We estimate that Russia and the United States keep a staggering 1,800 strategic nuclear warheads on high alert on land- and sea-based ballistic missiles, ready to launch between 5 and 15 minutes after receiving a launch order. These forces number more nuclear warheads than all the other seven nuclear weapons states in the world have, combined.
The practice of keeping nuclear weapons on alert evolved during the Cold War, as the United States and the Soviet Union deployed fully-armed nuclear weapons that could strike the adversary before it could retaliate. Nuclear crises, such as the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, resulted in significantly increased alert levels but also deepened global concerns that such nuclear combat readiness could lead to accidents and misunderstandings with catastrophic consequences.
At the end of the Cold War, the United States, the Soviet Union, and later Russia removed several categories of nuclear weapons from alert, including long-range bombers and non-strategic nuclear forces. Since then, Republican and Democratic US presidential candidates have recommended changing the US and Russian alert postures, but little has happened.
Former US President George W. Bush stated in 2000 that, “high-alert, hair-trigger” nuclear forces were leftovers from the Cold War, inappropriate and dangerous in today’s world, and that he would reduce the alert levels. President Barack Obama echoed that concern in 2007, saying on the campaign trail that he would work with Russia to take nuclear weapons off hair-trigger alert, and criticized Bush for not fulfilling his promise.
Yet the Obama administration’s April 2010 Nuclear Posture Review continues the current alert posture.
Russia has shown no interest in reducing nuclear alert, but instead has worked to increase the readiness level of its intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines.
France and Britain also deploy 80 and 48 fully operational nuclear weapons, respectively, but on their missile submarines, at a lower readiness level than Russian and US forces. Other nuclear weapon states do not see a need to keep nuclear forces on alert, despite their much smaller arsenals.
Opponents of de-alerting argue the necessity of keeping nuclear weapons at a high level of combat readiness in order to protect them against surprise attack and to provide the national leadership with more time and options during a crisis, including striking the adversary’s nuclear forces first to limit the reciprocal damage it could inflict. Opponents contend that robust safety measures are in place that prevent unauthorized, mistaken, or accidental use, also stating that de-alerting would be complicated and expensive to verify. Their most frequent argument, however, is that de-alerting nuclear weapons would be more dangerous because it could create a re-alerting race that would reduce crisis stability by giving an adversary the incentive to attack before re-alerting were complete.
Supporters argue that nuclear alert is inappropriate in a world that is trying to reduce the numbers and role of nuclear weapons. They state that the potential consequences of accidents or misunderstandings outweigh the limited and theoretical benefits created by combat-ready nuclear forces. They also maintain that warnings about a “re-alerting race” are overblown because today’s highly alerted nuclear postures involve visibly deploying, or “generating,” nuclear forces and increasing alert levels in a crisis. It is possible, supporters argue, to reduce alert nuclear forces in a gradual, careful, and verifiable manner that diminishes risks for all. Moreover, supporters of de-alerting measures warn that it is particularly important to reduce nuclear alerts now to discourage smaller nuclear weapon states from also increasing the readiness of their nuclear forces—a concern that would be even more relevant if China and India were to equip their ballistic missiles with multiple warheads.
Even if one believes that some nuclear alert is necessary, the number of weapons that Russia and the United States keep on alert seems far too large at a time when much else from the Cold War has faded, and Russian-US goods trade reached nearly $43 billion in 2011. The high level of nuclear alert locks the countries’ nuclear planning into unnecessarily excessive and expensive threat postures that are out of sync with the political and military realities of today’s world.
The two nations could begin tackling this dilemma, if not by completely de-alerting all of their nuclear forces in one act, then through a phased approach in which they gradually remove parts of their postures from alert, reduce readiness levels, lengthen decision times, and develop the experience and means to verify the process.
The United States has many more ICBMs than Russia, and Russia has more missiles equipped with multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles (MIRV), so a first step could involve taking a portion of the US ICBMs off alert and one of the most MIRVed Russian ICBMs—SS-18 or SS-19—off alert. Subsequent steps would be to remove gradually more of the remaining forces from alert.