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Home > Nuclear Disarmament > Writings of Howard W. Hallman: De-alerting: Beyond Deterrence

De-alerting: Beyond Deterrence
by Howard W. Hallman

During the last 20 years calls for de-alerting nuclear weapons have emphasized
        1) providing greater safety from accidental or unauthorized launch and
        2) giving decision makers more time to decide how to respond to potential or actual attack.
Most proposals have focused on the United States and Russia as possessors of 95 percent of the global nuclear arsenal with realization that other nuclear weapons states should be brought in later.

Proponents explain that lengthening the response time to nuclear attack would enable the United States and Russia to move away from a policy of rapid launch on warning at predetermined targets to more measured launch on attack and more carefully selected targets. This would be a shift from preemption to retaliation. But nuclear weapons would still be available to strike the enemy. The cold war doctrine of nuclear deterrence would remain.

If carried out these de-alerting proposals would indeed provide greater safety from mistaken launching of nuclear weapons. They are a step in the right direction, but in the 21st century, nearly 20 years after the Cold War ended, we should go much farther. We should look upon de-alerting as a step toward ending nuclear deterrence and proceeding to the global elimination of nuclear weapons. This is a practical goal well within the self-interest of nations possessing nuclear weapons.


My reasons for wanting to go beyond deterrence begin with premises that I have stated elsewhere.

First, nuclear weapons are useless for any legitimate purpose.

  • Nuclear weapons have no appropriate use for military combat in contemporary wars and in dealing with terrorists.
  • There are better ways to deal with nations seeking nuclear weapons than threatened or actual nuclear attack.
  • For deterrence of other nations’ nuclear arsenals a wiser and safer alternative is mutual elimination of all nuclear weapons.

Second, nuclear weapons are cold war relics that the five initial nuclear weapon states are stuck with. None of issues that exist between them can be solved through the use of nuclear weapons. As a Russian expert remarked at a seminar of the EastWest Institute, “the United States and Russia are ‘trapped’ in their legacy posture.” Both sides (and the United Kingdom, France, and China, too) would benefit from getting out of this outmoded threat to their national security, but they don’t know how.

Deterrence as an Impediment

As things now stand, the commitment to the obsolete nuclear deterrence doctrine is a major impediment to de-alerting. In the name of deterrence opponents to de-alerting worry about balance, a fear of the other side “re-alerting”, and the need to achieve survivability from an unexpected attack. In START negotiations on cuts in strategic weapons, each side seeks advantage, or at least tries to avoid disadvantage, in a world where hundreds, even thousands of nuclear warheads remain in service. The same concerns would appear in de-alerting negotiations. A better approach would be to express a mutual intent to move away from nuclear deterrence. De-alerting would be an enabling step.

Change of Attitude

To go beyond deterrence a change of outlook is needed in the relationship between the United States and Russia. Therefore, the leaders of these two nations and their people should adopt the following perspective.

  • The two nations are no longer enemies. (President Obama and President Medvedev have stated this, but not all attitudes and practices have changed.)
  • Friends (no longer enemies) do not threaten each other with destruction.
  • Each side should look at the challenge from the other side’s perspective (“walk in the other person’s shoes”) so that they can help one another find a safe way to eliminate their nuclear arsenals.
  • Each side should assure that the other side is never at a disadvantage at any time.
  • Together they would agree to lead the world to global elimination of nuclear weapons, starting with themselves.

Beginning the Process

The process of de-alerting can begin with a public statement of intent by the presidents of Russia and the United States to develop and implement a balanced approach that is fair for both sides. To borrow language from the “13 Practical Steps” specified at the 2000 NPT Review Conference, the process should achieve “undiminished security for all” at all times.

The process would start with the United States and Russia. Along the way British, French, and Chinese representatives would be brought in. Eventually other possessors – Israel, India, and Pakistan – need to be involved.

Working out a de-alerting plan could apply a different style of deliberation. Typically each side comes in with a proposal that is to its advantage. Representatives sit on opposite sides of the table and bargain. As an alternative they might gather at a round table with the problem (the challenge) in the middle so to speak. Their objective would be to find a mutually satisfactory way to achieve de-alerting. To help them along, it might be advantageous to have a neutral third party participate in the discussions.

