(This is an archived page. Since March 2018 the group has become the Nuclear Risk Reduction working group. Click here for the new webpage for the group)
The world is at high risk with more than 1500 nuclear bombs in high alert status, ready to be launched by the US and Russia in less than 20 minutes. For years, States and NGOs have been lobbying for a decrease of the “operational readiness” of all these weapons.
At the Annual General Meeting of Abolition 2000 in May 2010 it was decided to campaign on this issue, and to link de-alerting with the campaign for the prohibition of nuclear weapons under a Nuclear Weapons Convention, because de-alerting is the first step towards comprehensive prohibition. As such, all States are concerned, nuclear and non-nuclear. Only the pressure of the people can make the change of mindset we need.
Members of the Working Group :
Recent Actions & News
- ON THE BRINK: ORGANISATIONS, GENERALS, URGE MEASURES TO DECREASE LIKELIHOOD OF AN APOCALYPSE. Dec 9, 2016. Letter sent to the US and Russian governments, and to 26 NATO governments, urging them to take nuclear weapons off alert, put an end to provocative exercises with nuclear-armed military forces, and adopt no-first-use policies.
- Senator Markey introduces legislation to restrict nuclear-weapons-use. Legislation would ensure that the U.S. president could not use nuclear weapons first without consent of the U.S. Congress.
- OSCE Parliamentary Assembly calls for nuclear weapons stand-down. Parliaments of the OSCE (including France, Russia, United Kingdom, USA and the NATO countries) adopt a resolution calling on all OSCE States with nuclear weapons or under extended nuclear deterrence relationships to reduce the risks of a nuclear war by taking nuclear weapons off high-alert and by adopting no-first-use policies.
- United Nations adopts resolution on de-alerting. Vote is 174 in favour, 4 against and 4 abstaining.
Other News and events
This Working Group has written :
1- Abolition 2000; Campaign “Convention/Step One: De-Alerting” ; A Global Campaign to De-Alert Nuclear Weapons
2- Letter to Heads of States
Documents to be known on this issue are “Elements for a Plan of Action for the Elimination of Nuclear Weapons” proposed by the NAM States and “Reframing Nuclear De-Alert”, Decreasing the operational readiness of U.S. and Russian arsenals from EastWest Institute, Federal Department of Foreign Affairs of Switzerland and the New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, 21-23 June 2009, Hotel La Prairie, 1400 Yverdon-les-Bains, Switzerland
Abolition 2000 Campaign
“Convention/Step One: De-Alerting”
A Global Campaign to De-Alert Nuclear Weapons
Signatories to the NPT took a small but significant step toward the goal of a nuclear-weapons-free world in May 2010 when they agreed that: “All States need to make special efforts to establish the necessary framework to achieve and maintain a world without nuclear weapons.” Such a framework has been outlined and circulated by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon as the Model Nuclear Weapons Convention, along with a call supported by a majority of UN Member States, for the commencement of negotiations on a Nuclear Weapons Convention (NWC). One of the first steps in such a convention would be the removal of all nuclear forces from a high state of operational readiness, i.e. the de-alerting of high-alert, launch-ready nuclear weapons. The Non-aligned Movement (NAM) supported strongly de-alerting in the ”Elements for a Plan of Action for the Elimination of Nuclear Weapons” which they submitted to the NPT Review Conference as the first step (Annex 1).
The Nuclear Weapon States (NWS) also committed in the 2010 NPT Final Document to “Consider the legitimate interest of non-nuclear-weapon States in further reducing the operational status of nuclear weapons systems in ways that promote international stability and security.” This complemented a small move by the United States in the April 2010 Nuclear Posture Review to “Maximize the Presidential decision time in a nuclear crisis.”
However, the NWS have resisted any commitment to go further in either area – i.e. to immediately de-alert and remove all nuclear weapons from high operational readiness or to commence negotiations on a Nuclear Weapons Convention in the near or intermediate future. This resistance is linked to their continuing reliance on nuclear deterrence, and a mistaken belief that nuclear deterrence would be jeopardized by de-alerting existing nuclear weapons systems.
