Ever since the fall of the Berlin Wall people have been calling on the United States and Russia to ratchet down the level of alert status for their nuclear weapons, thereby decreasing the possibility of an accidental launch of nukes due to itchy trigger finger syndrome or in the midst of any number of possible international crises. For the most part, those with the power to influence and make that decision have spent their time arguing over whether having nuclear weapons ready to launch in very short order (also known as "high alert status") should be called "hair-trigger alert".
Call it what you will; we MUST get beyond the rhetoric that serves to obfuscate the subject to such a degree that we might never take this critical step to avoid the unspeakable. There is absolutely no reason for any nuclear power to have its weapons ready to launch on warning; U.S. intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) can be launched in as little as 4 minutes once the missile launch crews receive their orders, and once they are one their way there is no turning back.
President Obama initially pledged to take the nukes off high alert status. Here is what the White House Website had to say about it early on (this statement subsequently disappeared into thin air and Obama seems to have changed his tune):
“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.”
Now President Obama "has asked four countries to postpone a resolution at the United Nations calling for reducing the alert-level of nuclear weapons" (FAS Strategic Security Blog). What's up with that??? It seems that the President's idealism has clashed (once again) with the deeply entrenched U.S. nuclear weapons establishment. Whatever their motives, they are simply putting the U.S. and the rest of the world at greater risk, and this is unconscionable.
I have just read an informative study that goes beyond the rhetoric and provides background and practical steps the nuclear powers can take to lower the operational readiness of their nuclear weapons. An intriguing aspect of the study is its emphasis on de-alerting as not just a technical fix, but a strategic step in the discussion about deemphasizing the military role of nuclear weapons. The study looks at de-alerting from the perspectives of not only the nuclear weapons states, but also the non-nuclear weapons states. Read Reframing Nuclear De-Alert: Decreasing the Operational Readiness of U.S. and Russian Arsenals.
Then click here to send President Obama a message reminding him to keep his pledge to work with the Russians to get nuclear weapons off high alert status, hair-trigger alert, or whatever you want to call it!!! This is one of the most basic (and initial) steps the U.S. and Russia can take towards a world without nuclear weapons, and both nations must take it NOW!
And don't forget to ask everyone else to send that message to the President! The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference is coming up, and this is a key issue for the NPT. The time is NOW!
Read Obama Asks UN De-Alerting Resolution to Wait at the Federation of American Scientists Strategic Security Blog (posted October 16, 2009).