WASHINGTON, D.C.: Former US and Russian commanders have urged their rival governments to scrap “hair-trigger” alerts on nuclear weapons to avoid a potential atomic disaster—especially in an age of cyber attacks.
Retired military officers from the United States, Russia and other nuclear powers issued a report on Thursday warning of the 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The high alert status is a legacy of outdated Cold War doctrine, when US and Soviet leaders feared a devastating first strike that could “decapitate” an entire nuclear force, according to the report,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 US 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 cyber assault 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.
A digital strike could undermine the accuracy of early warning systems, and an anti-satellite weapon could knock out satellites used to detect incoming nuclear missiles.
The report calls for the presidents of 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.
“The fixes would entail lengthening the current hasty timelines for launch decision-making and implementation of launch,” it said.
The panel also urges forging a binding agreement backed up by verification for all nuclear-armed countries to refrain from putting their atomic forces on high alert.
“There are a set of vulnerabilities particularly for the US and Russia in these systems that were built in the fifties, sixties, seventies and eighties,” said James Cartwright, a retired four-star general who once oversaw the US nuclear arsenal.
“Many of these old systems are subject to false alarms,” Cartwright said at a news conference.
There have been numerous cases when US or Soviet officials believed their countries were under nuclear attack before realizing the warnings were incorrect, because of human or technical mistakes.