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Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 40, September - October 1999

The Pros and Cons of De-Alerting
by Ivan Safrantchouk

Introduction: Seeing Transparency in Context

Over the past decade much new information on the nuclear forces of the US and Russia has appeared, largely as a consequence of the deepening of the disarmament process between the two Superpowers. Central to that process has been effective verification and increased transparency. For example, all nuclear disarmament agreements since the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty have included protocols listing those weapons subject to each treaty and their locations.

But as the nuclear disarmament process has deepened, so new ideas about the role and importance of transparency have emerged, encouraged in part by the transparency arrangements set out in the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty. Two basic ideas stand out: more transparent doctrines and war-fighting plans, and the implementation of confidence building measures. In both these areas the importance of "de-alerting" - de-targeting and de-activating nuclear weapons - features prominently, and will form the basis of my investigation.

The logic behind these and other transparency proposals is simple: the more both parties know about each other's nuclear forces and plans, the less likely the possibility of a nuclear war or an accidental exchange triggered by a misunderstanding or mistake. An associated claim is that measures such as de-targeting and de-alerting will make it harder, practically, for a misreading of intent to translate into catastrophic error.

This paper examines the extent to which the political claim about greater trust and confidence, and the practical claim about safer arrangements and procedures can be defended, and will conclude that only a partial defence is warranted. While not seeking at all to deny or minimise the importance of transparency initiatives in general, or of de-alerting in particular, the paper will argue that it is equally important not to overemphasise the contribution such measures can make to advancing the disarmament process. A danger of such overemphasis is that instead of being seen as a necessary component of that process, transparency becomes elevated to the status of a disarmament measure. There is no adequate equivalent to, or substitute for, negotiated reductions of nuclear arsenals. Disarmament without transparency is impossible, but transparency without disarmament is at best a hollow achievement and, at worst, one that can lead to what, in the nuclear age, is the most dangerous state of affairs of all: a false sense of security.

De-Alerting: The Military Rationale

Initially, arguments in favour of transparency tended to follow the logic and direction of the debate about confidence building measures and the CFE Treaty negotiations of the 1980s. At that time the prevailing view was that the root of the nuclear arms race was the drive to acquire and maintain the ability to strike back with nuclear weapons after a nuclear attack, and so guarantee that destruction would be the price of any aggression. However, weapons that can be used to retaliate against attack can also be used to strike first. In order to exclude the possibility of such an attack, states should - up to a point - agree on controls to each other's military activities and be, at least partially, aware of war-fighting plans. Generally speaking the broader the confidence building measures put in place, the less likely a surprise attack.

Through the latter years of the Cold War, mobile land-based forces became crucial to the Soviet Union's deterrent posture; for the United States, with its static land-based force, they came to represent a major source of vulnerability. This was why Gorbachev's unilateral initiative to stop transporting the SS-24 Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) on the vast Soviet railway network was welcomed so strongly by the United States. The areas of deployment of the other Soviet mobile ICBM, the SS-25, were also limited. Following Gorbachev's move, the sites of all Soviet ground-based strategic nuclear weapons were known, significantly diminishing, in the eyes of US warplanners, the likelihood of pre-emptive Soviet attack.

The focus of the transparency debate started to shift with regard to the status and disposition of strategic forces and quickly assumed another dimension: some experts proposed not only to maximise the information both countries had on each other's forces, but also to maximise the period required to take any decision to 'go nuclear'. For example, some experts proposed to maximise both the information held on each country's nuclear forces, and the period required for nuclear strike decision-making. The hope being that such a lengthening, or decision-making buffer-zone, could be achieved through de-alerting, which has two forms: de-targeting and deactivation.


The first agreement on de-targeting was concluded between Russia and the US in 1994 in which targeting software programmes were removed from missiles.1 Four months later, a similar agreement was reached between Russia and China.2

In 1997, after the signing ceremony for the NATO-Russia Founding Act, Russian President Boris Yeltsin declared that all Russian warheads aimed at NATO countries would be withdrawn from service.3 However, Presidential Press Secretary Sergey Yastrzhembskiy and Russian Foreign Minister Yevgeniy Primakov immediately "clarified" Yeltsin's comment, pointing out that he had meant to state was that de-targeting would be undertaken first, with the removal of warheads to follow negotiations.4 Yeltsin clarified his position in a nationwide radio address a few days later, in which he noted that "Russian missiles will no longer be targeted at the NATO countries".5 During the 1997 Denver G-8 summit, Yeltsin met with Japanese Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto and informed him that Russia would no longer target nuclear missiles at Japan.6 Press Secretary Yastrzhembskiy noted that a formal decision on de-targeting had not yet been made, but that, following the President's statement, such a declaration would be issued.7

