By Frank N. von Hippel | June 22, 2021
Both Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama came into office proposing to take US intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) off their “hair-trigger alert” status, which keeps them ready at all times to launch within minutes. The time is so short for a president to have to decide to launch in response to Strategic Command’s assessment of an incoming attack that President Bush reportedly complained it might not even be enough time for him to get off the “crapper.”
While in office, Bush failed to act on his concerns. President Obama pursued the issue but retreated in the face of opposition from Strategic Command. The most he could get in the 2013 Nuclear Employment Strategy of the United States was a promise to look into the matter:
Recognizing the significantly diminished possibility of a disarming surprise nuclear attack, the guidance directs [the Defense Department] to examine further options to reduce the role of Launch Under Attack plays in US planning, while retaining the ability to Launch Under Attack if directed.
Strategic Command prefers to use the term “launch under attack” because a launch would only occur if there were high confidence in the warning that an actual attack was on its way. Strategic Command has never explained how high such confidence would need to be for a decision capable of causing directly and indirectly the deaths of at least a hundred million humans.
Launch on warning is controversial for two reasons: First, history has shown that false warnings do occur due to equipment failure and human error, and today there is the additional danger of hackers. Second, a launch-on-warning posture is indistinguishable from being constantly poised to mount a first strike, which pressures Russia and China to put their missiles on hair trigger as well. The United States would be on the receiving end for any mistaken launch one of them makes.
President Biden has indicated he does not support first use of US nuclear weapons. He should end the launch-on-warning option and the danger it entails of an unintended nuclear Armageddon. He could order Strategic Command to plan the US nuclear posture on the assumption that he will not launch on warning. US nuclear planners would have to assume a delayed response and revise their contingency plans accordingly.
Fifty years on hair trigger. The launch-on-warning option has been debated within the US government since the Kennedy Administration but was adopted during the 1970s. In the 1980s, because of his concern about accidental nuclear war, President Reagan wanted to negotiate an agreement with the Soviet Union to eliminate ballistic missiles in favor of bombers, which can be recalled after launch.
Today, US Strategic Command keeps launch ready virtually all of its 400 single-warhead Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) plus about as many warheads on its submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) at sea. It wants to be able to launch the ICBMs before they and the US nuclear command and control system can be partially destroyed by an incoming Russian attack. […]