It’s even worse than that. A successful deterrent capability has to preclude the reasonable possibility of a disabing first strike. Under that assumption, one cannot simply wait until a nuclear strike is confirmed; one must be prepared to strike upon a credible threat, lest one no longer be able to strike at all. This led to the American policy of “Launch On Warning”, in effect, strike before one’s own weapons are destroyed and (hopefully) be able to pre-empt further strikes by destroying the opponent’s capability to launch successive waves of attack. Of course, when this attitude is taken by both sides (as it was) it means that there is no practical purpose in holding back on the attack, at least not insofar as one may believe that the scale of conflict may escalate, which paradoxically escalates the scale of the conflict in an expanding series.
A number of efforts were made to provide some protection against a disarming sneak attack, including anti-ballistic missile systems (ultimately the US Safeguard system and the Soviet A-35), submarine-based launchers (Polaris, Poseidon, and Trident for US/UK, French M45, and a number of Soviet designs), various mobile and protected ICBM launch schemes including the Peacekeeper Rail Garrison (never a viable system but politically necessary to justify deployment to Congress) and a variety of Soviet road- and rail-mobile designs.
Unfortunately, rather than promoting some degree of stability in assurance that at least a significant portion of one’s arsenal will survive attack, all of these approaches just led to further proliferation and arms races to see who would build the more capable weapon/protection. MIRV-capable systems like the R-36M (NATO reporting name SS-18 ‘Satan’) and the LGM-118 Peacekeeper, capable of carrying a multitude of independently targeted warheads, just exacerbated the situation; a single unstopped booster could wreck havoc on ten or more major targets, including (with the much increased accuracy of digital guidance computers and laser ring-gyro inertial navigation systems) weapon emplacements. And that very proliferation and precision made the possibility of a nuclear exchange–even if limited and by accident–all that more catastrophic. In the early 'Sixties, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, the damage would have been serious but limited–Cuba-based Soviet missiles would have pasted military bases and major cities in the South, American bombers would have burned Moscow and Leningrad, and Cuba would have been a smoking ruin–but by the late 'Seventies, even a “minor” exchange would have devastated both nations and their close allies to the point of reducing them to preIndustrial status. And then we had Reagan (on the American side) and a succession of barely animated, terminally ill General Secretaries (on the Soviet side), none of whom seemed to either comprehend or care about the consequences of an attack.
The Cuban Missile Crisis, the Petrov Incident, and Able Archer '83 have already been mentioned. What hasn’t been mentioned are the at least half-a-dozen other known events that brought us close enough to considering the possibility of a nuclear exchange that the President called his Cabinet to discuss the matter (and presumably the same on the other side), nor a number of technical glitches that could, if not countered by calm professionalism and rationality of the agencies in charge, could have led to a mistaken report of attack and resultant retaliation. As former Secrectary of Defense Robert McNamara has said and written repeatedly, “The combination of human fallibillity and nuclear weapons will lead to the destruction of nations.”
It could have happened, all too easily. It is true that no rational actor would launch such an attack, because the harms vastly outweigh the benefits, and that the men who lead nations–despite occasional personality hiccups and jokes like “We begin bombing in ten minutes,” are, if not exactlly icons of rationality, at least not suicidal. However, the speed and overarching threat that a modern nuclear arsenal holds can overwhelm any attempt at rationality, resulting in the invokation of automatic rules and plans which assume the absurd, i.e. that if one is going down, it is best to take everyone else with you. The people of the Soviet Union, and of the United States and Britian, and France, and China, and India, and Israel, and (hopefully) Pakistan and Iran, would not vote for a mutual suicide pact. But in such a scenario, they would have no representation whatsoever. The rules of the game take over, and the rules say “Launch On Warning”.
A few corrections to the above. First of all, the scenario of terrorists hijacking planes and attacking major icons is hardlly foreign to intelligence services and those responsible for planning defense, and in fact, many warnings had been offered (and ignored) by the current and previous Administration. My personal surprise was that the possibility was such a big surprise, and that it took them so long to do it.
Pursuant to treaty obligations, the United States has been reducing the size of its Active Stockpile. All Peacekeeper and C4 Trident I missiles have been decommissioned, Minuteman III and D5 Trident II missiles have had their payload reduced to single RVs, and many late Cold War era systems like the BGM-109G 'Glick ‘Em’, the AGM-129 ACM, the SUBROC, and MGM-31 Pershing II have all been decommissioned, and the AGM-86 ACLM and nuclear-armed variants of the BGM-109 ‘Tomahawk’ have been reduced in deployment. Similar reductions have occurred in Russian, British, and French arsenals following the end of the Cold War. While there are still over a thousand warheads in active service (and a few thousand more in Reserve or Enduring stockpile), the number of weapons ready to be launched on a moment’s notice is much reduced. The same is true for Russian, British, and French arsenals. This is not to say that an attack or mistake could not happen with terrible consequences, but the likelyhood of a catastrophic conflageration is substantially less than it was twenty-odd years ago.
The Cheyenne Mountain Operations Center (recently renamed to Cheyenne Mountain Directorate) is now on “warm standby” but is no longer actively manned. NORAD central operations are now done from an ordinary building on Peterson AFB. Watch centers and a variety of ground- and satellite-based early warning systems are still maintained, but no longer at the hair-edged tension that existed during the apex points of the Cold War.
If a nuclear attack is imminent, the President, Vice President, and lead members of Congress will be evacuated by air (if possible) or ground from Washington DC, onto a National Emergency Airborne Command Post (now renamed), and from thence to one of a number of unlisted underground facilities. This has been the case since the late 'Sixites when it was apparent that no safety of the National Command Authorithy could be assured from a fixed, known position.