No Launch On Warning
by Alan F. Phillips*, M.D., May 2002
Ploughshares working paper 02-1
Preface by Ernie Regehr:
Any post-Cold War temptation to complacency in
the pursuit of nuclear weapons prohibition or abolition should
quickly give way to a sobering sense of urgency on reading Alan
Phillips' account of nuclear arsenals poised for launching within
minutes of an order to do so. And the fact that such an order
could (in some instances almost has) come in response to a false
warning of attack only serves to add a sense of the macabre to
the urgency. It's not that Dr. Phillips' account is alarmist;
quite the opposite. Through careful analysis he concludes that
a clear policy rejecting launch-on-warning is logical, possible,
and necessary to dramatically reduce the risk of inadvertent nuclear
war. Nuclear weapons abolition remains an urgent goal that must
be pursued as a longer-term objective. But until nuclear disarmament
is a reality, it is critically important that nuclear weapon states
be persuaded to take all possible measures to reduce nuclear dangers
- and prominent among these dangers is the possibility of nuclear
attacks being precipitated by a false warning of attack. Policies
to preclude launch-on-warning would yield immediate benefits by
reducing the risk of inadvertent war, and would also help pave
the way toward more extensive de-alerting measures to make launch-on-warning
impossible. We commend to nuclear disarmament NGOs and advocates
both the analysis and the policy proposal advanced here by Dr.
Phillips. His is an important contribution that clearly sets out
an issue of immediate concern and a credible and achievable policy
response. This study will help the nuclear disarmament community
explore ways in which support for a policy of no launch-on-warning
can become part of our ongoing efforts toward complete and irreversible
2. Definition of Launch on Warning
3. The Emergence of a Launch on Warning Policy
4. The Danger of Inadvertent Nuclear War from False Warnings or
5. Distinguishing Between De-Alerting and NO L-o-W
6. Exploring the NO L-o-W Posture
7. The Effect on Deterrence
8. De-Alerting: Methods, Benefits and Difficulties
This paper argues for abandoning the policy of
"Launch on Warning" (L-o-W). The discussion is based
on the simplifying assumption of a one-against-one nuclear stand-off
between the US and Russia, with the stability in that stand-off
based on nuclear deterrence. The assumption is appropriate because
L-o-W is only relevant between adversaries that regard themselves
as mutually vulnerable to a "disarming first strike,"
rather than, say, to a surprise attack on cities. It is those
two countries, and probably only those two, that now follow a
policy, or retain the option, of L-o-W. In the present relationship
between the two countries an intentionally started nuclear war
is extremely improbable. There is, however, the risk of an unintended
war starting from one cause or another, and under the policy of
L-o-W the likeliest cause is a false warning.
The prevention of any nuclear war is of very great
importance. Prevention of nuclear war between Russia and the US
is vital for the future of the world because both countries retain
such large arsenals that if they should go to war the result would
be much more extensive than complete destruction of both countries.
Radioactivity, and smoke from the many firestorms, would severely
affect at least the whole of the northern hemisphere. Nuclear
winter, widespread starvation, and other consequences might even
combine to exterminate the human species. To risk such a disaster
happening because of a mere accident to a man-made system is absurd.
While the claim that long-term stability can be
assured through nuclear deterrence must be rejected, deterrence
remains the central basis upon which arms control discussions,
and agreements, between the governments and military establishments
of the US and Russia take place. Nuclear deterrence is assumed
for the present discussion because the focus here is on changing
just one feature in the two States' military posture. It is argued
that the change to a policy of "NO L-o-W" is a logical
necessity and is readily possible; it is urgently needed, and
it does not require any immediate change in the assumptions upon
which current policy is based, whether these are valid or not.
The change can and should be made immediately. It can be initiated
unilaterally, without causing relative strategic advantage or
disadvantage to either side. It does not require formal agreement,
The change from L-o-W to NO L-o-W is financially
neutral, not requiring substantial expense, nor yielding significant
savings. It does not require physical changes to the weapons systems.
2. Definition of Launch on Warning
The term "Launch on Warning" is used
here in reference to retaliation with rocket-mounted nuclear weapons
to a perceived nuclear attack. A L-o-W capacity is one that would
make it possible to launch a retaliatory attack in response to
a warning (by radar or satellite sensors) of attacking missiles,
before any incoming warhead had arrived and detonated. This allows
the option of L-o-W, which permits a decision, within the few
minutes available between the warning and the predicted time of
first impact, on whether or not to launch a response before impact.
