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Home Articles Features PND Nuclear Flashpoints Input to US Nuclear Targeting Review

PND Nuclear Flashpoints Input to US Nuclear Targeting Review

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When President Obama came into office and for some time afterward, like President Bush before him, his manifesto included a commitment to :


"...Work with Russia to Increase Warning and Decision Time: Keeping nuclear weapons ready to launch on a moment's notice is a dangerous relic of the Cold War. Barack Obama believes that we must address this dangerous situation. As President, Barack Obama will aim to work with Russia to end such Cold War policies in a mutual and verifiable manner."


President Obama said during the campaign that

“Keeping nuclear weapons ready to launch on a moment’s notice is a dangerous relic of the Cold War. Such policies increase the risk of catastrophic accidents or miscalculation,”

According to the recent NPR, these weapons continue to be maintained at high levels of operational readiness and are able to be launched at short notice.

The NPR notes that:

'The NPR examined possible adjustments to the current alert posture of U.S. strategic forces. Today, U.S. nuclear-capable heavy bombers are off full-time alert, nearly all ICBMs remain on alert, and a significant number of SSBNs are at sea at any given time. The NPR concluded that this posture should be maintained.'

In 2007, 2008, and 2010, resolutions were adopted by overwhelming majorities (157-3 in 2010) in the United Nations General Assembly [‘Decreasing the Operational Readiness of Nuclear Weapon Systems’ L42], urging a lowering of nuclear weapons operational readiness. The author was in part responsible for the lobbying that led to the sponsorship of ‘Operational Readiness’ by Switzerland, Malaysia, Chile, New Zealand and Nigeria.

The nuclear weapon systems referred to by the Op Readiness resolution were primarily those of the US and Russia, but the resolution also has potential application to India and Pakistan, who nonetheless support it. (India has its own resolution on operational readiness). In 2010, the vote for Operational Readiness increased by 10 governments including China, Canada, Poland and Slovenia.

A number of other resolutions including one that the US government itself votes for (sponsored by Australia and Japan [United Action Towards the Total Elimination of Nuclear Weapons L43 ]) also contain a call to lower the operational readiness of nuclear weapon systems.

It is in addition important to note the conclusions of the ICNND (International Commission on Nuclear Nonproliferation and Disarmament) set up by US allies Australia and Japan, on operating status of nuclear weapon systems.

The ICNND paid more attention to the issue of operational readiness than to practically any other strategic-stability-related issue, and seems to have very much taken on board arguments that Steve Starr and I presented to them. Those arguments clearly found an echo in senior policymakers (notably William Perry) who were part of the commission.

The ICNND says all that I would want to say myself on alert status, and says it in detail. It notes that:

"..... the U.S. and Russia each have over 2,000 weapons on dangerously high alert, ready to be launched immediately - within a decision window of just 4-8 minutes for each president - in the event of perceived attack. The command and control systems of the Cold War years were repeatedly strained by mistakes and false alarms. With more nuclear-armed states now, and more system vulnerabilities, the near miracle of no nuclear exchange cannot continue in perpetuity." [ICNND Section 2]

"-Force Deployment and Alert Status. Changes should be made as soon as possible to ensure that, while remaining demonstrably survivable to a disarming first strike, nuclear forces are not instantly usable. Stability should be maximised by deployments and launch alert status being transparent. [ICNND 7.12-15; 17.40-50]

-The decision-making fuse for the launch of any nuclear weapons must be lengthened, and weapons taken off launch-on-warning alert as soon as possible. [ICNND17.43]"

The ICNND continues:

"most extraordinarily of all, over 2000 of the US and Russian weapons remain on dangerously high alert, ready to be launched on warning in the event of a perceived attack, within a decision window for each country’s President, of four to eight minutes. We know that there were many occasions when the very sophisticated command and control systems of the cold war years were strained by mistakes and false alarms. We know how destructive cyber attacks on defence systems could be with today’s sophisticated technology- and can guess how much more so such attacks might be in the future. It is hard to believe that the luck of the cold war - the near miracle of no nuclear exchange - can continue in perpetuity.'[ICNND 1.4 p3]

and still more seriously and in detail:

