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Hiroshima for Global Peace

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

In 2020, 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). In its “Basic Principles of State Policy of the Russian Federation on Nuclear Deterrence” in June 2020, as mentioned above, Russia includes “arrival of reliable data on a launch of ballistic missiles attacking the territory of the Russian Federation and/or its allies” as one of “[t]he conditions specifying the possibility of nuclear weapons use.”171 This suggests that Moscow maintains a high-level alert posture.

As for other NWS, 40 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.172 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.173 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. In addition, it was reported that a Chinese former military officer wrote that “China can detect nuclear missiles launched from an enemy and counterattack using nuclear weapons within minutes before they land in the country.”174

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.”175 Regarding North Korea, it was reported that at the Enlarged Meeting of Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) Central Military Commission in May 2020, it set forth “new policies for further increasing the nuclear war deterrence of the country and putting the strategic armed forces on a high alert operation in line with the general requirements for the building and development of the armed forces of the country.”176 However, it is not clear what sort of concrete measures have been or will be implemented for that purpose.

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,” have proactively proposed that alert levels be reduced.177 At the 2020 UNGA, they proposed the resolution titled “Decreasing the operational readiness of nuclear weapons systems,” which was adopted with 176 countries voting in favor, five voting against (France, Russia, the United Kingdom, the United States and others) and four abstentions (Israel, South Korea and North Korea and others).178

Proponents of de-alerting have often argued that such measures are useful to prevent accidental use of nuclear weapons.179 The UNGA resolution titled “Reducing nuclear danger,”180 which “calls for…immediate and urgent steps to reduce the risks of unintentional and accidental use of nuclear weapons,” was adopted by 122 countries. However, 49 countries (including Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, France, Germany, Israel, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Poland, South Korea, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey, the United Kingdom and the United States) voted against it, and 14 countries (including China, Japan, North Korea, Pakistan and Russia) abstained.

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.181 In relation to this issue, in December 2020, China and Russia announced that they agreed to extend their mutual agreement to notify each other of launches of ballistic missiles and carrier rockets by 10 years.182
On the other hand, Russian authority revealed in December 2020 that 39 pieces of radio equipment had been stolen from the cargo hatch of the Ilyushin-80 aircraft, a mobile command post specially designed to keep officials alive and in command of the military during a nuclear conflict.183

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 The President of the Russian Federation, “Executive Order on Basic Principles of State Policy of the Russian Federation on Nuclear Deterrence,” June 8, 2020,
172 See Kristensen, “Reducing Alert Rates of Nuclear Weapons”; Kristensen and McKinzie, “Reducing
Alert Rates of Nuclear Weapons.”
173 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.
174 “China Can Launch Nuclear Counterattacks Within Minutes: Ex-Soldier,” Kyodo News, August 2, 2020,
175 Elaine M. Grossman, “Pakistani Leaders to Retain Nuclear-arms Authority in Crises: Senior Official,” Global Security Newswire, February 27, 2014,
176 “Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un Guides Enlarged Meeting of WPK Central Military Commission,” KCNA, May 24, 2020,
177 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. NPT/CONF.2020/PC.III/WP23, April 12, 2019.
178 A/RES/75/72, December 7, 2020.
179 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.
180 A/RES/75/57, December 7, 2020.
181 See the Hiroshima Report 2017.
182 Zhang Zhihao, “Agreement on Missiles Extended by 10 Years,” China Daily, December 17, 2020,
183 Andrew Roth, “Thieves Target Russia’s Nuclear War ‘Doomsday’ Plane,” Guardian, December 8, 2020,

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