The Need for Nuclear Alerts


The U.S. general who commanded America’s nuclear forces and a few other notable American national security leaders have forged an alliance of sorts with a number of European, Russian, and Asian military officers and national security experts over a most explosive issue. The Global Zero Commission on Nuclear Risk Reduction, chaired by retired Gen. James Cartwright, is calling for the end of U.S. and Russian nuclear “hair-trigger” attack readiness as well as a series of agreements among the “nuclear club” that would end alert status for nuclear forces. Their report concludes that nuclear forces on alert make a nuclear exchange — accidental or deliberate — more likely because of escalating tensions between the United States and Russia. The effort to reduce the readiness level of nuclear forces is, in reality, a stepping stone for the Global Zero movement to continue its push for total nuclear disarmament. This effort, led by Gen. Cartwright, unfortunately misses the strategic importance of maintaining an alerted nuclear force and uses hyperbole and misinformation to advance a flawed argument.

The report makes the amazing statement that basic deterrence and operational cohesion can be preserved even as these radical “risk reduction” measures are implemented. The report offers an expansive view of what “de-alerting” entails, which includes taking warheads out of the land-based and sea-based ballistic missiles, locking down the ballistic missiles so they can’t be launched within 72 hours, taking targeting data off-line, restricting ballistic submarine patrols, removing all non-strategic nuclear weapons from Europe, pulling back on theater missile defense capabilities, and eventually eliminating all land-based ballistic missiles. The report claims that these steps would increase strategic stability and reduce the chance of a terrorist group obtaining a nuclear warhead. Sure, verifying that Russia, China, and the United States are all complying with these proposed steps would be impossible, since no nation will let inspectors go into launch centers or ballistic submarines to see if these measures have in fact been taken. But these are simply minor details to be overcome through other confidence-building measures. What this report really demonstrates is Global Zero’s deliberate distortion of general deterrence theory. The report does nothing to address the rationale as to why we keep nuclear forces on alert.

Alerted nuclear forces are actually a stabilizing force in international relations because they force diplomats and national leaders to carefully consider their next escalatory step. There has to be a credible belief that a nation cannot avoid a violent response if it attacks the United States (deterrence by punishment), or that its goals will not be met even if it attacks the United States (deterrence by denial). If the U.S. nuclear posture is to deter a nuclear or WMD attack by a peer nation-state, there is no better asset position for that mission than the intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) on alert.

There are two necessary conditions for nuclear deterrence. First, the weapons must raise the cost of an adversary contemplating an attack on the United States. With 450 launch silos serviced by 45 launch control centers, an adversary must have and be able to launch an arsenal of over 500 weapons to wipe out the ICBM force. An adversarial nuclear state that cannot take out the entire ICBM infrastructure has to consider that a retaliatory strike could be inbound within 30 minutes of an attack. This secured strike capability is the basis of assured destruction and deterrence.

Second, the nuclear assets must be positioned and postured to affect the decision calculus of the adversary. If the ICBMs are taken off-line and the warheads for submarine ballistic missiles are not mated, an adversary who didn’t de-alert its forces could easily take out America’s three strategic bomber bases and two submarine bases, thus putting the United States in jeopardy. Without this alerted force, the entire U.S. nuclear infrastructure could be taken out with a force of a few nuclear weapons. Alerted weapons let the adversary know that any preemptive strategic attack against the United States will not work because it will be impossible to take out the entire nuclear force. The inability to preemptively strike another nation requires alerted, responsive forces, dispersal of forces, and positioning forces so that they cannot be located at any time.

Advocates for taking America’s ICBMs off alert fail to put the concept of nuclear alert in perspective. Alert became a feature of nuclear operations since the advent of the ICBM. In fact, Strategic Air Command assumed its first alert tour on 1 October 1957, three days before the Russians launched Sputnik. The missile age reduced the time for leaders to make a nuclear strike decision from days to hours to minutes. These early alerted forces were nuclear-armed strategic bombers capable of reaching their targets within a matter of hours. The main purpose of the alert force, at that time, was to make sure the United States could get its forces airborne to preserve its secured second strike in case of a preemptive attack. While bombers served as the primary alert force in the early years of the Cold War, the ICBM force slowly grew in capability until 1964 when the number of missiles on alert outnumbered the number of bombers. In 1991, the bombers were removed from an alert posture by order of President George H. W. Bush. Since that time, ICBMs on alert served as the primary deterrent force in the U.S. arsenal.

The commission’s report suggests that sole reliance on the U.S. ballistic missile submarine fleet to provide what we call “assured second strike” will maintain U.S. deterrence capability against a first strike scenario. It notes that nuclear bombers could be armed within 48 hours in times of crisis, but might not survive a first strike. While the submarine fleet is survivable due to its stealth, it is not as responsive to national crises as land-based ballistic missiles or bombers, and there would be fewer delivery systems for an enemy to monitor. Also, this recommendation puts all of the risk into one option. If an adversary develops a technology to detect ballistic missile submarines at sea or dedicates more reconnaissance assets to watch the few missile boats move from home base to sea, then our one option to deter a strategic nuclear exchange is in peril. Furthermore, the U.S. triad works because the various legs serve as a hedge in case of a technical or mechanical problem in the other legs. No president or Congress is going to accept that calculus.

While nuclear-alerted missiles provide strategic stability, the argument against them continues to rest on deliberate falsehoods. The first involves the false notion of a “hair-trigger.” The second is that a high-alert status opens the door to a nuclear accident or incident. And the third is that high-alert makes it far more likely that a misinterpretation between world leaders or military forces could lead to a nuclear exchange. All three arguments are full of holes. There is no “hair-trigger” alert. The U.S. military has maintained an unblemished safety record for 25 years.* And constant communications between the United States and Russia dramatically reduce the possibility of such misinterpretations.

