Change "Launch on Warning" Policy

Accidental nuclear war would be made much less likely if the US and Russia were to agree on a policy of "Retaliatory Launch Only After Detonation."

By Alan Phillips and Steven Starr | 2006-07-01 12:00:00

As long as the United States and Russia retain their nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missiles, some on high alert, the danger remains of a purely accidental nuclear war between the two countries. One of the most likely causes of an unintended nuclear war is "Launch on Warning" (LoW) - the policy of launching a retaliatory nuclear strike while the opponent's missiles or warheads are believed to be in flight, but before any detonation from the perceived attack has occurred.

Each side has over 2,000 nuclear warheads ready to launch before the incoming rockets have arrived. Once launched, they cannot be recalled or neutralized. LoW has exposed the world, for at least 30 years, to the danger of a nuclear war caused by nothing but radar, satellite sensor, or computer glitches, and human failure to recognize that the message signaling attack is false.

The danger inherent in this policy has been appreciated by all concerned since it was first considered in the early 1960's. Although the Cold War is over, both Russia and the United States retain their LoW capabilities, and are believed to be continuing their LoW policies. This is inexcusably dangerous.

We suggest a new approach to reduce the risk of accidental nuclear war, which both Russia and USA might be willing adopt if they can be persuaded that it is safe and not destabilizing. Our suggestion is to change the current policy of "Launch on Warning" (LoW) to one of "Retaliatory Launch Only After Detonation" (RLOAD). This involves no change of alert status.

We believe that RLOAD is compatible with nuclear deterrence, and that the military on both sides would accept it in order to reduce the risk inherent in LoW, of which they are well aware. The appalling danger is that a false warning may be accepted as true and retaliation might be launched when there had been no attack.

Eliminate the risk now

On any rational view, it is essential to eliminate as soon as possible the risk of instant destruction of both these great countries, and the whole of our civilization, by a mere accident. De-alerting would take a long time to put into practice, because of the need for symmetry, verification, and a formal agreement. RLOAD could be put into effect by executive decision and relatively small changes in standing orders and items such as re-routing the signals from the detonation detectors.

Our proposal applies only to the nuclear confrontation between USA and Russia. A war between them would destroy civilization, whereas other nuclear wars, however terrible, would be on a smaller scale.

Planning for retaliation is designed for deterrence, not for revenge. As soon as the enemy attack is launched, deterrence has failed and enormous destruction is inevitable. What is necessary for effective deterrence is that an enemy who thinks of planning an attack foresees an unacceptable risk that unacceptable retaliation will follow. Certainty is not needed.

No need for verification

It is not necessary for either side to know whether the other is or is not at LoW. There is no need for verification or symmetry, because deterrence is not lost by the proposed wait for the first detonation. If only one side changes its policy from LoW to RLOAD, the risk of accidental war due to a false warning is approximately halved, but the balance between the US and Russia is not changed. There is no strategic advantage or disadvantage to either side.

The likeliest cause of an unintended nuclear war between Russia and the US, at this time, is a false warning misread as true. If both sides give up the policy of LoW then that risk becomes zero. After a false warning there would be no nuclear detonation, hence no un-called-for "retaliatory" launch. No other risks of unintended nuclear war will be addressed here.

RLOAD does not need verification, nor an agreement (much less a treaty), nor would it undermine deterrence. RLOAD could be adopted quickly and unilaterally. From the point of view of preserving deterrence, verification of RLOAD is actually undesirable. Either side planning a preemptive attack would want to be absolutely certain that its opponent was under a policy of RLOAD. Without verification a potential attacker could not be certain, but if RLOAD were verified he might think there was a possibility of making a successful first strike, though we'll show that this would be irrational.

Compare De-Alerting with RLOAD

"De-alerting" is a term commonly used in recommendations that nuclear weapons should be "taken off hair-trigger alert." What is usually meant by de-alerting is to make physical changes to the weapons system that impose a delay between a decision to launch and the irrevocable step that actually starts the launch. Separating the warheads from the rockets and storing them at a distance, or doing the same with any essential component, are ways of introducing delay, and several others have been suggested. Obviously any unavoidable delay of that kind would make a LoW policy impossible. As well as eliminating the risk of launch on a false warning, de-alerting would give other benefits such as reducing the risk of unauthorized launch, but it would be difficult to implement.

To change from LoW to RLOAD does not reduce the alert status or readiness of the nuclear force. It only removes the risk of responding to a false warning. Giving up LoW should be clearly distinguished from de-alerting. De-alerting needs symmetry and verification if the current requirements for deterrence are to be maintained. So would simply abandoning LoW. But to change from LoW to RLOAD maintains deterrence while not requiring symmetry. It can be put into effect by executive decision and relatively small changes such as re-routing the signals from the detonation detectors. It would delay the retaliatory strike by only a few minutes. But if the warning were false (as all the warnings of nuclear attack have been up to the present) that fact would be immediately revealed as soon as the predicted time had passed for the first missiles to arrive and no detonation had been detected; and there would be no launch.

RLOAD is compatible with deterrence

The purpose of deterrence is to prevent either side from launching a nuclear attack. It fails if one side believes it can launch such a rapid and massive surprise nuclear strike that it will prevent the other side from retaliating. But actually, an attacker cannot be sure that "disarming first strike" will succeed.

The United States uses the space-based Nuclear Detonation Detection System (NUDET) to detect, locate, and report to the Strategic Command Centers, any nuclear explosion in the earth's atmosphere or nearby space. Russia employs optical and seismic sensors to detect nuclear explosions. Their policy is believed to be Launch on Warning, which, as in the US system, would only be ordered by the National Command Authority. They have a back-up system called "Perimetr" to ensure retaliation in the event of an attack that has disabled the National Command Authority before it can order the retaliatory launch. Positive signals from the detonation detectors are a prerequisite to any launch ordered via the perimetr system, which therefore cannot effect an "LOW."

A change from LOW to RLOAD would require, in the American system, feeding any positive signals from the detonation detectors directly to the launch silos as well as to the command centers, so that destruction of command centers would not prevent a retaliatory strike. Retaliation would be ensured (if authorized) immediately upon a detonation, by having the launch crews carry out all steps toward launch except the final one, during the flight of incoming missiles, just as they do under LoW. On receipt of a detonation signal at the predicted time of arrival of attack, retaliation would be launched immediately, from all silos not already destroyed by the attack. If no detonation was detected at the predicted time of arrival, the launch crews would revert to peacetime readiness.

In the Russian system, as far as we know, similar changes would be required. The retaliatory launch we presume is aimed primarily at cities, not at the silos which would be empty. Less than 5per cent of the 2,000 warheads at LoW readiness should be enough to inflict "unacceptable" damage, on any reasonable criteria. No commander-in-chief could be certain that an initial salvo could put more than 95 percent of these weapons out of action within a few seconds of the first detonation. Thus a massive disarming first strike could not in fact be relied upon to prevent unacceptable retaliation.

These arguments should be sufficient to persuade the military on both sides that the policy of LoW, which they know to be dangerous, is not essential and should be replaced by RLOAD - Retaliatory Launch Only After Detonation.

Alan Phillips is a retired physicist and physician who did radar research for the British army. Steven Starr trained in nuclear engineering and now works as a medical technologist.

Peace Magazine Jul-Sep 2006

Peace Magazine Jul-Sep 2006, page 14. Some rights reserved.

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