Progress on de-alerting and NWC negotiations could be enhanced by promoting them not as the immediate end to nuclear deterrence, but as processes which lower the role of nuclear weapons gradually while simultaneously strengthening strategic stability.
In this context, progress on de-alerting will make NWC negotiations more feasible. Equally, the initial exploration by NWS of the legal, technical and political elements of a nuclear-weapons-free regime (achieved through a NWC) will generate greater confidence in the possibility of security without nuclear deterrence, making the immediate de-alerting of nuclear weapons more palatable.
There are many reasons to focus on de-alerting in the short term while simultaneously considering and promoting NWC negotiations.
The U.S. and Russia, with 95% of the world’s nuclear weapons, still maintain high-alert postures which permit each of their Presidents to order the launch of more than 1000 strategic nuclear warheads in a matter of a few minutes. Both nations remain frozen in their Cold War nuclear confrontation, constantly poised to unleash massive nuclear forces in response to a perceived nuclear attack from the other side.
Because ballistic missiles will deliver warheads to their targets in 30 minutes or less (12 minutes for a missile from a sub), U.S. and Russian Early Warning Systems have approximately 1 to 8 minutes to detect and evaluate a warning of nuclear attack. If the warning is believed to be true, U.S. and Russian Presidents are given a 30 second briefing by their top military advisors and then have 1 to 12 minutes to decide if they wish launch their nuclear forces before the attack arrives. Both Presidents are accompanied 24 hours a day by military officers carrying computers which allow the Presidents to instantly launch their nuclear weapons.
Fear of a surprise nuclear attack is what causes leaders in the nuclear weapon states to keep their nuclear forces ready to “Launch On Warning” of attack. Although both the US and Russia deny that they would employ a “Launch On Warning” strategy, it is clear that they retain the capability and option to do so.
The maintenance of launch-ready, high-alert nuclear weapons allow these two states to almost instantly initiate an accidental nuclear war though technical or human error, miscalculation, madness or stupidity. This is true, because a false warning of attack – believed to be true – has the potential to trigger a nuclear “retaliation” which in fact would be a nuclear first-strike.
High-alert nuclear postures create a universal fear of impending nuclear incineration, and thereby prevent any fundamental change in the doctrine of nuclear deterrence. As long as nuclear forces remain on high-alert, the elimination of nuclear weapons remains impossible and accidental nuclear war remains possible.
The Nuclear Weapon States must accept that an instant nuclear strike is not a fundamental component of deterrence. Such a change in mindset would open the way to a variety of practical steps which would prevent a nuclear launch.
The current high-alert postures in the US and Russia, which in reality are supported by an unofficial policy of Launch On Warning, could be changed, without any risk, to an official policy of No Launch Before Detonation (NLBD). Under NLBD, the launch of nuclear forces in response to a warning of nuclear attack, comprised only of electronic data from Early Warning Systems, would be prohibited. The launch of nuclear forces could not then be triggered by a false warning generated by cyberwarfare, a failure of technical systems, computer hackers, or the launch of non-nuclear warheads carried by strategic missiles.
NLBD could be almost immediately instituted via Presidential decree (without negotiation, legislation, and minimal expense) and should be used as a confidence building measure as part of a de-alerting process. Accidental, unauthorized or unintended nuclear war caused by a false warning of nuclear attack would become impossible through this simple change in policy. The actual elimination of high-alert forces would make it physically impossible to launch upon electronic warning of attack. There are many possible ways to de-alert nuclear weaponry in a verifiable, stepwise manner, which are on record and require only sufficient political will to implement.
While the U.S. and Russia choose to maintain high-alert postures (and the Launch-On-Warning capabilities that high-alert weapons confer), none of the other NWS (whose nuclear arsenals number in the hundreds of weapons) maintain states of high operational readiness. China has never had high-alert weapons, France and England have each made conscious decisions not to maintain ground-based launch-ready nuclear forces. Furthermore, it has been reported that U.K nuclear forces require days to launch, and French nuclear forces require some hours to fire. Such a change, if made to US and Russian nuclear arsenals, would do much to remove the threat of an accidental apocalypse from the global agenda. The French and UK militaries should be encouraged to talk to their US and Russian counterparts with the aim of persuading them of the merits of a similar change in posture.
