Obama’s Nuclear Legacy #2: Ending Prompt Launch

January 9, 2015
Stephen Young
Senior Washington Representative

As I outlined in an earlier piece, President Obama has the opportunity to make significant changes in nuclear policy in the remaining two years of his presidency—changes that would make every American more secure, while also saving money and enhancing his legacy.

The first item on the list was to reduce U.S. long-range nuclear forces to 1,000 deployed warheads.

The second is to remove U.S. ground-based long-range nuclear-armed missiles from their current “prompt launch” status.

Keeping weapons on prompt launch means that today, just as at the height of the Cold War, hundreds of U.S. intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) are ready to be fired in just a few minutes. Each of those missiles carries a single warhead that is roughly 20 times more powerful than the bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II.

This policy of keeping missiles ready for immediate launch dramatically increases the likelihood of mistake or miscalculation. The United States and Russia both maintain this posture, giving leaders in both countries very little time to assess the credibility and accuracy of the warning of a nuclear attack. Erroneous information or poor assessment could lead to catastrophe. Rapid launch capabilities also increase the risk of accidental or unauthorized launches.

In short, whether or not keeping missiles on high alert made sense during the Cold War, it does not today. In the current environment, the possibility of a mistaken, unauthorized, or accidental launch is significantly greater than that of a deliberate attack. The risks of keeping weapons ready to fire clearly outweigh any potential benefits.

Leaders in both countries have long recognized the risks of this rapid launch posture. During the presidential campaigns of George W. Bush and Barack Obama, each declared their intention to remove U.S. nuclear weapons from prompt launch status. The international community, including every U.S. military ally, has also strongly supported steps to reduce the dangers from prompt launch status.

And this is still appropriate even taking into consideration Russia’s military actions in Ukraine: A deliberate nuclear first strike by either country is still wildly implausible. And the threat of such a strike is the only motivation for keeping missiles ready to fire in moments.

Given the widespread support for a safer approach, why has the situation not changed? Why are missiles still just as ready for launch as they were during the Cold War?

The Re-Alerting Race

The short answer is that, even as presidents have pushed for change, the military has resisted it, preferring the status quo. The most prominent argument used to justify the risks of maintaining prompt launch status is the prospect of a “re-alerting race.” It goes as follows.

Let’s assume the United States removed its land-based missiles from their current rapid launch posture. Then a serious military crisis emerges that could, at least in theory, require the use or potential use of nuclear weapons. Say, for example, that Russian military forces are massing on the border of one or more Baltic countries. Some in the U.S. military worry that if, in such a situation, the United States decided to put its missiles back on prompt launch status, this could make the crisis even more dire by signaling that the United States thought there was a possibility the crisis might become nuclear. If Russia had also removed its missiles from their rapid launch posture, it might then begin to put its missiles back on high alert, leading to a re-alerting race. In a worst case scenario, Russia might attempt a nuclear strike to destroy U.S. missiles before they could be re-alerted. And since militaries thrive on planning for worst case scenarios, however far-fetched, the U.S. military argues that it must maintain prompt launch status.

If the scenario described above were close to the full picture, it might be worrisome. But it is not, far from it. First, if a military response is required, the appropriate reaction to a Russian threat—or even an actual invasion—is not to increase the launch-readiness of U.S. nuclear forces, but to prepare a conventional U.S. and NATO military response that will address the threat directly, rather than escalating it dramatically. U.S. and NATO conventional military forces are significantly more capable than the depleted Russian forces of today.

Second, the concern about a potential Russian first strike against U.S. land-based missiles that were not capable of a prompt launch ignores the fact that the majority of U.S. nuclear forces are on submarine-based missiles, which are invulnerable to attack. That is a supremely capable nuclear deterrent, more than required for any purpose, and it makes the readiness level of ICBMs irrelevant, even in a crisis.

Finally, there are a number of ways that the United States could remove its missiles from prompt launch status, with different implications.

Safing U.S. Missile Silos

WHITEMAN AIR FORCE BASE, Mo. -- Two missile maintenance crewmen perform an electrical check on an LGM-30F Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile in its silo Jan. 1, 1980. (U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Bob Wickley)

WHITEMAN AIR FORCE BASE, Mo. — Two missile maintenance crewmen perform an electrical check on an LGM-30F Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile in its silo Jan. 1, 1980. (U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Bob Wickley)

The approach we recommend would have President Obama instruct the Air Force to turn on the “safing” switches that exist in every U.S. missile silo. These switches prevent launch while the missile is being maintained, when crews are working in the silo. When the switch is on, the communication between the missile and launch center is broken, and there is no chance of an intentional launch, with or without authorization. An unauthorized launch could only take place once the switch was turned back off. (When the switch is on, the risk of an accidental launch would be reduced, but it would not be zero.)

Note that this approach has drawbacks. Because it is not readily verifiable, Russia may not have confidence that the missiles truly are incapable of being launched quickly. (While a camera could be used to show the switch remained in the “safe” position, it could be challenging to convince Russia that the switch does what the Air Force says it does.) This could reduce the incentive for Moscow to follow suit, and to similarly increase the time it would take to launch its nuclear forces.

And that is our long-term goal. Both Russia and the United States should, as they continue to reduce the number of the nuclear weapons, also increase the time required to launch them.

But that is a heavy lift, particularly in the current environment of Russian misbehavior. Our relatively modest “safing” approach is specifically intended as an incremental first step, one that would eliminate the option for the U.S. to launch its ICBMs under warning—and under extreme time pressure—and thus the possibility of a mistaken launch. It would also reduce the small but non-zero risk that U.S. land-based missiles could be launched when the President did not want it to happen—either by accident or without authorization.

As we note in all seriousness, accidents happen. We need to make sure that they aren’t nuclear.