Are U.S. nuclear forces on “hair trigger” alert? Not exactly, a Department of Defense official told Congress recently.
“Although it is true that portions of the U.S. nuclear triad are capable of rapid execution upon authorization from the President, a robust system of safeguards and procedures is in place to prevent the accidental or unauthorized launch of a U.S. nuclear weapon,” said James N. Miller, Jr., Principal Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, in newly published responses to questions for the record from a May 2011 hearing.
Moreover, he added, “The United States continues the practice of open-ocean targeting of all ICBMs and SLBMs. This is so that in the highly unlikely event of an unauthorized or accidental launch, the missile would land in the open ocean.”
The newly published hearing volume presented an unusually candid public discussion of nuclear weapons force structure and the process for revising it.
“Generally, three high-level documents provide overall policy guidance regarding U.S. nuclear weapons,” explained Dr. Miller in response to another question for the record.
“Presidential guidance provides high-level direction on our nuclear deterrence strategy, employment/targeting policy, and force posture. I anticipate that President Obama will issue new presidential guidance later this year  that incorporates many of the policy decisions reached during the NPR [Nuclear Posture Review],” he said. (In fact, however, such new presidential guidance has still not been issued, noted Hans Kristensen of FAS.)
“The Secretary of Defense provides additional guidance in a document known as the Policy Guidance for the Employment of Nuclear Weapons (NUWEP) that implements and amplifies presidential guidance. The NUWEP is an annex to DOD’s Guidance for Employment of the Force. The current NUWEP was issued in 2008. It will be revised by the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy in close coordination with the Joint Staff, U.S. Strategic Command (STRATCOM), the military departments, and other combatant commands following the issuance of the new Presidential guidance, and provided for approval by the Secretary of Defense.”
“The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff also issues a document known as the Nuclear Supplement to the Joint Strategic Capabilities Plan (JSCP-N), which provides additional direction to military planners regarding the preparation of contingency plans for potential employment of U.S. nuclear weapons. The current JSCP-N was issued in 2004 and will be revised after the issuance of new presidential guidance and the NUWEP,” Dr. Miller wrote.
See “Implementation of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) and Plans for Future Reductions in Nuclear Warheads and Delivery Systems Post-New START Treaty,” Senate Armed Services Committee, May 4, 2011 (published January 2012).
And see, relatedly, U.S. Strategic Nuclear Forces: Background, Developments, and Issues, Congressional Research Service, February 22, 2012.