For France and the UK, missiles could be removed from submarines without altering a policy of minimal deterrence. The international context does not need a possibility of rapid nuclear strike from either of these two Nuclear States. In case of terrorist attack (generally considered to constitute the most likely danger of producing a nuclear detonation), a nuclear retaliation from a submarine is absolutely not appropriate. No nuclear strike is appropriate for a non-state sponsored terrorist attack.
India and Pakistan claim that their forces are not currently on high alert, but there is much doubt about their exact status. Continued centralization and automation of Indian and Pakistani nuclear forces will create immense risks of miscalculation and/or malfunction.
Eliminating launch-ready nuclear weapons will allow more time for rational decision making and will make possible a more democratic process for arriving at appropriate actions. The current nuclear force structures leave open the possibility that the fate of the human race will be arrived at in a 30 second threat conference by a handful of political and military leaders. Surely this is unacceptable and must be prevented.
The real change required here is a change of mindset, of imagination and spirit. Nuclear war should no longer be held up as the instant solution for “national security”, especially when our best scientists warn that nuclear war can end human existence. Our “security” depends primarily upon our ability to understand the problems we face in common; we are a single species threatened with imminent nuclear extinction.
We should take advantage of existing international support and diplomatic initiatives which provide us with natural allies and existing frameworks which could be used to generate a broad base of popular support. In particular, we note the UN Resolution of October 16, 2008, for “Decreasing the operational readiness of nuclear weapons systems” (see “http://www.reachingcriticalwill.org/political/1com/1com08/res/L5.pdf”http://www.reachingcriticalwill.org/political/1com/1com08/res/L5.pdf ). The Resolution “Calls for further practical steps to be taken to decrease the operational readiness of nuclear weapons systems, with a view to ensuring that all nuclear weapons are removed from high alert status”. This should be strongly supported by all States and civil society.
Let us join with the nations and diplomats already in support of de-alerting and find a means to create a genuine public awareness of the danger of our current situation.
1. Current nuclear doctrines, which rely upon instant reactions and a one man decision, are totally antidemocratic. It is amazing that so-called “democratic States” could accept such a policy. With de-alerting, the change is very important because increasing the available decision-making time makes possible a more democratic process.
2. De-alerting can occur in a variety of ways, beginning with changes in the weapon systems that delay the launch process for a matter of hours, then days, weeks, and months. Because de-alerting is considered to be a reversible process, it is useful primarily in reducing tensions, making both democratic decisions possible and paving the way for non-reversible reductions in the nuclear arsenals, paving the way towards the final goal of nuclear abolition.
3. True disarmament must include more than just a lowering in numbers of missiles or operational warheads. The START Treaty is worthwhile because it reinstitutes a genuine, verifiable arms control process between the US and Russia. However, it makes no real difference in terms of human survival, because it allows many thousands of reserve and operationally deployed warheads to exist. Thus START takes only a small step towards the goal of eliminating existing nuclear arsenals which, if detonated in conflict, would destroy all nations and peoples. What is required is a change in doctrine and mindset that can permit abolition to occur; de-alerting is a natural first-step toward that goal.
4. The Global Zero Movement does not promote the Convention just because the NWS are not ready to accept a real change in their posture. When disarmament is agreed upon, then a Convention can be proposed, that is the policy of Global Zero. If de-alerting were to be implemented, then a Convention becomes more acceptable.
5. Many States advocated for the Convention during the 2010 Review Conference. It could be proposed to these States that they make a statement in support of this de-alerting campaign. The Land mine Treaty was accepted because of a common action of NGOs and States; that could be the good example to follow in this case.
