Top U.S. General Spurns Obama Pledge to Reduce Nuclear Alert Posture

(Feb. 27) -Air Force missile crews confer in a Minuteman 3 launch control center (U.S. Air Force photo).
(Feb. 27) -Air Force missile crews confer in a Minuteman 3 launch control center (U.S. Air Force photo).

ORLANDO, Fla. -- The nation's most senior nuclear combat commander yesterday took issue with U.S. President Barack Obama's characterization of U.S. atomic weapons as being on "hair-trigger alert" and warned against reducing the arsenal's launch readiness (see GSN, Feb. 17).

"The alert postures that we are in today are appropriate, given our strategy and guidance and policy," Air Force Gen. Kevin Chilton, who heads U.S. Strategic Command, said at a press conference here.

The White House says Obama intends to make good on a campaign promise to "work with Russia to take U.S. and Russian ballistic missiles off hair-trigger alert."

There are growing international calls to do just that. Six nations, including China, New Zealand and Switzerland, recently pressed the U.N. General Assembly to pass a resolution demanding that the world's nuclear weapons be removed from a status that would allow them to be launched in minutes (see GSN, Oct. 24, 2008).

The United States keeps roughly 1,000 nuclear warheads on alert atop ICBMs and submarine-launched ballistic missiles, according to Hans Kristensen, who directs the Federation of American Scientists' Nuclear Information Project in Washington. The land-based missiles can be fired three to four minutes after a presidential order, while the submarine weapons require roughly 12 minutes' notice prior to launch, he said.

U.S. President George H.W. Bush unilaterally took the nation's bomber aircraft off of alert in 1991.

Russia, which has long opposed de-alerting measures for its own force, retains approximately 1,200 warheads at top readiness, nearly all of them on ICBMs, Kristensen said. The British and French together account for roughly 112 nuclear warheads on alert, though he said their weapons might require days' notice to launch.

Chilton said it is misleading to use the term "hair-trigger" when describing the U.S. arsenal, which he said remains safe from accidental or unauthorized launch.

"It conjures a drawn weapon in the hands of somebody," said the general, speaking at a two-day conference on air warfare. "And their finger's on the trigger. And you're worried they might sneeze, because it is so sensitive."

However, the "reality of our alert posture today," he said, is that "the weapon is in the holster."

Continuing the analogy, Chilton said the holster for nuclear weapons "has two combination locks on it," it "takes two people to open those locks," and "they can't do it without authenticated orders from the president of the United States."

At a separate press conference a few minutes earlier, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz also sought to "push back a little" on the notion that "these things are very close to launching."

"That's anything but the case," Schwartz said. "There is a rigorous discipline [and] process involved, should that ever be required, and it is anything but hair trigger."

The Air Force is responsible for managing the ICBM and strategic bomber legs of the U.S. nuclear triad, while the Navy handles submarine-based missiles.

Schwartz became his service's chief of staff last August after Defense Secretary Robert Gates fired Gen. Michael Moseley and Air Force Secretary Michael Wynne, citing dissatisfaction with their management of nuclear weapons.

The Air Force discovered last year that mislabeled ICBM fuses had been mistakenly shipped to Taiwan in 2006 (see GSN, March 25, 2008). In 2007, a bomber aircraft crew transported six cruise missiles across several U.S. states, unaware that the weapons were armed with nuclear warheads (see GSN, Sept. 5, 2007).

Schwartz yesterday appeared to suggest that the U.S. military has not yet been asked to review the issue or to determine how Obama's de-alerting pledge might be implemented. He said a description of the policy posted on the White House Web site falls short of "formal direction to study something or do something."

"This matter has been evaluated over the years on numerous occasions," said the Air Force chief. "I have no doubt that we've thought about it. We certainly can and will look at it again, if that's what the new defense team wishes. ... But we'll wait for an appropriate assignment from the White House or from the Office of the Secretary [of Defense] to do that."

For his part, Chilton described a process of "de-alerting" as a fairly radical step.

Returning to the analogy of a holstered weapon, Chilton said a lower level of readiness for the nuclear stockpile would be like "taking the gun apart and mailing pieces of it to various parts of the country. And then when you're in crisis, deciding to reassemble it.

"And we have to ask ourselves: Can we afford that time period for the delivery of the pieces to put it back together?" he continued. "Is that the posture we want to be in as we [review] policy, strategy, force structure and posturing of forces?"

That broad analysis is to take place during the Nuclear Posture Review, a congressionally mandated Defense Department study that is set to begin this year. It is expected to take a fresh look at the nation's deterrence posture and potentially recommend changes in the nuclear weapons approach, given current and anticipated threats.

Kristensen said Chilton appeared to depict only the most extreme scenario for de-alerting the nuclear force, while Obama might opt instead for more incremental measures.

"There is a wide range of measures you could take, from taking the entire force off of alert, to biting off the edges of the alert force in terms of gradually reducing the alert force or ... [adding] delays in the launch sequence," he told Global Security Newswire today.

One underlying objective of building more time into the nuclear-weapons launch process could be to offer a longer window for a president to weigh and potentially reverse a momentous strike order, Kristensen said. He added that Bush's decision to reduce bomber aircraft readiness has not weakened the U.S. deterrence posture.

"We have already taken the bombers off of alert ... and no one has attacked us in almost two decades," Kristensen said. "[Obama] is the one to make the decision ... because if you leave it to the warfighters and the strategists, then it's always going to be impossible to do anything that will change the status quo."

On a related issue, Schwartz raised the prospect that a new nuclear and conventional long-range bomber might not be fielded by 2018 to replace B-2 and B-52 aircraft, as his predecessor had assured (See GSN, Oct. 25, 2007).

"One of the things in a period of austerity is having acquisition programs that deliver on time and on cost," Schwartz told reporters. "And so whether it's 2018 or not, I think, is less important to me than having a viable, manageable program which will actually deliver at endgame."

Air Force Secretary Michael Donley -- a Bush administration appointee the White House announced yesterday it would retain -- said the bomber's prospects are under closed-door discussion as the Pentagon debates the 2010 defense spending plan and embarks on longer-term reviews.

"We don't have any determined outcomes yet on systems of that nature," said Donley, sitting alongside Schwartz at the afternoon press conference. Both noted their view that a new bomber continues to be needed in the coming years.

February 27, 2009
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ORLANDO, Fla. -- The nation's most senior nuclear combat commander yesterday took issue with U.S. President Barack Obama's characterization of U.S. atomic weapons as being on "hair-trigger alert" and warned against reducing the arsenal's launch readiness (see GSN, Feb. 17).