The Case for Ending Hair-Trigger Alert: New UCS Report

February 12, 2016
David Wright
Former contributor

Twenty-five years after the end of the Cold War, the United States and Russia continue to keep nearly 2,000 nuclear weapons constantly on high alert, ready to be launched in minutes. This is commonly called “hair-trigger alert.”

I’ve written several blog posts highlighting false alarms in the past decades that brought us uncomfortably close to a nuclear launch. These were due to technical glitches and human errors, but it was hair-trigger alert that set up the conditions for those glitches and errors to lead to disaster.

Ending this dangerous policy has support in high places. Just last week in a discussion of nuclear issues in Washington DC, Gen. Eugene Habiger, former Commander in Chief of U.S. Strategic Command, which controls U.S. nuclear weapons, said:

“We need to bring the alert status down of our ICBMs. And we’ve been dealing with that for many, many decades. … It’s one of those things where the services are not gonna do anything until the Big Kahuna says, ‘Take your missiles off alert,’ and then by golly within hours the missiles and subs will be off alert.  … [W]e need to get down to lower and lower levels, we need to have support and big decisions from the people in the White House to make it all happen.”

Yet when the “the Big Kahuna” (President Obama) and his administration did their review of U.S. nuclear policy—the Nuclear Posture Review—in Obama’s first term, they decided not to change the status quo and instead leave U.S. missiles on alert. This decision ran counter to promises Obama made as a candidate and early in his presidency—as well as counter to common sense, given the consequences should something like one of those historical incidents get out of hand.

Reducing-report coverWhy did they stick with the status quo? The administration and others have a standard set of arguments for why missiles should be left on hair trigger alert. Today we’re releasing a report that examines those arguments and shows they are simply not compelling.

Our report also discusses several things that have changed since the Nuclear Posture Review was completed that add new urgency to ending the U.S. hair-trigger policy. One is worsening relations between the U.S. and Russia. A state of heightened tension changes the context of a false alarm, should one occur, and tends to increase the chance that the warning will be seen as real.

The second is that we have learned the Chinese military is arguing that China should, for the first time, put its missiles on hair-trigger alert. Should China’s political leaders agree with this change, it would be a dangerous shift that would increase the chance of an accidental or mistaken launch at the United States.

The U.S. can hardly argue that China should not put its missile on hair-trigger alert when it continues to keep a large fraction of its own arsenal on high alert.

It’s time for the Big Kahuna to step up and order U.S. missiles to be taken off hair-trigger alert.