Hair-Trigger Alert and the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty: Fact-Checking the U.S. Fact Sheet

, analyst | April 27, 2015, 5:00 am EDT
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In the lead up to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty Review Conference (NPT RevCon, for those who enjoy acronyms), opening today, the U.S. Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation released a fact sheet titled “Myths and Facts Regarding the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and Regime.”

Judging by the selection of “myths” they chose to include, the United States seems to be feeling a bit defensive about its track record in making progress towards the main objective of the NPT—nuclear disarmament. That is the central bargain of the NPT: the five countries designated as nuclear weapon states—the United States, Russia, China, the United Kingdom, and France—agree to give up their nuclear weapons in exchange for all the other non-nuclear weapon states agreeing not to develop or acquire nuclear weapons of their own.

The blast door to a launch control facility at a decommissioned Minuteman II missile site (now a historical site) in South Dakota advertising the U.S. ability to deliver its nuclear missiles around the globe in half an hour. (Source:

The blast door to a launch control facility at a decommissioned Minuteman II missile site (now a historical site) in South Dakota advertising the U.S. ability to deliver its nuclear missiles around the globe in half an hour. (Source: jason.stajich)

Review conferences for the NPT take place every five years, giving all 191 states a chance to weigh in on what progress has been made and what actions are needed in the coming years to achieve the treaty’s goals. The mood among the non-nuclear states at the 2015 RevCon is expected to be impatience at what is widely seen as lackluster U.S. action in the wake of the 2010 conference. In view of this, the U.S. fact sheet includes several “myths” that seem aimed at preempting criticism of its lack of progress toward disarmament.

Hair-trigger alert

One in particular jumped out at me: Myth 6 states that “‘Hair-trigger’ alert status and failures to take proper care of nuclear weapons are accidents waiting to happen, and demonstrate the urgent need to eliminate all nuclear weapons.”

Whoever wrote this mixed several different issues, so it’s worth taking a closer look.

First, it’s unhelpful that the first U.S. response to this “myth” relies on semantics—denying that “hair-trigger” is an appropriate description of the alert status of U.S. nuclear forces. Technically, it is true that the U.S. military does not use this term—it prefers more benign-sounding phrases, like “prompt-launch” or “ready alert” status. However, for those not fluent in military-speak, describing nuclear weapons that can be launched within minutes as being on “hair-trigger” alert is not much of a stretch. Moreover, it is a term that has been widely used by political and military leaders, including Presidents Bush and Obama.

Second, the U.S. response cites “multiple, rigorous and redundant technical and procedural safeguards” that prevent accidental or unauthorized launch, and states that the United States is “taking further steps to maximize decision time for the President in a crisis.” While it is true that U.S. nuclear weapons do employ many safeguards, it is unfortunately also true that no system is foolproof. And even if an accidental or unauthorized launch is avoided, the U.S. insistence on maintaining the option of launch-on-warning opens the door to a mistaken launch—namely, a deliberate launch in response to erroneous or ambiguous warning of an incoming attack. False information or misinterpretation of information from early warning systems has in the past led both the United States and Russia to believe that an attack was underway. In this case, if either the U.S. or Russian president decided to launch, the safeguards intended to prevent unintended launches would all be removed as part of the launch process.

And while the United States says that it is working to increase presidential decision time, it has so far resisted one of the most obvious ways to do this—by taking its missiles off high alert. The most recent Nuclear Posture Review, in 2010, considered but rejected it. This conclusion was somewhat surprising. Both Barack Obama and George W. Bush as candidates stated their desire to remove U.S. nuclear weapons from high alert, and statements from a wide range of other high ranking military and defense officials also support this change.

International calls for taking missiles off hair-trigger alert

Third, while the United States may think that the dangers from keeping missiles on high alert are a myth, the international consensus is very much against them on this issue.

Last year, 166 states voted to support a UN resolution calling for removing all nuclear weapons from high alert. This year, a coalition of states (including U.S. allies like Japan, Canada, and Germany) known as the Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Initiative (NPDI) plans to bring a working paper before the conference calling on all the nuclear weapon states to take steps to reduce the alert level of nuclear weapons. Thus, the U.S. decision to dismiss such concerns by labeling them a “myth” is unlikely to prove persuasive, or helpful.

