Jeffrey LewisHair Trigger Alert

Ambassador Rocca is getting lambasted for stating that US nuclear forces are not on hair trigger alert:

It is popular to call for removing nuclear weapons from “hair-trigger alert.” Frankly, in order to take action to comply with this request, we would first have to put our weapons on “hair-trigger alert,” so we could then de-alert them. The fact is that U.S. nuclear forces are not and have never been on “hair-trigger alert.” U.S. nuclear forces are planned and postured to provide the President with maximum decision time and flexibility. Multiple, rigorous procedural and technical safeguards exist to guard against accidental or unauthorized launch.

I remind you that then-Governor George W. Bush once called on the Clinton Administration to “remove as many weapons as possible from high-alert, hair-trigger status.”

But I digress.

She’s actually getting kind of a rough time for saying something that has been an Administration talking point since Candidate Bush became President Bush and ordered a nuclear posture review.

The debate over the term “hair trigger” is fascinating because it is doesn’t seem to have any technical meaning. For example, here is how Admiral Ellis explained the issue in his answers to questions during his confirmation to command STRATCOM:

27. In your view, do U.S. ICBMs or SLBMs maintain a “hair trigger alert?”

ANSWER: No, they do not. “Hair trigger” is an inaccurate assessment. Multiple stringent procedural and technical safeguards have been in place and will remain in place to guard against accidental or inadvertent launch. These safeguards exist to ensure the highest level of nuclear weapons safety, security, reliability, and command and control. We can not launch without Presidential direction.

28. How do you define “hair trigger alert?”

ANSWER: It is any alert status that would allow the launching of nuclear weapons in a less than deliberate manner –without the stringent procedural and technical safeguards.

That’s wonderfully circular. Hair trigger is dangerous and, since our forces aren’t dangerous, they aren’t on hair trigger.

Well, that is an enlightening policy debate, isn’t it?


  1. Vivek

    That’s wonderfully circular. Hair trigger is dangerous and, since our forces aren’t dangerous, they aren’t on hair trigger.

    Exactly which of the quotations is your statement based on?

  2. KimJongIl

    Maybe hairtrigger alert means they’ll be launched when Goeorge Bush has a bad hair day! hahahah

  3. J.B. Zimmerman (History)

    Looking carefully at the final ANSWER, it doesn’t sound (to me) quite as bad as you make it out. If you consider ‘procedural safeguards’, for example, to not only encompass weapons handling but also launch authorization processes, then it’s not circular. For example, let’s take a familiar form of ‘dangerous’ nuclear weapon posture: Launch on Warning. LoW is a particular condition of the ‘procedural safeguards’ – in other words, when under LoW, some requirements for verification and possibly centralized release procedures are bypassed. This would (IMHO) constitute a ‘hair-trigger alert’ because while in this state, procedures designed to enforce centrally-authorized and deliberate weapons release are being deliberately bypassed in favor of quicker reaction time.

    Another form of ‘hair trigger’ might be the delegation of release authority to local commanders – submarine COs, regional CINCs, etc. etc. In this case, weapon release has been again shunted past systems of tight central auth control in favor of faster response, but at the cost of depriving the NCA of in-loop decision making over any launch.

    The real problem here is that ‘hair trigger,’ as pointed out, doesn’t mean anything specific. However, in these QAs, it’s fairly obvious that those being questioned have a personal idea of what it means – i.e. they’re using it as shorthand for a specific condition. Or they’re simply using the lack of meaning to avoid answering anything.

  4. Allen Thomson

    > We can not launch without Presidential direction.

    Which, if it were literally true in the sense of requiring Presidential direction on the spot, would mean that the system is designed to be vulnerable to a decapitation attack. Probably fortunately, predelegation is alive and well. This from a retired general who served as head of the battle staff on Looking Glass:
    “Inside the Cold War: a cold warrior’s reflections”
    by Chris Adams
    ISBN 158566068X

    “The Looking Glass could communicate with SAC forces worldwide as well as with the JCS command center, SAC underground command post, all unit command posts, and all SAC aircraft. By April 1967, Looking Glass crews possesed the capability to launch selected Minuteman ICBMs via an airborne launch control system (ALCS). A SAC general officer, with special training in emergency war order (EWO) implementation in nuclear command and control
    procedures, was in command of each Looking Glass aircraft. This “airborne emergency actions officer” (AEAO), had authority to act for and on behalf of the commander in chief, SAC, in any confirmed wartime emergency. Indeed, should the president and the NCA become incapacitated, the AEOA could act for them.

  5. Anonymous

    Jeffrey, I’ll repeat Vivek’s question: On which quotation do you base your statement, That’s wonderfully circular….?

    If you’re basing it on ADM Ellis’ quotation, then, I would argue, you’re not fairly representing what he said. When a person doesn’t even bother to try to represent fairly other views, then s/he’s well on the way to being ideological. I saw that happen with your post on AMB Bolton; I’m seeing it again w.r.t. AMB Ellis in this post.

    You’re right to point out that “hair-trigger” has no precise technical definition. Sometimes people use the term to refer to “launch on warning” or “launch on attack” declaratory/operational doctrines. More recently, people seem to mean the mere fact that nuclear weapons are capable of being authorized to be launched within what they consider to be too short of an amount of time.

    That said, ADM Ellis gave a definition of what he though “hair-trigger” means, and said that U.S. strategic nuclear forces do not fit that definition. It was a fair answer to a pair of very vaguely worded questions.

    The genuine issue is whether or not existing procedural and technological safeguards on US strategic nuclear forces are capable of reliably preventing their accidental or unauthorized use and detonation, even in circumstances of severe crisis.

    To be fair, a clear answer to this question is difficult because, inter alia, a lot of information regarding these procedural and technological safeguards, and how they operate in time of crisis, is classified. Nevertheless, that’s the genuine question.

  6. Andy (History)

    Having quite a bit of experience with them, I feel the need to point out the origin of “hair trigger” originates with firearms. The term’s use with regard to nuclear weapons is, in my opinion, nothing more than sensationalist rhetoric purposely designed to create the impression that a single clumsy move is capable of arming and launching a nuclear weapon.

    As for enlightened policy debate, I see nothing enlightening about asking an official his opinion on the meaning of an undefined and politically loaded term.

  7. Jeffrey Lewis (History)


    To say that I did not bother to fairly represent what Admiral Ellis (or more correctly, his staff) wrote is insane.

    I provided the full text of the answers to both questions, then suggested that I thought the logic was faulty.

    One might disagree with my conclusion, either about the specific fault or or whether the reasoning is flawed at all.

    But I certainly “bothered” to provide the full text of his comments and link to the source.

    My point was that “hair trigger” has no meaning — people want to use it to either criticize the policy (as Bush did as governor), dismiss critics of the policy (as Rocca is doing now) or sidestep the debate entirely (as I think Ellis was doing).

    It’s hard for me to see how that is an ideological point to make.

    As for Bolton, I quoted several paragraphs from a story in The Hill and made a wisecrack about him leaving Hill alone. There was no effort to represent, or misrepresent, his views.

  8. miles (History)

    I think what the public understands about “hair trigger alert” has virtually nothing to do with how many procedures and safeguards there are to guard against accidental launch or detonation. It’s what Anonymous said about them being authorized to be lanuched in too short a time —that is a perceived need for increasing warning time. Hence the call in the Nunn/Kissinger/Schultz/Perry WSJ oped for “Changing the Cold War posture of deployed nuclear weapons to increase warning time and thereby reduce the danger of an accidental or unauthorized use of a nuclear weapon.”