Fine Print: Lowering alert levels in U.S. and Russia

By Walter Pincus
Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The high alert levels for U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear forces are more political statements carried over from the Cold War than military necessities for the 21st century, according to a multinational study released last week.

The two nations "could examine how measures to reduce operational readiness can accompany the bilateral arms control process" as part of the current negotiations over renewal of the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty, according to the study by the EastWest Institute, a nonprofit think tank. The study, "Reframing Nuclear De-Alert: Decreasing the Operational Readiness of U.S. and Russian Nuclear Arsenals," was supported by the governments of Switzerland and New Zealand governments.

The study reminds readers that the United States "keeps roughly 1,000 nuclear warheads on alert" atop 450 Minuteman III land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and on the submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) aboard as many as four Trident subs patrolling in different parts of the world.

Russia "retains approximately 1,200 warheads on alert," according to the study, with most on ICBMs, although Moscow's few operational strategic subs could launch missiles from home ports and hit U.S. targets.

The study says political leadership in Washington and Moscow must take the lead on the issue, since the countries' military organizations that maintain the weapons cannot be expected to change institutionalized security objectives and operational principles on their own.

The Russians have been hesitant, according to the study, because "de-alerting appeared to be part of a set of well-coordinated measures to divest Russia of its nuclear deterrent." U.S. stress during the Bush administration on high-precision conventional weapons "only strengthened this view." The study concludes in part that de-alerting "is not possible without a regular dialogue on security issues and on strategic arms control."

The study does a good job of trying to move the debate away from the old fear of nuclear forces being on a "hair-trigger alert." It quotes Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton A. Schwartz as saying, "There is rigorous discipline and process involved, and it is anything but hair trigger." The president must be briefed, make his decision to authorize a launch and have that transmitted to the National Military Command Center, which sends authorization codes to launch crews made up of two officers. The officers must confirm the authenticity of the message and together begin the launch sequence.

That system, according to the study, is "more like a revolver tucked away in its holster with its safety catch on than a gun cocked and ready to fire."

A Russian expert described his country's system as being in " 'zero launch' mode": It cannot be launched at even designated targets without approval from officials in Moscow, and when any order is given three officers must act together.

One enlightening section of the study points out how other nuclear-armed states handle operational status. China keeps an estimated 30 strategic systems on high alert, according to the study. It identified 12 as liquid-fueled ICBMs with two-megaton warheads "ready to launch in approximately 30 minutes," and 18 solid-fueled ICBMs "in silos on a 20-minute alert."

France has eliminated its land-based nuclear missiles, keeping the weapons on its submarines in the " 'lowest possible' level consistent with the maintenance of the credibility of its deterrent." England, which has eliminated its bomber- and land-based nuclear forces, keeps its Trident subs untargeted and "on several days' notice to fire."

India, which subscribes to a no-first-use doctrine, reportedly keeps its warheads separate from its delivery systems, as does Pakistan. When it comes to Israel, which does not acknowledge the reported 200 nuclear bombs and missiles in its arsenal, the study said, "not enough is known . . . to warrant an assessment."

The study lays out what it calls the "undesirable side effects" of some de-alerting proposals, primarily the removal of warheads from delivery systems. That approach, it said, would make de-alerted weapons "in storage . . . an attractive target for a first strike, including with conventional weapons." It also "may provoke a dangerous reconstitution race" at times of crisis.

Hans Kristensen of the Federation of American Scientists, who first mentioned the EastWest Institute study on his Secrecy News Web site, said de-alerting is among the issues being analyzed in the Pentagon's Nuclear Posture Review. When completed by the end of this year and approved by the White House, the review will set out the administration's strategic nuclear policies, including the appropriate alert levels.

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