Canada’s unseemly take on de-alerting

Some 2,000 of the world’s 25,000 nuclear warheads are on constant high alert on missiles that could be launched within minutes of an order to do so. Most governments and security experts have come to the conclusion that these missiles should be “de-alerted.” Why is Canada reluctant?

During the 2008 US election campaign, Candidate Barack Obama was unequivocal. “Keeping nuclear weapons ready to launch on a moment’s notice,” he said, “is a dangerous relic of the Cold War. Such policies increase the risk of catastrophic accidents or miscalculation.” He promised to “work with Russia in a mutual and verifiable manner to increase warning and decision time prior to the launch of nuclear weapons.”[i]

The New York Times yesterday urged the President to “unilaterally” take all US nuclear weapons off “hair-trigger alert.”[ii]

“Hair trigger” is not a technical term, but it does describe a dangerous reality. Bruce Blair, a foremost US expert on missile launch procedures, having been a U.S. Air Force nuclear launch officer, refers to the “launch-ready alert” status of hundreds of missiles carrying thousands of warheads – all in a state of readiness that would allow them to be “launched within a very few moments” of a decision to do so.[iii]

While some currently serving military leaders in the US[iv] are publicly resisting any effort toward across-the-board downgrades in alert status, former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, along with other eminent and former Cold War security leaders in the United States, has called on Washington to “take steps to increase the warning and decision times for the launch of all nuclear-armed ballistic missiles, thereby reducing risks of accidental or unauthorized attacks. Reliance on launch procedures that deny command authorities sufficient time to make careful and prudent decisions is unnecessary and dangerous in today’s environment.”[v]

The danger is rooted in a “launch on warning” policy and capability. Because both the US and Russia fear that the other side could launch a pre-emptive strike to destroy all their missiles in their silos, they have made it known that they won’t leave the missiles in their silos in the event of an expected attack. They are fully prepared (that is, the systems are physically capable and they are politically willing) to launch their weapons out of their silos within minutes of a warning of a possible incoming attack.

All of this would have to happen in a matter of 10 to 15 minutes – when satellite sensors warn of an attack, already several minutes after a launch, the signal must be assessed, the information forwarded to the President, advice given, and a decision made whether or not to fire a retaliatory response. Depending on the launch site and target, a missile from Russia would be at the American target in less than 30 minutes.

If the decision was to retaliate, then the launch order would be given and the missiles fired – and once fired, there is no calling them back. If a minute later, the warning turned out to be mistaken, nuclear war would nevertheless have been launched, for the Russians would then detect an attack and launch their own retaliatory strike and the cataclysm beyond imagining would be our collective fate.

And false warnings do occur. In a widely reported 1995 incident, the Russian detection system mistook a Norwegian weather rocket for a US nuclear armed missile launched from a US submarine in the North Atlantic, heading for Russia. So convinced were the Russians that they were under attack, the warning was sent up the chain of command to the Russian President and the “nuclear briefcase” that contains the codes and retaliatory options was opened and ready for the President’s go ahead – mercifully, it was finally determined that the warning was a false alarm.[vi]

All 187 signatories to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, including Canada, were sufficiently convinced in 2000 of the dangers in such a scenario that they collectively called for “concrete measures” to “reduce the operational status of nuclear weapons,”[vii] so that it would be impossible to launch a missile within that timeline and before absolute confirmation of attack.

In 2007 and 2008 the UN General Assembly passed resolutions specifically focused on de-alerting, calling 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.”[viii] Only three states – France, the UK, and the US – voted against it. Canada abstained.

Why the Government of Canada has chosen this moment of growing global momentum in support of de-alerting to withhold its support is far from clear. Declaring support for de-alerting in principle, Canada refused to support the de-alerting resolution because, it explained, of a need to “balance our disarmament objectives with our security obligations.”[ix]

For the 141 States that supported the resolution, security is the whole point of de-alerting. It is the current “launch-ready alert” status of these weapons that undermines global security, obviously because it opens up the possibility of a nuclear cataclysm triggered by a false alarm.

