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Home Articles Features Commonsense Measures to Avoid An Accidental Apocalypse

Commonsense Measures to Avoid An Accidental Apocalypse

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UNGA 1st Cttee 2008


John Hallam, Nuclear Weapons Campaigner PND Nuclear Flashpoints

(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)

This briefing was initially prepared for presentation at a panel at the United Nations General Assembly first Committee in October 2008. Since then, and fertilised by the discussions that ensued from the highly successful presentation in that forum, and across the road at the International Peace Institute (IPI), it has been updated and is now submitted as a brief on nuclear weapons operational readiness, accidental nuclear war and catastrophic climatic consequences resulting from the same, to JSCOT, to the ICNND and to the US Congress.

The result of my own and my colleague Steven Starr’s  work at the UN has been a resolution on Nuclear Weapons Operational Readiness that has now gone twice through the GA First Committee and plenary, most recently by 141 votes to 3, with Australia voting ‘yes’ to the resolution on its second run through the GA.



Nuclear weapons Operating Status or Operational Readiness hides under a technical - sounding title, a potentially apocalyptic frisson that is - or was - quite out of fashion, at least in the immediate post – cold-war era.. Unfortunately, recent developments in US – Russian relations seem set to bring it back. Discussions of accidental nuclear war have, with some reason, a decidedly 1980's feel to them. Unfortunately they still have a continuing relevance, even in 2009.  Only the lowering of the operating status of thousands of warheads currently on alert status will change this, literally ‘taking the apocalypse off the global agenda’. While thousands of nuclear warheads remain in launch – ready status, the ‘apocalypse’ (that is to say the accidental extinction of civilisation, most land – based life –forms, and possibly of humans by the use of large numbers of nuclear weapons), remains, unfortunately, a very real possibility.

Operating Status, and the need for a lowering in the Operational Readiness of nuclear weapons systems, is a hardy perennial of the nuclear debate. It has been singled out by a number of exalted authorities ranging from the Canberra Commission in 1996, to the Blix commission in 2006, and most recently by the Hoover Institute, as a vital short-term risk reduction measure leading toward the total and unequivocal elimination of nuclear arsenals under Article VI of the NPT, and the 13 Steps of the 2000 NPT Review final declaration.

Arguably, lowering the operational readiness of strategic nuclear weapon systems may, by reducing the risk of a catastrophic nuclear exchange involving the core strategic arsenals of the US and Russia, be the single short-term measure that would do most to ensure the continued survival of civilisation, human beings, and living things in general.

In October 2007, at United Nations General Assembly First Committee, an NGO side–panel on nuclear weapons Operating Status/Operational Readiness organised by myself and Steven Starr, chaired by GSI’s Rhianna Tyson, and attended by the ambassadors of New Zealand and Sweden, who together with Switzerland  Chile and Nigeria were putting up a ‘stand – alone’ resolution on Operational Readiness,  was packed out,  with standing room only.

When the L29 (GA62/36) resolution was voted on in First Committee and again in GA plenary, being adopted 139 to 3 with 34 abstentions, it attracted widespread media attention from the Times of India to the Washington Post and Australia’s Age in spite of careful and low- key wording.

The Chile/New Zealand/Nigeria/Sweden/Switzerland resolution on Operational Readiness  came after a strong NGO campaign on the issue of Operating Status and after recommendations from a number of highly authoritative bodies including most recently the Blix Commission, (Recommendation 17), and an appeal signed by 44 Nobel prizewinners organised by Doug Mattern of the Association of World Citizens and myself, ably assisted by Mr Alyn Ware of PNND.

Steve and I together with a stellar cast of international experts on nuclear weapons systems that included Hans Kristensen, Alexei Pikaev of Russia, and Ira Helfand of PSR plus the Chilean and Swiss ambassadors, held a further panel on 16Oct 2008, that was heavily attended in spite of the fact that we had also held a debate at the International Peace Institute the preceding week on the same subject.  That panel was officially sponsored by the Chilean, Malaysian, Nigerian, New-Zealand, Swedish and Swiss governments.

A similar resolution to that of Oct 2007  was submitted in Oct 2008 by an enlarged group that now included Chile, Malaysia, New Zealand, Nigeria, Sweden and Switzerland. This comes at a time when a new US administration is in place and President Obama has indicated that he may be willing to consider lowering the operational readiness of US nuclear weapons systems. This presents a vital opportunity that must be seized.

Other resolutions also passed the 2007 and 2008  General Assembly that included or comprised a call to lower the Operational Readiness or Operating Status of nuclear weapons systems, notably India's reducing Nuclear Dangers, the NAM resolution, and the very - well supported Renewed Determination Toward the Total Elimination of Nuclear Weapons, sponsored by Japan and Australia.

In July 2008,Amb. Streuli on behalf of  Chile, New Zealand, Nigeria, Sweden and Switzerland,  had made a joint statement in the CD at an informal session, in which they reiterated the importance of progress on the operational readiness of nuclear weapons systems. Streuli outlined a number of reasons for lowering nuclear weapons operational readiness, noting that:

“We believe that, almost two decades after the end of the cold war, more action in this direction would be timely and reasonable. Achieving further progress would be an important measure in preventing accidental nuclear war, and a step that moves us further along the path of reducing nuclear dangers.”
(Statement by Amb. Streuli, CD, Geneva 31 July 2008)

Kissinger, Schultz, Nunn, Perry, and a large number of distinguished others under the umbrella of the Hoover Institute also 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]
Most recently and most promisingly of all, President Obama has said he will:
"...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."
The action in Oct 2007  by Chile, Nigeria, NZ, Switzerland and Sweden in submitting the L29(GA62/36) resolution on Operating Status attracted wide support that will we hope, place additional pressure on the nuclear weapons states to make real progress on their article VI NPT obligations. In October 2008, the re-submitted resolution attracted wider support. In the current context of fraught US/Russian relations, this is a more pressing necessity than ever.

