"Though we have acheived progress, our work is not over. That is why I support the mission of the Arms Control Association. It is, quite simply, the most effective and important organization working in the field today." 

– Larry Weiler
Former U.S.-Russian arms control negotiator
August 7, 2018
Text of Nov. 28 E-mail from Strategic Command responding to ACT's questions on the alert status of U.S. nuclear weapons

November 2007

Q1) If "hair-trigger alert" and "launch-on-warning" are incorrect terms for describing the status of US forces on alert, what is the proper term?

A1) U.S. nuclear forces are not on “hair trigger” alert. The term “hair trigger” ignores the safeguards, deliberate actions, and procedures required in order to employ nuclear weapons. The U.S. nuclear force posture has evolved since the end of the Cold War. Only a portion of the operationally deployed U.S. nuclear forces is maintained on a ready alert status. No strategic bombers, 450 Minuteman III IBCMs, and a small number of SSBNs at sea are on alert at any given time.

U.S. policy is not to rely on a "launch on warning" strategy. U.S. strategic forces are postured to provide maximum flexibility so the U.S. is not faced with a “use or lose” dilemma. A major strike on the U.S. would be required to eliminate the responsive ICBM capability. The ICBM force could be launched prior to impact, but only if the President were to direct such an action. In addition, should the ICBM force not be able to respond, the U.S. SSBNs at sea could deliver an overwhelming response if directed by the President.

Should the international security situation call for it, the U.S. could bring its nuclear forces to a higher state of readiness (i.e., “generated alert”), putting a larger portion of its submarines to sea and returning heavy bombers to alert, to increase their survivability.

Q2) The US government has made statements to the effect of as long as
nuclear weapons exist it is necessary for us to keep some portion of our forces at some level of alert. What is the proper description or term for that "level of alert?"

A2) See answer 1. A portion of U.S. nuclear forces are on day-to-day alert. Since the end of the Cold War, however, the U.S. has reduced dramatically both the overall number of nuclear weapons and nuclear systems maintained on day-to-day alert. To ensure deterrence, U.S. nuclear forces must be postured such that, under any credible scenario, a sufficient number of nuclear weapons would survive to respond to an aggressor’s attempt to carry out a disabling attack on the U.S. The proper term would be “on day-to-day alert”.

Q3) The US government statement also noted that US forces have evolved away from "rapid reaction high alert levels." Is that the proper term to describe the alert status of some US nuclear weapons systems today?

A3) The U.S. nuclear force posture has evolved since the end of the Cold War. Only a small portion of our SSBNs and the 450 Minuteman III ICBMs remain on day-to-day alert. Nuclear capable bombers have been removed from alert status, but could be re-postured in a national crisis and additional SSBNs could be generated to alert status.

Q4) Has the US completely stopped this previous practice of "rapid reaction high alert?"

A4) See answer 3.

Q5) What measures marked this shift? What steps were taken that no longer classifies or makes US weapons as on "rapid reaction high alert?"

A5) Under the 1991 Presidential Nuclear Initiatives, all nuclear bombers were removed from alert. Only the Minuteman III ICBM and a small portion of our SSBN force remain on day-to-day alert and neither force is targeted against any country. All 50 Peacekeeper ICBMs, 50 Minutemen III ICBMs, the B-1 Bomber fleet, and four SSBNs have been deactivated or removed from strategic service.

Q6) The USG statement further said that "few of the operationally deployed US nuclear forces are maintained on a ready alert status." What is meant by the term few?

A6) Only the Minuteman III ICBM force and a small number of SSBNs are on day-to-day alert.

Q7) Independent nongovernmental analysts say that regardless of what the alert status is called, the reality is that some US nuclear weapons are capable of being fired in "minutes." Is that assertion accurate?

A7) The United States maintains the ability to launch its nuclear weapons in a timely basis as directed by the President. Minuteman III ICBMs are designed to be capable of delivering a rapid response prior to being struck by an adversary’s ballistic missile force. This is an important aspect of our deterrent because it complicates an opponents’ pre-emptive strike planning. However, the fundamental fact is that U.S. forces are postured such that the President is not confronted with a “use or lose” situation in that other strategic forces could be directed to respond to an attack. See answer 1.

Q8) In a Nov. 6 paper, nongovernmental analyst Bruce Blair wrote, "the fact remains that the US posture is still geared for firing thousands of weapons with a few minutes." Is that an accurate statement?

A8) No, this is not true. Under the Moscow Treaty, the U.S. will have only 1700-2200 operationally deployed nuclear weapons. The U.S. is well on its way to achieving this limit. Only a portion of these are on day-to-day alert.

Q9) Now that the Soviet Union is gone and the United States says Russia is no longer an enemy, why is it necessary for the US to keep some of its forces on alert for possible launch in minutes?

A9) The security environment of the 21st century is dramatically different from the East-West rivalry of the Cold War era, but the goals of U.S. security policy remain much the same: to strengthen deterrence and limit risks that could result in serious -even catastrophic- damage to the United States, its allies, and friends. Nuclear capabilities continue to play an important role by providing options to deter a wide range of threats, including the use of WMD by a variety of adversaries. These capabilities also contribute to our non-proliferation goals by assuring allies and friends that the U.S. will be able to fulfill its security commitments, thereby negating any need to develop their own nuclear weapons.

“De-alerting” strategic forces raises other unique concerns, related to the safety and the credibility of the deterrent force. Additionally, the generation of nuclear forces during a crisis, when none had been on alert, could cause an already tense situation to be come unstable.

Q10) What measures does the US have in place to prevent nuclear weapons from unintentional or accidental use?

A10) There are multiple, rigorous technical and procedural safeguards to protect against accidental or unauthorized launch.

These safeguards include positive measures such as weapon design features, safety rules, procedures (including two-man rule), accident prevention or mitigation measures, and other controls. Such controls include physical security and coded control systems, which are used collectively or individually to enhance safety and to reduce the likelihood, severity, or consequences of an accident, unauthorized actions, or deliberate destructive actions.