What are the advantages of such de-targeting initiatives? Their merit is primarily symbolic, since targeting software programmes can be loaded back onto command systems in minutes,8 or even less according to some experts. From a military planning perspective such moves are almost meaningless because their implementation is only verifiable through intrusive measures. Invariably, planners choose to concentrate on actual potential, rather than the more elusive and less provable question of intent. And in terms of assessing potential, minutes or seconds do not signify.

Deactivation: Steps Taken So Far

In 1993, Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev proposed the removal of warheads from missiles as a confidence-building measure. This proposal was neglected at the time. However, at the 1997 Helsinki Summit President Clinton and President Yeltsin agreed on "placement in a de-activated status of all strategic nuclear delivery vehicles which will be eliminated under START II by 31 December, 2003, by removing their nuclear warheads or taking other jointly agreed steps". Later on, this obligation was formalized in protocols signed by the Russian Foreign Minister and the US Secretary of State.

Unlike de-targeting, deactivation cannot be regarded merely as symbolic, since it reduces in reality the combat-readiness of land-based ICBMs - the only combat-ready branch of the Russian nuclear triad. On the surface, such a development appears to be a clear-cut benefit; however, it also poses some important unanswered questions.

The De-Targeting Dilemma

A high-combat readiness for nuclear weapons has both advantages and disadvantages. The only certainty is that the logic of deterrence is to seek to guarantee massive retaliation after a nuclear first strike.

The main arguments in favour of de-alerting are that maintaining nuclear forces in a constant state of high or 'hair-trigger' alert - effectively a launch-on-warning posture -- involves the risk of accidental war due to inaccuracies in the warning received, or more generally to the purposely built-in absence of time for analysis or consideration of alternatives to conflagration.

Such an accident, it is often argued, has become more likely since the end of the Cold War, with the multiple crises of financing, morale, organisation and infrastructure in the Russian armed forces - crises which, to judge by some recent evidence, may now even have started to affect the Strategic Nuclear Forces (SNF), regarded for a long time as the most stable and richest component of the country's military. Russian military officials, however, while supporting the demand for more financing, deny any potentially-catastrophic consequence of problems within the SNF, arguing that in reality accidental war is next to impossible. Such officials remain confident in this claim despite numerous allegations that the former Soviet early-warning system, and particularly its satellite coverage, is now experiencing serious difficulties.

These dangers, however, need to be viewed in a broader context than the alert-status of deployed weapons. It is doubtful whether any nuclear-weapon state (NWS) is solely concerned with the risk of accidental launch, while paying no attention to the possibility of accidents involving nuclear warheads in storage. In current Russian conditions, the most secure place for nuclear warheads is a deployment site, where the system of checks and controls is still functioning to an extremely high - officials say perfect - degree. In storage, warheads will be an easier target for terrorists, provocative actions by individuals or groups and so on.

There is no doubt, though, that the issue of accidental nuclear war is serious, and that proposals designed to reduce the risk are worthy of urgent consideration. How useful is de-alerting likely to prove in this regard? To address the question, we need to divide de-alerting proposals into the two main forms envisaged by its proponents. The first main option talked about is to de-alert all nuclear weapons, creating a regime of special or limited access to national nuclear forces. The second main option - as the majority of military students and deterrence experts propose - is to de-alert only a portion of nuclear weapons.

Partial De-Targeting

Partial de-targeting only marginally reduces the possibility of an accidental war, proportionately to the number of de-alerted missiles. For example, if the US and Russia both agreed to keep 2000 warheads on alert, around 3000-4000 Russian warheads would have to be de-targeted. If both parties agreed to partial de-targeting measures with reference to START II or as part of a START III agreement, then the number of weapons kept on alert could become very small, a few hundred or even less. But what qualitative advantage would have been gained?

