No Launch on Warning

Tasneem Jamal

Alan F. Phillips

Working Paper 02-1


Any post-Cold War temptation to complacency in the pursuit of nuclear weapons prohibition or abolition should quickly give way to a sobering sense of urgency on reading Alan Phillips’ account of nuclear arsenals poised for launching within minutes of an order to do so. And the fact that such an order could (in some instances almost has) come in response to a false warning of attack only serves to add a sense of the macabre to the urgency. It’s not that Dr. Phillips’ account is alarmist; quite the opposite. Through careful analysis he concludes that a clear policy rejecting launch-on-warning is logical, possible, and necessary to dramatically reduce the risk of inadvertent nuclear war.

Nuclear weapons abolition remains an urgent goal that must be pursued as a longer-term objective. But until nuclear disarmament is a reality, it is critically important that nuclear weapon states be persuaded to take all possible measures to reduce nuclear dangers – and prominent among these dangers is the possibility of nuclear attacks being precipitated by a false warning of attack. Policies to preclude launch-on-warning would yield immediate benefits by reducing the risk of inadvertent war, and would also help pave the way toward more extensive de-alerting measures to make launch-on-warning impossible.

We commend to nuclear disarmament NGOs and advocates both the analysis and the policy proposal advanced here by Dr. Phillips. His is an important contribution that clearly sets out an issue of immediate concern and a credible and achievable policy response. This study will help the nuclear disarmament community explore ways in which support for a policy of no launch-on-warning can become part of our ongoing efforts toward complete and irreversible nuclear disarmament.

1. Introduction

2. Definition of Launch on Warning

3. The Emergence of a Launch on Warning Policy

4. The Danger of Inadvertent Nuclear War from False Warnings or Chance Coincidences

5. Distinguishing Between De-Alerting and NO L-o-W

6. Exploring the NO L-o-W Posture

7. The Effect on Deterrence

8. De-Alerting: Methods, Benefits and Difficulties

9. Conclusion

1. Introduction

This paper argues for abandoning the policy of “Launch on Warning” (L-o-W). The discussion is based on the simplifying assumption of a one-against-one nuclear stand-off between the US and Russia, with the stability in that stand-off based on nuclear deterrence. The assumption is appropriate because L-o-W is only relevant between adversaries that regard themselves as mutually vulnerable to a “disarming first strike,” rather than, say, to a surprise attack on cities. It is those two countries, and probably only those two, that now follow a policy, or retain the option, of L-o-W. In the present relationship between the two countries an intentionally started nuclear war is extremely improbable. There is, however, the risk of an unintended war starting from one cause or another, and under the policy of L-o-W the likeliest cause is a false warning.

The prevention of any nuclear war is of very great importance. Prevention of nuclear war between Russia and the US is vital for the future of the world because both countries retain such large arsenals that if they should go to war the result would be much more extensive than complete destruction of both countries. Radioactivity, and smoke from the many firestorms, would severely affect at least the whole of the northern hemisphere. Nuclear winter, widespread starvation, and other consequences might even combine to exterminate the human species. To risk such a disaster happening because of a mere accident to a man-made system is absurd.

While the claim that long-term stability can be assured through nuclear deterrence must be rejected, deterrence remains the central basis upon which arms control discussions, and agreements, between the governments and military establishments of the US and Russia take place. Nuclear deterrence is assumed for the present discussion because the focus here is on changing just one feature in the two States’ military posture. It is argued that the change to a policy of “NO L-o-W” is a logical necessity and is readily possible; it is urgently needed, and it does not require any immediate change in the assumptions upon which current policy is based, whether these are valid or not. The change can and should be made immediately. It can be initiated unilaterally, without causing relative strategic advantage or disadvantage to either side. It does not require formal agreement, nor verification.

The change from L-o-W to NO L-o-W is financially neutral, not requiring substantial expense, nor yielding significant savings. It does not require physical changes to the weapons systems.
2. Definition of Launch on Warning

The term “Launch on Warning” is used here in reference to retaliation with rocket-mounted nuclear weapons to a perceived nuclear attack. A L-o-W capacity is one that would make it possible to launch a retaliatory attack in response to a warning (by radar or satellite sensors) of attacking missiles, before any incoming warhead had arrived and detonated. This allows the option of L-o-W, which permits a decision, within the few minutes available between the warning and the predicted time of first impact, on whether or not to launch a response before impact. A L-o-W policy is one in which it would be standard procedure for a retaliatory launch to be actively considered and probably carried out before the first impact, though in the American case only after authorization by the President, assuming he could be consulted within the short time available.