A L-o-W policy is one in which it would be standard procedure
for a retaliatory launch to be actively considered and probably
carried out before the first impact, though in the American case
only after authorization by the President, assuming he could be
consulted within the short time available.
The term "Launch under Attack" has been
used less precisely by US Strategic Command and in Congress, possibly
sometimes with the intention of causing confusion. It is commonly
presented as meaning the prompt launch of retaliation as soon
as one or more incoming nuclear weapons have detonated. However,
in the late 1970's it was included in the dictionary of military
terms by the Joint Chiefs of Staff and explained as "execution
by National Command Authorities of Single Integrated Operational
Plan Forces subsequent to tactical warning of strategic nuclear
attack against the United States and prior to first impact."1
This definition is identical to L-o-W. But at times military personnel
have said their policy is not L-o-W, but "launch under attack",
implying that there is a difference, and that retaliation would
be launched only after impact or detonation. An alternative distinction
has sometimes been implied: that L-o-W means to launch on a warning
from one system (radar or satellite) alone, and "launch under
attack" means launching retaliation before detonation, but
only if the warning is confirmed by a second system.2 In any event,
both Russia and the US have launch on warning capacity, and thus
must be assumed to maintain a L-o-W policy3 or, at the very least,
a policy of considering the option of L-o-W.
3. The Emergence of a Launch on Warning Policy
The avowed function of nuclear-armed ballistic
missiles is "deterrence". Deterrence is in theory achieved
when a potential attacker is convinced that an attack will be
unavoidably followed by retaliation so devastating that it would
be irrational to attack in the first place.
As the accuracy of nuclear weapons advanced, it
was realized that a massive pre-emptive salvo directed at command
and control systems and retaliatory weapons could diminish or
eliminate a capacity to retaliate. If either side believed it
could achieve such a "disarming first strike", it might
be tempted to attack.
To avoid this weakening of deterrence through the
pre-emptive destruction of an adversary's retaliatory forces,
both sides explored the possibility of launching retaliation before
the first impact of a pre-emptive strike - thus "Launch On
Warning". It was probably put into effect as soon as such
a quick launch became possible, the development of solid fuel
as rocket propellant (around 1960) being a decisive factor.
During atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons in
the early 1950's the electrical phenomenon called "Electro-Magnetic
Pulse" (EMP) was discovered.4 Around 1960 the US conducted
a series of high-altitude nuclear explosions to investigate it,
incidentally causing significant disruption of radio communications
each time. The purpose was presumably two-fold: to explore the
possibility that the phenomenon could be used by either side to
enable a disarming first strike, and to study methods of protecting
their own electronic equipment so that deterrence would be maintained
even if the enemy was planning to use EMP. This possibility that
electrical disruptions might prevent retaliation provided a second
reason to adopt L-o-W.
As early as 1960 the propriety and morality of
adopting L-o-W was being discussed because of the recognized danger
of launching on a false warning, and so starting an unintended
nuclear war.5 In that year the Planning Board wrote that it was
"essential" to avoid the possibility of launching unrecallable
missiles based on a false warning. They stressed the importance
of a "reliable bomb alarm system to provide early positive
information of actual missile hits."6 Such a system was in
fact installed. It was not without defects, and at least once
these caused a spurious alert.7 In 1962, Robert McNamara said
that as long as he was Secretary of Defense and Jack Kennedy was
President, the US would never launch on warning.8 But the same
year, the Secretary of the Air Force must have been thinking of
L-o-W when he informed Kennedy that once the Minuteman missiles
had been deployed in the first complex, in their "normal
alert status", all "twenty missiles will be able to
be launched in thirty seconds."9
A discussion in 1969 is on record as showing that
some who were opposing "Ballistic Missile Defense" favoured
L-o-W, but The White House is said to have opposed it "on
the grounds that 50% of warnings from Over-the-Horizon Radar were
false".10 (No true warning of a nuclear ballistic missile
attack has ever been received, so presumably the other 50% were
true observations of test rocket launches.) However the newly
developed satellite early warning system was estimated to produce
only one false warning per year, which appears to have been regarded
as acceptable. Georgy Arbatov, a Soviet deterrence specialist
who had joined the National Security Council, assured Council
members that "neither side would wait if it received warning
of an attack but instead ... would simply empty its silos by launching
a counter-strike at once."11 That reduces concern about failure
of deterrence against a surprise first strike, but underlines
the danger from a false warning.