The Bush Administration on Operating Status

When our resolution was first presented to the General Assembly in Oct 2007, the Bush administration claimed that its forces were not in fact on ‘hair- trigger alert’.  According to Ambassador Christine Rocca:
“Frankly, in order to take action to comply with this request, we would first have to put our weapons on ‘hair-trigger alert,’ so we could then de-alert them. The fact is that U.S. nuclear forces are not and have never been, on ‘hair-trigger alert.’”
The words ‘Hair – trigger alert’ have however, become somewhat of a ridiculous semantic game: Whether or not one could say that US strategic nuclear forces are or were on something called ‘hair-trigger alert’ it is clear that they are maintained in a state such that they can be launched virtually instantaneously and that  procedures and postures assume this, and are designed around this.    

The response in Oct 2007 by the US representative to First Committee in  misrepresenting the real status of US strategic nuclear weapons systems, followed by the Bush administrations attempt to present itself as implementing significant cuts in nuclear weapons, however unconvincing,  do at least show that it is feeling the heat. The withering rebuttals of the Bush administrations statements as misleading or downright false by Bruce Blair and Hans Kristensen have done nothing for the credibility of US official statements about the status of its arsenal.

Blair noted in his rebuttal that:
“The statement by Christina Rocca, Permanent Representative of the United States to the Conference on Disarmament, in the General Debate of the First Committee on October 9, 2007, is highly inaccurate in its characterisation of the U.S. nuclear posture.  Its assertions about the alert posture of the U.S. nuclear forces are contradicted by an overwhelming body of evidence and knowledge.
The statement contains three key sentences about the U.S. alert posture in the opening paragraphs, quoted verbatim below:
‘(1)  The fact is that U.S. nuclear forces are not and have never been on „hair-trigger alert.
 (2)  U.S. nuclear forces are planned and postured to provide the President with maximum decision time and flexibility.
 (3) Multiple, rigorous procedural and technical safeguards exist to guard against accidental or unauthorised launch.’”
Blair pointed out that:
“No President has articulated this concern[0ver alert status] better than President Bush did during his first presidential campaign: http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2001/05/20010501-10.html

In a major campaign speech on nuclear weapons policy that he delivered  in May 2000, then-presidential candidate Bush addressed concerns about the instant-reaction status of U.S. strategic nuclear forces.  Declaring that "the United States should remove as many weapons as possible from high-alert, hair-trigger status," Bush argued that the capability for a "quick launch within minutes of warning" was an "unnecessary vestige of cold-war confrontation."   Not only was the quick-launch posture outdated, it was dangerous: "keeping so many weapons on high alert may create unacceptable risks of accidental or unauthorised launch."
Again to quote Blair’s rebuttal of Christine Rocca:
“Major benefits would accrue from standing down ('de-alerting') the legacy postures.  Keeping thousands of weapons ready to fly upon their receipt of a short sequence of simple computer signals is inherently risky.  De-alerting would increase warning and decision time far beyond the short fuse inherent in current command systems, thereby reducing the risk of mistaken launch to negligible proportions.  De-alerting would also greatly strengthen safeguards against unauthorised launch and terrorist exploitation.  In an era of terrorism and information warfare, staking the survival of humanity on the assumption that imperfect human and technical systems of nuclear command and control will forever prevent a disastrous breakdown of safeguards against mistaken or unauthorised use of nuclear weapons is simply imprudent in the extreme.

Some More Arguments from the Anti-De-Alerting Side:

Ford argues,(and argued at the IPI debate)[ref]  and seemingly bases his argument on a December 1999 doctoral thesis by  James R. Low, of the Postgraduate Naval School at Monterey, [De-Alerting the US and Russian Nuclear Arsenals – An Unlikely method of Arms Control, Thesis by James R. Low] that the actual conduct of crisis events in which computer or satellite errors caused systems of command and control to give indications of  a launch by one side or the other, shows that neither the US nor the Russian arsenals can be said to be on ‘high – alert’.

Yet the very fact that missiles are kept by both sides – and this is conceded to be true – in a status in which they CAN be launched at short notice, and that procedures exist and are rigorously rehearsed,  in order to achieve just that, surely makes nonsense of this argument.

Low, in his thesis, [Low, Op Cit] refers to a number of occasions in which we proponents of de-alerting would argue that the world came  just a little too close to ending, as judgements made and decisions taken often by single military officers or presidential aides, backed us off from the apocalypse just in time. 

Yet had strategic nuclear weapons systems NOT been maintained in a state in which immediate launch was a very live option, these decisions would simply never ever have been on the agenda. Yet they were.

Slighty different decisions by a minuteman launch – control officer in 1979, by NORAD and STRATCOM personnel in 1980 and 1981,  and by Colonel Stan Petrov at 12..30 Moscow time on 26 September 1983, could very well have led to outcomes that were, literally, apocalyptic. One admires the cool and the resourcefulness of the personnel (whose very identity is now often forgotten) involved. The planet owes them bigtime.  They should never ever in a sane world, have been making decisions of such consequence.

