Believe it or not, hair-trigger launch alerts are still with us—and perhaps even more dangerous than during the Cold War.
The Russian warplane recently shot down inside Turkey’s border with Syria fits a pattern of brinkmanship and inadvertence that is raising tensions and distrust between Russia and U.S.-led NATO. Low-level military encounters between Moscow and Washington are fanning escalatory sparks not witnessed since the Cold War. And there exists a small but steadily growing risk that this escalation could morph by design or inadvertence into a nuclear threat.
The backdrop for these concerns is that both the United States and Russia maintain their nuclear command posts and many hundreds of strategic nuclear warheads on hair-trigger alert. This is a long-standing practice, or habit, driven by the inertia of the Cold War. The two sides adopted the accident-prone tactic known as launch-on-warning in order to ensure that their strategic forces could be fired before incoming warheads arrived. President Barack Obama’s recent nuclear employment guidance reiterated the need to preserve this option. Our nuclear command system and forces practice it several times a week. So do the Russians.
And believe it or not, Russia has shortened the launch time from what it was during the Cold War. Today, top military command posts in the Moscow area can bypass the entire human chain of command and directly fire by remote control rockets in silos and on trucks as far away as Siberia in only 20 seconds.
Why should this concern us? History shows that crisis interactions, once triggered, take on a life of their own. Military encounters multiply; they become more decentralized, spontaneous and intense. Safeguards are loosened and unfamiliar operational environments cause accidents and unauthorized actions. Miscalculations, misinterpretations and loss of control create a fog of crisis out of which a fog of war may emerge. In short, the slope between the low-level military encounters, the outbreak of crisis and escalation to a nuclear dimension is a steep and slippery one.
Somewhere along this slope, a psychological construct known as “deterrence” is supposed to kick in to prevent the use of nuclear weapons. But deterrence can become an extreme sport during a confrontation, a game of taking and manipulating existential risk, morphing into games of chicken, bluff, coercion and blackmail. The basic idea is to instill fear in an adversary’s mind that events could spin out of control and result in a nuclear war.
That’s especially true since the public doesn’t realize just how little time exists for our leaders to make a decision to use nuclear weapons, even today—and if anything the atmosphere has become even more hair trigger with the threat of cyberwarfare. A launch order is the length of a tweet. Missile crews in turn transmit a short stream of computer signals that immediately ignite the rocket engines of many hundreds of land-based missiles. For the United States, this takes 1 minute. As a former nuclear-missile launch officer, I personally practiced it hundreds of times. We were called Minutemen. U.S. submarine crews take a little longer; they can fire their missiles in 12 minutes.
The last time the U.S. brandished nukes wholesale for the purpose of deterrence was in 1973 when Henry Kissinger and his team raised the global nuclear alert level during the Arab-Israeli war. The aim was to warn Soviet leaders they had better not intervene with troops on the side of Egypt’s encircled military. They had better back down or else face an escalating risk of nuclear war, driven not so much by premeditation as by inadvertence.
Russia’s sounding of nuclear warnings over the Ukraine imbroglio is reminiscent of this Cold-War brinkmanship. The crisis is far from matching Cold War tensions, but there are risk-takers in the game, and we are witnessing the early stages of a spiral of action-reaction cycles along with dangerous unintended consequences.
Close encounters between Russian and Western military aircraft have spiked. NATO fighter planes have made many hundreds of intercepts of Russian warplanes over the past year. Russian warplanes have stepped up provocative overflights of foreign airspace, and also are engaged in muscular interdiction. For instance, a U.S. spy plane probing Russian borders was forced to flee into Swedish airspace to escape harassment by Russian fighters.
At some point these interactions could begin to spin out of control and into what strategist Tom Schelling calls “the threat that leaves something to chance.”
The cycles of action-reaction evident in the Ukraine crisis are leaving more and more to chance. Although the parties seem confident that they are in full control, in fact they are not, and each seems partially oblivious to the threatening nature of their own behavior seen through the eyes of the other party.
In order to reassure U.S. NATO allies in Eastern Europe, we have been flying U.S. strategic bombers to the area, (sans nuclear warheads, but the Russians do not know this for certain), sometimes in provocative formations. Russia initiated or countered with actions and threats involving their own strategic bomber flights along U.S. coastal waters. In the European theater, Russia countered with threats to deploy nuclear-capable missiles (e.g., Iskanders) to new locations.
