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"Accidental" and "Nuclear War" Don't Belong in the Same Sentence


March 10, 2016
The Union of Concerned Scientists

There's been a lot of tough talk on the presidential campaign trail recently but no serious discussion about the most dangerous challenge we face as a nation -- nuclear weapons. The US and Russia each currently maintain nearly 1,000 nuclear missiles on hair-trigger alert, ready to be fired in minutes. Over the years there have been numerous close calls that nearly led to a nuclear disaster. How do presidential candidates intend to reduce these risks?

Special to Environmentalist Against War

"Accidental" and "Nuclear War" Don't Belong in the Same Sentence
Union of Concerned Scientists

(March 9, 2016) -- When it comes to our national security, there's been a lot of tough talk on the campaign trail recently -- but no real serious discussion about how to confront the complicated global challenges we face as a nation today. For instance, the United States and Russia each currently maintain nearly 1,000 nuclear missiles on hair-trigger alert, ready to be fired in minutes.

Over the years there have been numerous close calls that have nearly led to a nuclear disaster -- and current global tensions only increase the likelihood of mistakes, misunderstandings, and miscalculations. In fact, some senior military officials have said that the most likely nuclear war is an accidental one.

How do presidential candidates intend to reduce these very real and urgent risks? It's time we have a real national discussion about how to reduce the risks posed by nuclear weapons.

It's unsettling that life as we know it could forever change in a blink of an eye -- all because the United States and Russia each keep nearly 1,000 nuclear missiles on hair-trigger alert, ready for immediate launch. What's especially alarming is how close to nuclear disaster we've come in the past because of some computer malfunction, human error, or other false alarm.

Our new video pulls back the curtain on the absurdity of this risky nuclear weapons policy. Share the video today to help ignite a greatly needed national discussion about nuclear weapons.




If We Don't Keep Nuclear Weapons on High Alert,
How Would We be Protected in the Event of an Attack?

Ask the Scientist / UCS

(March 2016) -- During his first presidential campaign, then-Senator Barack Obama condemned the fact that, decades after the end of the Cold War, the United States is still keeping its nuclear weapons on hair-trigger alert. "Keeping nuclear weapons ready to launch on a moment's notice is a dangerous relic of the Cold War," he said. "Such policies increase the risk of catastrophic accidents or miscalculation. I believe that we must address this dangerous situation."

Seven years later, President Obama has yet to address this dangerous situation, and UCS has been urging him to act before he leaves office. As we have pointed out repeatedly, the president could take US nuclear weapons off hair-trigger alert immediately and without congressional approval. Doing so would make the world a much safer place, regardless of what other nuclear states ultimately do.

We recently received a question from a UCS member on this very topic, so we asked Lisbeth Gronlund, co-director of our Global Security Program, to explain why this outdated policy is so dangerous.

If we don't keep nuclear weapons on high alert, how would we be protected in the event of an attack? Other countries would take advantage of that. They would view it as a weakness and see us as being vulnerable. – A supporter in Tiverton, RI

The United States is vulnerable to a nuclear attack, whether or not its missiles are on high alert. By keeping land-based nuclear-armed missiles on high alert, the United States could launch them before they were destroyed by an incoming nuclear attack, but that would only protect the missiles, not the country or its people.

To your second point, removing missiles from high alert wouldn't undermine deterrence. The United States has hundreds of nuclear weapons on submarines that are invulnerable to an attack, and any attacker would have to assume that the United States would use them to retaliate. Deterrence does not rely on being able to launch an immediate response.

Removing land-based missiles from high alert would make the United States safer. First, it would reduce the risk that the weapons could be launched by accident or without authorization, and second, it would eliminate the risk of a deliberate launch in response to a false warning.

Such an accidental, unauthorized or inadvertent launch would not only devastate the target country -- presumably Russia -- but could prompt that country to attack the United States in response.

