"Hair-Trigger" Alert, Signaling, and New START

Among the many pieces of legislation the Senate is considering before an influx of new Republican Senators arrive in January is the “New START” treaty. If ratified by a two thirds majority, the treaty will reduce the nation’s nuclear arsenal from 2,200 to 1,500 deployed strategic nuclear weapons. Much of the rationale for further arms reductions is based on poorly considered arguments. Two deserve special attention.

One argument is an old and dangerous assertion that has resurfaced during the latest debate. Playing fast and loose with the truth nuclear abolitionists persist in suggesting that the American fleet of 450 nuclear-tipped Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles—set to decline if New START is ratified—are kept on a “hair-trigger” alert. Presumably, abolitionists believe that with the push of a button some deranged or disgruntled Airman can begin World War III.

The truth, however is that there is no such thing as a “hair-trigger” alert.

An editorial in one of the nation’s largest newspapers advanced this error as fact despite the Air Force’s efforts to inform opinion-makers and the public of exactly what it takes to launch a Minuteman III and its nuclear payload.

Although the truth is by no means as sensational as the idea that nuclear Armageddon can be started by a rogue Air Force officer, the fact is, only one man can authorize the use of nuclear weapons. His name is Barak Obama and he is the President of the United States. The Airmen who maintain and operate the ICBM force possess neither the required launch codes nor some secret capacity to override security measures. In fact, there are sophisticated procedures and safeguards in place that prevent any unauthorized launch of an ICBM.

Yes, nuclear weapons are designed to be launched in a timely manner, but only after receiving a verifiable order from the president. For some unknown reason the time the White House will spend in deliberation before authorizing the use of nuclear weapons is often left out of the equation. This makes the idea of a “hair-trigger” alert a notion that is far from reality.

The second argument is based on an incorrect view of the psychological signal arms reductions send allies and adversaries. One advocate of nuclear disarmament suggests that it “makes sense” for the United States and Russia to reduce their nuclear arsenals to 1000 strategically deployed warheads because it “would send a clear message to Iran, North Korea, and other wannabes that the world’s two main nuclear powers are placing less value on nuclear weapons.”

Much like the hair trigger alert claim, this assertion is equally devoid of support. Tehran is not building a nuclear arsenal to counter American nuclear weapons, but as a counter to our conventional capabilities. By building a small nuclear arsenal the Iranian leadership believes it can effectively prevent the United States from invading Iran or supporting the overthrow of the regime.

In addition to our concerns with Iran, the United States is well aware of the fact that Russia and China are undertaking nuclear modernization programs that are improving the capabilities of their nuclear arsenals. China is also expanding its arsenal.

Only one member of the nuclear club is not engaged in a modernization program—the United States. Rather than signaling potential adversaries “we come in peace,” ratification of New START will signal the nation’s adversaries that we are weak and lack resolve.

Americans must never forget that the Constitution squarely places responsibility for the common defense on the shoulders of Uncle Sam. Utopian ideas about world peace are inconsistent with the reality of the world we live in. The fact is, nuclear weapons remain a pillar of our national defense.    

For those who support arms reductions and nuclear disarmament, continuing to suggest that the nation’s ICBMs sit on a hair-trigger alert is dishonest. And it is detrimental to any real debate over the correct approach to nuclear weapons policy.

It also important that the United States send a clear and credible signal to our allies and adversaries. The formula for deterrence is a simple one—capability plus credibility. Signaling the world that the United States does not view nuclear weapons as a vital part of our national defense is a dangerous game. As of yet, there is little reason to believe that ratification of New Start sends the right signal.