Arms Control and Disarmament - Protocols aimed at preventing accidental war




History may hold few examples of accidental wars, but the advent of nuclear weapons—and the premium placed on striking first—gave rise to concerns that miscalculation, misperception, and pressures for haste might bring about an "unintended" nuclear conflict. The desire to provide each side the opportunity to consider a situation fully before taking irreversible action led to diplomatic, usually bilateral, negotiations seeking to improve rapid, direct communication in times of high tension.

Hot-Line Systems The Washington-Moscow "hot line," established in 1963, consists of a group of machines—IBM terminals, encryption machines, and teleprinters. Informally known as Molink, it came into being because the Cuban missile crisis had pointed up the inadequate means of communication between Washington and Moscow. The initial hot-line system consisted of one cable routed across Europe and a backup circuit routed through North Africa. During the 1971 SALT talks it was agreed that two other links be added to the original cable by using an American commercial satellite (INTELSAT) and a Soviet government satellite (MOLNIYA). In 1984 the hot-line technology was further modernized when the system was upgraded for high-speed fax transmission. An urgent message from a Russian leader to the president's ear takes well under five minutes—including translation.

Although the actual number of times Molink has been used is not known, the Defense Department indicates that it is used sparingly "but has proved invaluable in major crises." These include the June 1967 Israeli preemptive strike against Arab forces during the Six-Day War; in 1971 during the India-Pakistan War; during the 1973–1974 Arab-Israeli war; during the 1974 Turkish invasion of Cyprus; in 1979–1980 during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan; and in 1982–1984 when the Soviets needed to discuss Lebanon and the United States used it regarding Poland. Not surprisingly, other nations adopted the idea of direct communication systems. The British and French have their own direct links with Moscow; and Israel and Egypt have direct lines, North and South Korea are linked, and India and Pakistan have been connected since the 1971 war.

Preventing Untoward Incidents The Americans and Soviets were particularly active during the 1970s in seeking measures designed to prevent an isolated clash from sparking a much wider conflict. The Accidents Measures Agreement (1971) hoped to reduce the likelihood of nuclear accidents and to minimize the chance of war should such an accident occur. It urged both sides to undertake measures to improve the safety and security of their nuclear activities, and to notify one another immediately of unauthorized or accidental nuclear weapons detonations. Among other provisions, the agreement provided for advance notice of missile test launches in the direction of the other party.

The significance that Soviet diplomats placed on broad statements of principle is reflected in the Agreement on Prevention of Nuclear War (1973), which found the United States refusing to give a nonuse of nuclear weapons pledge or to renounce the option of "first use" of nuclear weapons. Consequently, the two nations agreed to consult with one another in crisis situations that posed a risk of nuclear war.

In contrast, the American emphasis on technical details may be found in the Agreement on the Prevention of Incidents at Sea (1972), which updated the existing international guidelines to prevent collisions at sea. During the 1960s and early 1970s, Soviet and American naval commanders engaged in various forms of harassment. These included an occasional game of "chicken" in which two rival warships threatened to ram one another, each waiting for the other to turn away; buzzing an enemy ship with aircraft; aiming one's large guns at an opponent's ship; and nudging or "shouldering" hostile ships. Both sides recognized the obvious need to expand the traditional "rules of the road" to reduce these incidents and prevent an actual military engagement. The 1989 Agreement on the Prevention of Dangerous Military Activities consisted of measures to improve military-to-military communication in times of crisis. It also created areas of "special caution," where U.S. and Soviet forces were operating in close proximity; outlawed the dangerous use of lasers; prohibited interfering with command and control communication networks by jamming; and agreed to treat minor territorial incursions as accidental rather than automatically threatening greater consequences.

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