The term “Launch under Attack” has been used less precisely by US Strategic Command and in Congress, possibly sometimes with the intention of causing confusion. It is commonly presented as meaning the prompt launch of retaliation as soon as one or more incoming nuclear weapons have detonated. However, in the late 1970’s it was included in the dictionary of military terms by the Joint Chiefs of Staff and explained as “execution by National Command Authorities of Single Integrated Operational Plan Forces subsequent to tactical warning of strategic nuclear attack against the United States and prior to first impact.”1 This definition is identical to L-o-W. But at times military personnel have said their policy is not L-o-W, but “launch under attack”, implying that there is a difference, and that retaliation would be launched only after impact or detonation.

An alternative distinction has sometimes been implied: that L-o-W means to launch on a warning from one system (radar or satellite) alone, and “launch under attack” means launching retaliation before detonation, but only if the warning is confirmed by a second system.2

In any event, both Russia and the US have launch on warning capacity, and thus must be assumed to maintain a L-o-W policy3 or, at the very least, a policy of considering the option of L-o-W.
3. The Emergence of a Launch on Warning Policy

The avowed function of nuclear-armed ballistic missiles is “deterrence”. Deterrence is in theory achieved when a potential attacker is convinced that an attack will be unavoidably followed by retaliation so devastating that it would be irrational to attack in the first place.

As the accuracy of nuclear weapons advanced, it was realized that a massive pre-emptive salvo directed at command and control systems and retaliatory weapons could diminish or eliminate a capacity to retaliate. If either side believed it could achieve such a “disarming first strike”, it might be tempted to attack. To avoid this weakening of deterrence through the pre-emptive destruction of an adversary’s retaliatory forces, both sides explored the possibility of launching retaliation before the first impact of a pre-emptive strike – thus “Launch On Warning”. It was probably put into effect as soon as such a quick launch became possible, the development of solid fuel as rocket propellant (around 1960) being a decisive factor.

During atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons in the early 1950’s the electrical phenomenon called “Electro-Magnetic Pulse” (EMP) was discovered.4 Around 1960 the US conducted a series of high-altitude nuclear explosions to investigate it, incidentally causing significant disruption of radio communications each time. The purpose was presumably two-fold: to explore the possibility that the phenomenon could be used by either side to enable a disarming first strike, and to study methods of protecting their own electronic equipment so that deterrence would be maintained even if the enemy was planning to use EMP. This possibility that electrical disruptions might prevent retaliation provided a second reason to adopt L-o-W.

As early as 1960 the propriety and morality of adopting L-o-W was being discussed because of the recognized danger of launching on a false warning, and so starting an unintended nuclear war.5 In that year the Planning Board wrote that it was “essential” to avoid the possibility of launching unrecallable missiles based on a false warning. They stressed the importance of a “reliable bomb alarm system to provide early positive information of actual missile hits.”6 Such a system was in fact installed. It was not without defects, and at least once these caused a spurious alert.7

In 1962, Robert McNamara said that as long as he was Secretary of Defense and Jack Kennedy was President, the US would never launch on warning.8 But the same year, the Secretary of the Air Force must have been thinking of L-o-W when he informed Kennedy that once the Minuteman missiles had been deployed in the first complex, in their “normal alert status”, all “twenty missiles will be able to be launched in thirty seconds.”9

A discussion in 1969 is on record as showing that some who were opposing “Ballistic Missile Defense” favoured L-o-W, but The White House is said to have opposed it “on the grounds that 50% of warnings from Over-the-Horizon Radar were false”.10 (No true warning of a nuclear ballistic missile attack has ever been received, so presumably the other 50% were true observations of test rocket launches.) However the newly developed satellite early warning system was estimated to produce only one false warning per year, which appears to have been regarded as acceptable. Georgy Arbatov, a Soviet deterrence specialist who had joined the National Security Council, assured Council members that “neither side would wait if it received warning of an attack but instead … would simply empty its silos by launching a counter-strike at once.”11 That reduces concern about failure of deterrence against a surprise first strike, but underlines the danger from a false warning.

