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Hiroshima for Global Peace

Hiroshima Report 2023(7) De-alerting or Measures for Maximizing Decision Time to Authorize the Use of Nuclear Weapons

In 2022, there were no significant changes in nuclear-armed states’ official policies on alert and/or operational status of their respective nuclear forces.255 Russian and U.S. strategic ballistic missiles have been on high alert status.256 In its 2022 NPR, the United States indicated that while its ICBMs are not on “hair trigger” alert, “[f]urther “de-alerting” ICBMs or other steps to reduce alert levels could undermine crisis stability by heightening adversary incentives to attack or to increase nuclear readiness as a coercive measure.”257

In the meantime, on February 27, President Putin ordered “special regime of duty” to the Russian nuclear forces.258

While Russia did not mention specific measures or activities taken under the “specific regime of duty,” it is considered that they may have involved increasing the number of personnel on duty, enabling communication lines that could be used to transmit launch orders, or issuing preliminary authorizations that would be activated in the event of an actual attack.259

As for other NWS, respective 40 British and 80 French nuclear warheads are also kept on alert under their continuous SSBN patrols, albeit at lower readiness levels than those of the two nuclear superpowers.260 After Russia’s aggression against Ukraine and the Russia-NATO relationship deteriorating quickly, France which possesses four SSBNs was reportedly preparing for the risk of its home port (Île Longue) becoming the target of a Russian attack by taking a third SSBN from port.261 In its national report submitted to the NPT RevCon, China referred to its own alert posture as follows:

The command of nuclear forces in China is highly centralized. Unit operations must be carried out with extreme rigour and precision in accordance with the orders of the Central Military Commission. Chinese nuclear forces are kept in a state of moderate readiness in peacetime; in the event of a nuclear threat to the country, however, they would be put on heightened alert in preparation for a nuclear counterattack at the order of the Central Military Commission, as a deterrent against enemy use of nuclear weapons against China. In the event of an actual nuclear attack on the country, a resolute counter-attack would be mounted against the enemy262

China is not expected to be on high alert in peacetime like the U.S. and Russia, but it is unclear exactly what “moderate readiness” means. The assumption has been 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 these policies in view of China’s introduction of MIRVed ICBMs and new SSBNs/SLBMs, and its construction of an early warning system with Russia’s cooperation. The annual report on China’s military powers issued by the U.S. Department of Defense stated:

Although the PRC almost certainly keeps the majority of its nuclear force on a peacetime status—with separated launchers, missiles, and warheads—nuclear and conventional PLARF brigades conduct “combat readiness duty” and “high alert duty.” These apparently include assigning a missile battalion to be ready to launch, and rotating to standby positions, on about a monthly basis for unspecified periods of time. The PRC will likely increase the number of units on “high alert duty” during times of increased tension. Authoritative PLA text books on strategy state “high alert duty” is valuable for the defender in a nuclear war and recommend the PLARF adopt a high alert posture conceptually comparable to the claimed high alert posture kept by portions of U.S. and Russian nuclear force. Such a posture is compatible with the PRC’s active defense concept, NFU policy, and post-strike response approach.”263

This annual report also stated, “The 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. … The PRC probably seeks to keep at least a portion of its force, especially its new silo-based units, on a LOW posture, and since 2017, the PLARF has conducted exercises involving early warning of a nuclear strike and launch on warning responses.”264 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 a crisis with India, […and] all weapons are under the central control of the National Command Authority, which is headed by the prime minister.”265 Regarding North Korea, it was reported that at the Enlarged Meeting of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) Central Military Commission in May 2020, it set out “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.”266 However, it is unclear what concrete measures have been or will be implemented to that end.

Proponents of de-alerting have often argued that such measures are useful in preventing accidental use of nuclear weapons. The UNGA resolution titled “Reducing nuclear danger,”267 which “calls for…immediate and urgent steps to reduce the risks of unintentional and accidental use of nuclear weapons,” was adopted by 119 countries. However, 49 countries (including Australia, Austria, 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 13 countries (including China, Japan, North Korea, Pakistan and Russia) abstained.



255 See also the Hiroshima Report 2017.
256 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.
257 2022 NPR, p. 13.
258 “Putin Orders ‘Special Service Regime’ in Russia’s Deterrence Force,” Tass, February 27, 2022,
259 Pavel Podvig, “Why—and How—the World should Condemn Putin for Waving the Nuclear Saber,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, March 29, 2022,
260 See Kristensen, “Reducing Alert Rates of Nuclear Weapons”; Kristensen and McKinzie, “Reducing Alert Rates of Nuclear Weapons.”
261 Wojciech L, “France Increases Nuclear Force Readiness Amid War in Ukraine,” Overt Defense, March 21, 2022,

262 NPT/CONF.2020/41, November 16, 2021.
263 The U.S. Department of Defense, Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2022, p. 95.
264 Ibid., p. 99.

265 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/.
266 “Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un Guides Enlarged Meeting of WPK Central Military Commission,” KCNA, May 24, 2020,
267 A/RES/77/74, December 7, 2022.



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