We also began deploying Aegis destroyers to the Black Sea to reassure allies like Romania. As it turns out, these ships carry dozens of cruise missiles armed with conventional warheads, whose 1,000-mile range allows them to reach all the way to Moscow. By my calculations, these stealthy and accurate weapons could strike without warning and destroy all but the hardest military targets. They could destroy the Kremlin in a flash without warning, along with key Russian installations in its nuclear command, control, communications and early warning network. Moreover, the Russians cannot be 100 percent certain that the missiles are not nuclear-tipped.
That they may pose a decapitation threat probably underlies Russia’s escalatory response: harassment of the destroyers with fighter aircraft and its recent deployment of a fleet of attack submarines to the Black Sea. And in a further escalating response, NATO’s top naval commander has proposed deploying U.S. anti-submarine aircraft to new bases in the region to counter the Russian subs, which now threaten our destroyers, which now threaten Moscow.
Do U.S. leaders understand that the Russians may fear a decapitation threat is emerging, and that this threat may be the underlying driver raising the stakes for Russia to the level of an existential threat warranting preparations for the use of nuclear weapons? I doubt they do.
At some point one side or the other may blink and back off, or maybe not. Tensions could continue to rise until the crisis escalates by intention or inadvertence to the threshold of nuclear use. In the case of Russia, this threshold is low. Russia’s strategy in Europe was devised by President Vladimir Putin himself in the year 2000 in response to NATO’s bombing of the Balkans. The strategy is called “de-escalatory escalation,’ which unleashes tens to hundreds of nuclear weapons in a first strike meant to shock an adversary into paralysis. And so it might, or it might just escalate into a nuclear exchange.
Given the 11- to 30-minute flight times of attacking missiles (11 for submarines lurking off the other side’s coasts, and 30 for rockets flying over the poles to the other side of the planet), nuclear decision-making under launch on warning—the process from warning to decision to action—is extremely rushed, emotionally charged, and pro forma, driven by checklists. I describe it as the rote enactment of a prepared script. In some scenarios, after only a 3-minute assessment of early warning data, the U.S. president receives a 30-second briefing on his nuclear response options and their consequences. He then has a few minutes—12 at most, more likely 3 to 6—to choose one.
Then a short launch order would be transmitted to launch crews.
Our past and continuing reliance on launch-on-warning means that the standard paradigm of stable mutual deterrence based on second-strike retaliation after absorbing a massive attack was and is an intellectual construct without operational meaning. A former four-star commander, retired Gen. George Lee Butler of U.S. strategic forces explains:
“Our policy was premised on being able to accept the first wave of attacks ... Yet at the operational level it was never accepted ... They [nuclear planners] built a construct that powerfully biased the president’s decision process toward launch before the arrival of the first enemy warhead … a move in practice to a system structured to drive the president invariably toward a decision to launch under attack … ”
U.S. presidents went along with this, albeit reluctantly. They all acquiesced to the imperative of making a quick decision to fire on warning. Ronald Reagan (in his memoirs) complained about having only “six minutes to decide how to respond to a blip on a radar scope and decide whether to release Armageddon!” Although admitting it was an accident-prone policy, top security advisers such as Kissinger and Brent Scowcroft argued in a top secret meeting that it was important for the Soviets to think that the U.S. would follow these rules. “It is not to our disadvantage if we appear irrational to the Soviets in this regard,” as Scowcroft put it.
Common sense tells us this is risky. Early warning teams in the U.S. receive sensor data at least once a day that requires them to urgently assess whether a nuclear attack is underway or the alarm is false. Once or twice a week they need to take a second close look, and once in a blue moon the attack looks real enough to bring them to the brink of launch on warning. The early warning team on duty is supposed to take only 3 minutes from the arrival of the initial sensor data to provide a preliminary assessment and notify the top military and civilian leaders if an attack is apparently underway.
The U.S. and Russia have come this close to disaster on several occasions involving false alarms. On one occasion, National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski was seconds away from waking President Jimmy Carter in the middle of the night to inform him that the Soviets had launched an all-out nuclear attack and that Carter would have to choose a retaliatory option without delay. As he began to pick up the phone, he received word that it was a false alarm.
