Last Saturday, an engineering malfunction at F. E. Warren Air Force base in Wyoming caused 50 US intercontinental ballistic missiles to go offline for 45 minutes. The ICBMs—one ninth of the US nuclear arsenal—were temporarily disconnected from the launch control centers at the base. Officials were quick to point out that it would still have been possible to launch the ICBMs from a command plane in a high alert scenario. But even if the reality of the failure wasn't that bad, it's implications for US nuclear policy might be.
Currently awaiting the Senate's consent is the new START treaty, which would reduce US and Russian nuclear arsenals by 30 percent. Signed by Obama and Russian president Dmitry Medvedev last April, the treaty has received widespread backing: "The support for new START by our entire military leadership, our intelligence community, six former secretaries of state, five former secretaries of defense, three former national security advisers, and seven former commanders of U.S. Strategic Command is an extraordinary endorsement of why this treaty needs to be passed," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told reporters earlier this month. Ratifying the treaty would be a significant step toward nuclear disarmament. But a central argument for the new START treaty has been that because US nuclear stockpiles and launch systems are so well-maintained and reliable, the country could still pursue an effective deterrence strategy with fewer weapons. The mishap at Warren, along with several others in recent history, undermines this assumption.