Low (and Chris Ford) also argue that the decision to launch would never be made lightly or ‘hastily’. However, this is simply impossible given the compressed decision-making times available for military personnel, chiefs of staff, and/or presidents.  Given that a missile travelling at roughly three times the speed of sound takes approximately 30 minutes to travel from Siberia to Washington or North Dakota, (and a lot less if it is submarine- launched)  IF the possibility to launch on warning or to launch relatively swiftly is to remain a live option, then the order to do so must be given within minutes. To hesitate to  give that order is to take it off the menu of options, as, if the missile event is real, a good proportion of the silo-based missiles and probably the decision-makers, will have been vaporised by then.

This means that having an immediate launch as an option on the menu at all compresses decision-making times in a way that would never take place if an immediate launch were simply not an option. And this is precisely the point of our thesis, a point that Low and Ford deliberately miss. 

If the missile event turns out not to be real (and we know that in time)  then nothing will have happened. However if the missile event is thought erroneously to be real (or we don’t find out quickly enough that it was not real) then – unless a conscious decision has been made to ride it out – missiles will be launched and the other side will in turn launch their missiles, even if they had not in fact done so before.  Everything that we think we know about how nuclear command and control works suggests that while a decision to ride out an attack may be possible, the ‘default option’ as it were, is to order retaliation.  

The decisions taken by personnel ranging from Colonel Stan to a minuteman launch control officer to an unknown assistant to Boris Yeltsin that have thankfully resulted in us still being here to talk about them,  were taken as it were, ‘outside the box’ of what could normally be expected. To rely on the system to continue to come up with such decisions as James Low suggests in his 1999 thesis,  is utterly foolhardy.

A lowering of nuclear weapons systems operational readiness  could be achieved with little more than an executive order which terminates the Cold War policy of Launch-on-Warning. This could serve as first step towards implementing more permanent changes in weapons systems (reversible de-alerting measures such as blocking silo doors and removing nuclear warheads from missiles).

Even the simplest de-alerting measure, (say, opening a safety – switch) as long as it makes a launch within 30 minutes impossible, completely changes the time dynamic of the decision-making process.  While launch-on-warning or quick launch (call it whatever) remains an option, decisions must be made by senior or not so senior personnel within minutes and even seconds.  Take that option off the operational agenda and this is no longer the case.

The UK’s change in the ‘notice to fire’ of its submarine-launched missiles from minutes to days,  is an example of what could be done.  Such modest changes would make for a more stable strategic environment, facilitating further changes that would lead to the elimination of nuclear weapons.

France claims also  already to have performed such changes in its nuclear posture for SLBMs. (see Frances 2007 EoV) One may ask the question (and it has been asked of representatives of both governments)  ‘Why, given that you claim to have already made the changes in nuclear posture that we advocate, do you not advertise that from the rooftops and vote an emphatic ‘YES’ to the Operational Readiness resolution? The EoV’s given by both parties in 07 make no sense.

Hopefully the  better numbers (141-3) in UNGA Oct/Dec2008 will encourage similar changes in other official and unofficial nuclear weapons states.


The utterly devastating  effect of a full-scale nuclear exchange has become almost standard, but  perhaps unthinking, diplomatic ‘boilerplate’ in a number of opening statements and resolutions, and has been so for decades no doubt. Yet there continue to be good reasons to repeat and to re-energise what I suspect for many UN delegations may have become something of  a mantra.


First of all let’s re-visit what Rajiv Gandhi said some years ago, a quote that has been recycled by Kissinger, Nunn, et al: 

Rajiv Gandhi, addressing the U.N. General Assembly on June 9, 1988, appealed:
"Nuclear war will not mean the death of a hundred million people. Or even a thousand million. It will mean the extinction of four thousand million: the end of life as we know it on our planet earth. We come to the United Nations to seek your support. We seek your support to put a stop to this madness."
Thus, according to  the 12 October2005 A/C.1/60/L.46 by Malaysia:
"...Convinced that the continuing existence of nuclear weapons poses a threat to
all humanity,  and that their use would have catastrophic consequences for all life on Earth, and recognizing that the only defence against a nuclear catastrophe is the total elimination of nuclear weapons and the certainty that they will never be produced again,..."

And according to the preamble of the New AgendaL40Rev1, 30 Oct 2003:
"....Convinced that the existence of nuclear weapons is a threat to the survival of humanity and that the only real guarantee against the use or threat of use of these weapons is their complete elimination and the assurance that they will never be used or produced again,..."
While the preamble to Reducing Nuclear Danger (A/C.1/60/L.52 of 12 October 2005, (same wording in 2007)) notes that:
"...Bearing in mind that the use of nuclear weapons poses the most serious threat to mankind and to the survival of civilisation,...."
"...Considering also that the hair-trigger alert of nuclear weapons carries
unacceptable risks of unintentional or accidental use of nuclear weapons, which would have catastrophic consequences for all mankind,..."

These samples of text may be all too easily dismissed as mere rhetoric, yet they are quite literally true, and must be taken utterly seriously. What is needed is renewed energy and commitment behind statements as to the gravity of the use of nuclear weapons. Hopefully the re-submitted  operational readiness resolution will help to do that.


The use, by malice, madness, miscalculation, or malfunction, of a number of thousands of nuclear warheads, (which would be the most likely outcome of an accidental nuclear exchange, not the firing of a single warhead), would still vastly exceed the threshold  at which significant nuclear winter effects start.  This remains true even at the relatively reduced warhead numbers held by the US and Russia today, and under SORT. It will remain true down to levels of less than 100 warheads if these are used primarily for the destruction of cities.

