What is the Administration’s Rationale for Keeping Missiles on Hair-Trigger Alert?

, former co-director | June 5, 2015, 12:10 pm EST
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One of the sensible ideas the non-nuclear weapon states promoted at both the 2010 and 2015 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conferences is the idea that the nuclear weapon states should take their missiles off high alert and eliminate the option to launch nuclear weapons on warning of an attack. This would reduce the risk of accidental, mistaken, and unauthorized launches while retaining deterrence by post-attack retaliation.

(Source: DoD)

(Source: DoD)

We’ve written about why doing this reduces nuclear risks, the high-level officials and military officers who agree with us, and how the U.S. could do this with its land-based missiles in a straightforward way.

The administration’s response

During the recent NPT conference, the Obama administration responded by releasing several misleading statements about U.S. policy while implying—incorrectly—that it is making significant strides in reducing nuclear alert levels. So it essentially dismissed such discussions without addressing the issues or giving its rationale for keeping weapons on Cold War alert levels.

In response, we sent a letter to Secretary of State Kerry and Secretary of Defense Carter, signed by a number of security experts, asking them to clarify U.S. policy and actions on the alert level of U.S. nuclear forces. We have not heard back.

More recently, we sent a memo to Rose Gottemoeller, Under Secretary for Arms Control and International Security in the State Department, and Greg Weaver, Principal Director for Nuclear and Missile Defense Policy in the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy asking for clarification. These two officials briefed delegates at the NPT conference on this issue, and are scheduled to brief representatives of nongovernmental organizations on Monday. Unfortunately, it appears that briefing will be off-the-record.

What is the administration’s case?

As a candidate, and early in his presidency, President Obama supported making U.S. missiles safer, arguing that the U.S. “should take our nuclear weapons off hair-trigger alert.”

It’s not clear whether the president still feels this way, but the administration has decided not to take this step. Rather than releasing misleading statements and making incorrect claims, the administration should state its reasons for maintaining the Cold War status quo so that these issues can be debated publicly.


Posted in: Missiles and Missile Defense, Nuclear Weapons Tags: , , , , ,

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  • Greg

    Well it would certainly reduce the risk of some enemy being destroyed by our missiles if they fired first in a sneak attack.
    Russia announced not long ago that it was building 50 new intercontinental ballistic missles. Guess they don’t fully trust their arsenal of Soviet era missiles to get the job done should they go on a world conquest bender.
    Last I heard there were still a few of those Soviet era medium range nukes hidden away in Cuba since before the Cuban missile crisis. Probably not useable unless they’ve done serious maintenance on them all these years.

  • Richard Vesel

    I would suggest that in the off-the-record meeting, you ask what has caused the President to maintain a more conservative posture in this regard. I really do trust his judgement, and I believe that, as the President, rather than as candidate for President, a wealth of security information has made him more wary of unilateral steps which might compromise our ability to defend ourselves. The intent of the UCS is good here, but unilateral implementation at this time is like entering a combat zone with an unloaded weapon, and bullets tucked in your pocket.

    • dwrightucsusa

      Thanks for your comment. The administration’s main argument
      appears to be that it wants to maintain all options for a response. While this may sound reasonable, Gen. Cartwright and others who were in control of our nuclear forces believe all these options are not needed for deterrence, and maintaining the option of launching on warning is dangerous since it keeps U.S. forces on alert. In particular, the U.S. nuclear war plan reportedly contains elaborate targeting plans for a broad set of Russian military and industrial targets, and some planners worry they might not be able to carry out all these detailed options if U.S. forces are disrupted by an attack. However, the U.S. could still launch an overwhelming retaliatory strike. The key question here is what is required for deterrence. Our view is that retaliation from the hundreds of nuclear warheads on U.S. submarines is more than sufficient to deter a strike (recall that our proposal is to take U.S. land-based missiles off alert, since those are under the most time pressure to launch in a crisis). So we would not be in the situation of entering a combat zone with an unloaded weapon. I’ll be writing more about this soon.