Japan’s Top Hawk Calls for the United States to End Hair-Trigger Alert

April 27, 2015
Gregory Kulacki
China Project Manager

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe is not a peacenik. He sidesteps the pacifist constraints in Japan’s post-war constitution. He chafes at international criticism of Japan’s role in World War II and pressures publishers to soften descriptions of wartime Japan’s sexual enslavement of women. The conservative leader of Japan’s ruling party frequents a Shinto Shrine that lionizes convicted war criminals and glorifies the bombing of Pearl Harbor. He picks fights with Russia, China and South Korea over disputed islands and supports a significant increase in Japanese defense spending.

So it is important for U.S. officials, the U.S. media and the U.S. public to take note that as Abe makes his case for a stronger Japan to Congress and the White House during his U.S. visit, his foreign minister, Fumio Kishida, a native of Hiroshima, is advancing a proposal in the United Nations calling on all nuclear weapons states—including the United States—“to take steps towards de-alerting their nuclear forces to help lower the risk of inadvertent use.”

Abe visits Washington as NPT convenes in New York

This week the Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) will open a month-long push by many non-nuclear weapons states to compel the five nuclear weapons states that are party to the NPT to honor their obligation to take meaningful steps towards disarmament. Japan, along with the other members of an 11-nation group of U.S. friends and allies called the Nonproliferation and Disarmament Initiative (NPDI), are urging an end to the U.S. and Russian practice of keeping their nuclear forces on “launch-ready alert,” meaning they can be launched within minutes.

This status— often called “hair-trigger alert”—is a relic of the Cold War, when both countries were concerned about the possibility of a surprise nuclear attack by the other. Keeping their nuclear missiles on high alert gave them the ability to launch on warning of attack, so the incoming warheads could not destroy the missiles on the ground.

Today both the United States and Russia see the chance of such surprise attacks as extremely low. As retired U.S. and Russian generals James Cartwright and Vladimir Dvorkin explain in a recent editorial in the New York Times, this removes the rationale for keeping nuclear missiles on high alert. Continuing to do so increases the chances of accidental, mistaken, or unauthorized nuclear launches. A number of incidents in the last couple of decades have shown that concerns about such launches are justified.

Japanese public leads world in opposing nuclear weapons

While it may seem surprising that a hawkish Japanese prime minister would sponsor a proposal to de-alert U.S. nuclear weapons in a time of increased tension with a nuclear-armed China, it really shouldn’t be. Japan is the only nation to have suffered a nuclear attack, and this year marks the 70th anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Japanese public and political support for nuclear disarmament is especially strong. According to a recent Pew survey, nearly half of Japan’s people consider nuclear weapons the world’s greatest danger—a far higher percentage than in any of the other 43 nations included in the survey. A whopping 82 percent of respondents in another recent poll supported maintaining Japan’s Three Non-Nuclear Principles, which stipulate that Japan shall neither possess nor manufacture nuclear weapons, nor shall it permit any country to introduce nuclear weapons in to Japanese territory—including the nuclear weapons of the United States.

Some U.S. experts claim Japan values nuclear weapons and might decide to develop its own in response to the national security concerns Abe will discuss while he is in Washington. But those U.S. experts are mistaken. A new UCS report provides an analysis of Japan’s relationship with nuclear weapons and their role in the history of the U.S.-Japanese security relationship.

The UCS report includes this revealing passage from a non-public Japanese government study on Japan’s nuclear options completed prior to Japan’s decision to agree to a permanent extension of the NPT in 1995. The passage considers a worst-case scenario positing “a break-up of the U.S.- Japan alliance, a collapse of the nonproliferation regime, and an inclination of various countries to go nuclear.” The confidential Japanese government study concludes,

 “Even in such a case, it is questionable whether there is any value for a trading nation that depends on the stability of international society to try to secure its survival and protect its interests with its own nuclear weapons. It would more likely undermine the basis of its own survival. Only in a case where destitution reaches a stage where the exchange of damage with an opponent is not a concern anymore, would the geopolitical vulnerability of Japan make the nuclear option a possibility. This, however, is a case where a condition becomes its own goal, and is not worthy of consideration.”

Ending hair-trigger alert would help strengthen the NPT

As President Obama works to reduce the role of U.S. nuclear weapons in U.S. national security policy—as he promised to do in Prague—he should respect the request by Japan and the other NPDI countries, currently on the table at the United Nations, to lower the alert level of U.S. nuclear forces.

The continued viability of the NPT—which both the Japanese public and elected officials, including Prime Minister Abe, strongly support—depends on the good-faith efforts of the United States and the other nuclear weapon states to live up to their obligations under the treaty. Taking U.S. nuclear weapons off hair-trigger alert would partially fulfill the U.S. commitment to the NPT while supporting a longstanding diplomatic initiative of one of its most important allies.

About the author

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Gregory Kulacki is an expert on cross-cultural communication between the United States and China. Since joining UCS in 2002, he has promoted dialogue between experts from both countries on nuclear arms control and space security and has consulted with Chinese and U.S. governmental and non-governmental organizations, including the U.S. House China Working Group, the Senate Armed Services Committee, the U.S. National Academies, NASA, and the Office of Science and Technology Policy.