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Louis Jacobson
By Louis Jacobson August 11, 2011

U.S. had the chance in the Nuclear Posture Review but didn't take it

During the presidential campaign, Barack Obama promised to "take our nuclear weapons off hair-trigger alert -- something that George W. Bush promised to do when he was campaigning for president in 2000. Maintaining this Cold War stance today is unnecessary and increases the risk of an accidental or unauthorized nuclear launch. As president, Obama will work with Russia to find common ground and bring significantly more weapons off hair-trigger alert."

In analyzing this promise, we'll first note that the term "hair-trigger" alert is more informal than official (and subject to some confusion). However, it is generally understood to mean something along the lines of how Mohamed El Baradei, the former director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, defined it -- that the leader tasked with deciding whether to launch has "only 15 to 30 minutes to decide on the authenticity of a nuclear attack and whether to launch a counterattack."

Periodically, the U.S. military undertakes a wide-ranging reassessment of its nuclear-weapons policies. This study, known as the Nuclear Posture Review, was most recently completed in April 2010 under Obama.

Though it didn't use the specific term "hair-trigger alert," the Nuclear Posture Review concluded that "the current alert posture of U.S. strategic forces – with heavy bombers off full-time alert, nearly all (intercontinental ballistic missiles) on alert, and a significant number of (nuclear-powered, ballistic nuclear missile-carrying submarine) at sea at any given time – should be maintained for the present."

While recommending keeping the status quo for nuclear alerts, the review did urge efforts to "maximize the time available to the president to consider whether to authorize the use of nuclear weapons." The steps included a continuation of the policy of keeping missiles targeted at open-sea locations rather than populated targets until just before an actual launch; efforts to strengthen the U.S. command-and-control system; and improving the security of U.S. missiles from attack, to diminish "any incentives for prompt launch."

The problem, said Matthew Bunn, a nuclear-policy specialist at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government, is that "there aren't a lot of other ways that could give you large increases in decision time, and so far they aren't really doing anything with the Russians that would lengthen decision time."

So while the administration reiterated that it wants to increase decision time, the Pentagon nonetheless passed up the opportunity to change the specific George W. Bush-era policy that Obama criticized during the 2008 presidential campaign. So we rate this a Promise Broken.

Our Sources

U.S. Defense Department, Nuclear Posture Review, April 2010

Mohamed El Baradei, "Global Security: The Need for a New Beginning" (op-ed), Oct. 12, 2007

Jeffrey Lewis, "Hair-Trigger Alert" (post at Arms Control Wonk blog), Nov. 3, 2007

E-mail interview with Matthew Bunn, professor at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government, July 20, 2011

Robert Farley
By Robert Farley December 9, 2009

Deal not done, but U.S. and Russia are negotiating

On April 1, President Barack Obama traveled to Europe and met with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. The two discussed their intention to negotiate a replacement for the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, which expired Dec. 5, 2009. The two countries agreed on a framework to set limitations on the number and type of nuclear weapons each country has.

In a joint statement, the two sides agreed to move forward with negotiations to seek record levels of reductions in strategic offensive arms.

But the Dec. 5 deadline came and went without a new treaty.

On the eve of the deadline, the two presidents again released a joint statement that stated, "Recognizing our mutual determination to support strategic stability between the United States of America and the Russian Federation, we express our commitment, as a matter of principle, to continue to work together in the spirit of the START Treaty following its expiration, as well as our firm intention to ensure that a new treaty on strategic arms enter into force at the earliest possible date."

In the meantime, several thousand nuclear weapons possessed by the two countries remain on so-called "hair-trigger alert."

Nonetheless, Obama has taken steps to negotiate with Russia on this issue. And both sides say they are committed to working toward a resolution. And so we move this one to In the Works.

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