As we’ve discussed previously on this blog and elsewhere, keeping these weapons on hair-trigger alert so they can be launched within minutes creates the risk of a mistaken launch in response to false warning of an incoming attack.
This practice dates to the Cold War, when US and Soviet military strategists feared a surprise first-strike nuclear attack that could destroy land-based missiles. By keeping missiles on hair-trigger alert, they could be launched before they could be destroyed on the ground. But as the letter notes, removing land-based missiles from hair-trigger alert “would still leave many hundreds of submarine-based warheads on alert—many more than necessary to maintain a reliable and credible deterrent.”
“Land-based nuclear missiles on high alert present the greatest risk of mistaken launch,” the letter states. “National leaders would have only a short amount of time—perhaps 10 minutes—to assess a warning and make a launch decision before these missiles could be destroyed by an incoming attack.”
Over the past few decades there have been numerous U.S. and Russian false alarms—due to technical failures, human errors and misinterpretations of data—that could have prompted a nuclear launch. The scientists’ letter points out that today’s heightened tension between the United States and Russia increases that risk.
The scientists’ letter reminds President Obama that he called for taking nuclear-armed missiles off hair-trigger alert after being elected president. During his 2008 presidential campaign, he also noted, “[K]eeping nuclear weapons ready to launch on a moment’s notice is a dangerous relic of the Cold War. Such policies increase the risk of catastrophic accidents or miscalculation.”
Other senior political and military officials have also called for an end to hair-trigger alert.
The scientists’ letter comes at an opportune time, since the White House is considering what steps the president could take in his remaining time in office to reduce the threat posed by nuclear weapons.]]>
Between November 1979 and June 1980, those computers led to several false warnings of all-out nuclear attack by the Soviet Union—and a heart-stopping middle-of-the-night telephone call.
I described one of these glitches previously. That one, in 1979, was actually caused by human and systems errors: A technician put a training tape in a computer that then—inexplicably—routed the information to the main US warning centers. The Pentagon’s investigator stated that they were never able to replicate the failure mode to figure out what happened.
Just months later, one of the millions of computer chips in the early warning system went haywire, leading to incidents on May 28, June 3, and June 6, 1980.
The June 3 “attack”
By far the most serious of the computer chip problems occurred on early June 3, when the main US warning centers all received notification of a large incoming nuclear strike. The president’s National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brezezinski woke at 3 am to a phone call telling him a large nuclear attack on the United States was underway and he should prepare to call the president. He later said he had not woken up his wife, assuming they would all be dead in 30 minutes.
Like the November 1979 glitch, this one led NORAD to convene a high-level “Threat Assessment Conference,” which includes the Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and is just below the level that involves the president. Taking this step sets lots of things in motion to increase survivability of U.S. strategic forces and command and control systems. Air Force bomber crews at bases around the US got in their planes and started the engines, ready for take-off. Missile launch offices were notified to standby for launch orders. The Pacific Command’s Airborne Command Post took off from Hawaii. The National Emergency Airborne Command Post at Andrews Air Force Base taxied into position for a rapid takeoff.
The warning centers, by comparing warning signals they were getting from several different sources, were able to determine within a few minutes they were seeing a false alarm—likely due to a computer glitch. The specific cause wasn’t identified until much later. At that point, a Pentagon document matter-of-factly stated that a 46-cent computer chip “simply wore out.”
Short decision times increase nuclear risks
As you’d hope, the warning system has checks built into it. So despite the glitches that caused false readings, the warning officers were able to catch the error in the short time available before the president would have to make a launch decision.
We know these checks are pretty good because there have been a surprising number of incidents like these, and so far none have led to nuclear war.
But we also know they are not foolproof.
The risk is compounded by the US policy of keeping its missile on hair-trigger alert, poised to be launched before an incoming attack could land. Maintaining an option of launching quickly on warning of an attack makes the time available for sorting out confusing signals and avoiding a mistaken launch very short.
