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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 2021, there were no significant changes in nuclear-armed states’ policies on alert and/or operational status of their respective nuclear forces.170 Russian and U.S. strategic ballistic missiles have been on high alert status,171 either launch on warning (LOW) or launch under attack (LUA). 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 has been assumed that China’s nuclear forces were not on a hair-trigger alert posture as its nuclear warheads were likely de-mated from delivery vehicles. Meanwhile, the United States has recently pointed out a possibility of changes in such policies in light of China’s introduction of MIRVed ICBMs and new SSBNs/SLBMs, and construction of an early warning system with Russia’s cooperation. At the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee in April 2021, U.S. Strategic Command Commander Charles Richard stated, “While China keeps the majority of its forces in a peacetime status, increasing evidence suggests China has moved a portion of its nuclear force to a [LOW] posture and are adopting a limited “high alert duty” strategy.”173 A State Department official said that China since 2017 has conducted exercises involving LOW, and now has deployed at least one satellite into orbit for its LOW posture.174 In addition, the annual report on China’s military powers issued by the U.S. Department of Defense clearly stated: “The [People’s Liberation Army (PLA)] is implementing a launch-on warning posture, called ‘early warning counterstrike,’ where warning of a missile strike leads to a counterstrike before an enemy first strike can detonate.”175 In response to these U.S. assertions, China has repeatedly stated that its nuclear posture, including its alert status, has not changed.

Little definitive information has been made available 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.”176 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.”177 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.178

Proponents of de-alerting have often argued that such measures are useful to prevent accidental use of nuclear weapons. The UNGA resolution titled “Reducing nuclear danger,”179 which “calls for…immediate and urgent steps to reduce the risks of unintentional and accidental use of nuclear weapons,” was adopted by 125 countries. However, 50 countries (including Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, France, Germany, Israel, South Korea, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Poland, 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.

In a related issue, during the later-stages of the Trump administration, there was a debate in the United States regarding who had authority over the decision to use nuclear weapons. In January 2021, when Trump supporters who claimed, contrary to evidence, that he had won the presidential election stormed the U.S. Capitol, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi revealed in a letter to Democrats that she had “[spoken] to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley to discuss available precautions for preventing an unstable president from initiating military hostilities or accessing the launch codes and ordering a nuclear strike.”180 According to a book by Bob Woodward and Robert Costa, Milley on January 8 instructed senior military officials in charge of the National Military Command Center, not to take orders from anyone unless he was involved. Milley was worried, the authors wrote, that President Trump could “go rogue,” and order a nuclear strike.181

As explained by the Congressional Research Service, “[t]he U.S. President has sole authority to authorize the use of U.S. nuclear weapons. This authority is inherent in his constitutional role as Commander in Chief. The President can seek counsel from his military advisors; those advisors are then required to transmit and implement the orders authorizing nuclear use. But … his job is to give advice, while the authority to order a launch lies with the president.”182 In addition, “[t]he President does not need the concurrence of either his military advisors or the U.S. Congress to order the launch of nuclear weapons. In addition, neither the military nor Congress can overrule these orders.”183 Strategic Command Commander Richard said that he would not recommend changes to the system which the United States has had in place for decades, but said at the same time, “I will follow any legal order that I’m given. I will not follow any illegal orders.”184 Meanwhile, some argue that the authority to authorize the use of nuclear weapons should be changed to a process that requires the involvement of multiple stakeholders, not just the president.185


170 See also the Hiroshima Report 2017.
171 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.
172 See Kristensen, “Reducing Alert Rates of Nuclear Weapons”; Kristensen and McKinzie, “Reducing Alert Rates of Nuclear Weapons.”
173 Richard, “Testimony.”
174 Kristensen and Korda, “China’s Nuclear Missile Silo Expansion.”
175 The U.S. Department of Defense, Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2021, p. 93.
176 Elaine M. Grossman, “Pakistani Leaders to Retain Nuclear-arms Authority in Crises: Senior Official,” Global Security Newswire, February 27, 2014, clear-arms-authority-crises-senior-official/.
177 “Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un Guides Enlarged Meeting of WPK Central Military Commission,” KCNA, May 24, 2020,
178 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.
179 A/RES/76/27, December 6, 2021.
180 Connor O’Brien and Jacqueline Feldscher, “Pelosi Asks Top General about Preventing Trump from Launching Nukes,” Politico, January 8, 2021,
181 Jamie Gangel, Jeremy Herb and Elizabeth Stuart, “Woodward/Costa book: Worried Trump Could ‘Go Rogue,’ Milley Took Secret Action to Protect Nuclear Weapons,” CNN, September 14, 2021, https://
182 Amy F. Woolf, “Defense Primer: Command and Control of Nuclear Forces,” In Focus, Congressional Research Service, December 3, 2020, p. 1.
183 Ibid.
184 Gina Harkins and Oriana Pawlyk, “The Military Can’t Legally Curb a President’s Access to Nuclear Codes, Experts Say,” Yahoo News, January 9, 2021,
185 See, for instance, David S. Jonas and Bryn McWhorter, “Nuclear Launch Authority: Too Big a Decision for Just the President,” Arms Control Today, Vol. 51, No. 5 (June 2021), act/2021-06/features/nuclear-launch-authority-too-big-decision-just-president.

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