Hair-Trigger Alert: Some Risks are Not Worth Taking

, president | February 9, 2015, 4:36 pm EDT
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We all take calculated risks, and justifiably so, when we judge the benefits of our action to outweigh the risks. I ride a bike to work when I can, for example. Sure, there’s a risk of injury but, to me, it is outweighed by the health, economic, and environmental benefits.

But the picture changes when we take risks with no real benefits. And when our political leaders do this, we have a duty to speak out and demand change.

Photo: Sam Howzit

Photo: Sam Howzit

This is why UCS has launched a campaign to take U.S. land-based nuclear missiles off hair-trigger alert. This is a situation that poses a significant risk for which there is simply no legitimate upside.

The United States has about 900 nuclear missiles on “hair-trigger alert,” meaning that the weapons can be launched within minutes of a decision to do so. Hair-trigger alert is a relic of the Cold War era; it was intended to allow the United States to fire its land-based missiles at the former Soviet Union in less than the thirty or so minutes it would take for Soviet missiles to reach the United States and destroy our missiles first. Having this capability, it was said, would deter Soviet leaders from ordering a first strike since they would know that our land-based missiles would leave their silos to inflict incalculable damage upon the Soviet Union before they could be destroyed.

Enormous risks

As countless military experts have noted over the years, however, hair-trigger alert carries enormous risks. Once nuclear weapons are fired, they cannot be turned back. Hair-trigger alert allows political and military leaders to follow a “use them or lose them policy” and make a fateful and irrevocable judgment call to fire nuclear weapons in a severely time-constrained setting when no one can think at their best. And because no information system is perfect, our leaders risk acting upon inaccurate warning data due to a technical glitch or human error.

In fact, there is a disturbing history of false alarms and near misses. In 1979, for example, a technician mistakenly ran a training tape showing an all-out Soviet attack on an operational computer; U.S. commanders actually thought we were under attack and began preparations for a missile launch (which fortunately were reversed before it was too late). In 1983, a Soviet satellite misinterpreted the sun’s reflection off clouds and displayed data showing that the US had launched a nuclear attack. Fortunately, a very astute Soviet officer, going on gut instinct, doubted the data—even though the satellite was apparently working properly—and bucked procedures to report an incoming attack that would have set in motion a retaliatory strike.

Is there any good reason to take this existential risk? In a word, no. Even if one were to ignore the fact that the Cold War is over and that the Russians have no reason to fire nuclear weapons at us, the United States has about 1,000 nuclear warheads in hidden submarines. These weapons cannot be attacked by the Russians (or terrorists, for that matter) because their locations are unknown, and they are capable of obliterating many times over anyone who would fire nuclear weapons at us. Thus, having the option to also fire land-based nuclear missiles does not add to this deterrent effect; it is akin to a threat to make the rubble bounce.

But how about keeping hair-trigger alert as a “bargaining chip” to get the Russians to de-alert with us? Many military experts discount this, noting that we are safer if we remove our land-based missiles from hair-trigger alert whether or not the Russians do. And, given the state of tension in U.S.-Russian relations right now, this step by the United States might well induce a similar response from the Russians as it is in their self-interest as well.

Presidents and military experts agree

So why haven’t we fixed this? Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama have both called for taking weapons off hair-trigger alert (either in tandem with the Russians or on our own), and a “who’s who” of military experts have joined them. It seems that it hasn’t happened because the issue has not been deemed a high enough priority, perhaps because it is obscure, the facts are not well known, and the public is not demanding change.

We can change that. UCS is now launching a public campaign and gathering allies from faith, public health, environmental and other communities to present the facts on this issue, and to urgently demand the elimination of this unnecessary and scary risk. Making good on our commitment to strive for a safer world, we will insist that President Obama do this now, acting upon his authority as commander-in-chief. And if he does not, we will make this an issue for his successor and put it as high as we can on the public agenda.

Posted in: Nuclear Weapons

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  • Frank, you are correct that nuclear proliferation is a significant threat, and UCS and many others are working around the world to address that risk. That effort in no way
    precludes addressing the risks posed by hair trigger alert,. While you note that the risk of an accidental launch is low, if it ever occurred, it would be catastrophic, and it is a risk that serves no purpose, as many military experts have recognized. That combination convinces me that hair trigger alert is very much worth taking on, even as we and others also address other nuclear risks such as proliferation.

  • Frank Acree

    The idea that there will be an ‘accidental’ nuclear exchange is an alarming one. The reality is that while we have had active nuclear weapon stockpiles for almost 70 years their has not been one. Further, the argument can easily be made that controls on those weapon stockpiles have increased dramatically. I would also make the point that an accidental nuclear exchange is such a low probability as to be laughably remote.

    Proliferation of low yield nuclear weapons into unstable or barely stable countries is a far more dangerous and likely scenario. Reducing proliferation can yield real gains. Trying to get the nuclear powers with exchange ready weapons to radically their military posture is likely a waste of time and effort.

  • Mark Wengler

    There has been to many times WW3 could had happen. But someday our luck will run out. Some mistake will start WW3 amd BILLIONS will die.

    • alsodanlowe

      Or we all organize on this single issue, regardless of whatever else we may disagree on. The mistake you allude to would be to roll over and assume that a world with nuclear weapons is the only kind of world we can have.