High-Alert Nuclear Weapons: the Forgotten Danger

Steven Starr argues that the continued maintenance of US and Russian nuclear weapons on high alert means that the threat of accidental (or deliberate) global nuclear war has not gone away.

Although the Cold War is said to have ended in 1991, the US and Russia each still operate under the assumption that the other could authorize a nuclear attack against them. The failure to end their Cold War nuclear confrontation causes both nations to maintain a total of about 2000 strategic nuclear warheads on high-alert status, which can be launched in only a few minutes, and whose primary missions remain the destruction of the opposing side’s nuclear forces, industrial infrastructure, and political/military leadership.

High-alert nuclear weapons: a brief history

High-alert, launch-ready nuclear weapons, i.e. operational rocket-mounted nuclear warheads capable of being launched in 15 minutes or less, have been deployed in the US and the USSR/Russia for decades. The solid-fuelled US Minuteman intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) went on alert in October 1962, and by 1965, 800 Minuteman I missiles had been deployed. By the mid-1970s, the USSR had deployed a variety of second generation liquid-fuelled ICBMs capable of quick launch.

The Cold War created an arms race that led to the development of apocalyptically destructive weapons. Fear of a nuclear surprise attack was exacerbated by the development of ICBMs armed with multiple independently-targeted re-entry vehicles, which appeared to be ideally suited for a nuclear first-strike. Because no defense against such an attack was found to exist, the only military ‘solution’ seemed to require the launch of one’s own ICBMs from their silos before they were destroyed.

By the early to mid-1980s, the US and USSR had each created automated nuclear command and control systems that worked in conjunction with a network of early warning systems and their nucleararmed ballistic missiles. Thus both nations had the capability to launch strategic missiles on tactical warning in less than 30 minutes, the nominal flight time of land-based ICBMs traveling between the US and Russia.

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This article has been published in the SGR Newsletter of Autunm 2008