'2.39 - Strategists and operation planners usually make a distinction between short-notice alert and launch-on-warning (LOW) or Launch under attack (LUA) policy, (also popularly if inaccurately described as 'hair-trigger-alert'.) The former relates to all combat-ready weapons, that MAY be launched quickly (in a few minutes) after receiving the order, primarily ICBM, and SLBMs at sea.[as per the NPR - JH]

The latter is associated with weapons that MUST be launched quickly upon receiving information about an opponent’s attack in order to avoid destruction on the ground. With ICBM flight time being about 30 minutes and SLBM fifteen to twenty minutes, LOW provides political leaders with decision - making time of only four to eight minutes (after deducting time for missile attack detection and confirmation, and the time for the response launch sequence and fly-away.) And this time would be available only if the leaders are safe and ready, and everything works perfectly according to planned procedures. Russian strategic doctrine relies on LOW; the US, while not relying on it, maintains the policy. It places a premium on the quality of warning systems, which have not always been reliable in the past. Former defence secretary William Perry, a member of this commission, directly recalls three major such experiences, one of them involving NORAD computers indicating that 200 ICBMs were on their way from the USSR to the US. The prospect that a catastrophic nuclear exchange could be triggered by a false alarm is fearful and not fanciful. (emphasis mine-JH)

It beggars belief, that these grave (and detailed and lengthy) warnings by the ICNND are dismissed by some lobbyists as 'not credible'. Those who dismiss these ICNND warnings damage not the credibility of the ICNND, but their own credibility.

At the same time, the length and detail of ICNND’s analysis of the issue of operational readiness indicates just how seriously it really does take this issue – also the reason I have quoted them in such detail. It is important for the purposes of the review you are conducting to note the connections that the ICNND makes with decision-making time.

Others who have commented at considerable length on operational readiness and decision-making time, framing their statements much more in terms of decision-making time are Schultz, Perry, Kissinger and Nunn.

Kissinger, Schultz, Nunn, Perry, and a large number of distinguished others under the umbrella of the Hoover Institute paid considerable attention to the issue of operational readiness/operating status, urging nuclear weapons states to:

“• Take steps to increase the warning and decision times for the launch of all nuclear-armed ballistic missiles, thereby reducing risks of accidental or unauthorised attacks. Reliance on launch procedures that deny command authorities sufficient time to make careful and prudent decisions is unnecessary and dangerous in today's environment. Furthermore, developments in cyber-warfare pose new threats that could have disastrous consequences if the command-and-control systems of any nuclear-weapons state were compromised by mischievous or hostile hackers. Further steps could be implemented in time, as trust grows in the U.S.-Russian relationship, by introducing mutually agreed and verified physical barriers in the command-and-control sequence.

• Discard any existing operational plans for massive attacks that still remain from the Cold War days. Interpreting deterrence as requiring mutual assured destruction (MAD) is an obsolete policy in today's world, with the U.S. and Russia formally having declared that they are allied against terrorism and no longer perceive each other as enemies.”

Sam Nunn made a specific call in February 2008 at the Oslo Conference convened by the government of Norway, to lower the operational readiness of nuclear weapons systems, noting that:

"Making it through 60 years without a nuclear attack should not make us complacent…. If we're to avoid a catastrophe, all nuclear powers will have to be highly capable, careful, competent, rational, and lucky every single time." He said with reference to having nuclear weapons able to be launched in two minutes that:

"That is absolutely unacceptable 17 years after the Cold War,"

[Associated Press Feb28 2008]

The apparent maintenance of essentially cold-war nuclear postures even for a diminishing number of ICBMs and SLBMs, and above all the maintenance of nuclear doctrines and procedures that REQUIRE at least the capability to launch quickly, at least for some proportion of the arsenal, is widely seen as an existential risk, not merely for the US and Russia themselves, who continue to threaten each other even if the explicit threats of the cold war are no longer there, but for the world as a whole.. This concern is reflected in the final statement of the 2010 NPT Review Conference, which noted the legitimate interest that the non-nuclear-weapons states have in the nuclear postures and doctrines of the nuclear weapons states.

