Monday, June 11, 2007

Yes, Charlotte, Our Nuclear Weapons Still Are On Hair-Trigger Status

An interesting story by NPR last week reported that while the U.S. recently announced it has increased the rate at which it is dismantling its nuclear warheads, the actual number of weapons dismantled and other figures involving the nuclear arsenal remain secret.

The NRDC estimates that as of January this year the U.S. stockpile contained nearly 10,000 nuclear warheads, including 5,736 active/operational warheads and 4,226 inactive/responsive warheads held in reserve or awaiting dismantlement.

Significantly, however, fifteen years after the end of the Cold War, the U.S. and Russia still have approximately 4,000 nuclear warheads on hair-trigger alert that could be launched within minutes. These warheads alone have the combined destructive power nearly 100,000 times that of the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima.

For contrast, China has since de-alerted its nuclear forces and Britain and France now maintain far lower levels of alert. While their alert status is unknown, India, Pakistan and Israel are believed to be near hair-trigger status.

Enter Representative Adam Schiff (D-CA-29).

Schiff sent out a Dear Colleague letter last week asking his fellow Members to sign on to his not-yet-submitted “Reduce the Risk of Accidental Nuclear Launch Act.” According to the Letter,

The Reduce the Risk of Accidental Nuclear Launch Act would call on the President to pursue a bilateral agreement with Russia to remove both nations' nuclear weapons from hair-trigger alert. It would call on military and defense experts from our two countries to outline steps that can be taken to eliminate any perceived threat that is used to provide continuing justification for the self-defeating and dangerous practice of deploying nuclear weapons on such status. And finally, it would require a Presidential report on any impediments to achieving this goal and the steps being taken to overcome these challenges.

Just over seven years ago, in order to make his plan for an expansive national missile defense system more palatable, candidate-turn-president George W. Bush proposed removing “as many weapons as possible from high-alert, hair-trigger status" and inviting the Russians to do the same.

Now that President Bush has recklessly sped ahead with the missile defense system, it’s high time for him to initiate a dialogue with Russia to remove both countries’ nuclear arsenals from hair-trigger alert. While clearly not exclusively enough to ameliorate the current standoff, the move would go a long ways in improving the frosty relations between the U.S. and Russia. Representative Schiff’s proposed legislation is a major step in the right direction.


Anonymous said...

Just a point of clarification. Its a bit misleading to claim that China has removed its missiles from hair-trigger alert, as China has never maintained any strategic missiles on alert at all. Can't undo something you've never done.

Anonymous said...

Can you please define "hair trigger alert" in real terms please? As someone who is familiar with actual "hair triggers" on firearms I think the use of that term in relation to nuclear weapons is a bit, well, obfuscating.

Jeff Lindemyer said...

I apologize for the delay in responding.

I referenced the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace page stating that China has de-alerted its forces, but little is known for sure about China's nuclear weapon capabilities, including their alert status. It has been reported that most of China's land-based strategic nuclear weapons are liquid fueled, requiring a longer launch time, but their exact capabilities remain unclear. China's submarine launched missiles, however, are reportedly solid fueled, allowing a much quicker launch time, although some believe that nuclear warheads are not regularly carried onboard. Please see CDI's Nuclear Weapons Databse on the Chinese Arsenal at for further information.

Regarding the second point, hair-trigger alert (aka high-alert status) refers to the capability to launch missiles within minutes of receiving orders to do so. In the words of Sam Nunn, this capability "force[s] our leaders to decide almost instantly whether to launch nuclear weapons once they have warning of an attack, robbing them of the time they may need to gather data, exchange information, gain perspective, discover an error and avoid a catastrophic mistake." (

J. said...


I don't think you've satisfactorily answered the hair trigger question. As a concrete matter, what would you do, for example, with the US and Russian ICBM forces? Remove the warheads so that they would have to be reloaded before launch? That is certainly technically feasible, and would create several days delay before any significant number of missiles could be launched, but presumably the weapons storage facilities would then be very attractive targets for a first strike, which could be destabilizing.

George Arndt said...

Um, didn't the cold war end about 17 years ago. So, who have our nukes on hair trigger alert?

Jeff Lindemyer said...

Before getting into the details, I would posit that removing the nuclear weapons from hair-trigger alert needs to be couched in larger terms.

As Sam Nunn proposed in 2004, U.S. and Russian military and defense officials need to:
1. Determine what threats posed by the other side justify keeping any nuclear weapons on hair-trigger status.
2. Determine what steps the other side must take to remove those threats and thus end the justification for hair-trigger status.
3. Integrate these findings into proposed nuclear force postures that can assure the survivability of nuclear forces and end the need for quick launch capacity by either the United States or Russia.

Thus, as a concrete matter, I would defer to the findings of these officials as to what is the best way to remove the weapons from hair-trigger alert status.

As I'm sure you know, there are multiple ways to achieve this, including:
1. Removing the nuclear warheads from missiles and storing them separate from their delivery vehicles. (This does draw the additional complication that you mentioned, however, if the steps Nunn outlined are taken, this concern would be minimized).
2. Pinning open the safety switches on missile motors to avoid accidental firing.
3. Removing the guidance systems from missiles.
4. Covering the land-based missile silo covers with mounds of dirt that must be moved before the doors could be opened.