It is probable that by 1969 L-o-W was the military
policy on both sides, and had been for a number of years, notwithstanding
the record that in 1973 Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird expressed
the hope that "that kind of strategy would never be adopted
by any Administration or by any Congress."12 The recollections
of former officers and enlisted men of Strategic Air Command (SAC)
from the early 1970's confirm that L-o-W was in effect then.13
The capability, and presumably the policy, of L-o-W
are retained by the US and Russia, even though the Cold War is
regarded as over. This seems inexcusably dangerous.
4. The Danger of Inadvertent Nuclear War from False Warnings or
Launch on Warning has kept the world exposed, for
at least 30 years, to the danger of a nuclear war caused by nothing
but a coincidence of radar, sensor, or computer glitches, and
a temporary failure of human alertness to appreciate that an unexpected
message of attack from the warning system is false, the enemy
having done nothing. There is at most 20 minutes for the human
operators and commanders to call and conduct a "threat conference",
while the chief of Strategic Command is put in touch with the
President to advise him, and the President decides whether to
order retaliation. The disaster of an accidental nuclear war has
not happened yet, in spite of a large number of false warnings
of which at least a few have had very dangerous features. This
is a credit to the care and alertness of the military in both
Russia and the US. It should not be taken as reassurance. A single
instance of launch of nuclear weapons on a false warning would
result in nuclear war, and the end of civilization, just as surely
as a nuclear war started by an actual attack. There would be no
chance to review the system to make it safer after one failure
of that kind.
The threat conferences require, and so far have
achieved, the extraordinary standard of perfect accuracy. They
have not been rare events. Probably most of them have been routine
and it was easy to exclude a real attack; others have been serious
enough that the silo lids were rolled back. To get an idea of
how the laws of chance apply to the situation, suppose we make
a very conservative assumption: that just one conference a year
had a risk of error as high as 1% (and that the rest had a much
lower risk). It is a simple calculation to show that taking one
1% risk of disaster per year for 30 years results in a 26% probability
of one actual disaster in that period. On that assumption, then,
we had approximately 3 to 1 odds in favour of surviving the period
1970 - 2000, and we did survive. But that means, from the risk
of accidental war alone, we had (on that assumption) a one in
four chance of not surviving. A single trial of Russian roulette
is safer: it gives a one in six chance of death, or 5 to 1 odds
in favour of surviving.14
During the Cold War, many mishaps within the nuclear
retaliation system on the US side are known to have occurred,
including false warnings. There must have also been many similar
incidents on the Russian side. One has been reported in which
a Russian officer decided on his own initiative not to report
an apparently grave warning on his computer screen, on the correct
belief that it was a false warning. He may have saved the world,
but was disgraced for failing to follow his orders; his career
was ruined, and he suffered a mental breakdown.15
In a study of rival theories of accident probabilities,
Scott Sagan described a large number of errors and accidents within
the US nuclear deterrence system. He concluded that the risk of
nuclear war from accidents had not been excessive.16 I came to
the opposite conclusion from his data. I have collected 20 instances
of mishaps, from that source and others, which with less alertness
among military officers, or accompanied by chance by some coincidental
problem, might have started a nuclear war.17
One example of a situation which was difficult
to assess correctly at the Command Center, was this: On the night
of 24 November, 1961, all communication links between SAC HQ and
NORAD went dead, and so cut SAC HQ off from the three Ballistic
Missile Early Warning Sites, at Thule (Greenland), Clear (Alaska),
and Fylingdales (England).18 For General Power at SAC HQ, there
were two possible explanations: either enemy action, or the coincidental
failure of all the communication systems, which had multiple ostensibly
independent routes including commercial telephone circuits. The
SAC bases in the US were therefore alerted by a code message instructing
B-52 nuclear bomber crews to prepare to take off, and start their
engines, but not to take off without further orders. In the hope
of clarifying the situation, radio contact was made with an orbiting
B-52 on airborne alert which was near Thule (5,000 kilometers
away) at the time. Its crew contacted the Thule base and could
report that no attack had taken place, so the alert was cancelled.
The reason for the "coincidental" failure was that the
"independent" routes for telephone and telegraph between
NORAD and SAC HQ all ran through one relay station in Colorado.
At that relay station a small fire had interrupted all the lines.19
There was a coincidental mishap during this event,
which could have been disastrous. It seems there was an error
in transmitting the alert code to 380th Bomb Wing at Plattsburg,
New York. A former aircraft maintenance technician who was serving
at that B-52 bomber base, recently told the author his vivid recollection
of the incident. The code order first received by the bomber crews
was "alpha", instructing them to take off and proceed
directly to their pre-assigned targets, and bomb. They had never
received that code before. Before any bomber had taken off the
code was corrected to "cocoa", meaning "wait with
engines running". If the corrected code had not been received
in time it could have been very difficult to stop the bombers.