The targeting of even a few hundred,  one-megaton or half/quarter-megaton sized warheads on cities, would kill, more or less instantaneously, (within, say, half an hour to an hour and a half) a large proportion of all humans, depending on the exact targeting of those missiles.  The targeting of the worlds largest 100 cities (even by a single warhead each)  would, clearly, be an utterly cataclysmic  event for civilisation. Unfortunately, the targeting of cities is the most likely  strategy of any retaliatory nuclear strike, and a most likely outcome of any large nuclear conflict  Scenarios in which anything from 100 warheads to thousands of warheads are used for ‘city – busting’ are not hypothetical worst – case scenarios designed to scare us (though scare us they should). They are actually the most likely, and the major intended, or ‘default’ use of nuclear weapons.


Recent studies of nuclear winter by Brian Toon and others, performed last year, re-confirmed the scientific validity of the concept of "nuclear winter" and have demonstrated that any conflict which targets even a tiny fraction of the global nuclear arsenal against large urban centres will cause catastrophic disruptions of the global climate.

According to this study:
“Twenty years ago, the results of climate model simulations of the response to smoke and dust from a massive nuclear exchange between the superpowers could be summarized as  “nuclear winter,” with rapid temperature, precipitation, and insolation drops at the surface that  would threaten global agriculture for at least a year. The global nuclear arsenal has fallen by a  factor of three since then, but there has been an expansion of the number of nuclear weapons  states, with other states trying to develop nuclear arsenals. We use a modern climate model to  re-examine the climate response to a range of nuclear wars, producing 50 and 150 Tg of smoke,  using moderate, and large portions of the current global arsenal, and find that there would be  significant climatic responses to all the scenarios. This is the first time that an atmosphere-ocean general circulation model has been used for such a simulation, and the first time that 10-yr simulations have been conducted. The response to the 150 Tg scenario can still be characterized as “nuclear winter,” but both produce global catastrophic consequences. The changes are more long-lasting than previously thought, however, because the new model, National Aeronautics and  Space Administration Goddard Institute for Space Studies ModelE, is able to represent the atmosphere up to 80 km, and simulates plume rise to the middle and upper stratosphere, producing a long aerosol lifetime. The indirect effects of nuclear weapons would have devastating consequences for the planet, and continued nuclear arsenal reductions will be needed before the threat of nuclear winter is removed from the Earth.” 
Another recent paper produced by Toon and Mills in February 2008  [‘Massive global ozone loss predicted following regional nuclear conflict Michael J. Mills* † , Owen B. Toon* ‡ , Richard P. Turco § , Douglas E. Kinnison  , and Rolando R. Garcia ] - Predicted long- lasting damage to the Ozone layer as a result of an India – Pakistan nuclear conflict involving of the order of 100 warheads used for the destruction of cities in the subcontinent.

Studies on regional nuclear conflict and their subsequent analysis by Ira Helfand of PSR, [Ira Helfand  PSR 2007  An Assessment of the Extent of Projected Global Famine Resulting From Limited, Regional Nuclear War], also  show that a ‘regional‚’ nuclear conflict, which targeted large population centres in the sub-tropics with 100 Hiroshima-size weapons -about 0.3% of the global nuclear arsenal - could produce as many fatalities as World War II and would significantly disrupt the global climate for at least a decade.  Following this ‘small‚’ exchange, the world would rapidly experience cold conditions not felt since pre-industrial times.

According to Helfand [OpCit]
“While it is not possible to estimate the precise extent of the global famine that would follow a regional nuclear war, it seems reasonable to postulate a total global death toll in the range of one billion from starvation alone.”

This, from, it must be borne in mind, a nuclear exchange involving of the order of 0.3% of all warheads and 0.03% of total global megatonnage.


If the results of a ‘boutique’ nuclear conflict between regional powers at 0.3% of global nuclear arsenals are so dire, what are we to make of a large – scale exchange?

It is precisely a large scale exchange involving the core strategic arsenals of major nuclear powers that is the most likely outcome of miscalculation and/or technical malfunction between the US and Russia.

Surely, in this context, throw – away lines from both US and Russian spokespeople about war between NATO and Russia must be regarded with the utmost gravity.


Nuclear weapons command and control systems still are largely designed for the launch, by validly transmitted 'go' codes, sent by the proper authorities, of relatively large salvos of strategic weapons all at once. Cold-war wargames scenarios and operational plans on both sides were designed on the assumption that a 'bolt from the blue' attack would be massive, and standard operating plans on both  sides, envisaged (and still envisage) massive retaliation, sometimes of an automated nature.  These nuclear postures have not fundamentally changed.

