“…the United States should work with other nuclear weapons nations to remove as many weapons as possible from high-alert, hair-trigger status- another unnecessary vestige of Cold War confrontation- to reduce the risks the of accidental or unauthorized launch.”
-Republican Platform 2000
Although the Cold War ended more than a decade ago, estimates of the global nuclear stockpile range from a low of 24,700 to 33,307 suspected nuclear weapons. Nearly five thousand nuclear weapons in the US and Russian arsenals remain on high-alert, ready to be launched at a moment’s notice. Although the US and Russia have announced their formal “de-targeting” of one another, the agreement is meaningless as both countries maintain their weapons on “hair-trigger” alert and in “launch-on” warning posture. Also, the US Department of Defense stated in its “Annual Defense Report 2001” that although missiles on “hair-trigger” alert “are not targeted against any specific country,” these missiles “can be assigned targets on short notice.”
Contrary to conventional thought, keeping nuclear weapons on hair-trigger alert does not enforce the security of any nation. In fact, it actually has the adverse effect in that it makes every individual and nation less secure. The Canberra Commission concluded in its 1996 report that taking nuclear weapons off alert is an immediate action and practical step to reduce the risk of nuclear war and enhance the security of all states. The Canberra Commission also recommended de-alerting as a way to develop strategic stability and build trust between the US and Russia. De-alerting was also incorporated into the 1998, 1999 and 2000 text of the New Agenda Resolution passed in the UN General Assembly. In addition it has been the subject of two resolutions passed by the Australian Senate on 12 August and 20 September 1999.
One of Russia’s greatest fears is the US nuclear submarines which house Trident missiles, capable of reaching Russia’s mainland in 10 minutes. On January 25, 1995 a Russian radar crew spotted a fast-moving object they couldn’t identify above the Barents Sea at Russia’s northern border. Suddenly, the missile separated into several parts, much like a Trident missile would do, and the Russian crew watching the radar immediately signaled the nuclear briefcases carried by then President, Boris Yeltsin and top defense officials.
Orders were immediately issued to the Russian Strategic Forces to prepare for a missile launch order. For four minutes, Russian commanders stood by, ready to launch at command. Russian policy permits Strategic Forces to launch retaliatory missiles before enemy missiles hit Russian territory. Just eight minutes after the first warning was sent, the mysterious object disappeared into the sea and a retaliatory nuclear strike was averted. Later, Russians learned that the object was a scientific rocket launched from Norway to study the Northern lights. Although the Russian government was notified prior to the launch, no one passed on the information to the radar crew. The possibility of an accidental launch, such as this one, still exists today, even though the Cold War ended more than ten years ago.
Miscommunication, volatile relations, mistrust, and computer and human errors could easily cause the US and Russia to fire by accident or miscalculation at each other. Of equal concern is the deterioration of the Russian nuclear arsenal. Due to a lack of financial resources, it has become increasingly difficult for Russia to maintain its arsenal. At any given time, only two of Russia’s nuclear submarines are at sea on patrol. Additionally, five of the eight radar stations which formed the Soviet system are outside of Russia.
The US and Russia have come to the “brink” of launching their nuclear weapons on several occasions because of miscommunication, misunderstanding or poor data. Removing nuclear weapons from high-alert status would eliminate the risk of a global nuclear catastrophe caused by a hasty reaction from any nuclear weapons state.