The episode just described took place before L-o-W
was instituted for the ICBMs that were in service. By 1979 the
policy of L-o-W was in effect and in that year, on the morning
of 9 November, a war games tape was running on a reserve computer
when failure of the operational computer automatically switched
in the reserve to take its place. The Threat Conference saw the
picture of a massive attack in a realistic trajectory from Russian
launch sites. On that occasion, preparation to retaliate got as
far as launch of the president's National Emergency Airborne Command
Post (though without the president), before the error was discovered.
The most recent example known to the public was
on 25 January 1995 when, as described in a report of the Standing
Committee for Foreign Affairs and International Trade, "the
Russian missile early warning system detected a scientific rocket
launched off the coast of Norway. This area is frequented by U.S.
submarines, whose ballistic missiles could scatter eight nuclear
warheads over Moscow within fifteen minutes. Norway had informed
the Russian Foreign Ministry about the upcoming launch, but this
information had not been transmitted to the military. Over the
next several minutes President Yeltsin was informed of the possible
American attack, and, for the first time ever, his 'nuclear briefcase'
was switched into alert mode for emergency use, allowing him to
order a full Russian nuclear response. Tension mounted as the
rocket separated into several stages, but the crisis ended after
about eight minutes (just a few minutes before the procedural
deadline to respond to an impending nuclear attack) when it became
clear that the rocket was headed out to sea and would not pose
a threat to Russia."20
5. Distinguishing Between De-Alerting and NO L-o-W
"De-alerting" is a term commonly used
in suggestions and recommendations that nuclear weapons should
be taken off "hair-trigger alert" by introducing physical
changes to impose an unavoidable delay between a decision to launch
and the irrevocable step that actually starts the launch. With
such a delay L-o-W would of course be impossible; but it is possible
and highly desirable to abandon the policy of L-o-W immediately,
without waiting for the changes involved in introducing such a
Several reports to governments have indicated the
importance of abandoning a hair-trigger stance with weapons of
such terrible destructive power. Most of them, however, have not
distinguished between terms like "high alert" or "hair-trigger
alert", which usually imply the technical ability to "launch
on warning", and the policy or option actually to launch
before any incoming warhead explodes.
The Canberra Commission on the Elimination of Nuclear Weapons
was established by the Australian government in 1995. Its mandate
was to recommend practical steps towards elimination of nuclear
weapons from the world. Its report states:
"The first requirement for movement towards a nuclear weapon
free world is for the five nuclear weapon states to commit themselves
unequivoc-ally to proceed with all deliberate speed to a world
without nuclear weapons ...".21
It then defines six additional immediate steps starting with these
o taking nuclear forces off alert, and
o removal of warheads from delivery vehicles.
The Canberra report emphasizes the danger of launch
on warning or launch-under-attack options, implying that they
are different, but it does not indicate that giving up either
option can be different from "taking nuclear forces off alert."
It goes on to say that "taking nuclear forces off alert could
be verified by national technical means and nuclear weapon state
inspection arrangements. In the first instance, reductions in
alert status could be adopted by the nuclear weapon states unilaterally."
The report does not make the point that, if nuclear deterrence
is to remain the policy, it is acceptable to abandon L-o-W unilaterally
but unacceptable to de-alert unilaterally.
Similarly, the Report of the Canadian Standing
Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Trade, entitled
Canada and the Nuclear Challenge: Reducing the Political Value
of Nuclear Weapons for the Twenty-First Century, discusses in
a general way the need for both Russia and the United States to
reduce the alert status of their nuclear arsenals: In the interest
of increased nuclear safety and stability, and as a means to advance
toward the broader goal of eliminating nuclear weapons, the Committee
recommends that the Government of Canada endorse the concept of
de-alerting all nuclear forces, subject to reciprocity and verification
- including the arsenals of the permanent members of the UN Security
Council and the three nuclear-weapons-capable States - and encourage
their governments to pursue this option.22
At least two studies have advocated the adoption
of a clear policy declaration on rejecting launch on warning options
as a first step toward de-alerting. A major work from the Brookings
Institute, Nuclear Turning Point: A Blueprint for Deep Cuts and
De-alerting Nuclear Weapons, defines de-alerting as a two-step
process. "It seeks first to eliminate the hair-trigger option
of launch on warning" - essentially a policy commitment not
to exercise a L-o-W option, even though there is a capacity for
it. Second, in the words of the Brookings paper, de-alerting moves
from a policy to forego L-o-W options, to measures that physically
"extend the launch preparation time to days, weeks, or longer
through graduated reciprocal measures instituted by the two parties."23
The Committee on Nuclear Policy coordinated by
the Stimson Center made a similar recommendation in its 1999 report.