It is probable that by 1969 L-o-W was the military policy on both sides, and had been for a number of years, notwithstanding the record that in 1973 Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird expressed the hope that “that kind of strategy would never be adopted by any Administration or by any Congress.”12 The recollections of former officers and enlisted men of Strategic Air Command (SAC) from the early 1970’s confirm that L-o-W was in effect then.13

The capability, and presumably the policy, of L-o-W are retained by the US and Russia, even though the Cold War is regarded as over. This seems inexcusably dangerous.

4. The Danger of Inadvertent Nuclear War from False Warnings or Chance Coincidences

Launch on Warning has kept the world exposed, for at least 30 years, to the danger of a nuclear war caused by nothing but a coincidence of radar, sensor, or computer glitches, and a temporary failure of human alertness to appreciate that an unexpected message of attack from the warning system is false, the enemy having done nothing. There is at most 20 minutes for the human operators and commanders to call and conduct a “threat conference”, while the chief of Strategic Command is put in touch with the President to advise him, and the President decides whether to order retaliation. The disaster of an accidental nuclear war has not happened yet, in spite of a large number of false warnings of which at least a few have had very dangerous features. This is a credit to the care and alertness of the military in both Russia and the US. It should not be taken as reassurance. A single instance of launch of nuclear weapons on a false warning would result in nuclear war, and the end of civilization, just as surely as a nuclear war started by an actual attack. There would be no chance to review the system to make it safer after one failure of that kind.

The threat conferences require, and so far have achieved, the extraordinary standard of perfect accuracy. They have not been rare events. Probably most of them have been routine and it was easy to exclude a real attack; others have been serious enough that the silo lids were rolled back. To get an idea of how the laws of chance apply to the situation, suppose we make a very conservative assumption: that just one conference a year had a risk of error as high as 1% (and that the rest had a much lower risk). It is a simple calculation to show that taking one 1% risk of disaster per year for 30 years results in a 26% probability of one actual disaster in that period. On that assumption, then, we had approximately 3 to 1 odds in favour of surviving the period 1970 – 2000, and we did survive. But that means, from the risk of accidental war alone, we had (on that assumption) a one in four chance of not surviving. A single trial of Russian roulette is safer: it gives a one in six chance of death, or 5 to 1 odds in favour of surviving.14

During the Cold War, many mishaps within the nuclear retaliation system on the US side are known to have occurred, including false warnings. There must have also been many similar incidents on the Russian side. One has been reported in which a Russian officer decided on his own initiative not to report an apparently grave warning on his computer screen, on the correct belief that it was a false warning. He may have saved the world, but was disgraced for failing to follow his orders; his career was ruined, and he suffered a mental breakdown.15

In a study of rival theories of accident probabilities, Scott Sagan described a large number of errors and accidents within the US nuclear deterrence system. He concluded that the risk of nuclear war from accidents had not been excessive.16 I came to the opposite conclusion from his data. I have collected 20 instances of mishaps, from that source and others, which with less alertness among military officers, or accompanied by chance by some coincidental problem, might have started a nuclear war.17

One example of a situation which was difficult to assess correctly at the Command Center, was this: On the night of 24 November, 1961, all communication links between SAC HQ and NORAD went dead, and so cut SAC HQ off from the three Ballistic Missile Early Warning Sites, at Thule (Greenland), Clear (Alaska), and Fylingdales (England).18 For General Power at SAC HQ, there were two possible explanations: either enemy action, or the coincidental failure of all the communication systems, which had multiple ostensibly independent routes including commercial telephone circuits. The SAC bases in the US were therefore alerted by a code message instructing B-52 nuclear bomber crews to prepare to take off, and start their engines, but not to take off without further orders. In the hope of clarifying the situation, radio contact was made with an orbiting B-52 on airborne alert which was near Thule (5,000 kilometers away) at the time. Its crew contacted the Thule base and could report that no attack had taken place, so the alert was cancelled. The reason for the “coincidental” failure was that the “independent” routes for telephone and telegraph between NORAD and SAC HQ all ran through one relay station in Colorado. At that relay station a small fire had interrupted all the lines.19

There was a coincidental mishap during this event, which could have been disastrous. It seems there was an error in transmitting the alert code to 380th Bomb Wing at Plattsburg, New York. A former aircraft maintenance technician who was serving at that B-52 bomber base, recently told the author his vivid recollection of the incident. The code order first received by the bomber crews was “alpha”, instructing them to take off and proceed directly to their pre-assigned targets, and bomb. They had never received that code before. Before any bomber had taken off the code was corrected to “cocoa”, meaning “wait with engines running”. If the corrected code had not been received in time it could have been very difficult to stop the bombers.