Bruce Blair notes that:
 “Both the Kremlin and the White House routinely re-issue presidential nuclear guidance that requires their respective nuclear forces to be constantly prepared to fight a large-scale nuclear war with each other at a moment’s notice. These forces are assigned long lists of targets, running into the thousands on each side, to strike in the event of war, and they are expected to inflict serious damage with high probability on all target categories – opposing nuclear forces, conventional forces, war-supporting industry, and leadership.
The forces cannot achieve this wartime objective of high ‘damage expectancy’ if the opposing forces destroy them first, and so both strategic arsenals kept on launch-ready alert. Their command and early warning networks maintain a constant vigil and readiness to launch the forces on warning of incoming warheads fired by the opposing side.
This fuse is no longer today than it was during the Cold War. Both nuclear superpowers manage their strategic arsenals in almost exactly the same manner as they did during the Cold War.”
“The combined firepower that could be unleashed within these short time frames measured in minutes is approximately 2,654 high-yield nuclear warheads (1,382 U.S. and 1,272 Russian) – the equivalent of approximately 100,000 Hiroshima bombs (assuming the Hiroshima bomb yielded 15 kilotons of explosive power).”  [Blair Paper to Oslo Conference Feb 2008]
Alexei Pikaev makes exactly the same point:
“According to experts, as of today, Russia and the United States each possess approximately 6,000 strategic weapons. In this, a significant portion of the nuclear warheads is continuously maintained on high alert. This means that Russian or U.S. ICBMs can be launched in just minutes upon the receipt of the launch command, and the SLBMs deployed on the patrolling strategic submarines can be launched in 15 minutes. The total number of warheads maintained on high alert by both the Russian and the U.S. side equals 3,500-4,000.1
It seems that the launch-on-warning concept, which presupposes continuous combat readiness of the most vulnerable systems, such as silo-launched ICBMs, coupled with a flawed early warning system (EWS), increases the probability of an accidental nuclear war.”
[Alexei Pikaev, Briefing Book, 13/9/08] (emphasis mine)
The events in which, a number of times, a massive nuclear exchange might have taken place if things had gone just a little bit more wrong, or if key personnel had made decisions slightly other than the ones that did make, all involved potential use of the core strategic inventory of the US and Russia.

That the number of warheads potentially involved in these terrifying events was many times the roughly 2654 warheads presently on LoW status should give us pause. Recent pronouncements by,  amongst others, vice- presidential candidate Sarah Palin, and by Russias NATO representative, should add to our concern. The recent marked deterioration in US- Russian relations makes measures such as those we advocate all the more essential.


Events in which psychotic lone commanders were/are in a position to launch one or two warheads in my  own view, have less credibility. Nuclear command and control systems are much more centralised than that.

(However it must be said that at least one event in 1979 is rumoured, in which a US Minuteman practice launch sequence for a group of 10 missile silos with a single control - centre is supposed to have gone out of control, and in which launch was prevented only by driving heavy military vehicles on top of silo doors. Here however, the heroic and quick-thinking and far from psychotic  Minuteman commander actually prevented the possible launch in a malfunctioning system. As with Colonel Stan Petrov, humanity owes this man.) (The author has heard several versions of this including one direct from the meditation teacher of the missileer involved, sitting next to me on a bus to Canberra, who questioned him in detail as to why he’d resigned from the US missile corps)

Generally however, the drama all takes place amid wailing sirens and flashing lights at the nuclear command and control centre, (Stratcom, Norad or Serpukhov-15)  and/or sweating aides at the Presidential nuclear  briefcase.

Thus, Colonel Stan Petrov’s decision not to pass a missile alert on to his superiors and to inform those who already knew that it was in his opinion a false alarm, prevented the use of the then enormous Russian nuclear arsenal against the US and its allies.

Colonel Stan’s false alert it turns out, had been caused by an unusual combination of high clouds directly over the North Dakota launch sites that looked to the then state-of-the-art Soviet spy satellite, exactly like a series of launches. Colonel Stan judged it to be false on the reasonable grounds that only five launches were shown.  One wonders what his decision would have been, had he (a) heard of the 1979 Minuteman launch incident (b) if the system had instead registered hundreds of launches.

(there are numerous accounts of this event - Google Colonel Stanislav Petrov)

Incidents in the early 1980s in the US in which a malfunctioning 40 cent chip in a switching station in Colorado fooled computers at NORAD into believing that 'thousands' of missiles were coming in, similarly took place precisely at NORAD itself, and resulted in higher levels of alert on the part of ALL US nuclear forces, which were prepared to launch before the fault was located.

Accounts of this incident state that minuteman crews were ordered to be ready to launch, nuclear – armed fighter – bombers were taxied to the edges of runways with engines running, and the National Emergency Airborne Command Post (NEACP) otherwise known as the ‘Doomsday Plane’ was launched.

A 1979 incident in which a practice tape simulating a massive Soviet attack was mistakenly inserted into the main command computer at NORAD, causing in the words of a congressional committee who happened to be there at the time, ‘blind panic’ similarly resulted in threat – asessment conferences and in the ordering of nuclear forces to be ready to launch.

According to Forden:
“The alert did not stop with the U.S. ICBM force. The entire continental air defence interceptor force was put on alert, and at least 10 fighters took off. Furthermore, the National Emergency Airborne Command Post, the president's "doomsday plane," was also launched, but without the president on board. It was later determined that a realistic training tape had been inadvertently inserted into the computer running the nation's early-warning programs.”
(Geoffrey Forden, ‘False Alarms on the Nuclear Front’  The incident is also recounted by Alan Philips, and Pikaev)

My point here is that what we were dealing with in all these situations was not situations in which a lone 'rogue' commander acting alone (or a faulty piece of equipment or software) caused a single launch, but situations in which what was at stake was the launch of the central strategic nuclear inventories of the US and Russia with all that implies. Fortunately in each case, sanity prevailed.

James Low in his seemingly influential  1999 thesis seems to suggest that we can ‘rely’ on a Colonel Stan Petrov to save us from oblivion each time something like this takes place simply because we have in fact survived thus far. It is well to remember that Colonel Stan had in fact swapped his shift with an officer junior to him, who would have ‘gone by the book’, in which case we wouldn’t be talking about it now.

