Dominique LalanneSignatories to the NPT took a small but significant step toward the goal of a nuclear-weapons-free world in May 2010 when they agreed that: “All States need to make special efforts to establish the necessary framework to achieve and maintain a world without nuclear weapons.”. The most significant step was in December 2010 at the General Assembly, 65th plenary meeting, 8 December 2010, 133 yes, 28 no, 23 abstain for the vote of the Convention:  ” The General Assembly Calls once again upon all States immediately to fulfill that obligation by commencing multilateral negotiations leading to an early conclusion of a nuclear weapons convention prohibiting the development, production, testing, deployment, stockpiling, transfer, threat or use of nuclear weapons and providing for their elimination”.

Results for nuclear weapon States : China (yes), France (no), Russia (no), UK (no), US (no), India (yes), Pakistan (yes), Israel (no).

The Nuclear Weapon States (NWS) also committed in the 2010 NPT Final Document to “Consider the legitimate interest of non-nuclear-weapon States in further reducing the operational status of nuclear weapons systems in ways that promote international stability and security.”. And most significant is the vote on de-alerting at the UN General Assembly with only 3 votes “no” by France the UK and the US.

So the NWS have resisted any commitment to go further in either area – i.e. to immediately de-alert and remove all nuclear weapons from high operational readiness or to commence negotiations on a Nuclear Weapons Convention in the near or intermediate future. This resistance is linked to their continuing reliance on nuclear deterrence, and a mistaken belief that nuclear deterrence would be jeopardized by de-alerting existing nuclear weapons systems.

Progress on de-alerting and NWC negotiations could be enhanced by promoting them not as the immediate end to nuclear deterrence, but as processes which lower the role of nuclear weapons gradually while simultaneously strengthening strategic stability.

In this context, progress on de-alerting will make NWC negotiations more feasible. Equally, the initial exploration by NWS of the legal, technical and political elements of a nuclear-weapons-free regime (achieved through a NWC) will generate greater confidence in the possibility of security without nuclear deterrence, making the immediate de-alerting of nuclear weapons more palatable.

There are many reasons to focus on de-alerting in the short term while simultaneously considering and promoting NWC negotiations.

The U.S. and Russia, with 95% of the world’s nuclear weapons, still maintain high-alert postures which permit each of their Presidents to order the launch of more than 1000 strategic nuclear warheads in a matter of a few minutes. Both nations remain frozen in their Cold War nuclear confrontation, constantly poised to unleash massive nuclear forces in response to a perceived nuclear attack from the other side.

Fear of a surprise nuclear attack is what causes leaders in the nuclear weapon states to keep their nuclear forces ready to “Launch On Warning” of attack. Although both the US and Russia deny that they would employ a “Launch On Warning” strategy, it is clear that they retain the capability and option to do so.

The maintenance of launch-ready, high-alert nuclear weapons allow these two states to almost instantly initiate an accidental nuclear war though technical or human error, miscalculation, madness or stupidity. This is true, because a false warning of attack – believed to be true – has the potential to trigger a nuclear “retaliation” which in fact would be a nuclear first-strike.

High-alert nuclear postures create a universal fear of impending nuclear incineration, and thereby prevent any fundamental change in the doctrine of nuclear deterrence.  As long as nuclear forces remain on high-alert, the elimination of nuclear weapons remains impossible and accidental nuclear war remains possible.

The Nuclear Weapon States must accept that an instant nuclear strike is not a fundamental component of deterrence. Such a change in mindset would open the way to a variety of practical steps which would prevent a nuclear launch.

The current high-alert postures in the US and Russia, which  in reality are supported by an unofficial policy of Launch On Warning, could be changed, without any risk, to an official policy of No Launch Before Detonation (NLBD).  Under NLBD, the launch of nuclear forces in response to a warning of nuclear attack, comprised only of electronic data from Early Warning Systems, would be prohibited.  The launch of nuclear forces could not then be triggered by a false warning generated by cyberwarfare, a failure of technical systems, computer hackers, or the launch of non-nuclear warheads carried by strategic missiles.

NLBD could be almost immediately instituted via Presidential decree (without negotiation, legislation, and minimal expense) and should be used as a confidence building measure as part of a de-alerting process.  Accidental, unauthorized or unintended nuclear war caused by a false warning of nuclear attack would become impossible through this simple change in policy. 

The actual elimination of high-alert forces would make it physically impossible to launch upon electronic warning of attack. There are many possible ways to de-alert nuclear weaponry in a verifiable, stepwise manner, which are on record and require only sufficient political will to implement.

While the U.S. and Russia  choose to maintain high-alert postures (and the Launch-On-Warning capabilities that high-alert weapons confer), none of the other NWS (whose nuclear arsenals number in the hundreds of weapons) maintain states of high operational readiness. China has never had high-alert weapons, France and England have each made conscious decisions not to maintain ground-based launch-ready nuclear forces. Furthermore, it has been reported that U.K nuclear forces require days to launch, and French nuclear forces require some hours to fire. Such a change, if made to US and Russian nuclear arsenals, would do much to remove the threat of an accidental apocalypse from the global agenda. The French and UK militaries should be encouraged to talk to their US and Russian counterparts with the aim of persuading them of the merits of a similar change in posture.

For France and the UK, missiles could be removed from submarines without altering a policy of minimal deterrence. The international context does not need a possibility of rapid nuclear strike from either of these two Nuclear States. In case of terrorist attack (generally considered to constitute the most likely danger of producing a nuclear detonation), a nuclear retaliation from a submarine is absolutely not appropriate. No nuclear strike is appropriate for a non-state sponsored terrorist attack.

The real change required here is a change of mindset, of imagination and spirit. Nuclear war should no longer be held up as the instant solution for “national security”, especially when our best scientists warn that nuclear war can end human existence. Our “security” depends primarily upon our ability to understand the problems we face in common; we are a single species threatened with imminent nuclear extinction.

De-alerting is the first step of the Convention. Without de-alerting the Convention is impossible to be accepted. The change of mindset is the first step for the abolition of nuclear weapons. De-alerting makes this change.