Nuclear Hair-Trigger and Launch-on-Warning: The World Says “No”

, physicist & co-director, Global Security | April 27, 2015, 9:35 am EDT
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Almost all the world’s nations gather today at the UN in New York City for the month-long Review Conference of the international treaty designed to stop the spread of nuclear weapons and eliminate the ones that already exist.

The 1970 Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, or “NPT”, divides the world into nuclear weapons haves and have-nots, with the five nuclear weapon states—the U.S., Russia, China, Britain, and France—committed to nuclear disarmament in exchange for which the other 186 parties have pledged not to acquire nuclear weapons. The treaty includes inspections to make sure that countries with nuclear power programs don’t use the technology to produce nuclear weapons materials.  

The 2010 NPT Review Conference.

The 2010 NPT Review Conference. (Source: UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe)

All but five countries are party to the treaty—India, Israel, and Pakistan have nuclear arsenals and have never signed; North Korea withdrew from the treaty in 2003 and now has nuclear weapons; and South Sudan, which came into existence in 2011, has yet to sign.

So what will happen at this Review Conference? The five nuclear weapon states will try to convince the rest of the world that they are making progress on disarmament, and the other nations will push for concrete steps to match the rhetoric.

Does this dialogue matter? You bet it does. The non-nuclear weapon states are increasingly frustrated that the weapon states are making slow progress toward fulfilling their half of the bargain. If this continues, the NPT could eventually unravel, and more countries may decide to get nuclear weapons.

U.S. and Russian launch-on-warning policies

The U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals and policies will be a subject of particular concern, and for good reason. With some 4,500 weapons each, the two nations account for over 90% of the world’s weapons. And both countries keep large numbers of their nuclear weapons on hair-trigger alert to allow their launch on warning of an incoming attack.

But warning systems are not perfect, creating the risk of a mistaken launch based on false or misinterpreted warning. And this is not a theoretical concern: the U.S. and Soviet/Russian systems have suffered false warnings of an incoming attack.

Another problem with launch-on-warning is that the decision time is so short. It would take only 25 minutes for a land-based missile to reach the other country (and even less for a missile launched from a submarine). It would take roughly 10 minutes for satellite- and ground-based sensors to detect the launch, leaving less than 15 minutes for the U.S. or Russian president to decide whether the warning is accurate and whether to launch in response.

Yet another problem is that keeping missiles primed to be launched quickly increases the risk of an accidental or unauthorized launch.

The world wants an end to hair-trigger alert

At the last Review Conference, in 2010, one of the recommendations adopted by consensus was to: “Consider the legitimate interest of non-nuclear-weapon states in further reducing the operational status of nuclear weapons systems in ways that promote international stability and security.” (“Reducing the operational status” is code for taking weapons off hair-trigger alert.)

And last year at the United Nations, 166 countries voted in support of a resolution to “decrease the operational readiness of nuclear weapons systems, with a view to ensuring that all nuclear weapons are removed from high alert status.” Four countries—guess which ones—opposed it (the U.S., Russia, Britain, and France).

The topic will come up again at this Review Conference. The Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Initiative (NPDI), a coalition including Japan, Canada and Germany, will bring to the meeting a working paper that calls on all nuclear weapons states to take “concrete and meaningful steps, whether unilaterally, bilaterally or regionally, to further reduce the operational status of nuclear weapons.”

The United States has little to say for itself

What does the United States have to say for itself? The State Department has just put out a fact sheet—Myths and Facts Regarding the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and Regime—that tries to make the case that the U.S. is already doing its part to fulfill the requirements of the NPT. It includes a discussion of the U.S. hair-trigger posture.

First, the United States objects to the term “hair-trigger” (the U.S. military uses the terms “prompt launch” or “ready alert” instead). Second, the fact sheet notes that the United States “employs multiple, rigorous and redundant technical and procedural safeguards to protect against accidental or unauthorized launch.” Presumably true, but things can still go wrong. And note that the fact sheet doesn’t say anything about a mistaken launch based on wrong information about an incoming attack, because all the safeguards are irrelevant if the president decides to launch.

Finally, the fact sheet states that “we are taking further steps to maximize decision time for the president in a crisis.” That’s not very comforting when the U.S. maintains a launch-on-warning posture, since the upper limit of the time the president will have to make a decision is 25 minutes—the time it would take for a Russian land-based missile to reach the U.S.

The only way to give the president a reasonable amount of time to make the momentous decision to launch U.S. nuclear weapons is to remove the launch-on-warning option. And if the U.S. does not plan to launch on warning, there is no reason to keep its weapons on hair-trigger alert.

It’s worth noting that high-level military and political leaders continue to call for an end to launch-on warning and for taking missiles off hair-trigger alert, and that this can be done quickly.

Time to change course

Instead of being defensive, the administration should use the occasion of the NPT Review Conference to announce an end to the Cold War practice of keeping U.S. ground-based nuclear missiles on hair-trigger alert to allow launch-on-warning. This is something President Obama can do without Congressional action. Hopefully, Russia would follow suit. But the world will be safer even if the United States goes it alone.

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  • Ellen Henegar

    Even if the US launched on warning, would not the Russians already have 15 minutes advantage in getting their missile on our ground first? Regardless of how quickly we responded, the Russians, North Koreans, would they not have the advantage? And once the US is hit by missiles, would there be anything left of the US? If the US is demolished by enemy missiles, is there any reason for us to retaliate? I am not necessarily making a comment, though in part I am, but I am asking whether there is any sense or reason for the US to retaliate in the first place?? Anyone want to take a shot at this question?? THX.