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Close Calls, Hair-Trigger Systems, Faulty Missile Interceptors: Nuclear Security Then & Now

Smithsonian Institute Magazine

With North Korea flexing its nuclear muscles and the U.S. calling for an end to the "era of strategic patience,"  it's a good time to re-examine where we are as a world when it comes to nuclear weapons -- and where we've been.  Lisbeth Gronlund, co-director of the Global Security Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, says giving one person the power to launch a nuclear strike has long been a dangerous proposition.  She joined The Exchangerecently to discuss her ideas for reducing the risk of nuclear conflict.  


How long has it been the case that only the president makes the decision whether to launch a nuclear strike?

From the very beginning.  It came into play when the U.S. built long-range missiles and put them in silos because those missiles were vulnerable to an attack from the Soviet Union.  And it takes only about a half an hour for a missile to go from the U.S. to Russia and vice versa. So the U.S. built satellite-based sensors and ground-based sensors with the idea that if there were a Soviet attack, we would know.  And then the clock starts ticking. 

If it is a real attack, before those incoming missiles land and destroy the U.S. land-based missiles, you have ten minutes. You do not have time to talk about anything.  Somebody has to say, Go or No-Go. That whole hair-trigger system is ripe for disaster.  There’s no need for that. The U.S. has about 1,000 warheads on submarines that are not vulnerable to attack. Russia doesn’t know where they are. So, there’s no need for having our land-based systems on hair-trigger alert.

Is your goal to eliminate the hair trigger or to bring more people into the decision-making process?

Both.  If you don’t eliminate that, it’s hard to argue to bring more people into the process.  If you do eliminate that hair-trigger system, you could bring in other members of the Cabinet; you could bring in the Secretary of State, maybe somebody from the Senate.

There’s a bill by Senator Ed Markey that calls for a Congressional Act of War before the U.S. can launch a first strike. That’s different but that would basically require serious deliberation on the part of the U.S.

If the U.S. had been attacked, you would still have time to have deliberation, maybe not time for a Congressional Act of War.  But there is still time for a larger group of people to be involved in this decision making. You don’t need to do it in ten minutes;  you don’t need to do it in an hour. It could take days, in part because we have those submarines that are invulnerable,  and you don’t have to make a rash decision.

If you get a signal of an incoming missile, wouldn’t you want to do something?

There’s not much you can do about it. You want to be able to respond. But you want to think. Moving quickly is not going to help anything. It’s not intercepting the missile. It’s counter attack. You’re not ruling that out. You’re just thinking about it.

Has there ever been a time when that authority was shared? When President Nixon was getting ready to resign, he was said to be quite depressed and drinking heavily.  People were worried about his decision-making abilities.

At that point people were worried. And Schlesinger actually told the military, If you get any orders from the president, you come talk to me. Now that was really not the way the system was supposed to work. So, had Nixon actually issued an order, what the military would have done was unclear.

In that suitcase, in that football, there is not a button the president pushes. He still has to tell the Pentagon to do this, so it goes through the military. He doesn’t have a direct line to the missiles.

He has the codes but he informs the military that actually makes these devices to hit the go button. So there’s some level of multilevel action?

Right. The military is supposed to carry out the orders of the president. Now what Schlesinger was suggesting was, Maybe you don’t want to do that if Nixon issues such an order because he’s not in a state of mind to be trusted.

How would the U.S. get rid of the hair-trigger system without becoming vulnerable?

The system is set up to receive signals from sensors. Sometimes there are false alarms. There have been several in both the U.S.  and the Soviet Union and Russia. In one case, there was a flawed computer chip. In another case, the satellites mistook glint off the clouds to be incoming missiles.  In one case, the sensors were all saying the same thing; everything checked out. The next step would be to order a launch and the person in charge in the Soviet Union at that time…he decided -- kind of going on gut instinct -- I don’t believe this, I’m not going to follow protocol. He is known as the man who saved the world. He was actually reprimanded because he didn’t follow orders.

What’s to protect us from some very smart person with ill intent going into a computer and messing around with signals on either side?

It’s possible. Obviously, all that information is classified.  This is a new vulnerability.  These missiles are linked via cable to the computers, hundreds of miles of cable. You can well imagine someone getting access to that cable. 

Do we need to test weapons?

