WASHINGTON (April 22, 2015)—The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) is calling on President Barack Obama to use the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference—which begins this Monday, April 27 at the United Nations—to announce an end to the Cold War practice of keeping U.S. ground-based nuclear missiles on “hair trigger” alert.
Recognizing Russia’s recent aggressive military actions and hostile rhetoric, UCS maintains it is precisely during times of heightened tension that misunderstandings and mistakes are most likely to happen. Current U.S. and Russian nuclear weapon policies make such miscalculations potentially lethal on a global scale.
“Our two countries are still living with a short-burning nuclear fuse that dates back to the Cold War,” said physicist David Wright, co-director of UCS’s Global Security Program. “It’s a dangerous relic that could have devastating human, environmental and economic consequences.”
Today, just as at the height of the Cold War, U.S. intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) are on hair-trigger status, ready to be fired in minutes in response to a warning of an incoming attack. Several instances of erroneous and misinterpreted warning signals illustrate how this “launch on warning” posture creates a risk of a mistaken launch.
Removing our 450 land-based missiles from hair-trigger alert would increase U.S. security while retaining a secure deterrent, as U.S. nuclear-armed submarines hiding in the oceans are invulnerable to attack and could be used to retaliate in the event of a nuclear strike.
UCS has launched a new public initiative to persuade President Obama to exercise his authority as commander in chief and end hair-trigger status. The group’s initial calls to action generated more than 20,000 letters to the White House. A number of other arms control and security organizations have issued similar appeals.
As candidates, both President Obama and former President George W. Bush called for an end to hair-trigger alert. This policy change also enjoys strong support among many U.S. national security experts, including former secretaries of state and defense, members of the Joint Chiefs and commanders of U.S. Strategic Command.
The issue of nuclear risk reduction will be a prominent theme at this year’s NPT Review Conference, which runs through May 22. Last year, 160 countries voted in support of a resolution to “decrease the operational readiness of nuclear weapons systems, with a view to ensuring that all nuclear weapons are removed from high alert status.”
In addition, the Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Initiative (NPDI), a coalition including Japan, Canada and Germany, will bring before the Review Conference a working paper that calls on all nuclear weapons states to take “concrete and meaningful steps, whether unilaterally, bilaterally or regionally, to further reduce the operational status of nuclear weapons.”
“There is no reason to continue accepting the serious risks that U.S. and Russian launch-on-warning policies entail,” said Lisbeth Gronlund, a physicist and the other co-director of UCS’s Global Security Program. “Nor should the United States wait for Russia to take action. President Obama should make the world safer by taking U.S. land-based missiles off hair-trigger alert.”
An announcement by the United States that it will eliminate hair-trigger status for its land-based missiles would also send a strong signal to the NPT Review Conference delegates that the United States is committed to reducing the risks that its nuclear weapons pose.