What Hair-Trigger?

One of the arguments presented against alert is that these missiles are on a “hair-trigger” — a term used seven times in the Global Zero report. This gives the impression that missiles stand at the ready and all a launch officer has to do is press some red button and nuclear Armageddon occurs. As Gen. Cartwright understands better than almost anyone, this is utterly ridiculous. First, the president is the only person authorized to order the release of a nuclear weapon. The suggestion that the president has less than a few minutes to make a decision for a full-out strategic response based on a tenuous launch warning is a straw man. There is no demand for the president to make a decision within minutes — if there is any doubt, the decision could be to wait until there is clear evidence prior to any retaliation. Secondly, no one individual can launch a nuclear missile. As with all things in nuclear operations, two people must give consent (aside from, of course, the president) before an action can occur. No one person has knowledge of all nuclear codes; therefore, an insider threat is mitigated. Furthermore, crews are directed by relatively short encrypted messages. While the notion of hacking into the nuclear command and control system would make for a great Hollywood movie, the truth is that all messages go through sophisticated levels of encryption so it would be impossible to duplicate an actual message. While the ICBM force has had some bad press recently, none of the infractions ever compromised the integrity of the launch codes or the nuclear command structure.

The Global Zero report states that the risk of the outbreak of nuclear conflict has not decreased proportionally with the significant reductions of nuclear weapons since the height of the Cold War. They insist that a “hair-trigger” alert could result in a nuclear exchange during this period of high acrimony on the international stage. By doing so, they ignore geopolitical context. While tensions between the United States and Russia are undoubtedly higher than we’d like, we are not facing anything approaching the massive competition for global dominance that was the Cold War and the tensions that came along with it. This argument and the others advanced by Global Zero commission reveal their effort as just another excuse for taking nuclear weapon systems offline.

The Accident Red Herring

Another Global Zero argument for eliminating the ICBMs and returning non-strategic nuclear weapons to the United States is that it would reduce nuclear incidents or accidents. (An accident would be an unexpected error due to a failure of procedures such as an unauthorized launch or the loss of a nuclear weapon. An incident would be an intentional hostile event involving a nuclear weapon, facility, or component.) This is a red herring. There have been 32 known “broken arrows” (accidents involving nuclear weapons) in the history of nuclear operations. The majority of these accidents involved aircraft carrying nuclear weapons, and a majority of those occurred in the 1960s when Strategic Air Command was flying airborne alert. A significant accident happened in 1980 when a dropped wrench socket hit a fuel line that eventually caused a liquid-fueled rocket to explode and jettison the nuclear warhead some 600 feet downrange. Today’s nuclear weapons are much more safe and secure than during the Cold War. The U.S. nuclear arsenal has no liquid-fueled rockets (they are all solid fuel) and no bombers flying on alert loaded with nuclear bombs.

Misinterpreting Misinterpretations

Finally, those who would de-alert the nuclear force claim that the slightest misinterpretation could lead to a nuclear exchange. History refutes this claim as well. During the Cold War, bomber and reconnaissance aircraft routinely penetrated the airspace of both sides. This was a commonly-accepted practice to test resolve, prod air defenses, and to signal displeasure with current policy or practices. Even today, Russian bombers enter U.S. and European airspace and U.S. reconnaissance planes loiter on the boundaries of Russia. The United States sends its B-2 Spirit bombers to Europe and Southeast Asia to demonstrate political resolve. It did not lead to nuclear war in the past and it will not in the future, because political and military leaders recognize this for what it is — strategic messaging, not acts of war.

During the early days of George W. Bush’s administration, a Chinese fighter aircraft ran into a U.S. reconnaissance aircraft forcing it to land on Hainan Island. While this was an international incident between two nuclear-weapon states, it did not lead to nuclear war or even a change in the nuclear posture of both countries. Additionally, previous misinterpretations of launches did not lead to a nuclear exchange because both sides understand the importance of strategic context. Some like to claim a false target on a radar screen, a fly landing on the scope, or some other fanciful scenario might happen that could cause an unauthorized nuclear first strike. The Dr. Strangelove scenario of a Gen. Jack Ripper launching the nuclear fleet on an attack to preserve the United States’ “purity of essence” makes for great entertainment but is hardly based on fact. As noted above, the president is the only person who can authorize a U.S. nuclear release and constant communications between the United States and Russia (through the White House “hot line,” the Nuclear Risk Reduction Center, the State Department, and the United Nations) work to prevent such scenarios.

While the Cold War is over and tensions between the two sides have recently increased, there is no current strategic context under which either side would launch a bolt out of the blue. So does this mean nuclear weapons should be pulled off alert? Absolutely not. No one can forecast the future security environment of Russia and China. We are in a multipolar world in which nuclear weapon states other than Russia also pose an existential threat. It is because our nuclear forces are on alert that the United States remains free from the threat of nuclear or WMD attack. If there are people who cannot get out of the Cold War mentality of “Dr. Strangelove,” it is the Global Zero community and not the Air Force.


*The flight of the B-52 bomber from Minot Air Force Base to Barksdale Air Force Base in 2007 while carrying six nuclear cruise missiles was an unauthorized movement. However, the nuclear weapons were not armed and never left the custody of the U.S. Air Force. As a result, this is not considered a nuclear accident, as opposed to the 1966 Palomares incident or 1968 Greenland crash (both of which involved B-52 bombers).


Dr. Mel Deaile and Al Mauroni work at the U.S. Air Force Center for Unconventional Weapons Studies. The opinions, conclusions, and recommendations expressed or implied within are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Air University, U.S. Air Force, or Department of Defense.


Photo credit: AF GlobalStrike