For example, these and other unexpected incidents have led to considerable confusion on the part of the operators. What if the confusion had persisted longer? What might have happened if something else had been going on that suggested the warning was real? In his book, My Journey at the Nuclear Brink, former Secretary of Defense William Perry asks what might have happened if these glitches “had occurred during the Cuban Missile Crisis, or a Mideast war?”
There might also be unexpected coincidences. What if, for example, US sensors had detected an actual Soviet missile launch around the same time? In the early 1980s the Soviets were test launching 50 to 60 missiles per year—more than one per week. Indeed, US detection of the test of a Soviet submarine-launch missile had led to a Threat Assessment Conference just weeks before this event.
Given enough time to analyze the data, warning officers on duty would be able to sort out most false alarms. But the current system puts incredible time pressure on the decision process, giving warning officers and then more senior officials only a few minutes to assess the situation. If they decide the warning looks real, they would alert the president, who would have perhaps 10 minutes to decide whether to launch.
Keeping missiles on hair-trigger alert and requiring a decision within minutes of whether or not to launch is something like tailgating when you’re driving on the freeway. Leaving only a small distance between you and the car in front of you reduces the time you have to react. You may be able to get away with it for a while, but the longer you put yourself in that situation the greater the chance that some unforeseen situation, or combination of events, will lead to disaster.
In his book, William Perry makes a passionate case for taking missiles off alert:
“These stories of false alarms have focused a searing awareness of the immense peril we face when in mere minutes our leaders must make life-and-death decisions affecting the whole planet. Arguably, short decision times for response were necessary during the Cold War, but clearly those arguments do not apply today; yet we are still operating with an outdated system fashioned for Cold War exigencies.
“It is time for the United States to make clear the goal of removing all nuclear weapons everywhere from the prompt-launch status in which nuclear-armed ballistic missiles are ready to be launched in minutes.”
To see what other incidents have increased the risks posed by nuclear weapons over the years, visit our new Wheel of Near Misfortune.
According to the president’s speech writer, Ben Rhodes, Obama’s remarks “will reaffirm America’s longstanding commitment — and the President’s personal commitment — to pursue the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons. As the President has said, the United States has a special responsibility to continue to lead in pursuit of that objective as we are the only nation to have used a nuclear weapon.”
But the president must do more than give another beautiful speech about nuclear disarmament. The world needs—indeed, is desperate for—concrete action.
There are many meaningful steps that President Obama can take that will make every American safer—without the approval of Congress or agreement of Russia. As UCS and its faith partners—the National Association of Evangelicals, the Committee on International Justice and Peace of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, and the National Latino Evangelical Coalition—noted in their May 4 statement Faith and Science Leaders Agree: Reduce the Threat of Nuclear Catastrophe Now, the president should:
In Prague in 2009, President Obama committed the United States to reducing the role of nuclear weapons and putting an end to Cold War thinking.
It’s time to walk the talk, Mr. President.]]>
Since then, the administration has in fact taken some positive steps, including concluding the Iran nuclear deal, and the New START treaty that reduces U.S. and Russian deployed nuclear forces.
But it has also taken some negative steps, such as planning for a $1 trillion program to completely rebuild the U.S. nuclear arsenal over the next three decades and to build new types of nuclear warheads. This is classic Cold War thinking, and is the kind of step that fuels an arms race.
Former Secretary of Defense Bill Perry recently warned, “The danger of a nuclear catastrophe today, I believe, is greater than it was during the Cold War.” Things are moving in the wrong direction, and the administration needs to take some positive steps—and soon.
In response to this situation, UCS joined with several faith groups to call for something we all agree on: President Obama should take new steps to reduce the danger posed by nuclear weapons and a new arms race. In particular, we jointly call for:
The president is reportedly considering a visit to Hiroshima when he is in Japan for the G7 meeting at the end of May, to highlight the humanitarian consequences of using nuclear weapons.
But giving another speech is not enough. The president should announce concrete steps, picking up the work he started in Prague.
The science-faith statement was signed by
You can read the statement in Spanish here.
