Jeffrey LewisBlair on Hair Trigger Alert

Bruce Blair disagrees with Ambassador Rocca about “hair trigger” alert:

As they have been configured for several decades, their command and early warning systems are geared to launch on warning – firing friendly forces en masse before the anticipated arrival of incoming enemy missiles with flight times of 12 to 30 minutes. The presidents of both countries would come under enormous pressure to make quick launch decisions in the event of an apparent missile strike by the other side. Much of this decision process has been designed to be quasi-automatic. It can reasonably be described as going to war by checklist, enacting a prepared script, with little margin for human error or technical malfunction. The nuclear war machinery has a hair-trigger quality. And that quality has been a constant in the nuclear equation for decades. Comparable pressures and deadlines apply to Russia. Both of the traditional nuclear rivals still stand ready, despite the Cold War’s end, to inflict apocalyptic devastation on one another in a first or second strike whose essential course would be run in less than one hour.

The procedural and technical safeguards against unauthorized or accidental launch are inadequate in today’s circumstances. Although both sides impose very strict safeguards on their strategic nuclear forces to prevent an unauthorized launch, the actual level of protection against unauthorized launch defies precise estimation due to the complexity of the nuclear command-control systems and of the threats to them. Serious deficiencies are routinely discovered.

I am still not sure “hair trigger” is a helpful phrase — but I do think he is dead on to worry about command performance under great duress.

If you blanche at the reference to “launch on warning” — it is our policy not to rely on low — you should read this article in which Bruce argues that limitations on command performance strongly bias the system toward an LOW posture in fact, if not policy.

By coincidence, I just picked up a copy of Bruce’s Strategic Command and Control: Redefining the Nuclear Threat_ for seven bucks at my favorite bookstore.


  1. MarkoB (History)

    but if the more cynical amongst us are right that such things as improving the fuse on the W76 demonstrate that STRATCOM has a first strike counterforce strategy then those who say that US forces are not configured for LOW would be correct…in a funny sort of way.

    Is there a link between the saliency of deterrence and LOW given the “in fact, if not policy” part of your comments?

    Also, I remember Blair stating that Russia has a “dead hand” launch system in case of de-capitation strikes. This was a controversial claim. What is the current status on that?

  2. Steven Starr (History)

    The term “hair-trigger alert” seems particularly apt when used by an expert such as Dr. Blair. However, try looking it up in the U.S. DOD Dictionary of Military Terms ( . . .it’s not there. Next, try to find “launch-on-warning” . . . it’s not there, either (although you will find LUA, and guess what, the U.S. definition of LUA is equivalent to the Russian definition of LOW).

    Christina Rocca claimed she was trying to “clear up some apparently continuing misunderstandings” when she stated that U.S. nuclear forces were not now and had never been on “hair-trigger alert”. However, I believe that she used this undefined, non-standardized term, in order to deliberately muddy the semantic waters in the debate over high-alert status which she knew the U.S. would soon face at the U.N.

  3. anon (History)

    Ah, the parsing of words. You will note that in this quote, Blair claims that U.S. nuclear forces have a “hair-trigger quality.” That’s different from being “on hair-trigger alert.” Now he’s saying its the appearance, rather than the reality of hair trigger.

    Lets back up a bit and offer an accurate description of the U.S. nuclear weapons alert posture. Nuclear weapons are postured in a way that they can be launched promptly IF the President decides to do so. The problem with the phrase “hair-trigger alert” is that it evokes an image of weapons postured in such a way so that they will launch automatically, without regard for Presidential decision, in response to external events. Clearly, this image is different from the reality, and when Blair parses his words, he backs of the image and gets closer to reality.

    As you note, the undefined phrase “hair-trigger alert” is not useful or accurate in describing the actual alert status of U.S. nuclear weapons. But it is useful in evoking a frightening image that might move people to action, particularly since most people are unaware of the reality. If nuclear weapons can launch automatically, without Presidential decision, when something external happens, we are all in extreme danger and we must change this alert status. Its less scary to say they could be launched quickly if the President decides to do so. However, this real description does not mean we should not change the alert status of weapons. As you’ve noticed, the need to make decisions under pressure on short time lines can produce unintended consequences. Also, and more relevant I think, is the fact that this really is a legacy of the Cold War, and it “looks” bad to retain this posture in the current environment. There’s a political cost, completely unrelated to any operational issues.

    But that still does not mean that they will launch automatically, in response to an external event, without any input from the President. Scary image, not even close to reality.

  4. Bill Arnold (History)

    A philosophical point on the larger topic of accidental nuclear war: My mind always returns to the early/mid 80s when NASA was making ludicrous claims about space shuttle reliability. It was kind of clear the time that the system was complex enough that the analysis was almost certainly wrong, and that it was safer to just assume an expected failure rate closer to 1/number of successful launches to that point in time.

  5. Jim

    It was also claimed that live nuclear weapons could never accidentally be flown over the United States, due to the large number of safeguards and a rigid procedure to follow. And we know how that turned out.

  6. steven starr (History)

    MarkoB , on Nov 7, 09:09 PM, asked: I remember Blair stating that Russia has a “dead hand” launch system in case of de-capitation strikes. This was a controversial claim. What is the current status on that?

    Check out the book by Valery Yarynich, C3: Nuclear Command, Control, Cooperation, published by CDI in 2003 . . . yes, by Dr. Blair’s organization. See pp. 156-159 for a detailed explanation of Perimetr (nick-named “Dead Hand”). It was brought on line in 1985 and remains operational today. Valery describes it as, “a backup system of the SRF command and control . . . specifically designed and developed for the conditions of nuclear war. All its nodes and channels are especially survivable. Its main element is a system for transmitting launch orders under extreme conditions using Permitr command missiles.” In the event of a nuclear attack, the crew working at the underground Permitr command center is contacted by the NCA, and when all conditions are met, the command missiles are launched over Russian territory, broadcasting launch orders via radio signals causing the launch of any surviving armed missiles.