Take a look at a July 8 editorial in the Washington Post that calls for “de-alerting” the nation’s deployed nuclear weapons, which remain ready to launch within minutes. The idea is to increase the time physically required to launch missiles, allowing more time for the president to make a decision than the 13 minute window designed for the Cold War. This would further reduce the risk of accident or miscalculation leading to a nuclear explosion.
Maintaining this prompt launch capacity drives key aspects of US nuclear force structure and size, including the number of US nuclear ballistic missile submarines that need to be ready at sea at any given time.
The 2010 Nuclear Posture Review took on the issue of the alert status of US nuclear forces, but ultimately decided “that the current alert posture of US strategic forces – with heavy bombers off full-time alert, nearly all ICBMs on alert, and a significant number of SSBNs at sea at any given time – should be maintained for the present.”
The Post notes that a committee headed by former Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. James Cartwright recently issued a report that called for rethinking this posture. According to the report, “The risks, while low, still exist for missiles to be fired by accident, miscalculation, mistake, false warning, bad judgment or unauthorized action. The results would be catastrophic.”
In addition, the editorial states “The reason the United States maintains a prompt-launch posture today is because Russia does also,” but reminds us that “The United States and Russia are no longer enemies; the chance of nuclear war or surprise attack is nearly zero.”
While Russia has its own reasons for continuing to maintain a significant portion of its deployed forces on alert, it’s important to remember that Russia is responding to US posture as well. Refusing to change policies designed for the Cold War will mire us all in a more adversarial and dangerous world.
De-alerting would reduce the chance of an accident and signal to other countries that it’s safe to follow our lead. The bottom line is that if the United States is serious about the “reset” with Russia and progressing beyond adversarial Cold War thinking, de-alerting our nuclear forces is an essential step.