6. For the US and Russia, No Launch Before Detonation would be a new posture which does not correspond to “No First Use”, because there is no mention of a first-strike on a “rogue” State. NLBD avoids the difficult question of retaliation, because it has to be considered that even after a nuclear first strike, there is the possibility of no retaliatory strike.
7. The project of a Convention should ideally involve all states in possession of nuclear weaponry. With de-alerting we can go beyond the NPT and prepare a global agreement on the disarmament process (as the NPT has been unable to accomplish this task). This is exactly the goal of the Convention.
8. The de-alerting campaign, done in the framework of the Convention, will generate a new opportunity to create a disarmament process as it is described in the Convention.
“Elements for a Plan of Action for the
Elimination of Nuclear Weapons”
proposed by the NAM
First Phase 2010 to 2015
A. Measures aimed at reducing the nuclear threat
1. Immediate and concurrent commencement of negotiations and early conclusions of: (nine topics are then listed, including a NWC)
2. *Stand down nuclear weapon systems from a state of operational readiness.*
B. Measures aimed at Nuclear Disarmament (four measures are listed)
“Reframing Nuclear De-Alert”
Decreasing the operational readiness
of U.S. and Russian arsenals
EastWest Institute, Federal Department of Foreign Affairs of Switzerland and the New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, 21-23 June 2009, Hotel La Prairie, 1400 Yverdon-les-Bains, Switzerland
Welcome and Introductions
- Christian Schoenenberger, Head, Task Force on Nuclear Disarmament and Non-Proliferation, Swiss
Federal Department of Foreign Affairs
- W. Pal Sidhu, Vice President of Programs, EastWest Institute
Session I: Russian Perspectives on De-Alerting Nuclear Weapons
- General (Ret.) Viktor Koltunov, Deputy Director, Institute for Strategic Stability of Rosatom
- Eugene Miasnikov, Senior Research Scientist, Centre for Arms Control, Energy, and Environmental Studies, Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology
- Leonid Ryabikhin, Executive Secretary, Committee of Scientists for Global Security and Arms Control; Senior Fellow, EastWest Institute
- Harold Feiveson, Co-Director, Program on Science and Global Security, Princeton University
Session II: U.S. Perspectives on De-Alerting Nuclear Weapons
- Walter Slocombe, Member, Caplin & Drysdale Attorneys; former Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, United States Department of Defense
- John Steinbruner, Director, Center for International and Security Studies at Maryland, University of Maryland; Chairman of the Board, Arms Control Association
- Amy Woolf, Specialist in Nuclear Weapons Policy, Congressional Research Service
- Sergey Rogov, Director, U.S.A. and Canada Institute, Russian Academy of Sciences
Session III: Past Approaches To De-Alerting Nuclear Weapons
Session IV: De-Alerting, Operational Readiness and Multilateralism: Perspectives of Non-Nuclear
- Ambassador Don Mackay, Permanent Representative, Permanent Mission of New Zealand to the United Nations, Geneva
Working Dinner: The Future of the Nonproliferation Regime and New Opportunities for U.S.-
Russia Cooperative Action
Keynote address by
- Deputy State Secretary Pierre Helg, Ambassador, Federal Department of Foreign Affairs, Switzerland
Session V: Overcoming Obstacles and Operationalizing Approaches to De-Alert
- General (Ret.) Eugene Habiger, Distinguished Fellow and Policy Advisor, Center for International Trade and Security at the University of Georgia;
- former Commander of United States Strategic Command General (Ret.) Viktor Esin, Science Fellow, Institute of U.S. and Canada, Russia Academy of Sciences;
- former Chief of Staff of Russian Federation Strategic Missile Force Grigory Chernyavsky, Director of the Earth Space Monitoring Scientific Center (Russian Space Agency);
- Correspondent Member, Russian Academy of Sciences
Session VI: Operational Readiness and Ongoing Disarmament Efforts
- Jeffrey Lewis, Director, Nuclear Strategy and Nonproliferation Initiative, New America Foundation
- Timur Kadyshev, Senior Research Scientist, Center for Arms Control, Energy and Environmental Studies
Nearly twenty years after the end of the Cold War, Russia and the United States continue to maintain
hundreds of nuclear weapons capable of striking the other side, and to have at least some of these
nuclear forces at Cold War levels of alert, that is, ready to fire within a few minutes of receiving an order
to do so.
