Despite glasnost and all the disarmament talk since Reagan and Gorbachev inked the IRT, the world is still up to its arse in nuclear weapons. There are silo-launched ICBMs like the US Minuteman. The Russians and Chinese are fond of mobile ICBMs that can be hauled up and down highways to supposedly make them harder to target. There are, of course, submarine launched ballistic missiles. Then you've got nuclear-capable cruise missiles and even good, old fashioned nuclear gravity bombs.
What made the last generation of intermediate range missiles so insidious was their range and speed. You could literally park them on your adversary's doorstep and, when launched, they could be on target in a heartbeat. America's Pershing II had a speed of Mach 8. That was the problem. There might not be enough time for the target nation to activate the human chain of command. Those missiles raised the risk that your enemy could take you by surprise before you could even lift a finger to fire back.
This led to a new technology of "launch on detect." It cut out the middleman, humans. When your radar saw what it perceived as an incoming missile attack it simply fired back. There would be missiles in the air and nobody pushed a button much less ordered the salvoes. There wasn't even time to call back an errant launch.
Of course, mistakes happen. Radar systems at times can't tell a benign return from an incoming strike. That's where humans are needed to intervene and interpret as they did in 1995 when the Norwegians launched a Canadian Black Brant research rocket that had a radar profile almost identical to a US submarine launched Trident missile.
The matter was decided when the Brant separated, dropped one of its engines, and fired up another. The radar signature now looked so much like a multiple re-entry vehicle (MRV), a missile carrying multiple nuclear warheads, that military officers no longer had any doubt.
There were now five minutes during which the missile's trajectory would be un-tracked by Russian radar, and when it could strike Moscow; a slice of time that was devoted to deciding whether to launch a counterattack.
Boris Yeltsin was alerted, and immediately given the Cheget, the "nuclear briefcase" that connects senior officials while they decide whether or not to launch Russia's nuclear weapons. Nuclear submarine commanders were ordered to full battle alert and told to stand by.
Apparently Yeltsin doubted the U.S. would launch a surreptitious attack and within five minutes, Russian radar came back confirming the missile was heading harmlessly out to sea.
Russian citizens didn't find about about the incident for weeks, and of course it's been reported in the U.S. news since. But the event never achieved the renown of the Cuban Missile Crisis, though it seems to have brought us even closer to the brink of nuclear war.Now, imagine Russia still had a "launch on detect" system, the kind needed to deter a first strike intermediate range missile attack. Yeltsin's intuition would not be a factor. Which is why the intermediate ballistic missile treaty matters more than most nuclear accords.
If you're in the mood for another "blast from the past," here's Sam Cohen, the inventor of the neutron bomb.