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Drugs, Lies, and Nuclear Missiles

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You may have seen the recent news reports that 34 of the Air Force officers responsible for operating America’s 450 nuclear-armed missile silos have been suspended for cheating on monthly proficiency tests. There is also an ongoing investigation into illegal drug use on the part of some “missileers.” And that’s not all. Last year 17 officers were removed for safety violations and potential violations in protecting launch codes, and others were twice caught napping with the blast doors open.

Minuteman nuclear missile silo

Missile maintenance crew performs an electrical check on a Minuteman III nuclear missile in its silo. Credit: Air Force photo/ Technical Sergeant Bob Wickley

These misadventures demonstrate that this system—like all systems—is fallible. But the risks are compounded because almost all of these 450 nuclear weapons are kept on high alert so they can be launched within a matter of minutes. This dangerous policy dates to the Cold War when U.S. commanders feared a Russian first strike and planned to launch their missiles before the Russian missiles landed.

Keeping U.S. weapons on hair-trigger alert increases the possibility of an accidental or unauthorized launch, or one in response to a false warning of an incoming attack. And this practice encourages Russia to keep its own land-based missiles on high alert to avoid a disarming blow by U.S. missiles. Of course, Russian missiles are subject to the same possibilities of accidental, unauthorized, and mistaken launches as are U.S. missiles.

A Russian nuclear launch could destroy the United States as a functioning society. By clinging to this unnecessary Cold War alert policy, we continue to risk everything. Even if the probability of such an attack is small, the overall risk—the probability multiplied by the magnitude of the destruction—is still too high.

There is no reason to accept these dangers. Keeping missiles on high alert is completely unnecessary. A reliable and credible U.S. nuclear deterrent does not require the ability to retaliate immediately, and U.S. submarine-based nuclear weapons are invulnerable to attack.

During the 2008 presidential campaign, candidate Barack Obama called attention to the dangers posed by the U.S. launch-on-warning policy, noting that they are unacceptably high. When he ran for president in 2000, George W. Bush also said the United States should “remove as many weapons as possible from high-alert, hair-trigger status.” Both were right, but the policy remains unchanged.

President Obama, what are you waiting for?

Posted in: Nuclear Weapons Tags: , , ,

About the author: Lisbeth Gronlund is a physicist and co-director of the Global Security Program. She is an expert on technical issues related to U.S. nuclear weapons policy, and new nuclear weapons, space weapons, and ballistic missile defenses. See Lisbeth's full bio.

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