U.S. Plays Word Games in Statement about Alert Level of Nuclear Weapons

, co-director and senior scientist | May 7, 2015, 2:11 pm EDT
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On Tuesday, the U.S. delegation to the 2015 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference in New York issued a statement on the alert level of U.S. nuclear weapons.

Unfortunately, the statement is disingenuous and misleading, and relies on word games to obfuscate the real issues. It inappropriately seeks to dispel NPT delegates’ concerns about the U.S. practice of keeping nuclear missiles ready to be launched within minutes, giving the president the option of launching these missiles based on warning of an incoming attack.

In rejecting the term “hair-trigger” alert, the administration’s statement implicitly denies that the United States keeps its missiles on high alert. This is false: the United States can launch hundreds of its nuclear weapons in minutes. Moreover, “hair-trigger alert” is a widely-used term to describe this practice. Presidents Bush and Obama have used the term, as have many high-ranking U.S. military officers.

The U.S. statement also rejects the term “launch-on-warning policy.” But the fact is that the United States maintains the option of launching its missiles when warning sensors indicate an attack is underway. A false or misinterpreted warning could lead to a deliberate but mistaken launch of U.S. missiles. This is not just a theoretical possibility—human and technical errors have led to false warnings in the past.

What the U.S. statement omits is as important as what it says. It notes that the United States has taken steps to reduce the risk of an accidental or unauthorized launch of nuclear missiles. But it fails to note that these safeguards do nothing to prevent a mistaken launch; they are not intended to prevent a launch authorized by the president.

The U.S. statement points to the fact that all U.S. nuclear-capable bombers have been taken off day-to-day alert. It is important to note, however, that it was President George H.W. Bush who took this step using his executive authority almost 25 years ago. And while the United States has reduced the overall number of nuclear warheads on alert—by reducing the number of warheads on land-based missiles and on submarines at sea—hundreds of warheads remain at the same alert level they were during the Cold War, ready to be launched in minutes.

Rather than arguing about how to refer to the hundreds of nuclear-armed missiles that it keeps ready to launch within minutes, the United States should eliminate this dangerous practice.



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  • J_kies

    Dr Gronlund; it seems unfortunate that in advocating disarmament objectives you appear to be missing the constituency that must be convinced, the National Command Authority itself. Applying language like ‘hair trigger’ or ‘high alert’ distracts from your desired message as those terms are either inexact or are descriptive of military postures with presumptive reactions under attack (e.g. DEFCONs).

    US missiles are characteristically ‘inert but can be rapidly prepared for launch’. This is true of both ICBMs and SLBMs. This status of near ‘wooden rounds’ is as safe and secure as they can be while maintaining the command and control structures under the lawful actions of the Commander in Chief. Due to the inherent decapitation risks present to the command structure in the world as it exists; to retain confidence of positive command / control of these items as necessary for deterrence this inert but rapidly available status is probably believed to be necessary.

    For reducing risk of inappropriate deliberate launch, I suggest you advocate for better, more robust and redundant sensors to better inform / confirm evidence for POTUS. You may further ask for the administration to set policy that nuclear release will only be granted in response to NUDET confirmation within US territory but that carries significant risks to the response as nuclear weapon detonations may be difficult for the ICBM force to ‘ride through’ or ‘launch through’.