Front page featured photo: Steve Jurvestson/Flickr]]>
And I’ve come to realize this misconception is widely shared. Even people who know we still have nuclear weapons tend to think we keep them safely stored away, to be pulled out if leaders decide we need to use them.
But today, around the clock, 90 U.S. launch control officers sit in pairs at 45 hardened, underground missile launch centers, ready to launch 450 land-based nuclear missiles at a moment’s notice. At the same time, launch crews are on duty—also 24/7—on strategic submarines roaming the oceans, ready to launch missiles with hundreds of nuclear weapons if called to.
Russia does something similar.
I can see why people are surprised to learn this. It’s been nearly a quarter century since the Cold War between the U.S. and Soviet Union ended in late 1991. Most people don’t think or hear much about nuclear weapons. But unfortunately, they remain a real and present danger.
And that danger is made worse by U.S.—and Russian—policies of keeping large numbers of these weapons on hair-trigger alert so that they can be fired very quickly. That makes them susceptible to mistakes and accidents.
To help more people understand what’s going on and why this matters, we’ve just released a short video. Take a look, and please share it.]]>
Producing MOX fuel would make it easier for terrorists to steal the plutonium, which they could then use to make their own nuclear weapon(s). Neither plutonium nor MOX fuel is highly radioactive, and it would be relatively easy for terrorists to extract the plutonium from MOX. The MOX production facility would handle plutonium in vast quantities, and it would be impossible to keep track of it with enough precision—down to a few kilograms out of many tons—to make sure the small amount needed for a bomb was not missing. And transporting the MOX fuel to reactors would provide another opportunity for terrorists to steal the material.
An alternative approach is to dilute the plutonium with an inert material and dispose of it by burying it deep underground, making it hard to steal. This “dilute and dispose” option would not only be safer, it would be cheaper.
Yet in 1999 the United States set off down the MOX path. It has now half-finished constructing a MOX production facility in South Carolina. But it has run into problems along the way. The facility is now behind schedule and way over budget: an initial estimated lifecycle cost of $5 billion (in 2015 dollars) has now ballooned to $30 billion or more.
But now there’s some good news. According to the Fiscal Year 2017 budget request to Congress released by the administration last week, “beginning in FY 2017 the MOX project will be terminated.” This is a big step, but Congress will also have its say. The South Carolina delegation will press hard to fund completion of the MOX plant, throwing good money after bad.
The budget request also states that the Department of Energy will instead pursue the dilute and dispose option. It is important to note that even though the MOX plant is half-built, it will still be cheaper to dilute and dispose of the plutonium.
UCS has been working for years to cancel the MOX project. Most recently, UCS Senior Scientist Edwin Lyman made the case against the MOX option and explored alternatives in his 2015 report, Excess Plutonium Disposition: The Failure of MOX and the Promise of Its Alternatives.
At the same time, UCS has also sought to make the MOX plant less susceptible to theft should the project proceed. For over a decade, Ed has been providing expert assistance to local citizens’ groups that legally challenged the MOX plant licensing by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). There have been some positive outcomes: the NRC licensing board required the plant owner to strengthen its plan for plutonium monitoring. However, the licensing board did not require the owner to have a NRC-approved cybersecurity plan in place to protect its computerized monitoring system from hackers. But this won’t matter if the United States truly lays the MOX plan to rest.
Of course, UCS will not let up on its efforts until it is clear the program will not be resurrected.
Featured photo: The MOX Fuel Fabrication Facility, under construction. (Source: Friends of the Earth)]]>
I’ve written several blog posts highlighting false alarms in the past decades that brought us uncomfortably close to a nuclear launch. These were due to technical glitches and human errors, but it was hair-trigger alert that set up the conditions for those glitches and errors to lead to disaster.
Ending this dangerous policy has support in high places. Just last week in a discussion of nuclear issues in Washington DC, Gen. Eugene Habiger, former Commander in Chief of U.S. Strategic Command, which controls U.S. nuclear weapons, said:
“We need to bring the alert status down of our ICBMs. And we’ve been dealing with that for many, many decades. … It’s one of those things where the services are not gonna do anything until the Big Kahuna says, ‘Take your missiles off alert,’ and then by golly within hours the missiles and subs will be off alert. … [W]e need to get down to lower and lower levels, we need to have support and big decisions from the people in the White House to make it all happen.”
