The US still keeps hundreds of nuclear weapons on hair-trigger alert -- here's what it means and why it's a huge risk

  • Since the Cold War, the US has kept an estimated 900nuclear weapons on “hair-trigger alert,” meaning the president could decide to launch them in just a few minutes.
  • Reports have not indicated that the policy was discussed during President Donald Trump’s meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on Tuesday.
  • Some global-security experts and scientists say hair-trigger alert endangers US cities because the US could inadvertently start a nuclear war if it launched the weapons in error.
  • A senior scientist from the Union of Concerned Scientists proposed turning the missiles’ hair-trigger-alert setting off as a temporary solution.

At a highly anticipated summit in Singapore on Tuesday, US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un discussed the future of the two nations’ nuclear programs and ultimately agreed to work toward the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.

Leading up to the summit, Trump argued that North Korea’s secretive nuclear program threatened US security. After the meeting, a joint statement said the two countries would “join their efforts to build a lasting and stable peace regime.”

While the meeting seemed optimistic, global-security experts say there is another domestic nuclear policy that it most likely did not address – one just as dangerous as North Korea initiating nuclear war with the US.

Since the end of the Cold War, the US has had 450 land-based missiles and hundreds more on undetectable submarines on “hair-trigger alert,” a policy that allows for the launch of nuclear weapons in minutes. Only the president’s permission is required to launch these weapons, according to the Department of Defence.

But a growing number of experts believe the US should consider retiring this policy.

The Union of Concerned Scientists, an advocacy group comprising hundreds of scientists, engineers, and economists, published a report in 2016 on the dangers of hair-trigger alert. The same year, more than 90 prominent American scientists, including 20 Nobel laureates, sent a letter to President Barack Obama urging him to take the nation’s land-based nuclear missiles off hair-trigger alert.

Lisbeth Gronlund, a co-director and senior scientist at the UCS’s Global Security Program, argued that keeping nuclear weapons on hair-trigger alert endangers US cities and towns more than it protects them.

“The president would have 10 minutes to make a decision whether or not to launch the weapons,” she told Business Insider. “That’s a tremendous amount of time pressure.”

The argument for being able to launch 900 nuclear missiles in under 10 minutes

Joint Standoff WeaponUS Air ForceAn AGM-158 joint air-to-surface standoff missile at Whiteman Air Force Base in January 2015.

Besides the US, Russia is the only other country known to have a hair-trigger launch status. It’s unclear whether Israel, China, and North Korea have similar policies, meaning it’s possible Kim could have the same nuclear power as Trump.

The US’s land-based-missile arsenal is siloed in five states, including Nebraska and Colorado, hundreds of miles from residential communities. It’s believed that, in total, the US keeps roughly 900 weapons on hair-trigger alert. The locations and the exact number on submarines, located deep in the ocean, are confidential.

The US military also keeps about 40 special missiles, called interceptors, on hair-trigger alert as well. It would take three or four of these to ram into and destroy foreign missiles in outer space, in a protocol dubbed “hit to kill.” When nuclear missiles are launched into space, they follow a more predictable path, making it easier for interceptors to strike them, though it’s still unclear how well these interceptor missiles would work in an emergency situation.

Across the US, the military has installed infrared and satellite sensors that can detect the hot gas a missile expels as it flies through the air. If Russia launched one of these long-range weapons, it would take about 25 minutes to reach the continental US, Gronlund said, and it would take the sensors just a few minutes to identify it.

As the sensors track each missile’s movement, an automated system estimates whether it’s a legitimate attack on the US. The president then has about 10 minutes to decide whether to launch nuclear weapons.

When the US adopted the hair-trigger-alert policy during the Cold War, the idea was that if the Soviet Union attacked American military bases with nuclear power, the US could quickly retaliate.

The policy is still in effect today. These days, it’s used as an intimidation strategy for other countries, like Russia and North Korea, that have revealed some of their nuclear capabilities, Gronlund said.

Some proponents of hair-trigger alert also say the US needs those land-based missiles to act as “sponges” for foreign nuclear weaponry. For example, if Russia launched a full attack, it would need to use hundreds of weapons to destroy the US’s land arsenal, Gronlund said, meaning it would have fewer weapons left to strike where people actually live.

Others say that abandoning hair-trigger alert would cut jobs at the military bases that monitor the missiles, something that could have consequences for local economies.

But USC scientists argue that the risks of false alarms still far outweigh the advantages.

The US has had several close calls with hair-trigger-alert weapons

If the US were to experience a nuclear attack, it probably wouldn’t come from North Korea or Russia, Gronlund said, but from our own missteps. (Though a large-scale nuclear terrorist attack is less likely, it’s still one of 15 major disaster scenarios planned for by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and other US agencies.)

“The danger is that a system detects an incoming attack and it’s not real,” Gronlund said, then “the president makes the wrong decision and inadvertently starts a nuclear war.”

Minuteman iii 3 icbm missile nuclear weapon silo reuters RTXEBMZReuters; Tech. Sgt. Bob Wickley/USAFAn LGM-30F Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile in its silo at Whiteman Air Force Base in January 1980.

The US has a history of these kinds of close calls, caused by both human error and technical error.

In November 1979, US military computers indicated a large-scale Soviet attack was underway. The military quickly responded by preparing nuclear bombers and intercontinental ballistic missiles for takeoff and launching at least 10 interceptor planes.

But within 10 minutes, they realised it was a false alarm. Investigators later discovered that a technician accidentally inserted a training tape containing a drill for a nuclear attack into a computer.

In another close call, in 2010, a rapid-launch control center at Wyoming’s Warren Air Force Base lost contact with all 50 of its ICBMs on hair-trigger alert. For nearly an hour, the crew was unsure whether the missiles – carrying nuclear warheads – would accidentally launch.

The base later regained contact with the missiles. The cause of the problem was later found to be an electronic circuit card malfunction in one of the computers.

Most recently, in January, a state employee in Hawaii mistakenly triggered an emergency alert warning that a ballistic missile was coming at the island. If the state had not soon realised it was a false alarm, other bases containing high-alert missiles might have unleashed them.

“If we launched an attack based on a false warning, you better believe Russia or North Korea would respond,” Gronlund said.

Nuclear protestGetty ImagesAn inflatable nuclear-missile balloon at a protest held by the group Global Zero in Washington, DC, in April 2016.

A danger to cities across the US

Even though the land-based missiles on high alert are siloed far from major population centres, Gronlund said, keeping such a policy still endangers cities, in which more than 80% of Americans live.

Simply put, hair-trigger alert increases the likelihood of the president accidentally starting a nuclear war.

“Even if [another country] wasn’t directly targeting Boston, they would target things near Boston,” causing a widespread nuclear fallout, she said.

Each land-based missile on hair-trigger alert has an on-off switch, used when workers perform maintenance on them. Gronlund said that keeping the weapons off could be a quick, temporary solution that wouldn’t immediately require negotiations with other nations.

The UCS has become more worried about hair-trigger-alert policy since Trump’s election in 2016, Gronlund said. In the past year, the president has boasted about the size of his “Nuclear Button,” withdrawn the US from the nuclear deal with Iran, and threatened to unleash “fire and fury like the world has never seen” on North Korea.

“There are all downsides and no gain,” Gronlund said.

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