Catalyst Summer 2014

[THEN AND NOW]

Mistakes Happen—Even with Nuclear Weapons

By Sean Meyer

In 1979, a malfunctioning chip in a U.S. military computer indicated a large-scale Soviet nuclear attack was under way, prompting U.S. officials to initiate procedures for a counterattack. It took six minutes to determine this was a false alarm. In 1995, Russian military officials mistook the launch of a Norwegian scientific rocket for that of a U.S. nuclear missile and brought their nuclear launch codes to then-President Boris Yeltsin; fortunately, he refused to believe the United States was attacking and did not order a counterattack. These are just a couple examples of close calls that brought the world close to a nuclear disaster.

All systems are fallible, and people make mistakes. But very rarely are the consequences as serious as when nuclear weapons are involved. The threat posed by human error and accidents is compounded by our dangerous approach to nuclear security.

Today, the United States keeps its 450 land-based nuclear missiles on high alert, ready to be fired in a matter of minutes. Russia keeps its missiles on high alert as well. This “launch on warning” practice dates to the cold war, when fears ran high that either country could deal a disarming first strike against the other. But this “hair trigger” stance makes it more likely that one or more missiles will be launched by accident, without authorization, or in response to a false warning of an incoming attack. The launch of even one nuclear-armed missile could devastate a major city, and even a small fraction of either country’s land-based missiles could destroy the other country as a functioning society.

These risks are unacceptable—the United States does not need the ability to launch nuclear missiles within minutes to maintain a reliable and credible deterrent. Both President Obama and his predecessor, George W. Bush, pledged to address the dangers posed by the U.S. launch-on-warning policy. It is time to move beyond promises to action—before our luck runs out. UCS is working with retired military commanders, nuclear weapons experts, and policy makers to remove U.S. missiles from high alert status; learn more.

Sean Meyer is manager of strategic campaigns in the UCS Global Security Program.