We’ve never tested for reliability purposes. We used it for new design. You’d want to be sure it went off once. And we tested a lot of weapons effects.   We do test our missiles for reliability. We fire a certain number off every year.  You don’t test the core that blows up. But there are lots of other components of a nuclear weapon that you can test to be sure that the high explosive trigger goes off, that the fusing system works.  You don’t need to test the part that explodes.

Is the testing itself provocative?

Yes. The U.S. actually signed an international comprehensive test ban treaty that prohibits nuclear testing. The U.S.  is a signatory. It has not been ratified but even as a signatory the U.S.  is obligated not to test. And the U.S.  hasn’t tested for more than 20 years.

What capability do we have to intercept or shoot down incoming nuclear missiles?

The U.S. has about 30 interceptors based in Alaska and a couple in California. The goal would be to shoot down a missile from North Korea. That system does need testing. And it has undergone some testing. And it has a very poor record. For political reasons, the U.S. decided that it would rather spend its money building interceptors than testing them. Because when you test an interceptor, it’s gone, basically; you use it up.  And there has been a political imperative, in some part driven by Congress, that we want to be able to tell the American public that we can defend it.  But the reality is not as comforting.

These tests of this missile defense system have been very poor and very scripted, so they might not reflect what an actual attack would look like.  The military concedes that the key part of the interceptor, called the key vehicle – the top that actually maneuvers to ram into the incoming warhead and destroy it -- is flawed and they will be building new ones. But in the meanwhile they’re continuing to deploy the ones that they know to be flawed.

Would better technology or more smart people working on this help?

I am skeptical….We are not going about it in the right way.

The Pentagon has a rule called “fly before you buy.”  They were finding they were deploying systems that didn’t actually work in the field because they hadn’t done enough testing. So, in its wisdom, they exempted missile defense from this requirement.  If you were serious about developing something that would work you would want to fly before you buy. You would want to test it thoroughly. That’s not what we’re doing. People felt it was more important to put something out there than to make sure it worked.

I would like to see them fly it, honestly. I think it would reveal the flaws in the system and would be a reason not to build it. But we can give it a try at some level.  We have not given it an honest try. Part of the reason is that the last thing the Pentagon wants is test failures because the world will know. You can’t hide these tests so there’s a trade -off between having something to point to and say we’re defended and actually building something that might work.

Would it deter North Korea?

If they were willing to fire a nuclear weapon at the U.S. knowing that the U.S. can retaliate with its enormous conventional force – the U.S. doesn’t need nuclear weapons to retaliate against North Korea --  If they were willing to do that, I cannot imagine that the existence of a missile-defense system would matter one iota.

On the other hand, there are some negative consequences of thinking that this might work. China has a pretty small arsenal, about 100 weapons that can reach the U.S. Its concern is that the U.S. would launch a first strike against China, take out a lot of those missiles, leaving China with a small number that the U.S. would use its missile defense system to defend against.  They see this as provocative.


Under, the nuclear nonproliferation treaty, the U.S. is legally committed to disarmament. They have not been making much progress. And the rest of the world is fed up.

The deal that was cut: Five countries -- Russia, U.S., China, Britain, and France --  said okay we have nuclear weapons now,  but we promise to get rid of them. And in exchange for that all of the other countries said okay, fine, we won’t get them.

Meanwhile, Israel, Pakistan, and India are working outside the bounds of the treaty.  

What the rest of the world could say is that the U.S. and Russia, as the owners of 95 percent of the world’s nuclear weapons, need to lead the way. 

At the height of the Cold War, both the U.S. and the Soviet Union had tens of thousands of nuclear weapons. Now we have about 5,000.

There is a treaty banning biological weapons, chemical weapons, but not banning nuclear weapons.

People in favor of nuclear deterrence should be fine with far lower numbers and a less provocative military posture; not only do we have the ability and stated intent to respond if there was a nuclear attack, but we also have a policy that we could use nuclear weapons first, not in response to a nuclear attack but perhaps in response to a conventional attack or an attack with chemical weapons. That’s a policy that has nothing to do with mutually assured destruction and basically increased the chance that there would be nuclear use.

How hopeful are you that the U.S. can work with China to reduce the threat of North Korea.

I actually think the next step in addressing North Korea is not for China to take, although they have strengthened their sanctions against North Korea again. It is for the U.S. to take.  The U.S. and North Korea need to talk. There are no good military options to deal with North Korea.  It’s the only good option we have. It might not work. But we won’t know until we try.

What do we know about terrorist groups’ abilities or desires to get their hands on nuclear weapons?