Yet when the “the Big Kahuna” (President Obama) and his administration did their review of U.S. nuclear policy—the Nuclear Posture Review—in Obama’s first term, they decided not to change the status quo and instead leave U.S. missiles on alert. This decision ran counter to promises Obama made as a candidate and early in his presidency—as well as counter to common sense, given the consequences should something like one of those historical incidents get out of hand.
Why did they stick with the status quo? The administration and others have a standard set of arguments for why missiles should be left on hair trigger alert. Today we’re releasing a report that examines those arguments and shows they are simply not compelling.
Our report also discusses several things that have changed since the Nuclear Posture Review was completed that add new urgency to ending the U.S. hair-trigger policy. One is worsening relations between the U.S. and Russia. A state of heightened tension changes the context of a false alarm, should one occur, and tends to increase the chance that the warning will be seen as real.
The second is that we have learned the Chinese military is arguing that China should, for the first time, put its missiles on hair-trigger alert. Should China’s political leaders agree with this change, it would be a dangerous shift that would increase the chance of an accidental or mistaken launch at the United States.
The U.S. can hardly argue that China should not put its missile on hair-trigger alert when it continues to keep a large fraction of its own arsenal on high alert.
It’s time for the Big Kahuna to step up and order U.S. missiles to be taken off hair-trigger alert.]]>
In last year’s State of the Union address, President Obama stated that “no challenge poses a greater threat to future generations than climate change,” and said he was “determined to make sure that American leadership drives international action.” By aggressively implementing his Climate Action Plan—especially EPA’s standards on the amount of carbon pollution that the nation’s power plants are allowed to dump into the atmosphere—and engaging in nonstop diplomacy with China, India, Brazil, and other key countries, the president and his team laid the groundwork for last month’s historic climate agreement in Paris. Expect President Obama to claim his share of the credit for this achievement, which blows a gaping hole in opponents’ arguments that other countries won’t join the United States if we take action on climate change. Also expect him to lay out the economic, environmental, and security benefits of such action, and to commit to keep working for additional progress on this critical issue until his last day in office. Not only is this the right thing to do; it also is good politics, as the American public—including a majority of Republicans—strongly supports regulating carbon dioxide as a pollutant.
President Obama may well mention Mission Innovation, the commitment announced in Paris by the United States and 19 other countries to double the level of government investment in clean energy technology R&D over the next five years, and call for bipartisan support for this initiative. He may acknowledge the extension of the investment tax credit and production tax credit provisions for solar, wind, and other renewable sources in the comprehensive tax bill passed by Congress last month, and how this will continue the rapid increase in electricity production these clean energy resources have experienced since he took office in 2009.
He will likely discuss how climate-related impacts—including tidal flooding linked to sea level rise, forest die-back, wildfires, heatwaves, drought, health effects, and threats to iconic landmarks and to our electricity system—are increasingly affecting local communities across the country, and ask Congress to join him in increasing federal assistance to state and local governments to prepare for and cope with the consequences of climate change.
President Obama may also highlight the need for climate justice and equity to be key components of efforts to build resilience in communities on the frontlines of climate change, and put in a plug for his solar access initiative, which seeks to ensure that disadvantaged communities enjoy full access to clean, renewable forms of energy and benefit from the rapid growth of clean energy jobs.
The increasing fuel efficiency of our vehicle fleet is a major contributor to recent reductions in oil and gasoline prices; the president was part of a bipartisan group of Senators who helped pass historic legislation in 2007 that increased the federal corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) standards for light-duty vehicles for the first time in 20 years, and he built on that success during his first term as president by adopting even more ambitious standards for new light-duty vehicles out to 2025. He now needs to ensure that the analysis and technology assessments that his agencies use as they prepare for next year’s mid-term evaluation of these standards is based on the best information and science. That will allow the next administration to have the best data in hand when assessing how to keep the 2025 standards strong.