Even during the Cold War, alert levels were not static and moved up or down in step with changes in the
strategic and tactical environments. While the operational readiness of some weapon systems has been
reduced, there has been no major change in the readiness levels of most of the nuclear weapon systems
in the post–Cold War era. This is in considerable part because Russia and the United States believe that
despite fundamental changes in their overall relationship, vital interest requires maintaining a high
level of nuclear deterrence.
The post–Cold War experience also demonstrates that alert levels can be reduced and measures can be
taken to reduce the risk of accidents or unauthorized takeover of nuclear weapons. Further measures
could be taken to reduce operational readiness of nuclear arsenals. U.S. and Russian experts alike
stressed survivability as a key element in the acceptance of these measures because of its importance
to maintaining deterrence.
Cold War legacy postures under which thousands of weapons are kept on high readiness can be altered
through top-down policy initiatives, as was the case in the early 1990s with one class of nuclear
Technical issues related to the peculiar “ready” character of land-based ICBMs can be resolved by
bringing designers into discussions on decreasing operational readiness of nuclear weapons. There
was a sense that technical solutions to the problems of nuclear risk reduction are available and can be
multilateralized. Information sharing can help implementation of these solutions.
Concerns over “re-alerting” races and vulnerability of “de-alerted” forces to conventional or nuclear strikes
during “reversal” can be addressed through survivable forces, dialogue, and confidence building.
Other nuclear weapon states apparently have alert practices that differ from those of Russia and the
United States. It was debated whether this state of affairs can be ascribed to an absence of nuclear war
fighting capabilities or to a different assessment of the post–Cold War nuclear security environment.
There was a sense that nuclear doctrines and alert practices of different nuclear weapon states cannot
be analyzed in a vacuum and must be evaluated as parts of a larger political and security framework.
Non-nuclear weapon states’ experts forcefully asserted the legitimate interest their states have in the
issue and underlined the practical and constructive approach of the U.N. General Assembly resolution
on reducing operational readiness of nuclear forces.
Non-nuclear weapon states say that lowering of the operational status of nuclear weapons would both
reduce the risk of accidental or unintended nuclear war and provide a much-needed practical boost for
disarmament and nonproliferation. Decreasing the operational readiness of nuclear weapons would
be a highly desirable confidence-building measure between nuclear weapon states and non-nuclear
weapon states. It would also be a welcome step in the lead-up to the 2010 Non-Proliferation Treaty
(NPT) Review Conference.
The principal objection to decreasing operational readiness of nuclear weapons as commonly understood
has been that it seeks to address a problem that does not exist. Even if it does exist in some
instances, it can be addressed by technical and organizational means updated to cover current threats
such as nuclear terrorism. Furthermore, the remedy itself could end up undermining nuclear deterrence
and strategic or crisis stability.
The insight that emerged during the meeting was that the above objection flows from a narrow view of
de-alerting as meaning measures that make it physically impossible to promptly launch an attack on order.
Such a view also leads to a somewhat excessive focus on verification of technical measures, which ends
up giving an easy argument to the opponents of de-alerting—that it is not verifiable and therefore should
not be attempted.
There are no fundamental obstacles to many useful measures of decreasing operational readiness of nuclear weapons, provided the issue is not framed narrowly. De-alert has to be seen not only as a technical fix but also as a strategic step in deemphasizing the military role of nuclear weapons, in other words, moving to retaliatory strike postures and doctrines instead of legacy preemptive or “launch on warning” postures.
The ongoing U.S. Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) offers an opportunity for such a perceptual shift.
If decreasing operational readiness of nuclear weapons is reframed in this manner, several concrete steps
1- As part of the START follow-on negotiations, Russia and the United States could examine how
measures to reduce operational readiness can accompany the bilateral arms control process.
