Hair-Trigger Alert Doesn’t Make Sense. Here’s Why

March 8, 2016
David Wright
Former contributor

In talking with a young colleague recently, I realized he had no idea the U.S. and Russia keep thousands of nuclear weapons on alert, poised to launch 24 hours a day, every day.

And I’ve come to realize this misconception is widely shared. Even people who know we still have nuclear weapons tend to think we keep them safely stored away, to be pulled out if leaders decide we need to use them.

But today, around the clock, 90 U.S. launch control officers sit in pairs at 45 hardened, underground missile launch centers, ready to launch 450 land-based nuclear missiles at a moment’s notice. At the same time, launch crews are on duty—also 24/7—on strategic submarines roaming the oceans, ready to launch missiles with hundreds of nuclear weapons if called to.

Russia does something similar.

I can see why people are surprised to learn this. It’s been nearly a quarter century since the Cold War between the U.S. and Soviet Union ended in late 1991. Most people don’t think or hear much about nuclear weapons. But unfortunately, they remain a real and present danger.

And that danger is made worse by U.S.—and Russian—policies of keeping large numbers of these weapons on hair-trigger alert so that they can be fired very quickly. That makes them susceptible to mistakes and accidents.

To help more people understand what’s going on and why this matters, we’ve just released a short video. Take a look, and please share it.