Eliminate High-Alert, Launch-Ready Nuclear Weapons

International Efforts to eliminate high-alert nuclear weapons

In 2007, and again in 2008, the nations of New Zealand, Switzerland, Sweden, Chile, and Nigeria (joined by Malaysia in 2008) worked together at the United Nations to promote the elimination of nuclear weapons from high-alert, quick-launch status.  Each year they succeeded in passing an important Resolution through the UN General Assembly by an overwhelming margin.

It is worthwhile to note that a number of NATO nations (Spain, Iceland, Norway), including some with U.S. nuclear weapons based within their national boundaries (Italy, Belgium, Germany), chose to vote for this Resolution.  India and Pakistan, both nations which possess nuclear weapons, also voted in favor of passage.

In total 134 nations agreed that the world would be a much safer place if nuclear weapons were removed from high-alert. Only three nations, the U.S., France and the U.K., voted against the measure (the voting record from 2008 is copied below).

Decreasing the operational readiness of nuclear weapons systems - A/C.1/63/L.5

See original text here.

The General Assembly,
Recalling its resolution 62/36 of 5 December 2007,

Recalling that the maintenance of nuclear weapons on high alert was a feature of cold war nuclear postures, and welcoming the increased confidence and transparency since the cessation of the cold war,

Concerned that, notwithstanding the end of the cold war, several thousand nuclear weapons remain on high alert, ready to be launched within minutes,

Noting the increased engagement in multilateral disarmament forums in support of further reductions to the operational status of nuclear weapons systems,

Recognizing that the maintenance of nuclear weapons systems at a high level of readiness increases the risk of the use of such weapons, including the unintentional or accidental use, which would have catastrophic consequences,

Also recognizing that reductions in deployments and the lowering of operational status contribute to the maintenance of international peace and security, as well as to the process of nuclear disarmament, through the enhancement of confidence-building and transparency measures and a diminishing role for nuclear weapons in security policies,

Welcoming bilateral initiatives, such as the proposed United States/Russian Federation Joint Centre for the Exchange of Data from Early Warning Systems and Notification of Missile Launches, which can play a central role in operational status reduction processes,

Also welcoming the steps taken by some States to reduce the operational status of their nuclear weapons systems, including de-targeting initiatives and increasing the amount of preparation time required for deployment,

1. Calls for further practical steps to be taken to decrease the operational readiness of nuclear weapons systems, with a view to ensuring that all nuclear weapons are removed from high alert status;

2. Urges States to update the General Assembly on progress made in the implementation of the present resolution; 3. Decides to remain seized of the matter.


UN Vote on Operational Readiness of Nuclear Weapons (2008)

The draft resolution on Decreasing the Operational Readiness of Nuclear Weapons Systems (document A/C.1/63/L.5) was approved by a recorded vote of 134 in favour to 3 against, with 32 abstentions, as follows:

In favour:
Afghanistan, Algeria, Angola, Antigua and Barbuda, Argentina, Armenia, Australia, Austria, Azerbaijan, Bahamas, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Barbados, Belarus, Belgium, Belize, Benin, Bhutan, Bolivia, Botswana, Brazil, Brunei Darussalam, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Cambodia, Cameroon, Chile, Colombia, Congo, Costa Rica, Côte d'Ivoire, Cuba, Cyprus, Djibouti, Dominica, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Egypt, El Salvador, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Fiji, Finland, Gabon, Germany, Ghana, Grenada, Guatemala, Guinea, Guyana, Haiti, Honduras, Iceland, India, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Ireland, Italy, Jamaica, Japan, Jordan, Kazakhstan, Kenya, Kuwait, Kyrgyzstan, Lao People's Democratic Republic, Lebanon, Liberia, Libya, Liechtenstein, Madagascar, Malawi, Malaysia, Maldives, Mali, Malta, Mauritania, Mauritius, Mexico, Mongolia, Morocco, Mozambique, Myanmar, Namibia, Nepal, New Zealand, Nicaragua, Niger, Nigeria, Norway, Oman, Pakistan, Panama, Papua New Guinea, Paraguay, Peru, Philippines, Portugal, Qatar, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Samoa, San Marino, Saudi Arabia, Senegal, Singapore, Solomon Islands, South Africa, Spain, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Suriname, Swaziland, Sweden, Switzerland, Syria, Tajikistan, Thailand, Togo, Trinidad and Tobago, Tunisia, Turkmenistan, Uganda, United Arab Emirates, United Republic of Tanzania, Uruguay, Uzbekistan, Venezuela, Viet Nam, Yemen, Zambia, Zimbabwe.

