Obama Asks UN De-Alerting Resolution to Wait

President Barack Obama, here shown speaking to the United Nations in September,
is seeking to delay a UN Resolution calling for De-Alerting Nuclear Forces.

By Hans M. Kristensen

The Obama administration has asked four countries to postpone a resolution at the United Nations calling for reducing the alert-level of nuclear weapons.

The intervention apparently is intended to avoid the Obama administration having to vote against the resolution before the important Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference in May 2010 — on an issue Barack Obama promised to support when he ran for president.

The resolution, which was last adopted by the U.N. General Assembly with overwhelming support on December 2, 2008, calls for “further practical steps to be taken to decrease the operational readiness of nuclear weapons systems, with a view to ensuring that all nuclear weapons are removed from high alert status.”

Obama’s De-Alerting Pledge

During the presidential election campaign, Barack Obama pledged that as president he would “work with Russia to take nuclear weapons off hair-trigger alert.” This pledge was part of the foreign policy agenda of the Obama for America campaign, and for several months after the election was part of the White House web site:

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.”

Apparently Russia has shown little interest in de-alerting, and the pledge has since disappeared from the White House web site and was not mentioned in President Obama’s speech in Prague in April this year.

The Nuclear Posture Review

The Obama administration is more than halfway through a Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) that is analyzing, among other issues, what alert level is appropriate for U.S. nuclear forces in the future.

Currently, virtually all of the 450 Minuteman III land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles are on alert with approximately 500 warheads. Another 96 Trident II sea-launched ballistic missiles with nearly 400 warheads are on alert onboard four of the nine-ten Ohio-class nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines that are at sea at any given time.

Why U.S. national security 20 years after the Cold War ended still depends on the ability to launch nearly 900 nuclear warheads with 12 minutes (actually only four minutes for the ICBMs) is one of the great mysteries the NPR has to answer.

The EastWest Institute de-alerting
report is worth reading.

The long-range bombers were removed from nuclear alert in 1991 and – despite recent attempts to increase their readiness – will remain off alert with no detrimental impact on U.S. national security.

Reframing Nuclear De-Alert

The EastWest Institute has, with the support of the Swiss and New Zealand governments, just published a highly-recommendable study Reframing Nuclear De-Alert: Decreasing the Operational Readiness of U.S. and Russia Arsenals.

The study, which was briefed to the United Nations yesterday, does a good job of trying to elevate the de-alerting debate from whether or not nuclear alert should be called “hair-trigger alert” to actually considering practical steps for lowering the operational readiness of nuclear forces.

Whether the Obama administration’s request to postpone the U.N. resolution indicates that the NPR will recommend lowering the readiness of U.S. nuclear forces remains to be seen. But it will be truly disappointing if it does not.


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.

3 thoughts on “Obama Asks UN De-Alerting Resolution to Wait

  1. If the U.S. does de-alert its strategic nuclear forces it should ramp up the training and readiness of its forces to compensate. Surely maintaining a trained and ready strategic force is practical.

    Reply: I don’t understand why training and some level of readiness could not be maintained if the force is de-alerted. HK

  2. I found the EWI report interesting because some “from the United States and Russia” made statements concerning the operational readiness of Chinese nuclear force, which turns out to contain a very uncommon one: “12 liquid fueled DF5s with 2-megaton warheads ready to launch in approximately 30 minutes as well as 18 solid fueled DF31 missiles in silos on a 20-minute alert”

    Is this the first time that experts acknowledged a high-alert DF-5 force and silo-based DF-31s?

    Reply: Yes it is a strange claim. I don’t know who suggested this, but the claim contradicts everything we know, estimate, and assume about the Chinese. For one thing, the 18 DF-31s exceed the “less than 15” DF-31s the U.S. Intelligence Community estimated in June this year that Chinese has deployed. I’ll take the claim with a very big grain of salt until I hear more about who said it and whether the U.S. intelligence community agrees. HK

  3. Sean, I can’t speak to the USAF, but in the USN they are trained and ramped up about as far as they can go – they crew has to eat and sleep sometimes you know. I exaggerate slightly, but only to illustrate the truth – you can only train so much before you start running into morale and motivation problems. Running a full dress countdown daily, or spending two hours every working day in appropriate lectures sounds impressive but actually doesn’t accomplish much. To a large extent, either you are trained or you are not – there isn’t much ramping up do to. This situation isn’t like that of ground troops who can face a thousand different complex scenarios at a moments notice – almost one hundred percent, a countdown is a countdown is a countdown.

    What SSBN weapons crews need isn’t intensive training, but ongoing training (which they already receive) and ongoing deployment experience to maintain their ‘edge’.

    The same goes for the weapons themselves. To a large extent they are either ready, or they are not – and it only takes a few hours to flip between states. It’s not really possible to hold the crews ‘more ready to make the weapons ready’. You can (with minimal modification to non flight hardware) make it harder to get ready (by requiring certain information from off hull) but that’s about as far as you can go.

    The real (and unique) problem however lies not in the weapons crews, but in the boat and non weapons portion of the crew. Some of the options presented in the EWI report are not really practical for SSBN’s. Missile and bomber support crews can practice loading and readying inert weapons. Missile crews can spend a few hours a week in a simulated ‘hole’. Bomber crews can fly their aircraft unloaded or armed with inert weapons for however many hours a week doctrine requires…

    But no equivalent exists for an SSBN, whose weapons system depends heavily on direct support by non weapons crewmembers and the unique mindset of the submariner. The only way to gain experience operating ships systems and confidence in the ship and themselves is to take the boat to sea. A crew sitting pierside or shoreside with little chance or intent of going to sea for months on end is a crew whose experience and confidence is steadily and surely atrophying and whose morale and motivation almost measurably decrease daily. Worse yet, it takes months to restore those things.

    I can see no clear way to decrease weapons readiness onboard (maintaing them at ‘low alert’ as defined in the EWI report) SSBN’s while maintaining the required skillset and ‘edge’. The time required to transit from a safe operational area to the weapons/refit facility, load the weapons safely, and return to a safe operational area place them firmly in ‘de-alert’ status. Otherwise, the best that can be done is to maintain ‘medium alert’.

    (Disclaimer: Former SSBN weapons crewman.)

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