In his 2014 State of the Union address, the president committed to keep working to improve vehicle efficiency, “by setting new standards for our trucks, so we can keep driving down oil imports and what we pay at the pump.” This spring, the Obama administration is set to finalize these standards to increase fuel efficiency in our heavy-duty trucks, which make up less than 7% of cars on the road but use over 25% of our oil. While strong, the administration’s proposed standards could still be improved, according to UCS analysis. Stronger standards would require a 40 percent reduction in fuel consumption by 2025—a technically feasible and cost-effective target that, when compared to the current proposal, would save more fuel, and sooner. When final, these standards will be another major component of the comprehensive strategy that’s needed to cut our oil use in half through efficiency and innovation, reducing the problems oil causes our economy, our security, our environment, and our climate.
President Obama also can and should do more to address the supply side of the equation. For the fact is that unnecessary leaking, venting, and flaring of methane dramatically increases the greenhouse gas emissions associated with extracting, refining, and producing a barrel of oil. The Obama administration has already proposed regulations to address methane leaks from new and modified oil and gas production; tomorrow night, the president should announce that not only will he finalize those standards, but that he will also move to set standards for existing drilling sites before he leaves office next year.
As he has in previous State of the Union addresses, President Obama may refer to the nation’s expanding production and use of natural gas as a benefit to our economy and environment. It’s true that substituting natural gas for coal in electricity production can help reduce carbon pollution in the near-term, though just as with oil, there are fugitive methane emissions from gas production and use, which if large enough, could overwhelm these carbon benefits. But ultimately, we need to virtually eliminate carbon pollution from all sources—including natural gas—if we are to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.
An overreliance on natural gas over the long-term won’t allow us to achieve the emissions reductions needed to address global warming, and could crowd out essential investments in renewable energy sources and improving energy efficiency. Also, as UCS’s toolkit on fracking makes clear, too many communities are being pressed to make decisions on new oil and gas production projects without access to comprehensive and reliable scientific information about the potential impacts of hydraulic fracturing on their local air and water quality, community health, safety, economy, environment, and overall quality of life. President Obama should pledge that the federal government will take a stronger role in protecting these communities, and work with states to strengthen regulation and oversight of these industries.
Just last week, the House passed H.R. 1155, the Searching for and Cutting Regulations that are Unnecessarily Burdensome (or “SCRUB”) Act, which as the Coalition for Sensible Safeguards points out, “would establish a new bureaucracy empowered to dismantle long-established public health and safety standards and would make it significantly more difficult for Congress and federal agencies to implement essential future protections.” Fortunately, the White House has already issued a veto threat for this ill-conceived legislation, should it ever reach the president’s desk. But this isn’t the first bad idea on “reforming” the federal regulatory process to be put forward by the current Congress, and it almost certainly won’t be the last. President Obama should make it crystal clear tomorrow night that he will continue to stand up to these efforts of special interests and their allies in Congress to undermine the ability of the federal government to protect the public’s health and safety.
There is also more that President Obama can do on his own on this front. For example, in 2013, he issued an Executive Order to improve chemical facility safety and security, but as my colleague Gretchen Goldman points out, the rules that provide better information for communities and protections against the risks of chemical accidents—the EPA’s so-called Risk Management Plan—are woefully out of date. The president should ensure these rules are updated before he leaves office.
While the president may once again refer to First Lady Michelle Obama’s campaign against childhood obesity, it’s unlikely he will address the disconnect between health and nutrition policies, on the one hand, and our national agricultural policy on the other. As UCS Food and Environment program director Ricardo Salvador and three colleagues put it in a November, 2014 Washington Post op-ed:
How we produce and consume food has a bigger impact on Americans’ well-being than any other human activity. The food industry is the largest sector of our economy; food touches everything from our health to the environment, climate change, economic inequality and the federal budget. Yet we have no food policy — no plan or agreed-upon principles — for managing American agriculture or the food system as a whole.