I think it’s fair to say that they would like to get a nuclear weapon. The good news is it’s pretty hard. There are only two materials that are usable for nuclear weapons that are generally available, which is highly enriched uranium and plutonium.

The U.S. and Russia have large stockpiles of these weapons from their weapons programs; they have dismantled weapons and there are excess materials. They are fairly well guarded. 

The other issue is that some kinds of nuclear power, fuel cycles, incorporate plutonium -- so that is a concern.  There are very few countries that do this but it’s one thing that we at the Union of Concerned Scientists are trying to stop for that very reason that it poses a possibility that terrorists working with insiders could get enough material to build a nuclear weapon. You don’t need a lot of it. But it’s definitely feasible to steal that amount from one of these large-scale facilities. So once you have the material, then you also have to build it. You need some expertise,  and depending on which of those two materials you have -- the uranium is much easier to build a weapon with than plutonium.

What is a dirty bomb?

It’s not a nuclear weapon.  It’s where you have radioactive material. You might get it from a hospital; you might get it from leftover contaminated material from nuclear power.. and then you would spew radiation. It’s a very local effect, unlike a nuclear weapon, which is much greater effect. It would not be a good thing. It’s far easier to do but it would not have nearly the devastation.

What’s the connection between nuclear power and nuclear weapons?

There are two kinds of materials for making weapon: One is plutonium. Nuclear reactors were developed to produce plutonium for weapons. If you have uranium fuel, it produces plutonium -- then you have to take that fuel out of the reactor and separate the plutonium. The spent fuel is very radioactive so you have to use special methods to extract plutonium but almost all reactors in the world produce plutonium in their spent fuel. … Most reactors are fueled with uranium.  The uranium you dig out of the ground has very low levels of Uranium 235, which is the isotope that is useful in both nuclear power and nuclear weapons. So you have to enrich it. And that is what Iran was doing. It was enriching and condensing the uranium. For a nuclear reactor you might want to do it to 5 %. If you go over 20% you could use it to make a weapon.  And weapons-grade uranium is more like 95%.

Exchange listener Anton writes in defense of the current system:

While I  found the article interesting and informative I would like to point out that there are a couple of points I find myself disagreeing with.

Firstly, there are statements that our submarine forces are invulnerable and we should not rush as a result.  This rather strong point is made however I would posture that the Russian submarine forces are nearly on par with ours.   In addition there are undersea detection systems (operated both by us and our foes) to aid submarine detections.   I would put forth that our submarine forces are likely at around par with those of Russia, and their launch detection capabilities are likely near ours as well as interceptor maturity.

The threat of launch (and the underlying capability to get your foe before they get you) is why the system works at maintaining peace.   No one wants to try because both sides get glass parking lots across their countries if they do.  If 10 nuclear rounds impact across major cities in the US, having time for a thoughtful discussion about how our submarine forces will respond is pointless.    Mutually Assured Destruction is what it is termed and is an accurate description -- and decision time pushes the 10 minutes outlined in the article.  Once a decision is made, the military system of checks and balances is significant--the best in the world.  

For the younger generation who did not grow up with nuclear attack drills in the classroom, fallout shelters in their backyards, etc.,  I would like to remind them it is very likely major cities would be in ruin, the surrounding areas unusable, food supplies contaminated, government collapsed (most of the chain of command below the 5th or so in succession would be vaporized… ) only the first few folks in government succession would survive.   With the destruction, our financial system (and dominance) would collapse, regional famine would result from a collapsed transportation network (food needs to be moved to grocery stores that these days only maintain stcks for a week or less).

If the destruction is limited to one side, while the other remains a smoking contaminated mess, taking time to thoughtfully consider how to respond in a few hours, days or even weeks, means assured failure.   Further, any surviving submarine based warheads and the top 5-10 folks in government surviving under a smoking capital, would be not very high on the priority list for the surviving Americans who would be rioting for food after 3-5 days (best case).  

Lastly, the thought that more people being involved in such a “final” decision making process such as launching a strategic response is ludicrous and far from workable.  Simply take a look at any decision our government has to make and then think about a post launch decision being discussed in which some of the “deciders” are relatively unaffected while others have lost all their constituents.

I would argue that while not ideal, our current system of treaties, reduction in overall nuclear capabilities, and holding stronger with non-proliferation when combined with the threat of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) system is the best way of maintaining safety for both ourselves and our enemies until we work out a better solution.

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