New Report: Reducing Alert Rates of Nuclear Weapons

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.By Hans M. Kristensen

The United States and Russia have some 1,800 nuclear warheads on alert on ballistic missiles that are ready to launch in a few minutes, according to a new study published by UNIDIR. The number of U.S. and Russian alert warheads is greater than the total nuclear weapons inventories of all other nuclear weapons states combined.

The report Reducing Alert Rates of Nuclear Weapons is co-authored by Matthew McKinzie from the Natural Resources of Defense Council and yours truly.

France and Britain also keep some of their nuclear force on alert, although at lower readiness levels than the United States and Russia. No other nuclear weapon state has nuclear weapons on alert.

The report concludes that the warning made by opponents of de-alerting, that it could trigger a re-alerting race in a crisis that count undermine stability, is a “straw man” argument that overplays risks, downplays benefits, and ignores that current alert postures already include plans to increase readiness and alert rates in a crisis.

According to the report, “while there are risks with alerted and de-alerted postures, a re-alerting race that takes three months under a de-alerted posture is much preferable to a re-alerting race that takes only three hours under the current highly alerted posture. A de-alerted nuclear posture would allow the national leaders to think carefully about their decisions, rather than being forced by time constraints to choose from a list of pre-designated responses with catastrophic consequences.”

During his election campaign, Barack Obama promised to work with Russia to take nuclear weapons off “hair-trigger” alert, but the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) instead decided to keep the existing alert posture. The post-NPR review that has now been completed but has yet to be announced hopefully will include a reduction of the alert level, not least because the Intelligence Community has concluded that a Russian surprise first strike is unlikely to occur.

The UNIDIR report finds that the United States and Russia previously have reduce the alert levels of their nuclear forces and recommends that they continue this process by removing the remaining nuclear weapons from alert through a phased approach to ensure stability and develop consultation and verification measures.

Full report: Reducing Alert Rates of Nuclear Weapons (FAS mirror)

This publication was made possible by a grant from the Swiss Government. General nuclear forces research is supported by the Ploughshares Fund. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the authors.

4 thoughts on “New Report: Reducing Alert Rates of Nuclear Weapons

  1. Nice report, but don’t see a change anytime soon. It’s all a matter of trust and good will, but unfortunately, there are vested parties in both countries who continue to profit from this insanity. While the analogy is imperfect, look how far we’ve gotten with gun control in this country. If we can’t adopt measures to protect our children, there’s little chance the US will adopt a rational nuclear strategy.

  2. Responding to Ray, above, what little chance there is, it should be taken. Progress
    sometimes proceeds by inches, not miles. Both nuclear weapons and gun control are
    moral issues.. . matters of conscience. People of conscience must persist; that’s all that’s left.

    As the saying goes, particularly with these issues, “Illigitimati non carborundum”,
    “don’t let the bastards wear you down.

  3. “The opponents of de-alerting who put forward a hypothetical re-alerting race ignore the fact that this potential exists today. Therefore, if a re-alerting race is destabilizing in future dealerted nuclear postures, logically it is just as destabilizing in today’s highly alerted postures.”

    Gross conceptual error, not even close to logically true to anyone who actually thinks about it. What this statement says is that it is just as destabilizing to have my opponent go from 0 alert nuclear weapons to hundreds while I have zero as it is to go from hundreds of alert nuclear weapons to more hundreds of alert weapons when I already have hundreds myself. How can anyone say that is logically the same?

    As an analogy: If someone is pointing a loaded shot gun at you do care if they put an extra shell in? What about if the two of you are just talking and suddenly they point a loaded shotgun at you? I’m willing to be you care more about the suddenly appearing loaded shotgun then you do about an extra shell in an already loaded gun.

    Having nuclear weapons on alert maximizes decision time because you can decide whether or not to use them. ICBMs provide a prompt response if the president chooses to fire them, he does not have to shoot them. Not having nuclear weapons even loaded means you will be forced to load them the minute anyone else does just to make sure you can actually shoot back if they do shoot at you.

  4. Replying to Keith
    You assuming everyone is a wackjob.We are talking about reduction in nos not elimination.
    Or translated on fiscal terms spend less than 500B$ a year

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