While an executive order to establish a national policy for food, health, and well-being is likely a bridge too far in the president’s final year, the lack of a national food policy needs to be an issue in this year’s presidential campaign.
In the meantime, President Obama should make clear that he will defend healthy and sustainable food and farm policies in 2016, which will likely see the passage of at least one major food bill, the Child Nutrition Reauthorization (CNR) Act. CNR sets nutrition standards and funding levels for school lunch and breakfast programs, and authorizes the Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) Program, which provides food assistance to low-income families. It also authorizes the Farm to School program, which has been instrumental in connecting local and regional farmers with schools, providing a win for farmers and schools alike. President Obama can use his veto power to ensure that a CNR bill delivers healthy, affordable food for those who need it most. Additionally, he can ensure that any other food and agriculture legislation or federal rules are developed using sound science in order to protect our water, air, and soil, and our families’ health.
Less than three months after taking office, President Obama gave a stirring speech in Prague on reducing the threat from nuclear weapons. Sensibly, he sought to “put an end to Cold War thinking” and to “reduce the role that nuclear weapons play in U.S. security policy.” He set forth a bold goal by declaring “I state clearly and with conviction America’s commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.” Almost seven years later, there has been far less progress toward those goals than many—presumably including the president—had hoped. Some of that is due to Russian intransigence and misbehavior, but despite those challenges, President Obama still has time and the authority to take steps that would reduce the nuclear threat.
He could begin tomorrow night, by declaring that the United States will remove its land-based nuclear-armed missiles from hair trigger alert, a dangerous posture held over from the Cold War that dramatically increases the chances of accidental or inadvertent nuclear war. He could also cancel the proposed new nuclear-armed cruise missile, a dangerous new capability that lowers the threshold for nuclear use. In June 2013, based on a comprehensive Pentagon study of military requirements, President Obama declared that the United States could safely reduce deployed U.S. nuclear forces by one-third, but he has not done so. He could seize that opportunity in the State of the Union. Finally, he could declare that the sole purpose of U.S. nuclear weapons is to deter a nuclear attack on the United States and its allies, a significant move that would fulfill his intention to reduce the role that nuclear weapons play in U.S. security policy.
By reducing the nuclear threat, each of these steps would lead to a significant improvement in U.S. and global security.
President Obama can take a measure of satisfaction from the difference he and his administration have made on issues such as these that are of such vital importance to the future of all Americans. But there is clearly more work to be done, and the president has made clear he will use every remaining minute of his time in office to make more progress wherever he can.
Part of his focus over the next year—and beyond—should be on continuing to raise public awareness of the benefits of responsible government action on climate change, clean energy, public health and safety protections, arms control, and other critical issues. This will not only build support for the actions he takes as president, but will help create positive pressure for continued constructive action after he leaves the Oval Office next January.]]>
NORAD—the North Atlantic Aerospace Defense Command—is not known for its sense of humor. Its mission is deadly serious: to alert authorities about an aircraft or missile attack on North America. In the event of a nuclear missile attack, NORAD’s job is to detect it, analyze it, and provide the information the president needs to decide whether to launch U.S. nuclear weapons in response.
So what is it doing tracking Santa?
This off-mission public service stems from a series of mistakes and coincidences so unlikely they read like fiction.
It started innocently enough: A 1955 Sears Christmas ad in a Colorado Springs newspaper featured Santa telling kids to call him “any time day or night” and gave a number for his “private phone.”
But due to a typo in the phone number, calls were routed to a top secret red phone at nearby Ent Air Force Base, home of the warning center that became NORAD.
Maybe two people in the world had this phone number—until then. The supervisor on duty that night, Col. Harry Shoup, was not amused when the red phone began to ring off the hook. A no-nonsense military officer, he took his job seriously. And so his men were shocked when, after learning what had happened, Shoup began answering the phone with “ho-ho-ho” and inquiring about the caller’s behavior over the previous 12 months—and then tasked his men to answer the phone the same way.