If U.S.-Russian relations again deteriorate to a Cold War-level of nuclear brinksmanship, the risk of mistaken launch may be even higher than it was during the Cold War. During a crisis, the severity of which may not even be appreciated by one or both belligerents—to wit, in 1983-84 paranoid Soviet leaders, fearing a U.S. nuclear first strike, were on the brink of launching a preemptive nuclear attack against the United States, and U.S. leaders had not a clue—the pre-disposition of leaders to believe missile attack warning would of course be heightened. And due to the total collapse of Russia’s satellite early warning network, today Russia’s decision time for launch-on-warning has decreased to 2 to 4 minutes. This situation is a mistaken launch waiting to happen.
It is aggravated by a murky new threat—cyberwarfare. Given our poor comprehension of this cyberthreat, it seems imprudent in the extreme to keep U.S. and Russian command systems poised to launch on warning, and nuclear missiles poised to fly as soon as they receive a short stream of computer signals, whose origin may not be authorized.
Given all this risk-taking, which extends with even greater force to other nuclear weapons countries, and given that deterrence itself is nothing more or less than the manipulation of nuclear risk, we cannot reasonably expect nuclear weapons never to be used. We can reasonably expect to witness the use of nuclear weapons in our lifetime, somewhere in the world, probably in the context of an escalating crisis between some subset of the world’s nine nuclear weapons countries—an India-Pakistan nuclear crisis being the leading but by no means exclusive candidate; a U.S.-Russia nuclear confrontation cannot be ruled out.
The obvious solution is to eliminate nuclear weapons entirely, but of course that will not happen overnight. Meanwhile, the following seven measures would help move the dial further away from nuclear midnight. They draw upon the recent report of the Global Zero Commission on Nuclear Risk Reduction—led by former U.S. Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General James E. Cartwright and Ambassador Thomas Pickering and comprised of former generals, admirals, defense ministers and national security experts from around the world, including from all of the nuclear weapons countries except North Korea:
One. The United States and Russia could agree to eliminate launch-on-warning from their strategy. They should immediately cease conducting exercises that involve launching strategic missiles on the basis of data from early warning sensors.
Two. They could agree to begin taking their strategic missile forces off of hair trigger, by adopting physical measures such as downloading warheads to storage that extend the time required to launch from the current period of minutes to a period of days. Beginning with an immediate 20 percent reduction in the size of their missile forces on high alert, the United States and Russia should verifiably stand down all their forces in phases over the next 10 years.
Three. All the nuclear weapons countries could agree to refrain from putting any nuclear forces on high alert except under tightly controlled conditions. This agreement would sharply limit the scope and timing of any re-alerting undertaken for training, exercising, or national security emergencies, and would require pre-notification of such activities.
Four. The U.S. and Russia could work with other nuclear establishments to share knowledge, best practices and technologies in the area of safety and security.
Five. The U.S. and Russia, perhaps with China, could lead an effort to ban cyberwarfare aimed at nuclear command, control, communications and early warning networks. These networks should be strictly off limits to cyberattack.
Six. Confidence-building measures agreed to through military-to-military dialogue could help reduce the risk that geopolitical tensions around the world could escalate by design or inadvertence to the nuclear threshold.
In addition, Russian and U.S. leaders and experts need to consult on possible ways to reduce risks of crisis escalation growing out of the current U.S.-Russian tension and enhance prospects of resuming constructive bilateral discussions on a range of core security issues. In the area of nuclear risk reduction, they should begin discussing possible bilateral as well as multilateral measures to reduce the risks of nuclear weapons use worldwide, including accidental detonations, unauthorized “insider” launch, cyberlaunch or degradation of nuclear command-control-communications and early warning networks, false warning of enemy missile attack, rapid conflict escalation leading to rushed nuclear decision-making, and terrorist theft or seizure of deployed or stored nuclear weapons.
Hopefully, they together could identify some important bilateral and multilateral measures—best practices in the areas of crisis communications, prevention of dangerous military activities, nuclear operations, postures, command-control, safety and security—on which we have common ground, as the basis for continued dialogue to advance the most promising measures.
Bruce G. Blair is a nuclear security expert and a research scholar at the Program on Science and Global Security at Princeton and the co-founder of Global Zero.