Nuclear De-Alerting Panel at the United Nations

Panelists from left: Hans M. Kristensen (FAS), John Hallam (Nuclear Flashpoint), Dell Higgie (New Zealand Ambassador for Disarmament), Christian Schoenenberger (Swiss UN Mission), Col Valery Yarynich (Institute of the United States and Canada, Russian Academy of Sciences), Stephen Starr (Physicians for Social Responsibility)

By Hans M. Kristensen

On Wednesday, October 13th, I gave a briefing at the United Nations on the status of U.S. and Russian nuclear forces in the context of the interesting article Safe and Smaller recently published in Foreign Affairs.

One of the co-authors, Valery Yarynich, a retired colonel who served at the Center for Operational and Strategic Studies of the Russian General Staff, spoke about the main conclusion of the article: that is possible to significantly reduce the alert-level of U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear weapons without creating risks of crisis instability.

That conclusion directly contradicts the Obama administration’s recently completed Nuclear Posture Review, which rejected a reduction of the alert rates for land- and sea-based ballistic missiles because, “such steps could reduce crisis stability by giving an adversary the incentive to attack before ‘re-alerting’ was complete.”

The panel coincided with the meeting of the First Committee of the General Assembly, during which New Zealand submitted a resolution on decreasing the operational readiness of nuclear weapons.

This publication was made possible by a grant from Carnegie Corporation of New York and Ploughshares Fund. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the author.

One thought on “Nuclear De-Alerting Panel at the United Nations

  1. The analysis in the Foreign Affairs article cited here makes a key assumption, “In these scenarios, the attacker expends more warheads than it can destroy and must assume that the victim will respond by firing its surviving first-echelon forces at the cities of the aggressor. If the attacker used some of its first-echelon missiles to strike the victim’s second-echelon forces, then the aggressor would expose additional cities to retaliation by the victim’s first-echelon forces.”

    Why is it a “safe” for each side to assume that the attacker will expend more warheads than it can destroy? Or even if that assumption holds, how can each side “safely” assume that its command and control structure will remain intact under such a first strike?

    Reply: I am not a co-author to the article, but I believe the thinking is that any first strike against a single-warhead force will always have to expend more warheads to compensate for duds and environmental factors. Only if the victim has most of its warheads clustered on a few delivery vehicles can an attacker hope to “win.” That’s why single-warhead missiles are said to be more stabilizing than MIRVed missiles. As for command and control, if an attacker sought to win by a first strike, then he would have to focus his warheads on destroying delivery vehicles because he could not hope to disarm the other side by taking out the command and control system. That, of course, assumes that the command and control system is both relatively survivable and redundant. But you will have to ask the authors about their own thinking. HK

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