WASHINGTON – Former U.S. and Russian commanders Thursday called for scrapping “hair-trigger” alerts on nuclear weapons that carry grave risks of a potential atomic disaster — especially in an age of cyberattacks.
Retired military officers from the United States, Russia and other nuclear powers issued a report warning of the mounting dangers of the short fuses that allow hundreds of atomic weapons to be launched within minutes.
The high alert status is a legacy of outdated Cold War doctrine, when U.S. and Soviet leaders feared a devastating first strike that could “decapitate” an entire nuclear force, according to the report sponsored by the disarmament group Global Zero.
“Hundreds of missiles carrying nearly 1,800 warheads are ready to fly at a moment’s notice,” said the report. “These legacy postures of the Cold War are anachronisms but they remain fully operational.”
The hair-trigger alert, which applies to half of the U.S. and Russian arsenals, is particularly dangerous in an era when “warning and decision timelines are getting shorter, and consequently the potential for fateful human error in nuclear control systems is growing larger.”
The growing threat of cyberassault also exacerbates the risks of the alert status, opening the way for false alarms or even a hijacking of the control systems for the weapons, it said.
“Vulnerability to cyber attack . . . is a new wild card in the deck,” it said.
The report calls for the United States and Russia to renounce the prompt-alert arrangements and to require 24 to 72 hours before a nuclear weapon could be launched. And it also urges forging a binding agreement among all countries to refrain from putting their nuclear forces on high alert.
“There are a set of vulnerabilities particularly for the U.S. and Russia in these systems that were built in the fifties, sixties, seventies and eighties,” said James Cartwright, the retired four-star general who once was in charge of the U.S. nuclear arsenal.
“Many of these old systems are subject to false alarms,” Cartwright said at a news conference.
The report said other nuclear powers, including China, India, Pakistan, Israel, France and Britain, had less risky systems for their nuclear weapons compared to the United States and Russia.
“Their architectures have provided for lower alert rates and afforded decision-makers more time to consider their nuclear options,” it said. “The United States and Russia could learn from these models.”