More than two decades after the end of the Cold War, the United States and Russia continue to keep hundreds of ballistic missiles and thousands of strategic nuclear warheads on hair-trigger, launch-ready status.
The problem: This alert posture unnecessarily raises the risk of an accidental or unauthorized launch of a nuclear ballistic missile – either through technical failure, human error or malfeasance. It also puts pressure on leaders to decide whether to launch a nuclear counterstrike with only a few precious minutes after a report of incoming missiles. Once such a counterstrike, which could kill millions, is launched, it is impossible to recall the missiles.
The background: The missiles’ hair-trigger alert posture was developed during the Cold War so that the United States and Soviet Union could “launch-on-warning” of a nuclear attack. That strategy was meant to convince the other side that leaders could respond to incoming enemy missiles with a massive retaliatory strike before enemy missiles could destroy them. Thus, no advantage could be gained from a “bolt from the blue” surprise attack.
Today, the Cold War is long over and the once-rival superpowers are collaborating to tackle pressing global security issues. A surprise attack by Russia against the United States – or vice-versa – is virtually unthinkable. Yet, the missiles remain on hair-trigger alert – posing an unnecessary risk that nuclear weapons could be launched by accident or through human error, miscalculation or technical failure.
Flaws in technology and other systems that control weapons, the global threat of cyber attacks and other factors raise the risk that leaders will be faced with a false report that a missile has been launched – and the current posture on both sides means that leaders may conclude they have little time to gather and confirm the facts before making a decision to launch a counterstrike.
What should be done: The United States and Russia should work together to take these weapons off hair-trigger alert. This could be accomplished a number of ways. One method that could be reliably monitored would be to separate delivery systems from their weapons; other approaches are also possible.
Frequently Asked Questions
Has there ever been a close call? Yes, there have been several, both during and after the Cold War. In one post-Cold War incident, in 1995, Norway notified the Russian government that it planned to launch a U.S. scientific probe to investigate the northern lights. But word of the planned Norwegian launch didn’t go far enough up the Russian chain of command. When the rocket was launched on January 25th, Russian military authorities thought it could be a nuclear missile attack. They knew they had only minutes to respond. They notified Russian President Boris Yeltsin, and his nuclear “football” – the electronic case that is used to launch nuclear weapons – was activated. Fortunately, before any action was taken, Russian authorities determined that the rocket was headed out to sea and posed no threat to their country.
Will U.S. security be compromised if U.S. and Russian nuclear weapons alert posture changes? No. To the contrary, the United States and Russia would both be much more secure if the risk of an accidental, mistaken, or unauthorized launch of a nuclear ballistic missile were further reduced.
Should the United States unilaterally change the alert status on its nuclear weapons? The United States and Russia should coordinate on plans for both countries to take weapons off hair-trigger alert and agree on procedures to confirm the work has been done.
How would this decision by the U.S. and Russia affect global security? It would help set a global norm to discourage other countries from deploying nuclear ballistic missiles on hair-trigger alert.