war on the rocks

Keeping ICBMs “On Alert” Enhances Presidential Decision-Making

July 9, 2015

Since 1959, the U. S. Air Force’s ICBMs have been on alert, meaning postured to be ready-to-launch within minutes. This alert posture has generally been considered necessary to sustaining stability with major competitors — first the Soviet Union, and now Russia. Global Zero disagrees. The group claims in a new report that the ICBMs’ high state of readiness is destabilizing mainly because it has a deleterious effect on presidential decision-making. Not only do such claims not hold up well under scrutiny, the discussion misses the mark because the central issue is not presidential decision-making, but adversary decision-making. Let us look at five Global Zero claims.

1. “Keeping ICBMs on alert shortens presidential decision time.” Perhaps because it seems logical, this is the most common misperception regarding ICBMs on alert. With ICBMs on alert, if the United States was attacked, the president has the capability to either withhold launch or launch some, or all, of the ICBMs before the adversary’s weapons arrived at their U.S. targets. It is commonly thought the president might have only 30 minutes of reaction time if such an attack were initiated. Global Zero claims this puts the president under pressure to decide to launch before that half hour is up. This argument fundamentally misunderstands the decision-making process. There are three phases in this process: long-term planning (e.g., developing war plans, acquisition of weapons systems), selection among alternatives under a deadline (e.g., determining immediacy of the threat and appropriate response), and the time between decision and execution or analysis of effect (e.g., initiation of response, analysis of success). During a crisis, time in phase two of this process is of most value because it is within phase two that a presidential decision to use nuclear weapons resides. De-alerting the ICBM force does not increase the time available in phase two, where the president decides whether the situation requires use of a nuclear weapon. De-alerting only increases the time in phase three. It does not give the president more time to make a better decision; it just delays execution of that decision.

2. “Eliminating Use or Lose creates more decision-making time.” This claim is a slightly different version of the first. Use or Lose is the idea that unless the ICBM force is launched on warning (Use), it will be destroyed in an attack (Lose). The implication is if the ICBMs were not launched, they would be wasted and therefore the pressure on the president to use them would be intense. Global Zero and others argue that de-alerting the ICBM eliminates this pressure and thus increases presidential decision time. The perverse logic at work is that eliminating an option, the rapid launch of ICBMs, creates more decision time. In reality, it does no such thing; it simply denies the president a response option.

3. “Eliminating Use or Lose improves decision-making regarding retaliation.” Global Zero claims that de-alerting the ICBM force “increases latitude for flexibility in response.” The contention appears two-pronged. First, that focusing on whether or not to launch on warning robs the president of time that could be better used contemplating an appropriate retaliatory strike. Second, that a delayed and therefore more considered retaliation would be diminished by any earlier decision to launch ICBMs. Regarding the first, why would one use the 30 minutes following warning to shape a response? If the on-alert ICBM force encourages rash decision-making and the best option is always to ride-out an attack (i.e., not launch on warning), consideration of retaliatory options is always better delayed until after a damage assessment. In their own construct, that initial 30 minutes is not helpful in shaping an appropriate retaliation. The second point seems to be that reflection following a nuclear attack makes the retaliatory response more effective. The ability to retaliate is primarily intended to deter the potential adversary. Post-attack reflection to marginally improve target selection is worthless.

4. “On alert forces reduce decision-making to a checklist-driven script.” Anyone with experience in aviation, equipment repair, or a vast number of industrial activities understands the value of a checklist. In my twenty years as a USAF aviator, I never would have considered flying without one. Certainly missileers, those responsible for rapidly executing the president’s orders, should have and adhere to checklists. Any script or checklist the president would use is an aid to decision-making under time constraints. It does not routinize or predetermine the decision itself; the process merely supports clear and rapid assessment to improve the decision.

5. “Launch on Warning is about a presidential decision to not lose our own forces.” Global Zero would have us believe that Launch on Warning is about Use or Lose. This is their greatest misperception or misdirection. The ability to launch the ICBM force upon warning is about the adversary’s decision-making process, not the president’s. Maintaining that capability ensures that an adversary attack on the United States must be very large, an unequivocal existential commitment. The ante at the table is at least 500 nuclear weapons. Even with that level of commitment, an adversary cannot be sure that our president will not launch on warning. Thus even a committed adversary cannot be sure of success. On-alert ICBMs render a first strike almost meaningless and certainly unthinkable.

The current on-alert posture increases presidential decision time, eliminates potential adversary misperceptions, and forces adversaries to think “slow” and not “fast.” It injects ambiguity into their decision-making processes and denies any opportunity of profitable first strike. Global Zero and others miss the point by focusing on what an on-alert ICBM force means to us. The real question is what it means to them — potential adversaries. Deterrence is about adversary decision-making, not the president’s.


Hunter Hustus is a doctoral candidate at Northeastern University, Boston and an advisor to the U. S. Air Force on strategic deterrence and nuclear weapons issues. The views expressed are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Air Force or the Department of Defense.


Photo credit: Vandenberg Air Force Base