A Method for Taking Nuclear Missiles Off Hair-Trigger Alert

Published Apr 8, 2015

Hundreds of nuclear weapons are kept underground, ready to launch.

Taking ground-based nuclear weapons off hair-trigger alert is a crucial first step for preventing an accidental, unauthorized, or misinformed launch. In the United States, 450 land-based “Minuteman III” missiles are affected by this policy, enabling them to launch within minutes of sensors detecting an attack.

Each of these 60-foot missiles is stored vertically in an underground launch facility and can be launched from a nearby “Launch Control Center.” Control centers oversee 10 missiles each, and are staffed by a small number of officers (so-called “missileers”) and security personnel.

The Union of Concerned Scientists advocates removing missiles from hair-trigger alert by turning the “Safety Control Switch” at each missile’s launch facility. Used by maintenance crews during routine operations, this switch prevents launch commands from reaching the missiles. Turning the switch would effectively “de-alert” or “safe” the weapons, requiring crews to physically travel to each missile silo to re-enable launch capabilities. Estimates for re-alerting all 450 Minuteman III missiles vary between several days and “about one-half day.”

The President’s order is all that’s needed to perform this straightforward policy change, which could be instituted within a matter of days. Doing so would help ensure that accidents or technical and human mistakes don’t cause another close call. And because the United States maintains missiles on submarines, which can’t be targeted, removing land-based missiles from hair-trigger alert won’t impact deterrence.

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