A relic of another era

President Obama promised in his 2008 campaign to embrace the idea of "de-alerting," or taking U.S. strategic nuclear weapons off high alert. In one of his position papers, Obama said:

The United States and Russia have thousands of nuclear weapons on hair-trigger alert. Barack Obama believes that we should take our nuclear weapons off hair-trigger alert -- something that George W. Bush promised to do when he was campaigning for president in 2000. Maintaining this Cold War stance today is unnecessary and increases the risk of an accidental or unauthorized nuclear launch. As president, Obama will work with Russia to find common ground and bring significantly more weapons off hair-trigger alert."

The term "hair-trigger" is evocative, but imprecise. There are safeguards against a reckless hair-trigger launch. Perhaps a better way to put it is "launch-ready alert." Today, some U.S. strategic forces -- nuclear-armed land-based and sea-based missiles -- are still on launch ready alert. From the time a president gives the order, it is about four minutes for land-based and 12 to 15 minutes for sea-based missiles to fly.

This is an anachronism, left over from the Cold War, when rapid response was considered essential for deterrence. In an earlier post, I described some of the debate about it.

Once in office, Obama hesitated to keep his promise, probably on advice from the military. His first major study of nuclear weapons issues, the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review [pdf], concluded that the "current alert posture of U.S. strategic forces – with heavy bombers off full-time alert, nearly all ICBMs on alert, and a significant number of SSBNs at sea at any given time – should be maintained for the present."

At the same time, the posture review found that "efforts should continue to diminish further the possibility of nuclear launches resulting from accidents, unauthorized actions, or misperceptions and to maximize the time available to the President to consider whether to authorize the use of nuclear weapons."

Now, former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. James Cartwright (ret.) has headed up a new study by Global Zero that calls for de-alerting the nuclear forces, as Obama had pledged. One of the co-founders of Global Zero, Bruce Blair, has also championed the idea of de-alerting for many years.

The study suggests we need far fewer nuclear warheads than exist today, down to 900 total, with half of them in reserve. It calls for "a de-alerted operational posture requiring 24-72 hours to generate the capacity for offensive nuclear strikes, thereby relieving the intense pressure on nuclear decision-making that currently exists." The goal, the study says, would be to keep all bombers and missiles -- the delivery vehicles -- separate from the nuclear warheads in peacetime. Instead of four minutes for missiles and 12 minutes for subs, there would be a much longer window in which the weapons would be put back together.  

Cartwright, who retired as vice-chairman of the chiefs last year, has gone further in backing de-alerting than did the administration in the 2010 review. The Joint Chiefs are known to harbor misgivings about de-alerting, fearing that once the delays are built in, there would be an incentive for an adversary to rapidly restore the ability to shoot first.

When I asked Cartwright about this, he noted that he's not suggesting de-alerting in isolation, but rather in tandem with deep cuts in nuclear warheads in both the United States and Russia, making it unlikely that either side could launch a decapitating first strike, and therefore making launch-ready alert unnecessary. Both countries would have to agree to a verified de-alerting scheme, he said.  

An interesting tidbit: the Global Zero study says the United States and Russia currently maintain about one third of their forces on high alert, while the other two-thirds need 24-72 hours to reach launch-ready status. So, we're part of the way there--but not all the way.

De-alerting made sense when Obama proposed it the first time. One hopes he hasn't forgotten.

Getty Images/Michael Smith