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Hiroshima for Global Peace

(6) De-alerting or Measures for Maximizing Decision Time to Authorize the Use of Nuclear Weapons

(6) De-alerting or Measures for Maximizing Decision Time to Authorize the Use of Nuclear Weapons

In 2019, there were no significant changes in nuclear-armed states’ policies on alert and/or operational status of their respective nuclear forces.169 Russian and U.S. strategic ballistic missiles have been on high alert status,170 either launch on warning (LOW) or launch under attack (LUA).

Forty U.K. nuclear warheads and 80 French ones are also kept on alert under their continuous SSBN patrols, albeit at lower readiness levels than those of the two nuclear superpowers.171 It is assumed that China’s nuclear forces are not on a hair-trigger alert posture because it claims to keep nuclear warheads de-mated from delivery vehicles.172 Meanwhile, it is also pointed out a possibility of changes in such policies because of China’s introduction of MIRVed ICBMs and new SSBNs/SLBMs.

There is little definitive information regarding the alert status of other nuclear-armed states’ nuclear forces. It is widely considered that India’s nuclear forces are not on a high alert status. In February 2014, Pakistan stated that it “would not delegate advance authority over nuclear arms to unit commanders, even in the event of crisis with India, […and] all weapons are under the central control of the National Command Authority, which is headed by the prime minister.”173

A number of NNWS have urged the NWS to alter their alert posture. Among them, Chile, Malaysia, Nigeria, New Zealand, Sweden and Switzerland, as the “De-alerting Group,” proactively proposed that alert levels be reduced. At the 2019 NPT PrepCom, the Group urged the NWS to urgently take steps to reduce operational readiness, and provide regular reports on the operational readiness of nuclear weapons during the 2020-2025 NPT review cycle.174

Proponents of de-alerting have often argued that such measures are useful to prevent accidental use of nuclear weapons.175 On the other hand, NWS emphasize that they have taken adequate measures for preventing accidental use, and express confidence regarding the safety and effective control of their nuclear arsenals.176

169 See also the Hiroshima Report 2017.

170 Hans M. Kristensen, “Reducing Alert Rates of Nuclear Weapons,” Presentation to NPT PrepCom Side Event, Geneva, April 24, 2013; Hans M. Kristensen and Matthew McKinzie, “Reducing Alert Rates of
Nuclear Weapons,” United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research, 2012.

171 See Kristensen, “Reducing Alert Rates of Nuclear Weapons”; Kristensen and McKinzie, “Reducing Alert Rates of Nuclear Weapons.”

172 On the other hand, the U.S. Defense Department’s annual report on China’s military and security mentioned: “PLA writings express the value of a “launch on warning” nuclear posture, an approach to deterrence that uses heightened readiness, improved surveillance, and streamlined decision-making processes to enable a more rapid response to enemy attack. These writings highlight the posture’s consistency with China’s nuclear “No First Use” policy, suggesting it may be an aspiration for China’s nuclear forces. China is working to develop a space-based early warning capability that could support this posture in the future.” The U.S. Department of Defense, Annual Report to Congress: Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2018, May 2018, p. 77.

173 Elaine M. Grossman, “Pakistani Leaders to Retain Nuclear-arms Authority in Crises: Senior Official,” Global Security Newswire, February 27, 2014, arms-authority-crises-senior- official/.

174 NPT/CONF.2020/PC.III/WP23, April 12, 2019. The NPDI also submitted its working paper on dealerting to the 2019 NPT PrepCom. NPT/CONF.2020/PC.III/WP31, April 24, 2019.

175 For example, Patricia Lewis,, published a report, in which they studied 13 cases of inadvertent near misuse of nuclear weapons, and concluded, inter alia, that “the world has, indeed, been lucky.” They argue, “For as long as nuclear weapons exist, the risk of an inadvertent, accidental or deliberate detonation remains. Until their elimination, vigilance and prudent decision-making in nuclear policies are therefore of the utmost priority. Responses that policy-makers and the military should consider include buying time for decisionmaking, particularly in crises; developing trust and confidence-building measures; refraining from large-scale military exercises during times of heightened tension; involving a wider set of decision-makers in times of crisis; and improving awareness and training on the effects of nuclear weapons.” Patricia Lewis, Heather Williams, Benoît Pelopidas and Sasan Aghlani, “Too Close for Comfort: Cases of Near Nuclear Use and Options for Policy,” Chatham House Report, April 2014.

176 See the Hiroshima Report 2017.

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