It called on the United States to "declare its intention,
with a parallel, reciprocal commitment from Russia, to eliminate
the launch-on-warning option from nuclear war plans." In
other words, it calls on the two states to make mutual commitments
to abandon launch on warning options. This commitment, the report
said, should be followed by "discussions among the five nuclear
weapon states on verifiably removing all nuclear forces from hair-trigger
These are important calls for the public rejection
of L-o-W postures and options, but in both instances the reports
call for reciprocal NO L-o-W policies. Under deterrence theory
and practice, however, rejection of the launch on warning policy
or option does not need to be symmetrical or verifiable. It is
of value even if only one side does it, and it is argued below
that the only theoretical disadvantage in rejecting L-o-W is actually
less if it is not verified. If the US were to immediately renounce
the L-o-W option, it would then be in a position to tell Russia
why it has done so and ask for a reciprocal commitment. One side
making that commitment and carrying it out unilaterally does not
produce any relative advantage or disadvantage for either side,
but it does confer an advantage on both sides, namely, lowering
the risk of accidental war.
6. Exploring the NO L-o-W Posture
If Russia and the US were actually to abandon the
option of launching on warning, even while they retained the capability,
they would eliminate the risk of a nuclear war being started by
a false warning. Since a false warning is immediately revealed
as such when the predicted time has passed for the first rockets
to arrive and no detonation has been detected, simply delaying
retaliation until there has been a nuclear detonation guarantees
that a war will not be started accidentally from that cause.
Incidents as a result of which a purely accidental
war might have been started seem to have outnumbered the actual
geopolitical crises when nuclear war was intentionally threatened.
And most of the deliberate threats to resort to nuclear weapons,
though extremely troubling and dangerous, have been regarded more
as threatening gestures than as actual intentions.
Since the Berlin Wall came down, the most serious
threat of a nuclear war between Russia and the US known to the
public was the "Norwegian Rocket event" of January 1995,
described above. Without L-o-W, that is, if the Russian policy
had been never to launch a retaliatory attack until after a nuclear
detonation was detected, the Russian alert and the anxious few
minutes would still have occurred, but there would have been absolutely
no danger of nuclear war because the rocket was unarmed. There
could not have been a nuclear explosion, even if the guidance
system had malfunctioned and directed the rocket over Russia.
To change from L-o-W to NO L-o-W does not require
any change of alert status of the retaliatory system. It only
requires a change of standing orders and standard operating procedure,
such that no launch may take place until a nuclear detonation
The elimination of L-o-W does not eliminate any
other retaliation options. It just ensures that retaliation would
not take place without confirmation of a nuclear detonation. As
soon as a warning of attack was received, one which a threat conference
deemed to be real, the order to prepare for a retaliatory launch
could be given. The President (in the US case) would then be charged
with deciding, not whether to launch immediately and risk it being
an irrevocable response to what could still be a false warning,
but whether to launch immediate retaliation in the event of a
detonation. If the decision was to retaliate upon detonation,
full preparation would be made to launch immediately upon receipt
of a positive bomb alarm signal.
Bomb alarms were installed many years ago near
all military installations and all big cities in the US, and presumably
in Russia, which automatically and instantaneously indicate at
the Strategic Command Centers the location of any nuclear explosion.
If, and only if, indication of a nuclear explosion was received
at the predicted arrival time of the attack, the final order to
launch could be sent immediately to the silos. No delay to obtain
presidential authorization would be needed at that point. The
actual retaliatory launch could probably take place within a minute
of the first detonation. If the final order to launch was not
received within a certain short time after the time of predicted
impact, the launch preparations would be reversed.
A policy of NO L-o-W would not eliminate the horrific
threat of nuclear annihilation. Only the abolition of nuclear
weapons can do that; but a NO L-o-W posture would remove the danger
of launching nuclear-armed rockets in response to a false warning.
That would probably eliminate 90% of the current risk of nuclear
war between the US and Russia. A secondary benefit would be the
reduced stress on the President during those vital minutes in
which a reported attack was being assessed. He would know that
he was not in danger of starting a war on a false warning. Under
L-o-W that worry might impair his concentration on the main issues.
Neither side wants an accidental war. They know
that if either side mistakenly launches nuclear weapons both countries
are going to be destroyed: it makes no difference who started
it. If one side changes to NO L-o-W the risk of a purely accidental
war from a false warning is approximately halved, immediately.