Finally, while there are good reasons to eliminate nuclear weapons, the best response to the problems of having missiles on hair-trigger alert is to take them off hair-trigger alert, which can be done quickly.

President Obama can do this

The reason for placing U.S. missiles on high alert in the first place was the fear of a Soviet first strike. But even with current tensions with Russia, this is no longer a realistic fear, and the much more likely danger is an accidental, unauthorized, or mistaken launch.

This is a danger that President Obama can single-handedly end. By announcing that he will use his authority as commander in chief to order U.S. land-based nuclear missiles to be taken off hair-trigger alert, the president would virtually end the risks posed by unintended or mistaken launches. Making this announcement at the RevCon would also send a strong signal that the United States has heard the concerns of the majority of NPT states and is taking concrete measures to reduce the risks posed by its large nuclear arsenal.

Rather than using wordplay to side-step its responsibility, the United States should take the opportunity of the RevCon to reclaim a leadership role in the international nonproliferation and disarmament regime.

 

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  • Marianne

    Thanks for a great article. But can anyone tell me exactly WHY taking missiles off hair-trigger alert is not being done? If Obama (and Bush before him) wanted it done, if Obama wanted it included in the NPR of 2010, if it can be done by Presidential authority then why is it not being done? What’s going on here when a sensible action – which will not hamper deterrence, and which could avert disaster – is still not happening? I’d be grateful for your views.

    • Eryn MacDonald

      Marianne,

      That’s a great question. There are a number of reasons why this hasn’t been done yet, even though it is such a common sense and achievable change. One simple– though somewhat disturbing– answer is just plain inertia. Since there has not yet been a major accident (though we’ve come close on a number of occasions: http://www.ucsusa.org/nuclear-weapons/hair-trigger-alert/close-calls), most people are not really aware there is a problem. Even among those who know about the policy, there is a certain level of complacency– other problems seem more urgent.

      On top of this, the military tends to be stuck in the Cold War when it comes to thinking about nuclear weapons. They want to maintain the option to launch on warning of an attack, which requires keeping land-based missiles on hair-trigger alert. This is despite the fact that submarine-based missiles would survive an initial attack and could be launch within a short time. In addition, the Air Force worries that if land-based missiles were taken off hair-trigger alert, they might be seen as irrelevant and there would be calls for their elimination.

      Add to this opposition from the “ICBM Caucus” (Senators from states where the missiles are located, who benefit from the related funding) and a lack of public awareness or pressure, and it becomes difficult for a president– even one who, like Obama, genuinely believes in reducing the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. security– to overcome. This is one reason UCS has undertaken a campaign on this issue. By raising awareness, we can help create a greater sense of urgency about ending the dangers of hair-trigger alert and give President Obama the public support to take action to make us all safer.

  • J_kies

    Without entry into semantics; the missiles are inherently at an inert state that can be rapidly prepared and launched. The silo placement enforces an ‘assembled’ state with the reentry system mated to the missile (lest the preparation timeframe be counted in days to weeks). Such inert but assembled (‘wooden rounds’) are inherently safer and less costly to retain as any handling increases the small but finite probability of accident. As inert; they are not targeted nor ready to launch until a programmed deliberate set of actions are conducted as part of the war orders. Safe (as such things can be) and secure (behind the security apparatus and with minimum handling) is both a design objective and the basis of operations. Short of effective elimination of the land based leg; it is difficult to see the specific engineering and management actions that any President could direct with the ICBM missiles to get further from the ‘hair trigger’ characterization.

    Rather than word play; what specific actions does the advocacy recommend?

    • Eryn MacDonald

      J_kies,

      Glad you asked! We actually have a very straightforward proposal for ICBMs. UCS advocates “safing” these missiles by using the safety control switch in the launcher equipment room of each missile silo. Maintenance crews already routinely use this switch to prevent a launch when they are working in the silos, and it is also used during the annual change of launch codes. The switch opens a circuit that prevents a launch command from igniting the missile’s first-stage motor; at this point the missile is considered manually safed. The missile launch crew in the launch control center can still monitor the missile’s status, but cannot launch it. For more details on this proposal see: http://www.ucsusa.org/nuclear-weapons/hair-trigger-alert/safing-nuclear-missiles.

