons remained. If the reserve stockpile (nuclear warheads not attached to delivery vehicles, under repair, or in storage) had been included, 10,000 would have been correct. In response to how many weapons could be launched within 20 minutes of the command, most students stated 600 weapons, with 2000 weapons being the next most popular response.

According to the 2002 issue of Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, these counts are a far cry from those of 1973, when the U.S. weapons stockpile peaked at around 28,000 nuclear warheads. Since then, about 18,000 warheads have been dismantled, with at least 12,000 dismantlings resulting from treaties after the Cold War. Still, the article ?Apocalypse Soon? in the May/June 2005 issue of Foreign Policy reports that more than 2000 remain on ?hair-trigger? alert. These weapons are capable of being launched within 20 minutes once a nuclear attack is recognized and authorized by the President, who at all times is accompanied by a U.S. military officer toting the so-called ?football,? a briefcase containing nuclear release codes.

Former Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara described that process in ?Apocalypse Soon?: ?The SAC commander?s orders were to answer the telephone by no later than the end of the third ring. If it rang, and he was informed that a nuclear attack of enemy ballistic missiles appeared to be under way, he was allowed two to three minutes to decide whether the warning was valid (over the years, the United States has received many false warnings), and if so, how the United States should respond. He was then given approximately 10 minutes to determine what to recommend, to locate and advise the President, permit the President to discuss the situation with two or three close advisors ... and to receive the President?s decision and pass it immediately, along with the codes, to the launch sites.?
McNamara served under President Kennedy, but things haven?t changed much in the last 40 years. The ?hair-trigger? alert policy not only allows for the possibility of an accidental U.S. launch, but also forces Russia?s weapons to remain on high alert. In fact, having Russia?s weapons on high alert is more dangerous than ours, simply because Russia does not have the funding to properly update its early-warning satellite capabilities.

One recent example of Russia?s faltering satellite system occurred in 1995, when Russian satellites mistakenly identified a NASA rocket launched to study the Northern Lights as a warhead delivery vehicle, due to similar flight trajectories. Since 1995, Russian satellite capabilities have suffered due to ?mechanical failures in space and economic failures on the ground,? according to the article ?False Alarm, Nuclear Danger,? in the March 2000 issue of IEEE Spectrum. This leaves Russian leaders with even less information today than they would have had in 1995.

Though it requires an act of Congress to declare war, ?to launch a nuclear holocaust requires 20 minutes deliberation by the president and his advisors,? McNamara stated. Even for a game of ?football,? that?s a lot of pressure to put on the quarterback.


  1. How many nuclear weapons does the United States possess in its entire weapons arsenal?

Answer: d) 7500

  1. How many nuclear weapons does the United States possess that are capable of launching within 20 minutes once the command is given?

Answer: e) 2000