The episode just described took place before L-o-W was instituted for the ICBMs that were in service. By 1979 the policy of L-o-W was in effect and in that year, on the morning of 9 November, a war games tape was running on a reserve computer when failure of the operational computer automatically switched in the reserve to take its place. The Threat Conference saw the picture of a massive attack in a realistic trajectory from Russian launch sites. On that occasion, preparation to retaliate got as far as launch of the president’s National Emergency Airborne Command Post (though without the president), before the error was discovered.

The most recent example known to the public was on 25 January 1995 when, as described in a report of the Standing Committee for Foreign Affairs and International Trade, “the Russian missile early warning system detected a scientific rocket launched off the coast of Norway. This area is frequented by U.S. submarines, whose ballistic missiles could scatter eight nuclear warheads over Moscow within fifteen minutes. Norway had informed the Russian Foreign Ministry about the upcoming launch, but this information had not been transmitted to the military. Over the next several minutes President Yeltsin was informed of the possible American attack, and, for the first time ever, his ‘nuclear briefcase’ was switched into alert mode for emergency use, allowing him to order a full Russian nuclear response. Tension mounted as the rocket separated into several stages, but the crisis ended after about eight minutes (just a few minutes before the procedural deadline to respond to an impending nuclear attack) when it became clear that the rocket was headed out to sea and would not pose a threat to Russia.”20

5. Distinguishing Between De-Alerting and NO L-o-W

“De-alerting” is a term commonly used in suggestions and recommendations that nuclear weapons should be taken off “hair-trigger alert” by introducing physical changes to impose an unavoidable delay between a decision to launch and the irrevocable step that actually starts the launch. With such a delay L-o-W would of course be impossible; but it is possible and highly desirable to abandon the policy of L-o-W immediately, without waiting for the changes involved in introducing such a delay.

Several reports to governments have indicated the importance of abandoning a hair-trigger stance with weapons of such terrible destructive power. Most of them, however, have not distinguished between terms like “high alert” or “hair-trigger alert”, which usually imply the technical ability to “launch on warning”, and the policy or option actually to launch before any incoming warhead explodes.

The Canberra Commission on the Elimination of Nuclear Weapons was established by the Australian government in 1995. Its mandate was to recommend practical steps towards elimination of nuclear weapons from the world. Its report states: “The first requirement for movement towards a nuclear weapon free world is for the five nuclear weapon states to commit themselves unequivocally to proceed with all deliberate speed to a world without nuclear weapons …”.21 It then defines six additional immediate steps starting with these two: taking nuclear forces off alert, and removal of warheads from delivery vehicles.

The Canberra report emphasizes the danger of launch on warning or launch-under-attack options, implying that they are different, but it does not indicate that giving up either option can be different from “taking nuclear forces off alert.” It goes on to say that “taking nuclear forces off alert could be verified by national technical means and nuclear weapon state inspection arrangements. In the first instance, reductions in alert status could be adopted by the nuclear weapon states unilaterally.” The report does not make the point that, if nuclear deterrence is to remain the policy, it is acceptable to abandon L-o-W unilaterally but unacceptable to de-alert unilaterally.

Similarly, the Report of the Canadian Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Trade, entitled Canada and the Nuclear Challenge: Reducing the Political Value of Nuclear Weapons for the Twenty-First Century, discusses in a general way the need for both Russia and the United States to reduce the alert status of their nuclear arsenals:

In the interest of increased nuclear safety and stability, and as a means to advance toward the broader goal of eliminating nuclear weapons, the Committee recommends that the Government of Canada endorse the concept of de-alerting all nuclear forces, subject to reciprocity and verification – including the arsenals of the permanent members of the UN Security Council and the three nuclear-weapons-capable States – and encourage their governments to pursue this option.22

At least two studies have advocated the adoption of a clear policy declaration on rejecting launch on warning options as a first step toward de-alerting. A major work from the Brookings Institute, Nuclear Turning Point: A Blueprint for Deep Cuts and De-alerting Nuclear Weapons, defines de-alerting as a two-step process. “It seeks first to eliminate the hair-trigger option of launch on warning” – essentially a policy commitment not to exercise a L-o-W option, even though there is a capacity for it. Second, in the words of the Brookings paper, de-alerting moves from a policy to forego L-o-W options, to measures that physically “extend the launch preparation time to days, weeks, or longer through graduated reciprocal measures instituted by the two parties.”23