That Christmas eve, Shoup shocked his staff yet again. He realized that NORAD’s specialty was, in fact, tracking objects flying toward the United States. So he picked up the phone and called a local radio station to tell them that the world’s finest warning sensors had just picked up a sleigh flying in from the North Pole. A tradition was born.
This uplifting occasion was not the only time things have gone awry at NORAD, but other incidents have been more heart-stopping than heartwarming.
For example, in 1979, NORAD’s computer screens lit up showing an all-out Soviet nuclear attack bearing down on the United States. The missiles would take less than 25 minutes to reach their targets.
The military immediately began preparing to launch a retaliatory attack. Nuclear bomber crews were dispatched to their planes. And the crews manning U.S. missiles were ready: The missiles were on 24/7 hair-trigger alert so they could be launched within minutes.
NORAD officers knew they would have only minutes to sort out what was happening, giving the president about 10 minutes to make a launch decision.
Fortunately, it was a time of reduced U.S.-Soviet tensions, so the officers were skeptical about the warning. They also failed to get confirmation from U.S. radar sites that there was a missile attack. They soon discovered that a technician had mistakenly inserted a training tape simulating a large Soviet attack into a NORAD computer. U.S. nuclear forces stood down, averting a nuclear war.
But things could have gone much differently. Within months, tensions between the two superpowers spiked when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan and relations continued to sour through the first Reagan term. Had communication systems been down or U.S. radars detected unrelated missile launches, the situation could have been much more serious.
Since 1979 there have been additional hair-raising incidents and false warnings due to a variety of technical and human errors in both the United States and Russia. Regardless, both countries still keep hundreds of missiles on hair-trigger alert to give their presidents the option of launching them quickly on warning of an attack, increasing the risk that a false alarm could lead to an accidental war. And that risk is significant. Indeed, some retired high-level military officers say an accident or a mistake would be the most likely cause of a nuclear war today.
President Obama understands this risk. Early in his presidency he called for taking U.S. missiles off hair-trigger alert. He has the authority to do so, but has apparently deferred to Cold War holdouts in the Pentagon.
Growing tensions between the United States and Russia now make taking missiles off hair-trigger alert even more urgent. It is during times of crisis when miscalculations and misunderstandings are most likely to occur.
As Col. Shoup and other NORAD officers learned repeatedly, unexpected things happen. They shouldn’t lead to nuclear war.
The best Christmas present President Obama could give to the country this year would be to take U.S. missiles off hair-trigger alert.
Co-written by David Wright and Lisbeth Gronlund. Featured Photo by Bart Fields.]]>
This did not appear to be a local glitch of some kind, since the warning was showing up at NORAD (North American Aerospace Defense) Headquarters in Colorado, the Strategic Air Command Center, the Pentagon National Military Command Center, and the Alternate National Military Command Center. In response, missile crews were put on heightened alert and nuclear bomber crews were sent to their planes. The U.S. air-defense system was put on alert and at least 10 fighter-interceptor planes were launched. Even President Carter’s airborne command post took off (but without the president).
U.S. officers had practiced responding to just this kind of attack, but never expected to see it actually happen…
This incident—like others I have been writing about on their anniversaries—illustrates what can go wrong with nuclear weapons systems, despite safeguards to prevent those things from happening.
So far, the remaining safeguards—and our luck—have been good enough to prevent any of these events from leading to a nuclear exchange. But what these incidents show is that human errors, technical glitches, misunderstandings, and general confusion—which under the wrong conditions could lead to the launch of nuclear missiles—are not as rare as one would think or hope. Eventually they may happen at a time or in a combination that—in the few minutes available to assess the data—leads those in charge to assess that the warning of an incoming attack is real and to launch a retaliatory strike.
Indeed, in talking about the 1979 incident later, senior State Department advisor Marshal Shulman lamented that “false alerts of this kind are not a rare occurrence,” and that there is a “complacency about handling them that disturbs me.”
