Nuclear weapons are incredibly powerful. The detonation of just one would kill and injure hundreds of thousands of people, devastate the environment, cripple global economies, and cause mass panic.
Hair Trigger illustrates just one of a range of nuclear threats the world faces today. Reducing these risks must be among the highest priorities for any country.
Hair Trigger Alert
The most important asset in any crisis involving the possible use of nuclear weapons is time. Time to warn and inform leaders — and time for leaders to make sound decisions.
Ballistic missiles armed with nuclear warheads deployed on hair trigger, status are the enemy of time. These missiles — placed in underground silos or submarines — can receive an order, be launched, and hit their targets in 60 minutes.
What if that warning turns out to be false—but the president doesn’t learn that until after ordering a retaliatory attack? What if a weapons command-and-control system is hacked to spoof an incoming attack? Without enough decision time, leaders may fear they will lose the ability to retaliate against a nuclear attack if they don’t make a quick decision to use their own nuclear-missiles in a crisis — they may be told to “use them or lose them!”
The United States and Russia, which together hold 90% of the world’s nuclear weapons, should cooperate to develop a plan to take weapons off this dangerous, unnecessary hair-trigger status, also known as prompt launch.
There are more than 14,000 nuclear weapons in the world, including some in unstable regions, and there is weapons-usable nuclear material spread across 22 countries. Some of these materials are poorly secured, and terrorist organizations have made it clear they want to develop and use weapons of mass destruction.
The Pentagon’s Defense Science Board studied the resilience of U.S. defense systems, including nuclear weapons systems, to cyberattacks. The results were deeply unsettling: the board found that the military’s systems were vulnerable and that the government was “not prepared to defend against this threat.”
International Cooperation Crumbling
Treaties that serve as critical guardrails to restrain nuclear competition are being eroded or abandoned. The 2011 New START treaty limits U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear weapons—and ensures critical, on-the-ground verification. It is the only remaining treaty constraining a new nuclear arms race. Unless extended by the U.S. and Russian presidents, it will expire in February 2021.