Even in the case of the ‘rogue launch’ prevented by the heroic action of the Minuteman commander in driving heavy military vehicles onto silo doors, what was at stake was the launch of 10 missiles each with 10 warheads = 100 warheads, seemingly enough by itself to cause a mini-nuclear-winter, and immediate casualties in the tens to the hundreds of millions, depending on the precise targeting of those warheads.  The likely retaliation for this by what remained of the USSR would certainly have been terminal for the existence of at least the United States, and could likely have involved the main strategic arsenals of both nations, and thus thousands (and possibly over ten thousand) of warheads. (According to standard procedures, retaliation for an attack of 100 warheads would certainly have been massive) There is of course nothing in any way certain about this, nor does there need to be. It is enough to indicate that the risk of a civilisation-ending event would have been very, very,  high.

The Nov 1995 incident in which Russian perimeter defence mistook a Norwegian weather research rocket aimed at the Aurora Borealis for an incoming US submarine-launched ICBM, was similarly resolved at the level of the Presidential nuclear briefcase.  Again, according to Forden:
“That scientific rocket caused a dangerous moment in the nuclear age. Russia was poised, for a few moments at least, to launch a full-scale nuclear attack on the United States. In fact, President Boris Yeltsin stated the next day that he had activated his "nuclear football" -- a device that allows the Russian president to communicate with his top military advisers and review the situation online -- for the first time.”


It is certain that the Norwegian rocket incident shook Yeltsin sufficiently that it became a reason for him to propose to President Clinton the creation of a joint strategic stability centre.

A memorandum of Understanding to this effect was signed in 1998. ("Memorandum of Agreement Between the United States of America and the Russian Federation on the Establishment of a Joint Centre for the Exchange of Data from Early Warning Systems and Notifications of Missile Launches (JDEC MOA)".)

It is a matter for profound regret that while both governments have many times reaffirmed the desirability of establishing such a centre, it has not actually taken place. A kind of trial run took place over the 1999/2000Y2K 'rollover' at Petersen Airforce Base and was quite successful. However, the site outside Moscow remained for many years vacant and has now been assigned for other use.

John Stienbruner suggests however, that unless the data exchanged is of a fairly detailed nature – possibly more detailed than US military might be willing to reveal – that the JDEC might not be of that much use in a real crisis. [Significance of Joint Missile Surveillance – John Stienbruner/CISS July 2001] Clearly the JDEC is no substitute for actually lowering the operational readiness of nuclear weapons systems. However even this possibly inadequate step has not been taken in spite of agreements to do so.

Implementation of this memorandum of understanding, while it might not completely eliminate the possibility of a large – scale accidental nuclear exchange, would nonetheless be a step forward and could be a potentially positive response to the global consensus demonstrated by L29(GA62/36)’s  voting pattern, and the 141-3 votes of Oct/Dec2008 on L5, that governments worldwide demand that strategic nuclear weapons systems no longer be kept in cold–war–style,  high –alert postures.
(and that, contra statements by James Low, Ford, and Rocca, they are indeed so maintained)


In each potentially civilisation- ending  incident, it was the keeping of those central strategic nuclear inventories on LoW status, and the doctrine of 'launch on warning' associated with that status, that made the launch of those inventories an issue at all. Had those systems not been on LoW status, the question of 'pressing the button (and thus ending civilisation and much else besides)' could never have been posed.

Taking those strategic systems OFF LoW status, however it was done, would, I believe, have meant that fallible stressed individuals would never have been asked questions whose menu of answers would include this apocalyptic possibility.

In slightly more technical terms, eliminating the policy of LoW by presidential decree would:
"...quickly and significantly reduce the chances of an accidental nuclear war caused by faulty or misinterpreted Early Warning System data".


Taking nuclear weapons systems off LoW, or as it  sometimes known, 'hair-trigger alert' is not a new idea. It has been recommended by a number of bodies, starting with the 1996 report of the Canberra Commission, who saw it as a process involving separation of the warheads from their delivery vehicles. Much simpler measures can be envisaged including ones that would simply make it impossible to immediately launch missiles, or to launch them at a few minutes notice. I understand that in the case of UK submarine - launched missiles, the 'notice to fire' was altered from minutes to days some 10 years ago. France as we saw previously makes similar claims.

It is noteworthy that the UK makes something of this in its 2007 NPT Prepcom working paper.(and in Margaret Beckett’s Carnegie speech). It would be wonderful if that could translate into support by the UK government for the simple measures needed to make impossible an entirely avoidable apocalypse, and a more appropriate response to L29(GA62/36). In this context, the very disappointing negative vote given by the UK  to L29(GA62/36) and to L5 in Oct2008, suggests merely a response to  external pressure, and the EoV – that somehow, operational readiness is not important -  is less than credible.  I have asked representatives of the French government in person, and written to both governments, (Fr and UK) to urge them, if they really have lowered the operational readiness of their nuclear weapons systems in the way they say they have, to proclaim  it to the world while voting for the operational readiness resolution. NGOs will continue to urge them to do just that, and to give operational readiness the vital importance it has. In the meantime the negative votes and the EoV’s simply make no sense at all.

Other bodies that have recommended taking strategic nuclear weapons systems off LoW status have included the Atlanta Consultation of 2005, the Middle Powers Initiative, and  the 2006 Blix report on WMD.

