Top Scientists Call for Obama to Take Nuclear Missiles off Hair-Trigger Alert

, physicist & co-director, Global Security | June 22, 2016, 3:35 pm EDT
Bookmark and Share

More than 90 prominent US scientists, including 20 Nobel laureates and 90 National Academy of Sciences members, sent a letter to President Obama yesterday urging him to take US land-based nuclear missiles off hair-trigger alert and remove launch-on-warning options from US warplans.

As we’ve discussed previously on this blog and elsewhere, keeping these weapons on hair-trigger alert so they can be launched within minutes creates the risk of a mistaken launch in response to false warning of an incoming attack.

This practice dates to the Cold War, when US and Soviet military strategists feared a surprise first-strike nuclear attack that could destroy land-based missiles. By keeping missiles on hair-trigger alert, they could be launched before they could be destroyed on the ground. But as the letter notes, removing land-based missiles from hair-trigger alert “would still leave many hundreds of submarine-based warheads on alert—many more than necessary to maintain a reliable and credible deterrent.”

“Land-based nuclear missiles on high alert present the greatest risk of mistaken launch,” the letter states. “National leaders would have only a short amount of time—perhaps 10 minutes—to assess a warning and make a launch decision before these missiles could be destroyed by an incoming attack.”

Minuteman III launch officers (Source: US Air Force)

Minuteman III launch officers (Source: US Air Force)

Past false alarms

Over the past few decades there have been numerous U.S. and Russian false alarms—due to technical failures, human errors and misinterpretations of data—that could have prompted a nuclear launch. The scientists’ letter points out that today’s heightened tension between the United States and Russia increases that risk.

The scientists’ letter reminds President Obama that he called for taking nuclear-armed missiles off hair-trigger alert after being elected president. During his 2008 presidential campaign, he also noted, “[K]eeping nuclear weapons ready to launch on a moment’s notice is a dangerous relic of the Cold War. Such policies increase the risk of catastrophic accidents or miscalculation.”

Other senior political and military officials have also called for an end to hair-trigger alert.

The scientists’ letter comes at an opportune time, since the White House is considering what steps the president could take in his remaining time in office to reduce the threat posed by nuclear weapons.

Posted in: Nuclear Weapons Tags: , , ,

Support from UCS members make work like this possible. Will you join us? Help UCS advance independent science for a healthy environment and a safer world.

Show Comments


Comment Policy

UCS welcomes comments that foster civil conversation and debate. To help maintain a healthy, respectful discussion, please focus comments on the issues, topics, and facts at hand, and refrain from personal attacks. Posts that are commercial, self-promotional, obscene, rude, or disruptive will be removed.

Please note that comments are open for two weeks following each blog post. UCS respects your privacy and will not display, lend, or sell your email address for any reason.

  • Hubert Halkin

    Steven Weinburg ?? Steven Weinberg

  • margaret evans

    FEMA believes that a 9.2 scale rupture of the Cascadia faultline off the West Coast USA is imminent. 3 x scale 5 quakes and 800 aftershocks have occurred within the last few weeks and several scale 4 earthquakes have occurred at Yellow-stone. Until this settles down all nukes should be taken off hair trigger alert. Earthquakes are more dangerous than Russia.

  • Kevin Sheets

    There’s only one problem with their assessment. How many accidental launches have there been since 1945? None.

  • IconoclastBob

    ICBMs are seen by some as first strike weapons, but they better fit the category of “use or loose.”

  • Nick_Lento

    There is far more than enough retaliatory capacity in our sea and air based forces to deter any kind of first strike against our land based ICBMs, or any nuclear strike against us or our allies.

    Korea is a relatively insignificant threat that does not require a hair triggered reaction as any nuclear attack from them would result in absolute total destructive for the regime.

    Both China and Russia have nothing to gain and everything to lose if they ever tried to target and take out our land based ICBM’S…as any nation that launched such attack would remain vulnerable to assured destruction by thousnds of warheads raining down on them from air and sea based retaliation.

    How many times do we have to be able to kill the same people? Overkill is a real phenomenon.

    Calling off the ten minute hair trigger “alert” makes common sense and would decrease the probability of nuclear war.

    A hair trigger alert is not required against any present or future threats from petty powers like North Korea.

    Obama was right in his initial assessment. This is not the 1960’s.

  • Robyn Ryan

    Why are missile officers wearing flight suits?

    • John Sirk

      for the photo. most of them wear hawaiian shirts or wife-beaters and skinny jeans

  • emaineiated

    Not part of the national suicide program, so not likely to happen. We are probably past the point of no return, all actions from here on out will likely be just sand in our eyes. War is being prepared, and it is coming.

  • mullylin33

    With the world so full of crazies, this is not the time to step backwards. Too many terrorist countries would try to take advantage of this and make us more of a target rather than less. It is unfortunate, but our world is loosing its common sense and regard for human life. I, for one, do not trust N. Korea…its leader is not sane and those around him are insane for allowing him to be so reckless…this is reality, not politics.

    • John Sirk

      um….really? so some bin laden wannabe is going to say….”whew! they finally took all those land based dinosaurs off of immediate launch alert… we were never really worried about all those submarines and cruise missiles…” As for North Korea, they’ve been playing the same record for the last 50 years–and it’s not like they have a fleet of nuclear missiles waiting to launch. It’s ignorant paranoid people that are the real danger…be they Muslim, Jew, Christian, Russian, Chinese or American

  • Charles

    This is not something you give away. You negotiate with Russia and China for things we want. Besides there are more players at the table. North Korea, Pakistan, India, Iran, France, England, and God knows who else have nuclear weapons. Its time to be smart not knee jerk.

    • ruth ferguson

      Israel probably has more nuclear weapons than the United States. And Netanyahu isn’t afraid to use them!! He’d just love to blow Iran off the map. He’s every bit as dangerous as North Korea!

      • John Sirk

        unlikely that they have more weapons than we do, but the fact is, they have them, but don’t admit to it…and yes I find Israel the most likely candidate to launch an initial nuclear strike

    • Robyn Ryan

      I’m all for turning them off and scrapping the whole notion of nukes. They can’t be used without suicidal effect.

      • Nick_Lento

        Unilateral nuclear disarmament would be beyond absurdly and stupidly foolish.

        However, calling off the ten minute hair trigger alert does make sense.

  • Bonnie Raymond

    Excellent. Especially in this time of irrational politics.