The Committee on Nuclear Policy coordinated by the Stimson Center made a similar recommendation in its 1999 report. It called on the United States to “declare its intention, with a parallel, reciprocal commitment from Russia, to eliminate the launch-on-warning option from nuclear war plans.” In other words, it calls on the two states to make mutual commitments to abandon launch on warning options. This commitment, the report said, should be followed by “discussions among the five nuclear weapon states on verifiably removing all nuclear forces from hair-trigger alert.” 24

These are important calls for the public rejection of L-o-W postures and options, but in both instances the reports call for reciprocal NO L-o-W policies. Under deterrence theory and practice, however, rejection of the launch on warning policy or option does not need to be symmetrical or verifiable. It is of value even if only one side does it, and it is argued below that the only theoretical disadvantage in rejecting L-o-W is actually less if it is not verified. If the US were to immediately renounce the L-o-W option, it would then be in a position to tell Russia why it has done so and ask for a reciprocal commitment. One side making that commitment and carrying it out unilaterally does not produce any relative advantage or disadvantage for either side, but it does confer an advantage on both sides, namely, lowering the risk of accidental war.

6. Exploring the NO L-o-W Posture

If Russia and the US were actually to abandon the option of launching on warning, even while they retained the capability, they would eliminate the risk of a nuclear war being started by a false warning. Since a false warning is immediately revealed as such when the predicted time has passed for the first rockets to arrive and no detonation has been detected, simply delaying retaliation until there has been a nuclear detonation guarantees that a war will not be started accidentally from that cause.

Incidents as a result of which a purely accidental war might have been started seem to have outnumbered the actual geopolitical crises when nuclear war was intentionally threatened. And most of the deliberate threats to resort to nuclear weapons, though extremely troubling and dangerous, have been regarded more as threatening gestures than as actual intentions.

Since the Berlin Wall came down, the most serious threat of a nuclear war between Russia and the US known to the public was the “Norwegian Rocket event” of January 1995, described above. Without L-o-W, that is, if the Russian policy had been never to launch a retaliatory attack until after a nuclear detonation was detected, the Russian alert and the anxious few minutes would still have occurred, but there would have been absolutely no danger of nuclear war because the rocket was unarmed. There could not have been a nuclear explosion, even if the guidance system had malfunctioned and directed the rocket over Russia.
To change from L-o-W to NO L-o-W does not require any change of alert status of the retaliatory system. It only requires a change of standing orders and standard operating procedure, such that no launch may take place until a nuclear detonation is reported.

The elimination of L-o-W does not eliminate any other retaliation options. It just ensures that retaliation would not take place without confirmation of a nuclear detonation. As soon as a warning of attack was received, one which a threat conference deemed to be real, the order to prepare for a retaliatory launch could be given. The President (in the US case) would then be charged with deciding, not whether to launch immediately and risk it being an irrevocable response to what could still be a false warning, but whether to launch immediate retaliation in the event of a detonation. If the decision was to retaliate upon detonation, full preparation would be made to launch immediately upon receipt of a positive bomb alarm signal.

Bomb alarms were installed many years ago near all military installations and all big cities in the US, and presumably in Russia, which automatically and instantaneously indicate at the Strategic Command Centers the location of any nuclear explosion. If, and only if, indication of a nuclear explosion was received at the predicted arrival time of the attack, the final order to launch could be sent immediately to the silos. No delay to obtain presidential authorization would be needed at that point. The actual retaliatory launch could probably take place within a minute of the first detonation. If the final order to launch was not received within a certain short time after the time of predicted impact, the launch preparations would be reversed.

A policy of NO L-o-W would not eliminate the horrific threat of nuclear annihilation. Only the abolition of nuclear weapons can do that; but a NO L-o-W posture would remove the danger of launching nuclear-armed rockets in response to a false warning. That would probably eliminate 90% of the current risk of nuclear war between the US and Russia. A secondary benefit would be the reduced stress on the President during those vital minutes in which a reported attack was being assessed. He would know that he was not in danger of starting a war on a false warning. Under L-o-W that worry might impair his concentration on the main issues.