Of course, the United States would be even safer if Russia removed its missiles from high alert as well, and we should encourage it to follow suit. But President Obama should not wait for Russia. Acting on his own would make Americans safer.

Indeed, mounting tensions between Russia and the United States and the potential for misunderstanding make it even more imperative that the United States abandon this dangerous posture. No US president should be in a position where he or she has only 10 minutes to decide whether or not to launch US nuclear missiles.

Currently Russia is the only other country that keeps its missiles ready to be launched within minutes. China stores its nuclear warheads separately from its missiles, but China's military is arguing that China should put its missiles on high alert. That would require it to mount its warheads on its missiles -- increasing the risk of an unauthorized launch -- and build a warning system to detect an incoming attack.

Over the last several decades, US and Russian early warning systems have experienced numerous false alarms due to human errors and technical malfunctions. If China builds a system, it, too, will undoubtedly experience false alarms, which could trigger a mistaken launch.

The United States cannot credibly argue that China should refrain from putting its nuclear missiles on high alert when US missiles remain on high alert. That's one more reason President Obama should follow through on his campaign promise and do the right thing before he leaves office.

Dr. Lisbeth Gronlund focuses on technical and policy issues related to nuclear weapons, ballistic missile defenses, and space weapons. Before joining the Union of Concerned Scientists, Dr. Gronlund was an SSRC-MacArthur Foundation fellow in international peace and security at the University of Maryland and a postdoctoral fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Defense and Arms Control Studies Program. She has a doctorate degree in theoretical physics from Cornell University.


China's Military Calls for Putting Its Nuclear Forces on Alert (2016)
Union of Concerned Scientists USA

In contrast with the United States, which keeps hundreds of nuclear weapons on hair-trigger alert, China's longstanding approach to nuclear deterrence is premised on "survivability" -- the idea that some fraction of their 250 or so nuclear warheads could survive a nuclear first strike and retaliate afterwards.

Since the strategy doesn't require rapid launch, China's warheads aren't currently attached to missiles or bombs, and instead are hidden away in tunnels and military installations.

But this relatively low-risk policy may change. Recent excerpts and quotes from Chinese military sources suggest pressure is building to change China's nuclear posture away from a focus on survivability, and toward a policy of launch-on-warning and hair-trigger alert. Such a change would dramatically increase the risk of a nuclear exchange or accident -- a dangerous shift that the United States could help avert.

Evidence that China's Policies Are Changing
Following a 2012 speech on nuclear policy by Chinese President Xi Jingping, the commander of China's land-based nuclear missile forces told his troops to "maintain a high alert level . . . assuring that if something happens we're ready to go."

In 2013, an updated edition of a standard text on Chinese military strategy, partially translated by the Union of Concerned Scientists, said China's nuclear forces will move towards a "launch-on-warning" posture, where ". . . under conditions confirming the enemy has launched nuclear missiles against us, before the enemy nuclear warheads have reached us . . . [we can] quickly launch a nuclear missile retaliatory strike."

These and other statements suggest that a domestic conversation about raising the alert level of China's nuclear forces is taking place. The debate is driven in part by concerns about accurate US nuclear weapons, high-precision conventional weapons, and missile defense -- all of which are perceived as compromising China's current posture.

Preventing Chinese Hair-trigger Alert
Adopting a launch-on-warning policy raises the risk of an accidental, mistaken, or unauthorized nuclear launch, as evidenced by dozens of close calls in the United States, Russia, and former Soviet Union. Technical and human errors are especially likely early on, as radar and satellite warning systems are developed.

Since concerns about the United States are driving the alerting debate in China, the US has a unique opportunity to influence China's decision. Taking our own weapons off hair-trigger alert would be a good first step; adopting a "sole purpose" nuclear doctrine, acknowledging mutual vulnerability, limiting missile defense, and open discussions about new conventional capabilities would also help.

Download the fact sheet for more specific background and recommendations.

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Reducing the Risk of Nuclear War

Bad Math on New Nuclear Weapons

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