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De-Alerting Nuclear Weapons

Current alert status
The US and Russia currently maintain about 4000 nuclear weapons on high alert. This means that they are primed and ready to fire within minutes. Missiles in silos can be launched within one minute, while missiles on submarines can be launched within 15 minutes. France maintains over 200 nuclear weapons on high alert status on its submarines. The UK maintains only one of its four nuclear submarines on patrol at any time, armed with 48 warheads. In 1998, the notice to fire was relaxed from 'minutes' to 'days'.

China's land-based strategic nuclear missiles are currently liquid fueled requiring about half

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an hour to fuel before being launched. Submarine launched ballistic missiles are solid fueled and thus potentially capable of being launched more rapidly. However, it is believed that the nuclear warheads are not routinely carried by the submarines but stored onshore.

India has deployed a small number of nuclear capable missiles (Prithvi and Agni) but have reported that they have not loaded these with nuclear weapons. The alert capability of these is probably in the region of days. However, India also has nuclear capable Mirage aircraft which could be loaded and in the air within hours. The alert capability and configuration of India's nuclear command, control and communication systems is not well known. Pakistan has developed a nuclear capable missile, the Ghauri, but evidently has not deployed nuclear weapons on it.

Israel's alert status is unknown outside of the Israeli nuclear establishment. Evidently they possess approximately 200 weapons which could be dispatched within an hour by F-16 planes. In addition, Israel is capable of deploying Jericho missiles which could be fitted with nuclear weapons.

Rationale for high alert
US and Russian strategic nuclear forces are kept on high alert in order to protect the weapons from being destroyed in any first-strike by an opposing nuclear power. The weapons are kept on a "launch-on-warning" operational matrix which means that when there is a warning of an incoming strike, the weapons can be launched before the strike hits.

Another rationale is that the high alert status enables a threat of use to be made politically without any requirement for changes in physical readiness of the nuclear forces. Supposedly this makes crisis management easier and is more effective in coercing the threatened state to respond favourably.

The risks of high alert status are that it makes nuclear weapons use much more likely either by accident, miscalculation or intent. High alert leaves little time to check accuracy of information regarding possible nuclear attacks. It allows little room to manoeuvre in political brinkmanship. While no-one may want nuclear war, military decision makers may launch an attack first if they know the other side has weapons on alert and is considering an attack themselves.

High alert status also maintains a highly confrontational posture which jeopardises efforts to reduce political tensions between countries, to solve longstanding conflicts and to move towards disarmament and cooperative threat reduction.

Progress on de-alerting
Apart from the UK and France, which reduced their nuclear readiness in 1998, little progress has been made. In mid 1991 the US unilaterally de-alerted its nuclear bombers by removing all nuclear weapons from planes - a first-step in de-alerting. Russia followed suit soon after. However, the warheads continue to be stored at airbases in a combat operational mode with the capability of being loaded onto planes within minutes. The US also de-alerted 450 Minuteman-2 strategic missiles and Poseidon SLBMs on 10 submarine missile carriers. Russia followed by de-alerting over 150 ICBMs in silos and 6 missile-carrying submarines

There have been numerous calls for urgent progress on de-alerting, including by the Canberra Commission on the Elimination of Nuclear Weapons, the New Agenda Coalition, the Brookings Institution and Abolition 2000. India has introduced a resolution to the United Nations calling on the reduction of nuclear dangers through such steps as de-alerting. However, this has not been favourably received due to India becoming more overtly nuclearised with its nuclear tests of 1998 and subsequent declarations affirming a nuclear weapons policy.

De-alerting to Elimination
De-alerting is an important step in reducing nuclear dangers. However, the danger will remain so long as nuclear weapons are deployed and states continue to rely on nuclear deterrence policy. The Model Nuclear Weapons Convention outlines a phased program of nuclear disarmament beginning with de-alerting and disabling nuclear weapons followed by their dismantling and destruction under strict international verification and control.

Dealerting Russian and US Nuclear Weapons. Arbatov, Belous, Pikaev, Baranovsky. Institute of International Economy and Foreign Relations, Russian Academy of Sciences. http://www.ieer.org/russian/pubs/dlrtbk-e.html#dealert
Taking Nuclear Weapons off Hair-Trigger Alert, Scientific American, 1998.

Security and Survival: The Case for a Nuclear Weapons Convention. Including the Model Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Testing, Production, Stockpiling, Transfer, Use and Threat of Use of Nuclear Weapons and on Their Elimination. Datan and Ware, IPPNW, 1999.

Prepared by Alyn Ware and Devon Chaffee for the Parliamentary Network for Nuclear Disarmament, a project of the Middle Powers Initiative.