France, United Kingdom, United States.

Albania, Andorra, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Canada, China, Croatia, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Georgia, Greece, Hungary, Israel, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Marshall Islands, Micronesia (Federated States of), Montenegro, Netherlands, Poland, Republic of Korea, Republic of Moldova, Romania, Russian Federation, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, The former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Turkey, Ukraine.

Cape Verde, Central African Republic, Chad, Comoros, Democratic People's Republic of Korea, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Equatorial Guinea, Gambia, Guinea-Bissau, Kiribati, Lesotho, Monaco, Nauru, Palau, Rwanda, Sao Tome and Principe, Seychelles, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Timor-Leste, Tonga, Tuvalu, Vanuatu.

The official U.S. Explanation of why it again voted against removing nuclear weapons from high-alert status

See original text here.

October 29, 2008


Draft Resolution L. 5: Decreasing the operational readiness of nuclear weapons systems

Mr. Chairman,
With regards to the draft resolution L.5 “Decreasing the operational readiness of nuclear weapon systems,” I am speaking on behalf of the United States, the United Kingdom, and France.

Mr. Chairman,
We continue to disagree with the basic premise of resolution L.5 -- that the current level of readiness of nuclear weapons increases the risk of their use, including through unintentional or accidental use.

We would like to restate that the operational readiness of our respective nuclear weapons systems is maintained at a level consonant with our national security requirements and our obligations to our allies, within the larger context of the current global strategic situation. In reflection thereof, and as we have said before in the UN, the CD, and on other occasions, we have decreased the operational readiness and alert levels of our respective forces since the early 1990s. Additionally, our respective nuclear weapon systems are no longer targeted against any state. Collectively, those steps have reduced the value of further “de-alerting” as a priority for nuclear disarmament, in our view.

Unhelpfully, the present resolution proceeds from the presumption that lowered alert levels will automatically and in all cases lead to heightened international security. In reality, while alert levels can and have been lowered in response to an improved international security climate, the relationship between alert levels and security is complex, and not reducible to such simple formulaic responses.

We would also like to reiterate that our nuclear weapons systems are subject to the most rigorous command and control systems, to ensure against the possibility of accidental or unintentional use, and to guarantee that such weapons could only be used at the sole direction of the proper national command authority.

Rebuttal to the U.S., U.K. and French Explanation of Vote on the Draft

Resolution L.5: Decreasing the operational readiness of nuclear weapons systems

It is clear from the historical record that the U.S. and Russia maintain hundreds of ballistic missiles armed with thousands of nuclear warheads which can be launched with only a few minutes warning. Common sense tells us that any weapon which can be used immediately is inherently more dangerous, and more susceptible to use, than one which requires time to prepare for use.

Thus the US (with their allies, the UK and the French) ask the world to accept their claim, on the basis of faith alone, that they have constructed and operate complex nuclear weapon systems which are invulnerable to the risk of unintentional or accidental use. They make this assertion without providing any documentation or evidence, except for the fact that no obvious failure of these systems (resulting in launch) has yet occurred.

However, common sense also tells us that there is no way to construct a command and control system - that employs thousands of human beings and computers - which is completely impervious to failure. Nothing is fool-proof to a sufficiently talented fool.

Furthermore, claiming that nuclear weapon systems “are no longer targeted at states” is disingenuous and misleading. Most experts agree that de-targeting agreements do not slow down the launch process, because it only requires about 10 seconds to install launch coordinates in a normal launch sequence.

Slight changes in the alert status, which do not in any significant way diminish the capacity to Launch-on-Warning nuclear weapon systems, makes no meaningful contribution to lessening the danger of accidental nuclear war based upon a false warning. And the possibility of deliberate sabotage and terrorism (designed to cause the launch of nuclear weapons) adds an increased level of risk which is impossible to calculate or ignore.

Recent authoritative scientific studies predict that if the U.S.-Russian high-alert missiles are ever launched, and their warheads detonated over cities, the environmental consequences of this nuclear war would cause the destruction of most, if not all, human beings. This is unacceptable because there is not now and has never been a national or political goal that justifies the complete destruction of all nations and peoples.

Regardless of the degree of risk, however small it might be, it is immoral and illogical to take this chance. No nation or nations have the right to jeopardize the survival of humanity and life on Earth.