The more results parties achieve by way of arms control and disarmament, the less attractive partial de-alerting will appear to them. Even deploying extremely low numbers of warheads will pose risks of accidental war if alert status remains a partial condition of the force. Indeed, the lower the levels involved, the more loathe the parties may be to de-alert the surplus forces which make up the difference between the level of minimum deterrence below which parties are not prepared to go, and the level of forces that parties have at their disposal. Equally, the more loathe they will be to take all forces off alert, as this increases the potential advantages to an adversary of cheating and acquiring the chance to strike first. This is the main argument against the case for full-scale de-alerting: that it would run the risk of undermining the policy of deterrence which no NWS is currently ready to forego.

In short, the closer to minimal levels both parties get via the disarmament route, the less sense that the de-alerting of surplus forces will make. Once again, this argument bears out the view that de-alerting should not become a substitute for disarmament, but should be regarded as an additional confidence building measure.

A further problem which would be encountered in any de-alerting scheme, partial or total, would be that of including all the nuclear powers in the regime. Presently, there is only the prospect of agreeing de-alerting measures between the US and Russia, as part of the bilateral START process. China, France and Britain - leaving aside for a moment other States of concern - would be expected to join this effort only when their forces are drawn into a multilateral START process. This means, of course, that, in an interim which may be of many years duration, there is no possibility of fully de-alerting Russian and US nuclear forces, leaving other nuclear arsenals capable of immediate launch.

Alas, even if we were to imagine that all parties were ready to enter a broad regime of fully de-alerted forces and our task was then to create such a regime, real difficulties would still be encountered.

The Spectre of Re-Alerting

Most seriously, there would be the risk of initiating a new nuclear arms race. The nuclear arms race which the US and USSR conducted for decades ended in stalemate, at least from the military point of view. From an economic perspective it may be said that the USSR lost the race. In the early years of the race, the military and political elite of each Superpower tended to consider a nuclear weapon as a "big bomb". Later on in the 1950s and 1960s, as both countries reached levels at which it was no longer feasible for them to win a nuclear war with forces primarily devised simply for retaliation, they started to develop forces which could give them an advantage in a surprise first-strike. As early as the 1960s this counterforce arms race was in full swing, but the growth in the number of nuclear weapons grew so fast that the possibility of launching a sufficiently disarming first strike soon disappeared: even a small percentage of these vast Cold War arsenals could impose unacceptable damage on an aggressor.

At much lower levels, however, the task of acquiring counterforce potential theoretically becomes easier. The only way to block this trend and maintain stable deterrence at low levels of deployment would be to minimise the vulnerability of all nuclear forces to a first-strike. If a de-alerting regime could be secretly circumvented, the implications would be drastic, giving any potential circumventor either a free rein to strike first or a terrifying opportunity for blackmail. One could argue that effective verification measures would make this scenario unrealistic, but it should not be discounted entirely. Since there is a belief that an accidental launch could be triggered, despite the apparent existence of an effective negative control system in Russia, for example, we must not exclude the spectre of "re-alerting" (de-de-alerting) by a NWS.

In assessing the risks of de-alerting one should not forget to keep in mind the potential advantages as well as the drawbacks of such measures. For example, de-alerting may reduce the possibility of accidental nuclear war which is obviously an advantage. What is not so obvious is the degree of the reduction; as long as nuclear disarmament remains to be achieved, the risk is ever-present. A disarmament process, of which de-alerting may form part, is an obviously necessary part of ongoing, long-term efforts to prevent a nuclear disaster. However, I believe that the shortcomings of de-alerting are still greater than the advantages. In the context of a suddenly destabilised international system, partial de-alerting would be irrelevant and total de-alerting a potential element of uncertainty and concern - a worst-case assumption that one side will use a new de-alerting regime to get unilateral advantages through winning the new form of nuclear arms race.

De-Alerting and Deterrence

The present priority, in a situation in which all the NWS are content to maintain their deterrence postures, is to minimise the risks inherent in deterrence postures, and to avoid making those postures any riskier. This is the limited and reasonable criterion against which de-alerting proposals should be judged.

As discussed, one risk-reduction priority in any situation which falls short of a nuclear-weapon-free world is to make the prospect of accidental nuclear launch or war as remote as possible. This means giving decision-makers as much time as possible to think everything over and choose the best solution in a crisis. There are two stages in the nuclear-use decision-making process: the first phase consists of the time taken for information about an attack to become available, confirmation of the attack and time spent making the decision whether to retaliate or not. This is followed by the second phase, which consists of the time taken to implement the decision to launch a retaliatory strike. The key question before us is: which stage to extend? Both are important, but it is the first phase we are likely to have most success in extending: it is simply unrealistic to suppose any state would want to extend the second stage when the stakes are so high, and the decision-making Rubicon has already been crossed. Unfortunately, one effect of de-alerting would be to lengthen this latter phase rather than the politically more decisive first phase. Another effect would be that much of the first phase might be taken up getting ready to re-alert the weapons at your disposal, rather than thinking through the alternatives to their use.

