The red phones -- and reality

Barack Obama got off a good line at his press conference with Dmitry Medvedev of Russia. Obama noted that Medvedev had just opened a Twitter account, and added, "I have one as well, so we may be able to finally throw away those ‘red phones’ that have been sitting around for so long."

No, Mr. President. It is not a good idea to throw away the hotline to Moscow and use Twitter instead. But your comment is another reminder of important business that has eluded both the United States and Russia for too long -- reducing the possibility of misunderstanding over a missile launch.

The United States still maintains about 1,000 nuclear-armed missiles on launch-ready alert, in silos and on submarines, and Russia may have even more. If given a warning of a missile attack, a president would have only minutes to decide how to respond. In the digital age, we should be able to find a way to ease this dangerous situation and give a president more time to avoid a terrible mistake. Here's an earlier article about the dangers.

Obama acknowledged the problem in his Nuclear Posture Review, issued in April. The president decided not to change the current alert status of U.S nuclear missiles. But the report said "efforts should continue to diminish further the possibility of nuclear launches resulting from accidents, unauthorized actions, or misperceptions and to maximize the time available to the President to consider whether to authorize the use of nuclear weapons."

Unfortunately, an agreement in 2000 between the United States and Russia to set up a center to monitor ballistic missile and space launches never got off the ground. The center would be a good first step and it is something tangible Obama and Medvedev can do to ease the danger. It wasn’t mentioned by the presidents this week, but cries out for action. As long as nuclear missiles remain on alert, we need more than a tweet to the Kremlin.

Update: In a joint summit statement on "strategic stability," Obama and Medvedev said they are committed to setting up this missile monitoring system, and that experts would meet "soon" to work on it. The statement is here (in pdf). Let's hope they have more success than the last attempt a decade ago.