It does not even depend on the other side knowing that the change
has been made.
7. The Effect on Deterrence
There can be few grounds for objection, by the
military or by the governments, to this very necessary safety
measure. One possible objection has to be taken seriously: that
"NO L-o-W" might impair deterrence and tempt one side
to try a "disarming first strike". There are good reasons
why this objection should not be allowed to prevent the policy
For either side to consider first strike to be
a rational option, the attacking side would have to be absolutely
sure that its first salvo would fully disarm the other's retaliatory
capacity. They would know that any surviving weapons would pose
a retaliatory threat that could be launched immediately after
the first attack had hit its target. Under NO L-o-W the degree
of alertness of surviving weapons would not be reduced, and retaliation
for a real attack could still be launched promptly, probably within
a minute of the first detonation. Synchronization of detonation
times of the opening salvo, from widely separated launch sites
to widely separated targets - the enemy missile launch sites and
command posts - could not be assured to such precision.
The other possible method of preventing retaliation
would be a first salvo engineered to maximize Electro-Magnetic
Pulse and disable the other side's electronics. It is hardly credible
that the attacking side could feel sure that their EMP would disrupt
communication and launch mechanisms sufficiently, since they would
know that military electronics will have been shielded. Furthermore,
they would know that submarine-launched missiles would not be
disabled, because the sea-water shields submarines and their contents.
The side planning a pre-emptive attack would also
have to be sure that its adversary had in fact changed to and
remained under a policy of No L-o-W. They cannot be sure of this
without verification. So from the point of view of preserving
deterrence, verification is actually undesirable. Verification
that L-o-W policies were no longer in place would help to reassure
the other countries of the world, but it is not necessary in order
to gain the benefit of the change. Thus, a NO L-o-W policy on
either side would have minimal impact on deterrence, and would
be an advantage to both, simply because it halves the risk of
a purely accidental nuclear war. NO L-o-W by both sides makes
this particular risk zero.
If, despite these arguments, the military establishment
on either side is not persuaded to abandon L-o-W, the head of
state must balance the elimination of the very definite risk of
accidental war due to a false warning, against a hypothetical
possibility of weakened deterrence resulting in war. The results
of a nuclear war would be the same, whether started by accident
or by intention.
8. De-alerting: Methods, Benefits and Difficulties
As described in the report from the Brookings Institute,
"de-alerting" moves beyond the policy to forego L-o-W
options, to measures that physically extend the launch preparation
time to days, weeks, or longer, through graduated reciprocal measures
instituted by the two parties.
A wide variety of methods has been suggested to
introduce the delay necessary to constitute a de-alerted posture.
A very radical measure would be to have all warheads removed from
all delivery vehicles, and stored at a distance from them. Less
drastic measures could be used to enforce shorter delays, and
possible methods include:
o making a heap of earth and rocks on silo lids that would require
heavy machinery to remove it;
o removing hydraulic fluid from the machines that raise silo lids;
o de-activating the mechanism that rolls back garage roofs (Russia);
o pinning open a switch in a place that takes time to reach, or
within a casing that takes time to open; and
o removing batteries, gyroscopes, or guidance mechanisms from
rockets or re-entry vehicles.
For de-alerting to be effective, it should be noted
that every nuclear weapon on both sides would have to be de-alerted.
Heads of state and diplomats have been apt to say "de-alert
as many weapons as possible", but that would not be adequate.
To launch one nuclear weapon is sufficient to start a full-scale
Full de-alerting would make sure that nuclear weapons
could not be brought into use hastily. It would tend to reduce
reliance on them in crisis situations, and thus be a step towards
their eventual elimination from national arsenals. De-alerting
would also make unauthorized launch of a nuclear weapon far more
difficult to do, and would remove entirely the risk of accidental
war due to a false warning. It would make more improbable the
already unlikely event of a serious dispute between Russia and
the US pushing either of the two into intentionally starting a
war, by giving more time for diplomatic exchanges between the
hostile governments and for conciliatory efforts by third parties.
However desirable and urgent de-alerting is, it
poses significant challenges. Until elimination of the weapons
is complete and assured by treaty, the two states will continue
to regard the possession of nuclear weapons as essential to deterrence.
To maintain deterrence it is necessary for the enforced delay
to be closely equal on the two sides, otherwise the side that
could launch first might be tempted to try a "disarming first
strike". This symmetry will not be easy to ensure, considering
that the warheads, the delivery vehicles, and the launch procedures
are different in the two countries.