Clearly, new solutions need to be found. For instance, making changes to nuclear doctrines such as dispensing with the launch-on-warning option and adopting a launch-under-attack posture instead. Re-alerting weapons, during a time of crisis, to be capable of launching on warning would be more destabilising than having weapons already on alert but set up only to launch-under-attack.

To move from launch-on-warning to launch-under-attack itself requires important changes to nuclear doctrine and force disposition. If a State prefers launch-on-warning, it means it fears its forces may not survive to retaliate. If the launch-under-attack option is chosen, it means the State is confident of the survivability of its forces and their ability to respond.

If the launch-on-warning option is adopted then the time for the first phase of the nuclear decision-making process is drastically curtailed. If the launch-under-attack option is adopted, the first phase can be extended. Thus, moving to a launch-under-attack posture is a means of making an accidental launch or war less likely, while at the same time preserving nuclear deterrence.

Conclusion: A Limited Role For De-Alerting

Nevertheless, de-alerting still has a useful role to play. The concept is sound, but there is a tendency to apply it in the wrong way, without looking at possible drawbacks and complications. In addition, some forms of de-alerting are preferable to others.

Implementing de-alerting measures would be comparatively cheap, but at the same time these measures may be very difficult to reverse, particularly if backed by a verification system. One of the main problems Russia faces in its disarmament policy is the lack of financial resources to fulfill its treaty obligations. This problem may be further exacerbated as not only delivery-systems but warheads become subject to treaties, as may well be the case under START III. So cheap, hard-to-reverse de-alerting - namely the 'deep' de-alerting of deactivation - would be likely to commend itself to Moscow.

There is another way in which de-alerting might benefit the US-Russia nuclear arms control relationship. There is a possibility, given the presently dim prospect of the Duma ratifying START II, that a disparity in the nuclear forces arsenals available to Russia and the US will emerge in the near future, perhaps growing to reach a peak in about a decade.

The problem in this for Washington is that a huge disparity, especially at lower levels of nuclear arsenals, even though it would favour the US, would decrease US security. Russian decision-makers are certain to feel themselves vulnerable in the absence of nuclear parity, and are thus likely to be firmly wedded to a launch-on-warning, rather than launch-under-attack, posture. One way of reducing this disparity would be a unilateral de-alerting of US surplus forces.

Notes and references

1. ITAR-TASS, 14/1/94.

2. "China, Russia Seal Ties By Not Pointing At Each Other", Sergei Shargorodsky, p. A8, Washington Times, 4/9/94p.

3. "Boris Yeltsin zayavil, chtro boyegolovki s raket, natselennykh na strany NATO budut snyaty", Dmitriy Gornostayev, Nezavisimaya gazeta, online edition, May 28, 1997.

4. ITAR-TASS, May 27, 1997; in "Spokesman on Missile Re-targeting; Warheads 'May Be Removed',"; FBIS-TAC-97-147, May 27, 1997. ITAR-TASS, May 27, 1997; in "Primakov: Missiles No Longer Targeted on NATO States," FBIS-SOV-97-147, May 27, 1997.

5. Moscow Informatsionoye Agenstvo Ekho Moskvyy, May 29, 1997; in "Full Text of Yeltsin Radio Address on NATO Accord," FBIS-SOV-97-149, {Entered 10/20/97 JL}

6. Kyodo, June 20, 1997; in "Hashimoto, Yeltsin Agree on 'Regular Reciprocal Visits'," FBIS-EAS-97-171.

7. Interfax, June 21, 1997; in "Further on Yeltsin-Hashimoto Meeting, Missile Targeting," FBIS-SOV-97-112.

8. "US-Russian Strategic Missile De-targeting Complete", P.26, Arms Control Today, 7-8, 1994.

Ivan Safrantchouk is a Research Fellow at the Center for Policy Studies (PIR Center) in Moscow, Russia.

© 1999 The Acronym Institute.

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