Neither side wants an accidental war. They know that if either side mistakenly launches nuclear weapons both countries are going to be destroyed: it makes no difference who started it. If one side changes to NO L-o-W the risk of a purely accidental war from a false warning is approximately halved, immediately. It does not even depend on the other side knowing that the change has been made.
7. The Effect on Deterrence

There can be few grounds for objection, by the military or by the governments, to this very necessary safety measure. One possible objection has to be taken seriously: that “NO L-o-W” might impair deterrence and tempt one side to try a “disarming first strike”. There are good reasons why this objection should not be allowed to prevent the policy change.

For either side to consider first strike to be a rational option, the attacking side would have to be absolutely sure that its first salvo would fully disarm the other’s retaliatory capacity. They would know that any surviving weapons would pose a retaliatory threat that could be launched immediately after the first attack had hit its target. Under NO L-o-W the degree of alertness of surviving weapons would not be reduced, and retaliation for a real attack could still be launched promptly, probably within a minute of the first detonation. Synchronization of detonation times of the opening salvo, from widely separated launch sites to widely separated targets – the enemy missile launch sites and command posts – could not be assured to such precision.

The other possible method of preventing retaliation would be a first salvo engineered to maximize Electro-Magnetic Pulse and disable the other side’s electronics. It is hardly credible that the attacking side could feel sure that their EMP would disrupt communication and launch mechanisms sufficiently, since they would know that military electronics will have been shielded. Furthermore, they would know that submarine-launched missiles would not be disabled, because the sea-water shields submarines and their contents.

The side planning a pre-emptive attack would also have to be sure that its adversary had in fact changed to and remained under a policy of No L-o-W. They cannot be sure of this without verification. So from the point of view of preserving deterrence, verification is actually undesirable. Verification that L-o-W policies were no longer in place would help to reassure the other countries of the world, but it is not necessary in order to gain the benefit of the change.

Thus, a NO L-o-W policy on either side would have minimal impact on deterrence, and would be an advantage to both, simply because it halves the risk of a purely accidental nuclear war. NO L-o-W by both sides makes this particular risk zero.

If, despite these arguments, the military establishment on either side is not persuaded to abandon L-o-W, the head of state must balance the elimination of the very definite risk of accidental war due to a false warning, against a hypothetical possibility of weakened deterrence resulting in war. The results of a nuclear war would be the same, whether started by accident or by intention.

8. De-alerting: Methods, Benefits and Difficulties

As described in the report from the Brookings Institute, “de-alerting” moves beyond the policy to forego L-o-W options, to measures that physically extend the launch preparation time to days, weeks, or longer, through graduated reciprocal measures instituted by the two parties.

A wide variety of methods has been suggested to introduce the delay necessary to constitute a de-alerted posture. A very radical measure would be to have all warheads removed from all delivery vehicles, and stored at a distance from them. Less drastic measures could be used to enforce shorter delays, and possible methods include:

– making a heap of earth and rocks on silo lids that would require heavy machinery to remove it;

– removing hydraulic fluid from the machines that raise silo lids;

– de-activating the mechanism that rolls back garage roofs (Russia);

– pinning open a switch in a place that takes time to reach, or within a casing that takes time to open; and

– removing batteries, gyroscopes, or guidance mechanisms from rockets or re-entry vehicles.

For de-alerting to be effective, it should be noted that every nuclear weapon on both sides would have to be de-alerted. Heads of state and diplomats have been apt to say “de-alert as many weapons as possible”, but that would not be adequate. To launch one nuclear weapon is sufficient to start a full-scale nuclear war.

Full de-alerting would make sure that nuclear weapons could not be brought into use hastily. It would tend to reduce reliance on them in crisis situations, and thus be a step towards their eventual elimination from national arsenals. De-alerting would also make unauthorized launch of a nuclear weapon far more difficult to do, and would remove entirely the risk of accidental war due to a false warning. It would make more improbable the already unlikely event of a serious dispute between Russia and the US pushing either of the two into intentionally starting a war, by giving more time for diplomatic exchanges between the hostile governments and for conciliatory efforts by third parties.

However desirable and urgent de-alerting is, it poses significant challenges. Until elimination of the weapons is complete and assured by treaty, the two states will continue to regard the possession of nuclear weapons as essential to deterrence. To maintain deterrence it is necessary for the enforced delay to be closely equal on the two sides, otherwise the side that could launch first might be tempted to try a “disarming first strike”. This symmetry will not be easy to ensure, considering that the warheads, the delivery vehicles, and the launch procedures are different in the two countries.

