We’ve Said It, the Post Says It, Now SciAm Too: Take Weapons Off Alert

March 15, 2017
David Wright
Former contributor

In the March 2017 issue of Scientific American, the editorial board calls for the United States to take its nuclear missiles off hair-trigger alert as a way to reduce the risk of mistaken or accidental launch of nuclear weapons.

Minuteman launch officers in an underground command center (Source: US Air Force)

It joins the editorial boards of the New York Times and Washington Post, among others, in supporting this step.

Both the United States and Russia keep about 900 nuclear weapons on hair-trigger alert, ready to be launched in minutes. If satellites and radars send warning of an incoming attack, the goal is to be able to launch their missiles quickly—before the attacking warheads could land.

But the warning systems are not foolproof. The Scientific American editors point to some of the real-world cases of false warning of nuclear attack—in both the Soviet Union/Russia and the United States—that led the countries to begin launch preparations and increased the risk that nuclear weapons would be used.

This risk is exacerbated by the very short timeline for responding to such warning. Military officers would have only minutes to determine whether the warning that shows up on their computer screens is real. Defense officials would have maybe a minute to brief the president on the situation. The president would then have only minutes to decide whether to launch.

Former Secretary of Defense William Perry warned recently that land-based missiles are simply too easy to launch on bad information.

Taking missiles off hair-trigger alert and eliminating options to launch on warning would end this risk.

Cyber threats

The editors also note an additional set of concerns that calls for taking missiles off hair-trigger alert:

The need for better preventive steps has also become more acute because of sophisticated cybertechnologies that could, in theory, hack into a command-and-control system to fire a missile that is ready to launch.

This risk was highlighted in an op-ed in yesterday’s New York Times by Bruce Blair, a former missile launch officer who has spent his career studying the command and control of US and Russian nuclear forces.

He points to two cases in the past two decades in which vulnerabilities to cyberattacks were discovered in US land- and sea-based missiles. And he warns of two possible sources of cyber-vulnerability that remain today. One is the possibility that someone could hack into the “tens of thousands of miles of underground cabling and the backup radio antennas used for launching Minuteman missiles.”

On the other possibility he says:

We lack adequate control over the supply chain for nuclear components—from design to manufacture to maintenance. We get much of our hardware and software off-the-shelf from commercial sources that could be infected by malware. We nevertheless routinely use them in critical networks. This loose security invites an attempt at an attack with catastrophic consequences.

A 2015 report chaired by General James Cartwright, former commander of US Strategic Command, put it this way:

In some respects the situation was better during the Cold War than it is today. Vulnerability to cyber attack, for example, is a new wild card in the deck. … This concern is reason enough to remove nuclear missiles from launch-ready alert.

It’s time to act

Even current Secretary of Defense James Mattis, in testifying to the Senate Armed Services Committee two years ago, raised the issue of getting rid of US land-based missiles in order to reduce the risk of mistaken launch, saying:

Is it time to reduce the Triad to a Diad, removing the land‐based missiles?  This would reduce the false alarm danger.

The Trump administration may not yet be ready to get rid of land-based missiles. But it could—today—take these missiles off their current hair-trigger alert status.

Taking that one step would significantly reduce the nuclear risk to the US public, and the world.