Thus de-alerting will require complex arrangements,
and intrusive verification, to ensure the completeness of the
de-alerting measures actually carried out, and to ensure that
they cannot be secretly reversed. This may require observers from
neutral countries, and perhaps from the adversary, in the vicinity
of each side's launch sites. At the same time, both sides will
be concerned about maintaining the secrecy of key features of
their systems. Verification acceptable for submarine-launched
missiles would be extremely difficult.
It would take prolonged technical study and negotiation
to set up these two systems, the de-alerting itself and the verification,
in a way that would satisfy the two parties. Once that had been
achieved (which might prove impossible) a formal written agreement
would be needed. This might require negotiation of a treaty, needing
ratification by the parliament on each side, which raises another
possibility of disappointing failure after years of work.
For the present, adoption of a NO L-o-W policy
offers a quick and simple means of reducing the danger of accidental
war. It does not need symmetry, verification, agreement, nor even
trust, between the adversaries. If adopted unilaterally by one
side it is of immediate benefit to both, and it does not impair
deterrence. Unilateral operation of NO L-o-W by one country for
a time, might well be sufficient for the other to understand the
benefit and to realize that the change did not in fact invite
a first strike.
Putting NO L-o-W into effect requires only an executive
order, followed by a change in standing orders to the effect that
no rocket is launched until a nuclear explosion is reported to
Strategic Command. There is no reduction in alert status. There
would be minor changes in the launch sequence to suit whatever
safeguards would be made to ensure that no launch could occur
while the crews in the silos were waiting for the final order,
and that they would be ready for instant launch if that order
All the world's people would be safer for the change.
Therefore all governments have a duty to their people to urge
the US and Russian governments to make it at once.
The author acknowledges valuable research assistance
by Sarah Estabrooks of Project Ploughshares, and very helpful
editing by Sarah and by Ernie Regehr.
EMP ElectroMagnetic Pulse
ICBM Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile
L-o-W Launch on Warning
NORAD North American Aerospace Defense Command
SAC Strategic Air Command (later changed to "Strategic Command")
SIOP Single Integrated Operational Plan
SLBM Submarine-Launched Ballistic Missile
1. In Bruce Blair, The Logic of Accidental Nuclear
War (Washington, D.C.: The Brookings Institute) 1992.
2. This is too uncertain a distinction to rely on. If one system
were temporarily out of action there would be great pressure to
act on an indication from the remaining one.
3. If this is true of Russia, they must be relying
on warning from only one system for a large fraction of the time.
Their satellite fleet is incomplete and there are periods when
segments of their periphery are not doubly monitored. Some of
the radar complexes installed under the Soviet system are now
in independent States. There is said to be a corridor along which
missiles could approach giving no warning early enough for evaluation
of the situation before impact. We have no way of knowing whether,
for that direction of attack, their retaliation would be purely
reflex or would wait for impact.
4. The Electro-Magnetic Pulse (EMP) is an extremely
sharp and energetic electromagnetic impulse that is emitted by
electrons travelling at nearly the speed of light from a nuclear
explosion. It is maximal when the detonation is at very high altitude
and the electrons interact with the earth's magnetic field above
the atmosphere. It disrupts unshielded electrical and electronic
equipment over a wide area.
5. Memorandum of Gerard C. Smith, Director, U.S.
Department of State Policy Planning Staff to Foy Kohler, Assistant
Secretary of State for European Affairs, 22 June 1960. Marked
TOP SECRET. Source: National Security Archive microfiche collection,
U.S. Nuclear History: Nuclear Weapons and Politics in the Missile
Era, 1955-68. Washington, D.C. 1998. National Security Archive
electronic briefing book, "Launch on Warning: The development
of U.S. capabilities, 1959-79", William Burr, ed., April
2001. Document 3. http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB43/
6. Memorandum for the National Security Council
from the National Security Council Planning Board, 14 July 1960.
Marked TOP SECRET. Subject: U.S. Policy on Continental Defense.
Source: National Security Archive microfiche collection, U.S.
Nuclear History: Nuclear Weapons and Politics in the Missile Era,
1955-68. Washington, D.C. 1998. Burr, Document 4.
7. Scott D. Sagan, The Limits of Safety (Princeton,
N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1993), p. 183.
8. Account quoted by Jeffrey Richelson citing an
interview with Jack Ruina in America's Space Sentinels: DSP Satellites
and National Security (Lawrence, KS: University of Kansas Press,
1999), p. 256. no. 37. In Burr, 2001.
