The Nuclear Hair Trigger Breaks the 60 Minutes Clock

The Nuclear Hair Trigger Breaks the 60 Minutes Clock
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The American public could be forgiven for believing our nuclear deterrent is in a precarious “hair trigger status” and that our nuclear missiles are in danger of being mistakenly launched during the next crisis. Just this past week 60 Minutes told the American people the current administration has an official policy of launching our nuclear weapons upon just a warning of a nuclear attack.

Is this true?   

In a crisis with Russia, for example, the United States wants very much to deter the use of force against us or our allies, especially the possible use of nuclear weapons. To do this, both nations have enough nuclear weapons to survive an attack and, if desired, deliberately retaliate with what is termed a “second strike”. That is how deterrence is maintained, even during a crisis.

Well, a former Secretary of Defense, Dr. William Perry, told 60 Minutes the United States wouldn’t wait. He said the U.S. actually has a dangerous policy today that we also had during the Cold War: “We still have launch on warning, the same policy we had then. We still have the same hair trigger response.” In short, he claims the U.S. actually relies on a launch on warning policy.

Perry and 60 Minutes seem to think that our President will be under a lot of pressure to immediately launch our land-based missiles before they can be destroyed by the incoming enemy warheads. Now to be clear, our highly sophisticated radars and sensors will indicate where the enemy warheads are coming from and where they will probably land. This warning provides the President valuable decision time, but does it really put him or her under pressure to “use ‘em or lose ‘em” and reflexively launch our own nuclear-armed missiles?

Well, the theory is our land-based missiles are in fixed silos. And thus in a crisis, the Russians, for example, would attack those silos first because they know where they are. Thus Perry and 60 Minutes worry that the President cannot wait, but must rely on a launch on warning policy and the country will someday rush into nuclear war.

What to do? Well, since ICBMs [supposedly] have to be fired first to have any utility, they could be either eliminated or at least “turned off.” This would apparently take away the temptation a President would have to "use 'em or lose 'em" in a crisis.

Some analysts including Dr. Perry have long advocated getting rid of ICBMs and rely instead only on our submarines for a retaliatory missile capability. But there is strong support for ICBMS in Congress and getting rid of them is not likely. And just this past month, the administration approved a key milestone in the development of a new modernized land base missile system to replace Minuteman ICBMs indicating they support the system as well.  

Not being able to get rid of the land-based missiles, the other option is to “turn our missiles off”. “De-alerting” it is called.  

Is this a good idea?

The problems are manifold. First, you can’t verify anybody has turned the missiles off. It may make you feel good. But the Russians have noted—correctly-- if in a crisis the missiles are turned back on, it is impossible for the other side to know this solely through satellite or technical observation.

Second, if by chance our adversary does find out we have “re-alerted”, or thinks we have, they may think we are getting ready to fire our missiles, for otherwise why would we turn the missiles back on? This would heighten instability and increase the increase the potential of first-strike, supposedly diminished by the de-alerting in the first place.

Well, our missiles do not need to be turned off or eliminated. They are in no danger of being launched. Our land and sea-based missiles have been on alert an astounding 36.4 million minutes since they first were deployed. President Kennedy said the Minuteman missiles, which went on alert in October 1962, saved the country during the Cuban missile crisis - “Minuteman was my ace in the hole” said the President.

The theory of ICBM vulnerability rests on the premise of the likelihood of the Russians striking us first with nuclear weapons ---trying to take out all of our ICBMs, for example. An act most would agree would be highly irrational. On that, we agree.

So the obvious question is why would the Russians be so reckless to attack our land-based missiles in the first place? They know our surviving ICBMs, our bombers on alert and our at-sea submarine missiles are all capable of launching a devastating retaliatory strike. 

Every former military commander of our nuclear forces over the past 35 years, and I have talked with every one of them numerous times, are unanimous in agreement on two things. First, we do not have a launch on warning policy. Second, the US nuclear deterrent forces are deployed in such a manner that such a launch on warning policy is totally nonsensical.

Why? Very simple. Our forces are survivable, in credible numbers and capability to allow under all conditions a retaliatory, second strike against our enemies if that is what the President requires.

Now our forces can only be survivable and deterrence stable if we keep the current Triad of submarines, bombers, and land-based missiles. Getting rid of Minuteman, for example, would reduce our current nuclear assets from over 500 to no more than 10 discrete targets---5 bomber and sub bases plus 3-5 submarines at sea. That is a 98% reduction. Certainly, if the bad guys develop the technology to find our submarines at sea we would have made it easy for our enemies to disarm us. But with 450 Minuteman missile silos remaining in our force, taking all these nuclear assets out plus our other deterrent forces is virtually an impossible task. 

60 Minutes spends a lot of time explaining how careful the country deploys its nuclear weapons and the many decisions that have to be made to use them, and how the President’s authority is carefully managed. All good.

In reality, de-alerting is a non-solution in search of a non-existent problem. For the 70 years of the nuclear age and the more than 50 years of the nuclear missile age, no American President has never launched these weapons even though upwards of 98-99% are on alert.

So is US policy to launch on warning, even though we don’t need to have such a policy? Are the American people worried for good reason?  

Well, let us go back almost twenty years. Dr. Perry retired as Secretary of Defense in January 1997.

On November 1, 1997, Robert Bell of the Clinton administration’s National Security Council staff, noted the new Presidential defense directive (PDD’s) on nuclear policy clearly stated that continued US nuclear policy was not launch on warning. He said media reports to the contrary were totally wrong.

Bell emphasized: “We direct our military forces to continue to posture themselves in such a way as to not rely on launch on warning—to be able to absorb a nuclear strike and still have enough force surviving to constitute credible deterrence."

Bell further explained the US always had the "technical capability” to implement a policy of launch on warning, it had chosen not to do so. Said Bell, "Our policy is to confirm that we are under nuclear attack with actual detonations before retaliating."

US policy is now and was then not to launch on warning. And when Dr. Perry was Secretary of Defense we had no launch on warning policy, as Bob Bell emphasized. Couldn’t 60 Minutes have found this out?

60 Minutes interviewed the head of our US Strategic Command, Admiral Cecil Haney. He is the highest ranking military officer in charge of keeping our nuclear forces safe, secure and ready. Did 60 Minutes ask Admiral Haney whether the US has a policy of launch on warning?

No, they did not.

Did they run out of time because their clock broke?



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