      So safing leaves the missile intact, in the silo, and uses a standard component of the launch system. Why do we see this as making things safer? By preventing launch signals from reaching the missiles, it would essentially eliminate accidental and unauthorized launches due to cyber attacks, etc. It would also reduce the risk of launch on false or misinterpreted warning signals. This is a concern both because these problems with warning have happened before to the U.S. and Soviets/Russia, and because this can lead to an intentional launch, in which case the safety barriers would be removed and targets would be loaded as a normal part of the launch process. De-alerting is a way of removing the option from war plans to launch quickly in a crisis, i.e., launch on warning. This is a step that Gen. Cartwright and others have called for.

      The reason we’re focusing on safing ICBMs is because these are the missiles that put commanders under the greatest pressure to launch quickly in a crisis, since their known locations make them vulnerable to attack. And since most of the U.S. nuclear force is on submarines, which are hidden in the ocean, safing the ICBM leg would not decrease deterrence.

      • J_kies

        I believe this proposal does not significantly modify the fictional ‘hair trigger’ status issues for the following reasons: 1) Its unobservable by the other party and thus does not change the other parties perceptions of status. 2) It decreases the perceived credibility of our ICBM deterrent in our eyes since we cannot be assured that the missiles can be launched in a legitimate crisis as we do not have continuity of the firing circuits as would be seen in periodic tests. 3) It encourages cheating on the ‘safing’ measures as the higher confidence of deterrent posture is the ability to know that when commanded; the system can respond as designed without additional risks of human failure. (The 2 key system issues apply here as well; also such inhibit blocks in place mean that the missile is in ‘red-time’ and not effectively in the inventory until the command status is restored / confirmed)

        Since this proposal does not observably change the status in a manner that does not require blind trust by the other treaty party; decreases the US NCA confidence in the command / control status of the ICBM leg of our nuclear deterrent and reduces our confidence in the system integrity / configuration status as shown in test & training, I believe the proposal will be considered as unsound.

        Gen. Cartwright is a big boy; he could just recommend we phase out of the ICBM leg and allocate the mission and W/H count to the SLBM leg. This would be the logical outcome from the behaviors of the USAF post 1992 which systematically deemphasized the nuclear missions. Elimination of the ICBM leg saves the large fraction of a Trillion dollars of the unfunded ICBM recap (GBSD).

        • Eryn MacDonald

          The U.S. may decide to eliminate the ICBM leg—and Cartwright apparently sees that as a goal over the next decade—but in the meantime we would like to see something that could be done more quickly to reduce risks of nuclear use. Safing the missiles can be done now without taking on that bigger question.

          While it would clearly be preferable to reduce alert levels
          in a bilateral, verifiable way with Russia, the U.S. would be safer even if the U.S. takes its own ICBMs off high alert in a non-verifiable way as a first step. That’s because this would reduce the chance of an accidental, unauthorized, or mistaken U.S. launch—an event that would likely induce a
          retaliatory strike on the U.S. It’s in the U.S. self-interest to prevent such U.S. launches, and taking that step, even if not verifiable, could increase Russia’s interest in reciprocating. And since reducing alert levels for ICBMs doesn’t affect the deterrent provided by our SLBM force, it wouldn’t reduce
          U.S. security to do this.

          • J_kies

            Ms MacDonald; fish or cut bait. If the ICBMs are really immaterial to deterrence just eliminate them.

            The primary ICBM risk of Russian existential retaliation strike follows from Russian misinterpretation of US GMD defensive actions. E.g. in the event of ‘successful GMD defense’ against a single or few inbound missiles; debris and unengaged missile parts from GBIs will propagate towards the Russian Federation for some important scenarios. Given the poor state of Russian warning radars and the non-functional state of Russian IR satellites they would need to withhold their response despite inbounds possibly indistinguishable from an US ICBM first strike.