A series of incidents, largely (but not entirely) ones that took place during the cold war, is often pointed to as showing the risks posed by having large numbers of nuclear weapons on high alert and practices and procedures that require decision-making in compressed time frames. These are risks of an inadvertent nuclear exchange being set off by miscalculation, malfunction, misunderstanding, and by the fact that procedures require Presidents or other senior decision-makers to take decisions with potentially apocalyptic implications in highly compressed time-frames that are determined by missile flight times and by the perceived need to ‘use them or lose them’, at least for relatively vulnerable silo-based ICBMs.

The incidents pointed to, include ones in the US in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, in which computer tapes for ‘WWIII’ were inadvertently fed into the main command computer at NORAD, and three incidents in 1980 and 81 in which a faulty chip in a switching station in Colorado caused the main command computer to indicate ‘thousands’ of incoming Soviet missiles. In the 1980 and 81 incidents, the National Emergency Airborne Command Post was launched and minuteman launch crews were ordered to be launch-ready.

In the former Soviet Union, we have a real, live, hero in Colonel Stanislaw Petrov, whose cool response when faced with wailing sirens and flashing lights and a computer system that indicated that the US had launched at half past midnight 26 sept 1983, is arguably why we are still here to talk about it today.

Though these incidents largely took place during the cold war, the postures that made it possible for them to take place have fundamentally not changed.

It is important to note that what was at stake in all of these terrifying incidents was NOT the launch of one or two missiles by ‘rogue’ officers or madmen, nor was it terrorist use of nuclear weapons. What was at stake in each incident was the use of the on-alert arsenals of the US and Russia, with decisions having to be taken in time-frames of less than ten minutes.

Again it is important to note that what has been central to all of these incidents all along has been the issue of decision-making time-frame.

The issue of maximising decision-making time-frames has been right from the beginning, of the raising of the issue of operating status by Bruce Blair and others, utterly core to the whole issue of operating status. The two issues are not separable, indeed in many ways they are one and the same.

The central argument of advocates of de-alerting has always been that, no matter the quality, coolness under pressure and sanity of the decision-maker, (and these are not always guaranteed), no-one, in their right mind or otherwise, can possibly make truly rational decisions on a matter such as the launching of over a thousand nuclear warheads in a time-frame of just a few minutes and in the absence of reliable information as to what is really happening.

When the NPR came out it reaffirmed that US ICBM and some SLBM forces are indeed maintained on high alert, and said this would continue to be the case.

'The NPR examined possible adjustments to the current alert posture of U.S. strategic forces. Today, U.S. nuclear-capable heavy bombers are off full-time alert, nearly all ICBMs remain on alert, and a significant number of SSBNs are at sea at any given time. The NPR concluded that this posture should be maintained.'

The NPR indicated that the argument was that if nuclear forces were taken off alert, then during a crisis there might be a ‘re-alerting race’, which would be de-stabilising. This argument has been used in a number of places.

Recent work by Colonel Valery Yarynich (30 years in the Russian missile forces), Bruce Blair, General Esin, General Pavel Zolotarev, and Matt Mc Kinzie of NRDC, and published in the highly prestigious journal Foreign Affairs, and especially the work in the appendix to that article (available from Global Zero), shows decisively and with mathematical rigour that this is not so, and that ‘strategic stability’ is always and in all cases better maintained by having nuclear forces postured not on high alert.

[One Hundred Nuclear Wars: Stable Deterrence between the United States and Russia at Reduced Nuclear Force Levels Off Alert in the Presence of Limited Missile Defenses Technical Appendix to “Smaller and Safer: A New Plan for Nuclear Postures,” in Foreign Affairs, Volume 89, No. 5 Bruce Blair Ph.D., Col.-Gen. (Ret.) Victor Esin Ph.D., Matthew McKinzie Ph.D., Col. (Ret.) Valery Yarynich Ph.D., and Maj.-Gen. (Ret.) Pavel Zolotarev Ph.D.]

Slocombe, Ford, Low and others argue that taking forces off high alert is somehow destabilising because of the possibility of a ‘re-alerting race’. The simulations in the appendix to the FA article show that they are dead wrong, and dangerously wrong. Their argument is essentially like arguing that if two people with cocked pistols face each other they should never, never, in all eternity uncock those pistols still less put them away in case there is a ‘re-cocking race’. Clearly this is nonsense. It is well past time to uncock the pistols.