A recent Middle Powers Initiative briefing paper concluded that:
"De-alerting would help alleviate risks associated with mistakes, coups, attacks on nuclear weapons facilities, false warnings, unauthorised launches, hacking into command and control systems, and developments that cannot now be anticipated."
(MPI Briefing Paper: Fulfilling the NPT Bargain for Disarmament and Non-Proliferation: The Role of Middle Powers, )
The Blix Report notes that:
 "Many such (nuclear) weapons remain on hair-trigger alert and still assigned for retaliatory use on short notice – even before the warheads of one side reach the other’s territory. Since the flight time of US and Russian land-based missiles is between 25 and 30 minutes – significantly less for seabased missiles – such nuclear postures risk causing nuclear exchanges by accident, technical malfunction or strategic miscalculation." (Blix, Weapons of Terror p92)
While according to  Blix Recommendation 17:
"Russia and the United States should agree on reciprocal steps to take their nuclear weapons off hair-trigger alert and should create a joint commission to facilitate this goal. They should undertake to eliminate the launch-on-warning option from their nuclear war plans, while implementing a controlled parallel decrease in operational readiness of a large part of their strategic forces, through:

--reducing the number of strategic submarines at sea and lowering their technical readiness to launch while in port ;
--storing nuclear bombs and air-launched cruise missiles separately from relevant air fields;
--storing separately nose cones and/or warheads of most intercontinental ballistic missiles or taking other technical measures to reduce their readiness."
(Blix, Weapons of Terror p94)
These recommendations are not dissimilar to those of the Canberra Commission  in 1996.

A number of legislatures have expressed support for measures to lower nuclear weapons operating status over the years, including in November 1999, the European Parliament (unanimously) and the Australian Senate.  Again in 2005, the Australian Senate and the European Parliament welcomed the appeal coordinated by Mr Doug Mattern of the Association of World Citizens and myself that was endorsed by 44 Nobels and 362 NGOs. Many of you will be familiar with that appeal.

Lowering operating status has also figured in greater or lesser degrees of prominence in a number of resolutions other than L29(GA62/36) in the General Assembly over the years. It is also a part of the '13 steps' listed in the final declaration of the Year 2000 NPT Review.

A number of countries including New Zealand, Canada, Chile, and Costa Rica highlighted the issue of operating status in a paper to the UN Disarmament Commission in April of 2006.

Operating status was included in some way in a number of addresses and working papers to the May2005 NPT Review conference including in Kofi Annans opening speech and in the working paper presented by New Zealand on behalf of New Agenda, and working papers or opening addresses by Sweden, Japan, and Australia amongst others.

The chairs summary of the 2007 prepcom mentioned it briefly:
“11. States parties also attached significance to reducing the deployed status of nuclear weapons through de-alerting, to reducing reliance on nuclear weapons, and to securing greater information from the nuclear-weapon States on the active and reserve status of nuclear arsenals.” 
It was treated much more fully in the factual report of the 2008 Prepcom in Geneva.:
“15. States parties also attached significance to reducing the deployed status of nuclear weapons through de-alerting and de-targeting, to reducing reliance on nuclear weapons and to securing greater information from nuclear-weapon States on the active and reserve status of nuclear arsenals with a view to increasing confidence among all States parties. They welcomed the efforts of some nuclear-weapon States in this regard, noting such practical measures can raise the threshold for uses of nuclear weapons and help avoid the risk of accidents and miscalculation.”
It is also prominent in the joint Australia-Japan resolution, Renewed Determination, of October 2005,2006 and  2007:
"6. Calls for the nuclear-weapon States to further reduce the operational status of nuclear weapons systems in ways that promote international stability and security;"
And it is worthy to note that this is perhaps the most heavily supported nuclear disarmament resolution that there is, adopted in 2005 and 2006, and 2007 with the support of Russia, UK, France and all NATO states except the US. (UN General Assembly Resolution 60/65, Renewed Determination towards the Total Elimination of Nuclear Weapons) 

However, Renewed Determination treats Operating Status in a single short sentence amongst many other also important matters.

Canada in its EoV, notes that while it abstained on L29 (GA62/36), and again in Oct2008 on L5,  it did vote for the Renewed Determination resolution. However, Canada’s explanation references deterrence. We do not think that ‘international stability and security’ should be taken to be some kind of code for deterrence, and would affirm the opposite. Reducing nuclear weapons systems operational readiness is precisely about ensuring international stability and security – How could it be about anything else? We urge Canada, like Japan, to support GA62/36 and its successors as it supports Renewed Determination.

According to the less heavily supported NAM resolution which nonetheless contains much that is worthwhile:
"6. Also urges the nuclear-weapon States, as an interim measure, to de-alert and deactivate immediately their nuclear weapons and to take other concrete measures to reduce further the operational status of their nuclear-weapon systems;" (A/C.1/60/L.36 12 October 2005).
Lowering operating status is central to the Reducing Nuclear Dangers resolution put by India,(A/C.1/60/L.52 – language is exactly the same in 2007) though that resolution refers only to US and Russian nuclear weapons. In spite of the perceived double-standard by some, in urging the lowering of operating status of US and Russian nuclear weapons, while putting (arguably) the subcontinent on a hair-trigger basis, Reducing Nuclear Dangers is a text worthy of much wider support than it enjoys. This is particularly so because it sets the lowering of operating status within a broader context of changes in nuclear doctrine and policy.

India itself called for some of those who voted for L29(GA62/36)  to support Reducing Nuclear Dangers, and this call is repeated in India’s statement to the Disarmament Commission, which gave some prominence to issues relating to operating status and to nuclear doctrine.

I recommend that Australia should consider support both for India’s Reducing Nuclear Dangers, and even for the NAM resolution. Australia should deal with any reservations it has, especially in respect to the disreputable sponsor of the NAM resolution, by use of an EoV.

