U.S. Official Is Faulted for Nuclear Weapons Claim

By Colum Lynch
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 1, 2007

UNITED NATIONS -- The Bush administration has come under fire for stating before a United Nations conference that the U.S. nuclear arsenal is not on "hair-trigger alert" -- an assertion that arms-control experts criticized as "inaccurate" and "misleading."

The allegations follow efforts by Washington to assure the United Nations that it is meeting its obligation -- under the 1970 Non-Proliferation Treaty -- to shrink its nuclear arsenal. They also come on the eve of a U.N. General Assembly vote on a resolution calling on the world's nuclear powers to take their nuclear weapons off "high alert."

The nonbinding resolution calls on states to "decrease the operational readiness" of their nuclear weapons. "The maintenance of nuclear weapons systems at a high level of readiness increases the risk of the use of such weapons, including the unintentional or accidental use," the resolution warns.

Speaking at an Oct. 9 U.N. conference, Christina Rocca, the U.S. representative to the United Nations Conference on Disarmament, dismissed concerns that American nuclear missiles are ready to launch on a moment's notice. "U.S. nuclear forces are not and have never been on hair-trigger alert," she told U.N. delegates.

Her comments sparked rapid criticism. "It's plain wrong," said Hans Kristensen, director of nuclear information at the Federation of American Scientists. "There are forces on alert, and whether they are on 'hair-trigger alert' or 'launch on warning,' they are capable of launching in minutes."

The NPT requires the world's original nuclear powers -- the United States, Russia, China, France and Britain -- to engage in "good-faith" negotiations aimed at dismantling their nuclear weapons program.

In exchange, other states pledge to limit their development of nuclear energy to peaceful purposes.

Developing countries have accused Washington and other nuclear powers of reneging on their obligations. The United States maintains that it has been meeting its side of the bargain, but that other states have not done enough to prohibit countries -- such as North Korea and Iran -- from developing clandestine nuclear weapons.

Rocca cited U.S.-Russian arms-control agreements over the past two decades that shed more than 3,000 tactical warheads and 1,000 strategic missiles and bombers from the U.S. stockpile. "The NPT never envisaged complete nuclear disarmament without regard to the international security environment," she said. "Nuclear weapons continue to have relevance."

A senior U.S. official said the claim that thousands of U.S. nuclear weapons can be launched within minutes is incorrect, but added that the information on launch time is classified. "The idea we are on Cuban-missile-crisis posture, sitting on the silo ready to push the button, is false," said the official, who was unauthorized to speak publicly. "The essence of deterrence strategy is having some element of ambiguity."

Bruce Blair, a nuclear weapons expert and president of the World Security Institute, said the United States and Russia keep about one-third of their strategic arsenals on launch-ready alert and that "hundreds of missiles armed with thousands of nuclear warheads can be launched within a very few minutes."

"There has been long history of denying U.S. forces are on 'hair-trigger alert' . . ." Blair said. "Some of that is based on lack of knowledge, and some of it is an evasion, and some of it is just an outright lie."

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