The Prompt Launch Scare
There is little doubt that using nuclear weapons is the most awesome decision an American president would have to make.
But recent news stories about how, in a crisis, a president would have to quickly launch nuclear-armed missiles are dead wrong.
For many years we have heard concerns our nuclear weapons are on a “hair trigger” status, ready to be launched upon computer warning of an enemy attack. It has even been claimed that our nuclear systems are required by policy to launch in just minutes from the time our warning systems detect a nuclear attack on the United States.
Now public and government literature contain a number of references on how long it would take our missiles to be launched once an authentic launch order is received from the president. Without expressing a view as to what the exact number is, suffice to say a president’s order could be executed in an extremely timely manner.
However, if there is confirmation the United States is under attack from missiles from Russia or another adversary, the idea has taken hold that since a president could launch our nuclear missiles in a matter of minutes, somehow a president has to launch our nuclear-armed missiles in such a manner in order to effectively deter our adversaries.
If true, this would certainly place any American president under intense pressure to order a launch quickly once informed an attack is imminent. And if we assume our nuclear posture requires a “prompt” launch response, it is also assumed a president could recklessly launch our nuclear missiles accidentally or by miscalculation.
None of these assumptions are valid. The prompt launch of our nuclear missiles is not required nor is it U.S. policy. There is also no U.S. policy to launch our missiles upon receipt of computer warning or even receipt of a confirmation of an attack. And it has been this way for decades.
Not only that, we now have alternatives to retaliation. As President Reagan argued three decades ago, “Would it not be better to save lives than avenge them?” Thus. since 2004 we have had the capability to stop a limited nuclear missile attack using either our current national missile defenses in Alaska and California or the new regional missiles defenses we are building in such countries as Poland and Romania. To emphasize, retaliation is not our only option.
For decades, U.S. strategic deterrent policy has been designed to provide an American president, during a crisis, considerable time for consultations with military and civilian commanders. Since the establishment of the Triad and in the 35 million minutes during which our land and sea-based missiles have been on alert, no American president has ever ordered these missiles to be fired, despite the myriad serious crises we have encountered, including those involving our nuclear-armed adversaries. Additionally, there have been only a few times the United States has even gone on a higher nuclear alert level during a crisis.
Our nuclear Triad of bombers, submarines, and land-based ICBMs are deployed in a manner that makes the expeditious use of nuclear weapons unnecessary. Although these missiles can be launched by a presidential order in a matter of minutes, we spend many tens of billions of dollars annually to make our nuclear systems highly survivable. Thus there is no imperative requiring the president to launch on warning.
For example, the design of our Triad also means an enemy attack on our submarine, bomber, and ICBM assets are impossible to execute in a way that would disarm the United States. Consequently, there is no rush for an American president to launch “promptly” because our nuclear deterrent forces will survive an initial attack in sufficient numbers to be able to effectively retaliate. In short, there is no fear of “Use ‘em or lose ‘em.” At least 400 land-based missiles will survive. Our submarines in transit to their patrol area and those in their patrol “box” will be fully able to retaliate. And our bombers that get airborne during a crisis are available.
Consequently, there is no “inevitability” of use, as during a crisis we can take prudent measures to expand the airborne deployment of our bombers, put more of our submarines to sea, or put more ICBMs on alert.
Ironically, many of the same critics who worry about the supposed unstable “hair trigger” status of our nuclear forces, are simultaneously proposing to eliminate upwards of 80% of our nuclear deterrent assets, all in the name of “stability.”
But such a reduced force would have the ironic effect of making it easier for an attacker to disarm the United States. Such cuts would reduce our nuclear forces to roughly 10 targets, a dangerously small number which might very well tempt our adversaries to attack us first in a crisis, putting their forces on a “hair trigger”. Ultimately such a small force makes it more difficult for the United States to maintain a secure, survivable second strike retaliatory nuclear deterrent capability.
This all should be well understood. Much of today’s deterrent strategy was laid out by President Reagan in his detailed plan for nuclear deterrence and nuclear reductions in late 1981. The National Security Defense Directives issued by the administration at that time are examined in detail in Sven Kraemer’s new book “Inside the Cold War from Marx to Reagan.”
Kraemer explains the Reagan administration laid out five key principles that guided our strategic nuclear deterrent strategy then and still do today. First, nuclear modernization is the critical partner with arms control reductions. Second, arms control counting rules favor strategic bombers, enhancing stability as these forces are recallable and man operated. Third, land-based missiles are limited to one warhead, further diminishing the temptation to use them as first strike weapons. Fourth, a significant percentage of our nuclear deterrent goes to sea, also increasing crisis stability and emphasizing the retaliatory nature of nuclear deterrence. And fifth, missile defenses are deployed in a robust fashion to deal with small scale nuclear attacks for which massive retaliation makes no sense.
The U.S. has followed these principles in every area, but to varying degrees. Russia and China have not. That resulting strategic imbalance—where Russia has a huge inventory of multiple warhead land-based missiles—requires the U.S. to continue its strategic modernization effort that this administration and Congress, on a bi-partisan basis, have repeatedly endorsed.
Some critics support killing key parts of this modernization effort, specifically the cruise missile carrying bomber, or have said the nuclear modernization effort—at 4% of the defense budget—is too expensive.
Incongruously, these same critics have worried about a nuclear deterrent that once fired cannot be called back—but the manned bomber, the one weapon leg of the Triad which may be recalled, is the very weapon system they wish to truncate.
We know Russia has repeatedly threatened the U.S. and its allies with nuclear weapons, particularly those of a regional nature. We also know the previous “reset” strategy didn’t work with Russia.
But despite that, the current overall nuclear modernization strategy is the right one. And we should also emphasize our strategy relies on a modernized credible retaliatory response and not on any kind of unnecessary “quick launch” strategy.
Thus, during the 70 years of the nuclear age, no adversary has attacked the U.S. with nuclear weapons. Why? Well, our nuclear strategy works, and has worked perfectly. Every adversary knows we have the capability and the will to retaliate with devastating force to any attack on our country.
In addition, no president has ever been put in a position where we had to launch our nuclear weapons in a crisis because we did not have the time to carefully consider our security options.
No use has been the best use. No launch has been the best launch.
Because of the complementary legs of the American Triad—more than 500 highly survivable multiple platforms spread out over land, sea, and air—a modernized force would ensure that during a crisis, no immediate decision to launch would be required. Our deterrent force and strategy are thus jointly designed precisely to avoid any prompt launch pressures. That is why the system works. As General Larry Welch, former SAC Commander has noted, “It has worked perfectly—for 70 years.”