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I recently read a story from the Global Security Newswire by Elaine M. Grossman concerning a disagreement between the Obama administration and the head of the U.S. Strategic Command, Air Force Gen. Kevin Chilton, over the status of U.S. atomic weapons.
The White House said Obama intends to follow-through on a campaign promise to “work with Russia to take U.S. and Russian ballistic missiles off hair-trigger alert.” But Chilton says “The alert postures that we are in today are appropriate, given our strategy and guidance and policy.”
China, New Zealand and Switzerland are among the nations pressing the U.N. General Assembly to pass a resolution demanding that the world’s nuclear weapons be removed from a status that would allow them to be launched in minutes. Elaine Grossman writes:
“The United States keeps roughly 1,000 nuclear warheads on alert atop ICBMs and submarine-launched ballistic missiles, according to Hans Kristensen, who directs the Federation of American Scientists’ Nuclear Information Project in Washington. The land-based missiles can be fired three to four minutes after a presidential order, while the submarine weapons require roughly 12 minutes’ notice prior to launch, he said.
“U.S. President George H.W. Bush unilaterally took the nation’s bomber aircraft off of alert in 1991.
“Russia, which has long opposed de-alerting measures for its own force, retains approximately 1,200 warheads at top readiness, nearly all of them on ICBMs, Kristensen said. The British and French together account for roughly 112 nuclear warheads on alert, though he said their weapons might require days’ notice to launch.”
Gen. Chilton said it is misleading to use the term “hair-trigger” because U.S. weapons are safe from accidental or unauthorized launch.
“It conjures a drawn weapon in the hands of somebody,” said Chilton. “And their finger’s on the trigger. And you’re worried they might sneeze, because it is so sensitive.”
Chilton said the “reality of our alert posture today” is that “the weapon is in the holster.”
The holster “has two combination locks on it” and it “takes two people to open those locks,” and “they can’t do it without authenticated orders from the president of the United States.”
Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz also pushed back on the notion “these things are very close to launching.” “That’s anything but the case. There is a rigorous discipline [and] process involved, should that ever be required, and it is anything but hair trigger.”
“For his part, Chilton described a process of ‘de-alerting’ as a fairly radical step.
“Returning to the analogy of a holstered weapon, Chilton said a lower level of readiness for the nuclear stockpile would be like ‘taking the gun apart and mailing pieces of it to various parts of the country. And then when you’re in crisis, deciding to reassemble it.
“ ‘And we have to ask ourselves: Can we afford that time period for the delivery of the pieces to put it back together?’ he continued. ‘Is that the posture we want to be in as we [review] policy, strategy, force structure and posturing of forces?’”
Hans Kristensen adds that the president could opt for a longer window to weigh and potentially reverse a strike order. President George H.W. Bush’s decision to reduce bomber aircraft readiness has not weakened the U.S. deterrence.
“We have already taken the bombers off of alert…and no one has attacked us in almost two decades,” Kristensen said. “[Obama] is the one to make the decision…because if you leave it to the warfighters and the strategists, then it’s always going to be impossible to do anything that will change the status quo.”