In this case, it turns out that a technician mistakenly inserted into a NORAD computer a training tape that simulated a large Soviet attack on the United States. Because of the design of the warning system, that information was sent out widely through the U.S. nuclear command network.
Fortunately, tensions between the U.S. and Soviet Union were low at the time, so there was some skepticism about the warning from the beginning. Moreover, communication between the warning center and U.S. radar sites indicated that the radars were not seeing a missile attack. Within months, however, tensions spiked when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, and continued to rise through the first Reagan term. And had communication systems been down or had the radars detected unrelated missile launches, the situation would have been much more serious. As noted in previous posts, unexpected coincidences happen, and spread confusion.
Today, the risk remains that a false alarm could lead to a nuclear launch. U.S. nuclear war plans contain options to launch U.S. nuclear missiles quickly on warning of an incoming attack— “launch-under-attack” as the Pentagon calls it. The Pentagon continues to keep missiles on hair trigger alert to allow those missiles to be launched quickly to carry out those options.
Recognizing the dangers of this policy, President Obama pledged to take missiles off hair-trigger alert as a candidate and early in his presidency.
Despite the president’s pledge to take missiles off hair-trigger alert, his 2010 review of U.S. nuclear policy—the Nuclear Posture Review (NPR)—states that the U.S. should maintain the status quo and leave its missiles on alert. This was presumably on the advice of the Pentagon, which the president did not overrule.
Let’s look at this more closely.
The argument in favor of being able to launch on warning is that a surprise attack from Russia could, in principle, destroy U.S. land-based missiles (ICBMs) in their silos unless they were launched quickly, before the attacking missiles could land. While not stated, this argument assumes that deterring such a Russian attack hinges on whether or not Russia believes the U.S. could quickly launch its ICBMs.
But even if all 450 U.S. ICBMs were destroyed in their silos, that would leave many hundreds of warheads on missiles (SLBMs) on U.S. submarines—which are hidden under the ocean—for retaliation. And once a Russian attack landed on the United States, Russia could have very little doubt the U.S. would respond with those SLBMs.
It seems absurd to imagine that today Russia would feel deterred from attacking if the U.S. could retaliate with 1,500 warheads on ICBMs and SLBMs, but not if the U.S. could retaliate with 1,050 warheads on SLBMs. Keep in mind those SLBM warheads would carry a combined yield about 14,000 times that of the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima.
But if keeping the option to launch on warning does not increase deterrence, then it is not worth the increased risk of a potentially catastrophic accidental, unauthorized, or mistaken launch that results from keeping weapons on hair-trigger—even if you assess that risk to be small.
The fallback argument you frequently hear is that it is important that all options be available to the president. The decision in the 2010 NPR is therefore portrayed as a decision “not to take options off the table.”
But if the risks outweigh the benefits, as I argue they do, then this is an option I do not want a U.S.—or Russian—president to have. This is an option President Obama should, in fact, take off the table.
Indeed, a key point of arms control—and common sense, I would argue—is to get countries to agree to take off the table options that are dangerous, so that they don’t lead to or exacerbate crises. Eliminating short-range nuclear missiles under the INF Treaty, the U.S.-Soviet Incidents at Sea agreement, and the Chemical Weapons Convention are examples.
The other argument administration officials frequently make these days is that taking missiles off alert is dangerous since putting them back on alert in a crisis could lead to a “re-alerting race” that could exacerbate the crisis.
But the idea is not just to take missiles off hair-trigger alert—it is to eliminate the options in U.S. war plans to launch on warning of attack, which is why missiles are kept on alert in the first place. Without those options, there would be no re-alerting. With no re-alerting, there would be no re-alerting race.
And, as I argue above, deterrence would continue to be plenty strong without these options.
President Obama can still decide to remove these options from U.S. war plans. This simple step would eliminate the threat of mistaken launches due to false warning. It would also be an important step away from outdated—and dangerous—Cold War policies, which would be consistent with the president’s promise in his Prague speech in 2009.
The question is whether he can overcome the complacency that Marshal Shulman complained about 35 years ago.]]>