Full Disclosure

As Russian and U.S. representatives meet to work out a schedule for de-alerting, they should provide full disclosure of their nuclear arsenal. Although this is presently a guarded secret, each side through intelligence sources has a fairly good idea of the size and location of the other’s nuclear deployed nuclear arsenal. Less so nuclear weapons held in reserve. Initially accepting the other side’s self-disclosure would be a matter of trust. Given a history of mistrust, each side is likely to proceed with caution, maybe even residual skepticism. To add assurance it might be useful to have a third-party, international organization undertake on-site verification. Even though there would still be the possibility of some nuclear weapons remaining hidden, they would be at the margin.

Initial Proposals

In preparation for their first meeting the United States and Russia should develop proposals for stages of de-alerting that achieve balance and respect for the other sides concern for being at a disadvantage. Preparations could include “peace games” (instead of “war games”) that trace the course of de-alerting to zero and look at further steps for de-activation and dismantlement.

Fairness and Equity

In considering fairness and equity, let me refer to a story that I told in “A Dream Fantasy”, posted elsewhere on this website, about an imaginary conversation I had with Presidents Obama and Medvedev. I described how my mother and her friend each summer divided a bushel of peaches for canning and freezing. For fairness they each took two at a time until the bushel was evenly divided.

This simple practice can be applied in the admittedly more complex process of taking nuclear weapons off quick-response alert, doing so in a balanced manner, perhaps dozens or several hundred at a time. Balance would continue in taking them out of service and dismantling them on the way to a world without nuclear weapons.

Measures for De-alerting

During the past 20 years there has been considerable research on how to go about de-alerting. Among others Bruce Blair has noted that there are a variety of de-alerting measures that can be undertaken. He has analyzed them in his chapter in Rekjavik Revisited (Hoover Institution, 2008). They include:

  • Procedural modifications to eliminate prompt large-scale launch
    • Drop prompt launch from emergency war orders
    • Drop massive attack options from the strategic war plans
    • Keep submarines out of range of targets
  • Present-term physical modifications to eliminate prompt large-scale launch
    • Technical modification of land-based missiles.
    • Separate key components from sea-based missiles.
  • Near-term physical modifications
    • On-site separation of warheads from delivery vehicles
  • Medium-term physical modifications
    • Place warheads in storage depots apart from delivery vehicles


Because so much is at stake in achieving compliance with a de-alerting agreement, thorough verification is important. It’s like when President Ronald Reagan quoted a Russian proverb to President Mikail Gorbachev at the signing of the treaty to eliminate intermediate-range missiles: “Trust but verify.” There is a body of experience with “national technical means” (that is, spy satellites) and data exchange. Current START negotiations are dealing with this issue. As I mentioned previously, it would be useful to establish an international body for this process. This unit could draw upon experience of the International Atomic Energy Commission (IAEA) and the Joint Compliance and Inspection Commission that functioned in Iraq in the 1990s. Russian and U.S. academies of sciences, which have studied this problem, could help develop verification procedures.

Bringing in Other Nations

As noted, the United Kingdom, France, and China should be brought into the de-alerting process at some point. They, too, are stuck with the cold war legacy of nuclear weapons that have no useful purpose for them in the 21st century. Like the U.S. and Russia the global elimination of nuclear weapons is within their self-interest. Their participation in de-alerting would help achieve a global balance among the original nuclear weapons states on the way to a world without nuclear weapons.

Among the other possessors India and Pakistan are stuck in a relationship where the actual use of nuclear weapons would be disastrous for both nations. Although their nuclear weapons may not be on as high alert as Russian and U.S. missiles, the sequence of taking them off alert and then deactivating and dismantling them would actually increase their national security. Israel, because of moral considerations and environmental consequences in the use of nuclear weapons, should join the movement to a world without nuclear weapons. For all three possessors nuclear disarmament needs to occur within the context of resolving other regional issues.

De-alerting Proposals Invited

To further discussion of de-alerting possibilities, I invite persons with expertise on this subject to propose specific schedules for de-alerting by the United States and Russia and then the United Kingdom, France, and China. The proposal should specify the sequence for de-alerting various times of nuclear weapons and de-alerting methods, and should provide for balance and undiminished security for all sides at all times. Send your proposal as a Word attachment to hwhallman [at]

November 2009

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