Thus de-alerting will require complex arrangements, and intrusive verification, to ensure the completeness of the de-alerting measures actually carried out, and to ensure that they cannot be secretly reversed. This may require observers from neutral countries, and perhaps from the adversary, in the vicinity of each side’s launch sites. At the same time, both sides will be concerned about maintaining the secrecy of key features of their systems. Verification acceptable for submarine-launched missiles would be extremely difficult.

It would take prolonged technical study and negotiation to set up these two systems, the de-alerting itself and the verification, in a way that would satisfy the two parties. Once that had been achieved (which might prove impossible) a formal written agreement would be needed. This might require negotiation of a treaty, needing ratification by the parliament on each side, which raises another possibility of disappointing failure after years of work.

9. Conclusion

For the present, adoption of a NO L-o-W policy offers a quick and simple means of reducing the danger of accidental war. It does not need symmetry, verification, agreement, nor even trust, between the adversaries. If adopted unilaterally by one side it is of immediate benefit to both, and it does not impair deterrence. Unilateral operation of NO L-o-W by one country for a time, might well be sufficient for the other to understand the benefit and to realize that the change did not in fact invite a first strike.

Putting NO L-o-W into effect requires only an executive order, followed by a change in standing orders to the effect that no rocket is launched until a nuclear explosion is reported to Strategic Command. There is no reduction in alert status. There would be minor changes in the launch sequence to suit whatever safeguards would be made to ensure that no launch could occur while the crews in the silos were waiting for the final order, and that they would be ready for instant launch if that order came through.

All the world’s people would be safer for the change. Therefore all governments have a duty to their people to urge the US and Russian governments to make it at once.

EMP            ElectroMagnetic Pulse
HQ              Headquarters
ICBM          Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile
L-o-W         Launch on Warning
NORAD     North American Aerospace Defense Command
SAC           Strategic Air Command (later changed to “Strategic Command”)
SIOP          Single Integrated Operational Plan
SLBM        Submarine-Launched Ballistic Missile

The author acknowledges valuable research assistance by Sarah Estabrooks of Project Ploughshares, and very helpful editing by Sarah and by Ernie Regehr.


1. In Bruce Blair, The Logic of Accidental Nuclear War (Washington, D.C.: The Brookings Institute) 1992.

2. This is too uncertain a distinction to rely on. If one system were temporarily out of action there would be great pressure to act on an indication from the remaining one.

3. If this is true of Russia, they must be relying on warning from only one system for a large fraction of the time. Their satellite fleet is incomplete and there are periods when segments of their periphery are not doubly monitored. Some of the radar complexes installed under the Soviet system are now in independent States. There is said to be a corridor along which missiles could approach giving no warning early enough for evaluation of the situation before impact. We have no way of knowing whether, for that direction of attack, their retaliation would be purely reflect or would wait for impact.

4. The Electro-Magnetic Pulse (EMP) is an extremely sharp and energetic electromagnetic impulse that is emitted by electrons traveling at nearly the speed of light from a nuclear explosion. It is maximal when the detonation is at very high altitude and the electrons interact with the earth’s magnetic field above the atmosphere. It disrupts unshielded electrical and electronic equipment over a wide area.

5. Memorandum of Gerard C. Smith, Director, U.S. Department of State Policy Planning Staff to Foy Kohler, Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs, 22 June 1960. Marked TOP SECRET. Source: National Security Archive microfiche collection, U.S. Nuclear History: Nuclear Weapons and Politics in the Missile Era, 1955-68. Washington, D.C. 1998. National Security Archive electronic briefing book, “Launch on Warning: The development of U.S. capabilities, 1959-79”, William Burr, ed., April 2001. Document 3.

6. Memorandum for the National Security Council from the National Security Council Planning Board, 14 July 1960. Marked TOP SECRET. Subject: U.S. Policy on Continental Defense. Source: National Security Archive microfiche collection, U.S. Nuclear History: Nuclear Weapons and Politics in the Missile Era, 1955-68. Washington, D.C. 1998. Burr, Document 4.

7. Scott D. Sagan, The Limits of Safety (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1993), p. 183.

8. Account quoted by Jeffrey Richelson citing an interview with Jack Ruina in America’s Space Sentinels: DSP Satellites and National Security (Lawrence, KS: University of Kansas Press, 1999), p. 256. no. 37. In Burr, 2001.