2- Both Russia and the United States could further strengthen controls against unauthorized
action, takeover, and tampering; further increase the capability of warning systems to discriminate
real from imagined attacks; and enhance the survivability of their forces and their command and control systems.
3- Arrangements related to data exchange and ensuring a capability to destroy a “rogue” missile in
flight could be multilateralized, at least in terms of sharing data, to bring other declared nuclear
weapon states into the process.
4- Multilateralization of institutions such as the Joint Data Exchange Center may also have collateral
benefits in the area of space security.
5- The premise of maintaining nuclear deterrence between Russia and the United States should
not be considered immutable. A dialogue on legacy nuclear postures and doctrines in the
Russia-U.S. context may trigger a broader dialogue among relevant states on reducing the
salience of nuclear weapons, thus facilitating progress on disarmament and nonproliferation.
Perhaps most dangerous aspect of today’s nuclear arsenals are the many thousands of nuclear weapons which remain on high-alert, launch-ready status. There is strong international agreement, shown by the overwhelming support in the General Assembly that “Calls upon the nuclear-weapon States to take measures to reduce the risk of an accidental or unauthorized launch of nuclear weapons and to also consider further reducing the operational status of nuclear weapons systems in ways that promote international stability and security”(1) .
The international community, including the leaders of States possessing nuclear weapons, has recognised that any use of nuclear weapons would have catastrophic consequences – and thus a practice and norm of non-use has developed.
However, as the leader of a State in possession of nuclear weapons, you have the possibility to initiate a nuclear war at any time. With more than 20,000 nuclear weapons in the world, a nuclear first-strike can start a chain reaction that would end in a nuclear holocaust. Recent scientific studies(2) tell us that the detonation of even 1% of the operational nuclear arsenals during a conflict would cause grave changes in the climate and ecology of the Earth; a large nuclear war would end human existence.
Thus, the operational and deployed nuclear arsenals of the States possessing nuclear weapons and the continued policies providing for possible use in a wide range of circumstances, represent a self-destruct mechanism for humanity. It only takes a single failure of nuclear deterrence to trigger global nuclear suicide.
Yet, as the leader of a Nuclear Weapon State, you can choose to act now to prevent such an ultimate catastrophe. We urge you to issue a Presidential Decree which forbids the launch of nuclear weapons based only on a tactical or strategic warning of attack (electronic signals from early warning systems, which could be a false warning or represent conventional warheads), and to de-alert your launch-ready nuclear forces, rendering them unable to be used within only a few minutes. Such de-alerting has to be studied for each specific case, but it MUST be accomplished to remove the appalling danger of instant nuclear extinction.
The world is relying on you to find the vision and will to eliminate the danger of accidental nuclear war and reduce international tensions caused by the permanent maintenance of nuclear weapons on high-alert. It is time to stop threatening the nations of the world with instant incineration.
Of course the only way to ensure that nuclear weapons are never used by accident, miscalculation or intent is to prohibit and eliminate them. This truth was self-evident from the moment the weapons were first created – as evidenced by the unanimous call for their elimination in the UN General Assembly’s first resolution in 1946.
Until recently, such an aim appeared utopian. However, the political and technical feasibility of nuclear abolition is now apparent from the statements of world leaders, the agreement at the 2010 Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference and the Five-Point-Plan put forward by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon which includes a draft treaty (Model Nuclear Weapons Convention). De-alerting is included as the first step in the phased disarmament program outlined in the Model NWC. Such a de-alerting process, with the official participation of your State, would greatly lower the danger to our world, increase the security of all people, and prepare a new era of sharing a common responsibility for the survival of our planet and species.
We urge you to prohibit launch on warning, de-alert your nuclear weapons and join the process to achieve a global prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons under a nuclear weapons convention
Global Council of Abolition 2000
1- Renewed Determination Resolution towards the elimination of nuclear weapons, ((A/RES/64/47) with a voting result of 171-2-8 in 2009.