Urge your elected representatives to introduce and adopt legislation to take nuclear weapons off high “hair-trigger” alert status.
The United States still deploys several hundred nuclear warheads on missiles in underground silos, ready to launch within minutes of a presidential order. This alert status — called hair-trigger alert — increases the chance of a launch in response to a false alarm. There have been numerous close calls over the past 40 years and keeping missiles on high alert increases the danger of accidental war. There is no compelling rationale for maintaining this option, and the United States should remove its missiles from hair-trigger alert.
This risky alert status, coupled with the option of ordering a launch based on warning of an incoming attack, increases the chance that a nuclear war could start due to a false alarm or other error. Maintaining hair-trigger alert options leads to unnecessarily rushed decision-making. A land-based missile can travel between Russia and the United States in about 30 minutes, and a submarine-launched missile could take as little as 10 to 15 minutes. After receiving warning of an attack, military and political leaders have only minutes to assess the credibility of this information and decide how to respond. This time pressure increases the danger of ordering a launch based on faulty information, and over the past forty years there have been numerous examples of close calls due to computer or human error.
Hair-trigger alert is an outdated policy — the original rationale was the fear during the Cold War that either side could launch a surprise first strike that might wipe out its adversary’s ability to retaliate, which at that time largely consisted of land-based missiles and bombers. Today such an attack is exceedingly unlikely, but even if the worst were to happen, the United States now deploys more than 1,000 nuclear warheads on submarine-based missiles, hidden at sea. These sea-based missiles are not under the same pressure to be launched quickly as land-based missiles, and ensure that the United States would still be able to launch a retaliatory strike.
There is no compelling reason to maintain US missiles on hair-trigger alert, and many reasons not to. Taking land-based missiles off high alert and removing rapid-launch options from U.S. nuclear plans would reduce the risk of accidental and unintended nuclear war.
The team at the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI) supports an initiative to negotiate a reciprocal U.S.-Russian commitment to take a first step to full de-alerting by removing a percentage of missiles and warheads from prompt launch. This is a promising initiative that could be the subject of urgent negotiations between the U.S. and Russia. See their “A Roadmap for America’s Nuclear Policy and Posture.”
The greatest danger from prompt launch policy comes from ICBMS (land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles) because they are set to be launched in minutes to ensure that they are not destroyed in their silos by the other side’s missiles. In addition to de-alerting, former Secretary of Defense William Perry and others, including General James Cartwright, former head of U.S. Strategic Command, argue that the United States should eliminate ICBMs because they are the weapon system most likely to be fired in response to a false alarm and cause an apocalyptic, accidental nuclear war. And they are no longer needed to deter a nuclear strike from Russia, which can be achieved by the two other elements of the nuclear triad—submarines and bombers (See Step 4 below).