9. Letter from Secretary of the Air Force, Eugene M. Zuckert, to President John F. Kennedy, 26 October 1962. Source: National Security Archive microfiche collection, U.S. Nuclear History: Nuclear Weapons and Politics in the Missile Era, 1955-68. Washington, D.C., 1998. Burr, Document 7.

10. Memorandum from Lawrence Lynn, U.S. National Security Council Staff, to Henry Kissinger, Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs, 1 May 1969. Subject: Talking Paper on “Firing on Warning” Issue. Marked TOP SECRET when with attachment. Source: National Security Archive’s Nixon Presidential Materials Project, National Security Council Files, Box 840, Sentinel ABM System, Vol. II, 4/1/69. Burr, Document 9.

11. Memorandum from Helmut Sonnenfeldt, National Security Council Staff to Henry Kissinger, 22 September 1969. Subject: “Message” to You from Arbatov. Marked SECRET/NODIS. Source: National Security Archive’s Nixon Presidential Materials Project, National Security Council Files, Box 710, USSR Vol. V, 10/69. Burr, Document 10.

12. U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency (ACDA) Public Affairs Bureau, “The Launch on Warning Question in the First Phase of SALT”, 21 December 1973. Marked SECRET NOFORN. Source: ACDA FOIA release to National Security Archive. Burr, Document 11.

13. Author’s personal communication with former Air Force Personnel. Anonymity retained.

14. This is not an attempt to calculate an actual probability. It is merely an example to illustrate the cumulative effect of any low-probability risk that is taken repeatedly, or accepted continuously, over a period of time.

15. Incident reported by Allan Little in “How I Stopped Nuclear War”, BBC News, 21 October 1998.

16. Sagan, The Limits of Safety.

17. Alan F. Phillips, “20 Mishaps that Might Have Started Accidental Nuclear War” (Toronto: Defence Research and Education Centre) 1998.

18. Sagan, p. 176.

19. Ibid., p. 176.

20. Report of the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Trade, Canada and the Nuclear Challenge: Reducing the Political Value of Nuclear Weapons for the Twenty-First Century, December 1998.

21. Report of The Canberra Commission on the Elimination of Nuclear Weapons, Executive Summary, 30 January 1997.

22. SCFAIT Report, Recommendation 5, p. 24.

23. Bruce Blair, The Nuclear Turning Point, A Blueprint for Deep Cuts and De-Alerting, (Washington, D.C.: The Brookings Institute) p.101.

24. Report of the Committee on Nuclear Policy, Jump-START: Retaking the Initiative to Reduce Post-Cold War Nuclear Dangers, The Henry L. Stimson Center, February 1999.

Blair, Bruce in Feiveson, Harold A. et al. The Nuclear Turning Point, A Blueprint for Deep Cuts and De-Alerting. Washington, D.C.: The Brookings Institute. 1999.

Blair, Bruce. The Logic of Accidental Nuclear War. Washington, D.C.: The Brookings Institute 1992.

Burr, William, ed. National Security Archive electronic briefing book, “Launch on Warning: The development of U.S. capabilities, 1959-79”. April 2001.

Little, Allan. “How I Stopped Nuclear War”. BBC News. 21 October 1998.

Phillips, Alan. “20 Mishaps that Might Have Started Accidental Nuclear War”. Toronto: Defence Research and Education Centre. 1998.

Report of The Canberra Commission on the Elimination of Nuclear Weapons, 30 January 1997.

Report of the Committee on Nuclear Policy, Jump-START: Retaking the Initiative to Reduce Post-Cold War Nuclear Dangers. The Henry L. Stimson Center. February 1999.

Report of the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Trade, Canada and the Nuclear Challenge: Reducing the Political Value of Nuclear Weapons for the Twenty-First Century, December 1998.

Sagan, Scott D. The Limits of Safety. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press. 1993.
About the Author

Dr. Alan Phillips graduated with honours in physics at Cambridge University in 1941. He spent the rest of World War II doing radar research for the British Army. After the war he qualified in medicine at Edinburgh University and specialized in the treatment of cancer by radiation. He retired in 1984. His retirement activities have included the study of nuclear armaments and the risks of accidental nuclear war.
Project Ploughshares Working Papers are published to contribute to public awareness and debate of issues of disarmament and development. The views expressed and proposals made in these papers should not be taken as necessarily reflecting the official policy of Project Ploughshares.

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