Many countries who could not bring themselves to support reducing Nuclear Dangers  supported the L29(GA62/36) resolution, passing 139 to 3 in the GA plenary, and Germany, Austria, Norway, Finland, Sweden, Spain, Portugal, Iceland, Ireland, NZ, and Japan out of ‘developed’ countries, voting in favour, while every country that voted for Reducing Nuclear Dangers voted for L29. The vote for L29/GA62/36 sends a strong message, reinforced by strong support for Renewed Determination, NAM, and Reducing Nuclear Dangers.

It also figured in working papers in the 2007 NPT Prepcom by Norway, Canada, Australia, Japan, and New Agenda.

New Agenda in its previous May2007 NPT  Prepcom working paper  notes that:
"A mutual lowering of the operational readiness of deployed nuclear weapons would build confidence between the nuclear powers and reduce the threat of nuclear weapons use, intentional or accidental. While this can never substitute for irreversible reductions in their weapons, it is essential that the nuclear weapons states continue in this vein and remove the launch-on-warning option from their security doctrines by agreeing on reciprocal steps to take their nuclear weapons off hair-trigger alert. The continuation of the cold-war high alert status is of little sense in today’s security environment and only serves to exacerbate the danger posed by the existence of these weapons."
Steven Starr Notes (Pers. Comm) that:
“…A viable and working policy paper to eliminate LoW is currently on the website of the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology Centre for Arms Control . . .  the Russians chose to put it there and feature it with a headline and quote…”
(see <http://www.armscontrol.ru/start/>http://www.armscontrol.ru/start/  and <http://www.armscontrol.ru/start/rus/default.htm>http://www.armscontrol.ru/start/rus/default.htm).

Operating status/operational readiness is not only a vital part of the road to nuclear disarmament. It is also an utterly vital interim measure to ensure that unforseen events, computer malfunction, false information, and human fallibility do not bring about an utterly catastrophic outcome.

It is not by any means the only measure that must be taken of course: The road to  the elimination of nuclear weapons is mapped very well by the 1996 Canberra Commission, the Atlanta Consultation, the final declaration of the 2000 NPT review, the Blix Commission, the Australia-Japan resolutions over the years,   New Agenda (more so in its early incarnations) and a number of other resolutions that have been passed by massive, sometimes overwhelming, majorities in the General Assembly.

Lowering operating status fits with a number of other measures including no first use, revision of security policies to rely less on nuclear weapons, and so on. It is unfortunate that current policies in some countries seem to envisage a greater rather than a decreased, readiness to use nuclear weapons. This is the opposite of the direction in which we need to travel.

The recommendations to NATO  by General Shalikashvili Et Al, envisaging pre-emptive nuclear strikes are – in this context – beyond belief in their irresponsibility.

Clearly, if BOTH of two sides in a strategic nuclear pair such as US/Russia (or India/Pakistan) EACH believe that the other is going to strike first and in turn decides to ‘pre-pre-empt’ by itself striking first, then a nuclear ‘exchange’ is inevitable.

Baluyevsky’s statements that Russia too can undertake pre-emptive strikes underline terrifyingly this very point, as pre-emptive strikes lead inevitably to pre-pre-emptive strikes etc etc.

Statements by some countries that others are now ‘targeted’ are also, clearly, unhelpful if entirely predictable.

In the current context of deteriorating US – Russian relations, and with vice – presidential candidates having said things like  ‘we could go to war with Russia’, these considerations have added salience. 

Rather than making inflammatory statements, measures to encourage the lowering of operational readiness deserve as widespread support as possible from governments round the world, and deserve a prominent place in balanced and measured routes, in concert with other measures, to the total and unequivocal elimination of nuclear weapons under article VI of the NPT.

One can only hope that the most recent developments, in which Russia has announced that it may not necessarily proceed with the deployment of nuclear – armed missiles in its Kaliningrad enclave, herald a more positive direction.

There is an urgent need for real movement on nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation. There have been warnings enough from the very highest quarters  that progress is imperative.  There is now a steady drumbeat of high – level commentary to the effect that movement is imperative.

This is quite without prejudice to any other initiatives containing or on, operating status including Renewed Determination Toward the Total Elimination of Nuclear Weapons, Reducing Nuclear Dangers and the NAM resolution. Support by nations that do not belong to the groupings that ‘normally’ support these resolutions would also demonstrate a broadening and deepening of concern over nuclear weapons generally. The time has come for a crossing of the usual  UNGA group boundaries.

Support in October 2007 and 2008 for the re-submitted Resolution on Operational Readiness, especially by nations that don’t normally support Reducing Nuclear Dangers or NAM, placed additional pressure on the nuclear weapons states to make progress on this vital first step toward the fulfilment of the nuclear weapons states article VI obligations, and to taking the single action that may do most to reduce the continuing danger to civilisation and life from nuclear weapons.

Widespread support for the Operational  Readiness resolution, most recently at 141-3,  sends a powerful signal. The strongly supported stand-alone resolution on Operational Readiness demonstrates a depth and breadth of support with the potential to stimulate positive action by the nuclear weapon states. 

The need now is for the consensus demonstrated by this to be consolidated, and to be translated into action at the levels of the US Congress and Russian Duma, and into executive action. The election of a new US President provides a possible window of opportunity.

Let us use the issue of operational readiness to move forward as per article VI to a nuclear – weapons – free world.

Last Updated on Thursday, 25 June 2009 06:03