On 13 October 2010, Physicians for Social Responsibility and Nuclear Flashpoints facilitated a panel discussion on the operational readiness of nuclear weapon systems. The event largely focused on a recent article in Foreign Affairs entitled “Smaller and Safer.” The event was chaired by Dr. Christian Schoenenberger of Switzerland and included comments from New Zealand Ambassador Dell Higgie. The expert panel included Russian Colonel (Ret.) Valery Yarynich, one of the authors of the Foreign Affairs article, as well as Hans Kristensen (Ph.D) of the Federation of American Scientists, Steven Starr (Ph.D) of Physicians for Social Responsibility and John Hallam (Ph.D) of Nuclear Flashpoints.
The speakers were in consensus on the need to reduce the operational readiness of nuclear weapons, a process commonly referred to as de-alerting, to avoid a nuclear catastrophe. Mr. Yarynich asserted that both the United States and Russia still rely on excessive amounts of nuclear weapons on high alert because they believe it necessary to achieve a sufficient deterrent. Keeping so many nuclear weapons on high alert, according to Mr. Yarynich, fails to acknowledge the many dangers associated with doing so. These dangers include their accidental launch due to technical malfunction, the possibility of threat misinterpretation by decision-makers and their vulnerability to computer hackers. Steven Starr noted that de-alerting nuclear weapons would “absolutely prevent” hackers from potentially causing an unintentional launch. Moreover, John Hallam asserted that de-alerting nuclear weapons protects against their use by malfunction or miscalculation, which he described as the greatest risk for their potential large scale use.
Mr. Starr used the majority of his time to convey the existential environmental consequences that could result from a potential nuclear war between the US and Russia or India and Pakistan. The speaker noted that the environmental consequences of intentional or accidental use of nuclear weapons are often absent from the strategic debate on whether to keep these weapons on high alert. These consequences included the destruction of ecosystems, long term disruption of growing seasons resulting in “nuclear famine,” and the potential for rendering the world uninhabitable, even from a regional nuclear war. Furthermore, John Hallam underscored the ongoing and immediate threat of a nuclear exchange killing hundreds of millions of people within ninety minutes. Hallam described the threat of large-scale accidental use of nuclear weapons as “not a fantasy but a terrifying possibility.”
The main conclusion of the “Smaller and Safer” article, as presented by Yarynich, is that de-alerting the nuclear arsenals of Russia and the United States is possible without damaging the national security interests of either state. Hans Kristensen asserted that this conclusion directly challenges the rationale, enshrined in the most recent US Nuclear Posture Review, that taking nuclear weapons off high alert would “reduce crisis stability.” Yarynich also asserted the need to build wide public support of de-alerting.
All speakers voiced the hope for general and complete nuclear disarmament in the future. Hans Kristensen argued that there is a need to “pull back” nuclear posturing by the nuclear weapon states that still rely on Cold War-style nuclear deterrence. Ambassador Dell Higgie described the de-alerting process as part of an incremental strategy to move towards complete nuclear disarmament. The panel was in agreement that de-alerting is a practical step that must be taken to reduce the risk of a nuclear exchange, and also to reduce the value of nuclear weapons in international relations.
Sean Kelly is an intern with the NGO Committee on Disarmament, Peace and Security. Lauren Patti and Natalia Pombo, interns with the NGO Committee on Disarmament, Peace and Security, contributed additional reporting.