U.S. Nuclear Policy and Posture: Increasing Warning and Decision Time

This paper is part 3 of the 6-part series, U.S. Nuclear Policy and Posture: Core Steps, 2018–2020.

True progress on reducing nuclear risks—and true cooperation necessary to prevent proliferation and nuclear terrorism—is not possible when both Washington and Moscow are postured for mutually assured destruction on a massive scale. If leaders cannot see and act on this premise, the United States and Russia will remain trapped in a costly and risky nuclear posture—and other nations may follow in their footsteps, making probable that Hiroshima and Nagasaki are not the last cities to suffer a nuclear attack.

Today, U.S. and Russian ballistic missiles armed with nuclear warheads deployed on prompt-launch can be fired and hit their targets within minutes. Once fired, a nuclear ballistic missile unfortunately cannot be recalled before it reaches its target. Leaders may have only minutes between warning of an attack and nuclear detonations on their territory planned to eliminate their capacity to respond. This puts enormous pressure on leaders to maintain “launch on warning/launch under attack” options, which—when mutual tensions persist or in a crisis—increases the risk that a decision to use nuclear weapons will be made in haste after a false warning and multiplies the risk of an accidental, mistaken, or unauthorized launch—blundering into nuclear catastrophe.

Magnifying risks of a nuclear mistake are cyber threats to warning and command and control systems. Issues surrounding decision time become more acute in a world of increased cyber risks and little communication or cooperation between political and military leaders. Malicious hackers today may insert the same message that panicked Hawaiians in January 2018—“Ballistic missile threat inbound … seek immediate shelter. This is not a drill”—into national warning and alert systems. How would the leaders of Pakistan, India, North Korea, the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France, or Israel respond?

Washington should work with Moscow to eliminate Cold War-era capabilities and force postures that generate fears of a disarming first-strike. Working with Russia to take nuclear missiles off prompt launch status would increase time for leaders to assess their options and make a more considered decision in response to a suspected or actual nuclear attack. This would significantly reduce the risk of an accidental, mistaken, or unauthorized launch of a nuclear ballistic missile, and set an example for all states with nuclear weapons. Ideally, this could be extended to China, and then to India and Pakistan. 

This initiative would be widely understood by publics as a step away from the still-prevailing concept of mutually assured destruction, and could serve as a building block in a broader effort to improve relations between the West and Russia. Importantly, disengaging the Cold War autopilot would in no way diminish the U.S.’ military capability to deter and defend against any nation or combination of nations; even with these steps, the United States will continue to have sufficient if not excessive capacity in its nuclear arsenal.

Possible options for increasing warning and decision time and removing weapons from prompt-launch include

1. Set the goal of removing all nuclear weapons from prompt-launch status globally over the next decade. Progress on removing nuclear weapons from prompt-launch in the United States and Russia could be the basis for a global norm against retaining or adopting prompt launch postures. The United States and Russia could begin a dialogue with other states with nuclear weapons in anticipation of a subsequent agreement not to deploy warheads on prompt-launch.

2. Reciprocal U.S.-Russian commitments to remove a percentage of missiles and warheads from prompt-launch. The United States and Russia could announce plans to take a percentage of their strategic nuclear forces off prompt-launch within three to five years. Initial steps would also include discussions on procedures, observations, and inspections to build confidence and trust, which will be necessary to address the challenges involved in eventually removing all weapons from prompt-launch.

Lowering prompt-launch capabilities of the intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) force would be the immediate priority. Given the asymmetries in U.S. and Russian force postures (where Russia depends more heavily on ICBMs), even this limited step to remove a percentage of missiles and warheads from prompt-launch may require a limited step relating to the submarine launched ballistic missile (SLBM) force. That said, verifiably removing SLBMs and their warheads from prompt-launch will be more challenging than for ICBMs.

3. Agreed tiered U.S.-Russian strategic force postures. The United States and Russia could limit the number of warheads on prompt-launch status to several hundred as part of a tiered force posture. This posture would have a first tier with a limited number of weapons on prompt-launch status, a second tier with delayed response of days or perhaps weeks, and a third tier that required longer periods to be brought back to readiness. The objective would be to move most strategic forces to the second and third tiers while ensuring against a situation where there is pressure in a crisis to rush to move forces back into the first tier. 

Complementary to removing weapons from prompt-launch to increase warning and decision time for leaders, the United States should as a matter of policy promote secure, reliable, and survivable strategic nuclear warning and command and control systems. This should include discussions with Russia and other states with nuclear weapons for reaching at least informal understandings on reducing cyber threats to these systems.

Moving decisively from mutually assured destruction by eliminating capabilities that generate fears of a disarming first strike would deliver on America’s historic support for practical, concrete steps that meet the test of increasing stability, reducing nuclear dangers, and sustaining progress toward a world ultimately free of nuclear weapons. It would reduce the risk of an accident or miscalculation; improve American security by strengthening the cooperation necessary to address regional conflicts, proliferation, and terrorism; and give the U.S. military and those of its allies and partners greater flexibility and resources to develop capabilities against emerging threats.


February 1, 2018
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Washington should work with Moscow to eliminate Cold War-era capabilities and force postures that generate fears of a disarming first-strike.