In explaining its action, Canada went on to say that it could not support the de-alerting resolution because “deterrence remains an important element of international security, and a fundamental component of the defence strategy of NATO.” As former Canadian Disarmament Ambassador and Senator, Douglas Roche, points out, however, “some of the most important non-nuclear NATO states (Germany, Norway, Italy, Spain) voted yes.”[x] Apparently they don’t regard it as inconsistent with deterrence. And, of course, it is clear that Henry Kissinger doesn’t think that de-alerting is somehow antithetical to deterrence. (The primary point about deterrence is that it is not threatened because even in the event of a pre-emptive strike against land-based missiles, both the US and Russia would have plenty of retaliatory capacity remaining on board submarines. Of course, the most pertinent point about deterrence is that when it has manifestly failed and a nuclear attack is definitely on its way, just what is the point – humanly, politically, morally – of adding to the catastrophe with a retaliatory strike?)

Canada did support a general resolution on nuclear disarmament which called for “the nuclear-weapon States to further reduce the operational status on nuclear weapons systems,”[xi] because this resolution adds the phrase, “in ways that promote international stability and security.” But a number of Canada’s NATO allies rightly conclude that “promoting international stability and security” is exactly what de-alerting does.

On the same day that the New York Times called for immediate de-alerting, a large international group of non-governmental organizations wrote a letter to the American and Russian leadership, warning that “it is unrealistic to assume that nuclear deterrence will work perfectly forever. With the passage of time, the use of nuclear weaponry, due to madness, malice, miscalculation, or malfunction becomes an inevitability. Thus it is imperative that as a first step towards reducing and eliminating the immense danger these weapons pose to all nations and peoples, that the US and Russia agree to remove their nuclear weapons from high-alert status.”[xii]

In the midst of this groundswell of global support for prudent and long overdue measures to prevent the accidental triggering of nuclear holocaust, Canada’s reluctance is unlikely to be decisive, but it is surely unseemly.

[i] “Arms Control Today 2008 Presidential Q&A: Democratic Nominee Barack Obama, 24 September 2008,
[ii] “Watershed Moment on Nuclear Arms,” Editorial, New York Times, 25 March 2009.
[iii] Bruce G. Blair, “A Rebuttal of the U.S. Statement on the Alert Status of U.S. Nuclear Forces.” World Security Institute, 13 October 2007. Available at the Lawyers Committee on Nuclear Policy (
[iv] Elaine Mr. Grossman, “Top US General Spurns Obama Pledge to Reduce Nuclear Alert Posture,” Global Security Newswire, 27 February 2009.
[v] Shultz, George P., William J. Perry, Henry A Kissinger and Sam Nunn. 2008. Toward a Nuclear-Free World. Wall Street Journal, January 15.
[vi] Steven Starr, “High-alert nuclear weapons: the forgotten danger,” Scientists for Global Responsibility Newsletter. Issue 36, Autumn 2008 (e-mail distribution).
[vii] Steps 9.d of the practical steps agreed to at the Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. 2000. Final Document. 24 May.
[viii] “Decreasing the operational readiness of nuclear weapons systems,” UN General Assembly Resolution A/Res/63/41. 12 January 2009.
[ix] Ottawa’s reservations were set out in its 2008 “explanation of vote” statement in the First Committee regarding its abstention on the resolution “Decreasing the operational readiness of nuclear weapons systems” (A/C.1/63/L.5 and A/Res/63/41).
[x] Douglas Roche and Jim Wurst. “Canada and Nuclear Disarmament Analysis of Canada’s Votes in the U.N. Disarmament Committee 2007. A Paper Prepared for an Expert Seminar, “Restoring Canada’s Nuclear Disarmament Policies,” held in Ottawa, 3-4 February 2008.
[xi] “Renewed determination towards the total elimination of nuclear weapons,” UN General Assembly Resolution A/Res/63/73. 2 December 2008.
[xii] “Letter by Organizations Worldwide to Obama, Medvedev, Putin, Biden, Lavrov and Clinton on Operating Status of Nuclear Weapon Systems,” 25 March 2009 (email distribution).

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