9. Letter from Secretary of the Air Force, Eugene
M. Zuckert, to President John F. Kennedy, 26 October 1962. Source:
National Security Archive microfiche collection, U.S. Nuclear
History: Nuclear Weapons and Politics in the Missile Era, 1955-68.
Washington, D.C., 1998. Burr, Document 7.
10. Memorandum from Lawrence Lynn, U.S. National
Security Council Staff, to Henry Kissinger, Assistant to the President
for National Security Affairs, 1 May 1969. Subject: Talking Paper
on "Firing on Warning" Issue. Marked TOP SECRET when
with attachment. Source: National Security Archive's Nixon Presidential
Materials Project, National Security Council Files, Box 840, Sentinel
ABM System, Vol. II, 4/1/69. Burr, Document 9.
11. Memorandum from Helmut Sonnenfeldt, National
Security Council Staff to Henry Kissinger, 22 September 1969.
Subject: "Message" to You from Arbatov. Marked SECRET/NODIS.
Source: National Security Archive's Nixon Presidential Materials
Project, National Security Council Files, Box 710, USSR Vol. V,
10/69. Burr, Document 10.
12. U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency (ACDA)
Public Affairs Bureau, "The Launch on Warning Question in
the First Phase of SALT", 21 December 1973. Marked SECRET
NOFORN. Source: ACDA FOIA release to National Security Archive.
Burr, Document 11.
13. Author's personal communication with former
Air Force Personnel. Anonymity retained.
14. This is not an attempt to calculate an actual
probability. It is merely an example to illustrate the cumulative
effect of any low-probability risk that is taken repeatedly, or
accepted continuously, over a period of time.
15. Incident reported by Allan Little in "How
I Stopped Nuclear War", BBC News, 21 October 1998.
16. Sagan, The Limits of Safety.
17. Alan F. Phillips, "20 Mishaps that Might
Have Started Accidental Nuclear War" (Toronto: Defence Research
and Education Centre) 1998.
18. Sagan, p. 176.
19. Ibid., p. 176.
20. Report of the Standing Committee on Foreign
Affairs and International Trade, Canada and the Nuclear Challenge:
Reducing the Political Value of Nuclear Weapons for the Twenty-First
Century, December 1998.
21. Report of The Canberra Commission on the Elimination
of Nuclear Weapons, Executive Summary, 30 January 1997.
22. SCFAIT Report, Recommendation 5, p. 24.
23. Bruce Blair, The Nuclear Turning Point, A Blueprint
for Deep Cuts and De-Alerting, (Washington, D.C.: The Brookings
24. Report of the Committee on Nuclear Policy,
Jump-START: Retaking the Initiative to Reduce Post-Cold War Nuclear
Dangers, The Henry L. Stimson Center, February 1999.
Blair, Bruce in Feiveson, Harold A. et al. The
Nuclear Turning Point, A Blueprint for Deep Cuts and De-Alerting.
Washington, D.C.: The Brookings Institute. 1999.
Blair, Bruce. The Logic of Accidental Nuclear War.
Washington, D.C.: The Brookings Institute 1992.
Burr, William, ed. National Security Archive electronic
briefing book, "Launch on Warning: The development of U.S.
capabilities, 1959-79". April 2001. http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB43
Little, Allan. "How I Stopped Nuclear War".
BBC News. 21 October 1998.
Phillips, Alan. "20 Mishaps that Might Have
Started Accidental Nuclear War". Toronto: Defence Research
and Education Centre. 1998. Online at: www.nuclearfiles.org/anw/
Report of The Canberra Commission on the Elimination
of Nuclear Weapons, 30 January 1997.
Report of the Committee on Nuclear Policy, Jump-START:
Retaking the Initiative to Reduce Post-Cold War Nuclear Dangers.
The Henry L. Stimson Center. February 1999.
Report of the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs
and International Trade, Canada and the Nuclear Challenge: Reducing
the Political Value of Nuclear Weapons for the Twenty-First Century,
Sagan, Scott D. The Limits of Safety. Princeton,
N.J.: Princeton University Press. 1993.
*Dr. Alan Phillips graduated with honours in
physics at Cambridge University in 1941. He spent the rest of
World War II doing radar research for the British Army. After
the war he qualified in medicine at Edinburgh University and specialized
in the treatment of cancer by radiation. He retired in 1984. His
retirement activities have included the study of nuclear armaments
and the risks of accidental nuclear war.
Project Ploughshares Working Papers are published
to contribute to public awareness and debate of issues of disarmament
and development. The views expressed and proposals made in these
papers should not be taken as necessarily reflecting the official
policy of Project Ploughshares.