It is noteworthy that the NPR does wax eloquent about the need to increase presidential decision-making time, which is precisely what lowering operational readiness is all about.:

“Maximising decision time for the President can further strengthen strategic stability at lower force levels. Thus, the NPR considered changes to existing nuclear policies and postures that directly affect potential crisis stability, including alert postures and the Nuclear Command, Control, and Communication (NC3) system."

and: (A bit more hopefully):

".... the NPR-initiated studies that may lead to future reductions in alert posture. For example, in an initial study of possible follow-on systems to the Minuteman III ICBM force, the Department of Defence will explore whether new modes of basing may ensure the survivability of this leg of the Triad while eliminating or reducing incentives for prompt launch."(emphasis mine)

Survivability was repeatedly mentioned in a workshop at Yverdon Les Bains as a major factor in going to lower force postures, and in increasing presidential decision-making time.

What is vital in all this is that these commitments to increase decision-making time do not somehow disappear or become watered – down in the translation from NPR to nuclear targeting review to OPLAN. In this respect, the model ‘Presidential Decision Directive’ published by Kristensen et al in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, with its insistence on rigorous follow-through and on presidential approval of the final product, is one that should be followed.

Follow-through on the commitment in the NPR to do the studies that may lead to decreases in alert posture and to explore alternative basing modes that would eliminate incentives for prompt launch is absolutely essential.

A number of possibilities spring to mind in considering how to increase presidential decision-making time during a nuclear crisis.

1)A clear decision could be taken well in advance, and incorporated into the targeting review and the OPLAN, that in case of uncertainty as to whether or not the ‘other side’ really has launched, nothing should be done in the short term but to ‘ride it out’ and to see if indeed anything at all happens. This is the option that in practice has been taken every time, and it is the reason we are still here and able to talk further about this issue.

2)An abandonment of the philosophy of ‘use them or lose them’ would achieve the same result, and would be more or less equivalent. This also moves in the direction of abandonment of counterforce strategies as suggested by Kristensen et al.

[BAS 10Aug2011, A Presidential Policy Directive for a new Nuclear Path]

3)Improvements in the survivability of ICBM forces (or their complete replacement by SLBM forces) would make the above options more militarily palatable. ‘Use them or lose them’ only has ‘bite’ when what you have to use or lose is vulnerable to the other sides first strike, and SLBM forces are not vulnerable in that way. It is possible – and I think to be hoped – that on the ‘way down’ through warhead numbers on the way to zero, at some point, a decision could be taken to eliminate silo-based ICBM forces. In this respect, the dependence of Russia on its ICBM forces is not so promising, and we are left with the paradox that the further development of less vulnerable and more often deployed Russian SLBM forces will encourage a more strategically stable and less trigger-happy force structure and posture.

4)Kristensen and others in their model PDD envisage abandonment of counterforce options, and the adoption of a doctrine of targeting the other society’s infrastructure. The abandonment of counterforce would certainly lead to greater strategic stability and a greater willingness to take the time to see whether the supposed incoming missiles really are incoming missiles or just another of the many ‘glitches’ in the system that have on too many occasions taken us to the brink of annihilation.

Combinations and permutations of all of the above would be helpful.

What is vital however, and what should flow through into the targeting review and the OPLAN is the abandonment of policies and force doctrines that have played Russian and American roulette with global security for decades.

There are a number of ways in which key decision-makers can be given the decision-making time they need to take decisions in which the whole world not just two governments, have a vital survival interest.

It is up to those who help to frame US (and Russian) nuclear postures, doctrines and policies to take on board the consensus of the whole world and to maximise Presidential decision-making time ensuring longer-term security and stability.

John Hallam, Nuclear Weapons Campaigner PND Nuclear Flashpoints

This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it , This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

61-2-9810-2598 fax 61-2-9699-9182

(Co-Author and Co-Coordinator (with Doug Mattern) of the Appeal on Nuclear Weapons Operating Status from 44 Nobel Prizewinners and 362 NGOs, presented to Kofi Annan prior to the May 2005 NPT Review Conference, that led to the adoption of the resolution on operational readiness by the UNGA in 2007, 2008, and 2010.)

Last Updated on Wednesday, 14 September 2011 12:54