By Michael Krepon
Source: Arms Control Wonk.
Let’s not argue about this: the three greatest films about the Bomb are John Frankenheimer’s Seven Days in May, Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove and Sidney Lumet’s Fail Safe. All three were released in 1964, when movie-goers were still trying to forget the Cuban missile crisis.
Previous posts have given kudos to Dr. Strangelove and Seven Days in May. Now it’s time to praise Fail Safe. One remedy repeatedly proposed to prevent accidental nuclear war is to reduce the alert status of nuclear weapon delivery vehicles. The counter-argument is that “de-alerting” is a technical fix that can’t solve what is essentially a political problem. The numbers of launch-ready U.S. and Russian warheads remain excessive. States with nuclear weapons use increased alert status (sometimes advertised in the clear)as a signaling device. I don’t see how de-alerting can prevent this, and it may make the problem marginally, but not significantly worse, at least in my view. I’ll also post about de-alerting in the context of Pakistan and India.
The closest Krepon has got to defining 'alert status' is his remark - "The numbers of launch-ready US and Russian warheads remain excessive." Actually there is much more to it than that. Levels of 'alert' can be manipulated by a myriad of factors such as the positioning of human resources, technological proficiency, logistics of ‘wholeness’, status of warhead, status of delivery systems, ‘separation’ and so on. Alert status is a function of management of nuclear strategy in the concerned nuclear weapon states.
Despite the existence of nuclear arsenals with the Western Powers and the erstwhile Soviet Union, now Russian Federation, for over half a century there is no hard evidence on the details of “alert status” or of these being mirrored in the two security blocs. The management of the factors, mentioned above, will vary depending on prevailing technological and military expertise, domestic political imperatives, logistic competencies, strategic doctrine and the concept of ensuring that strategic assets are in keeping with the prevailing security environment vis-à-vis nuclear armed adversaries.‘Alert status’ is critical for the successful management of ‘deterrence strategies’ and is the highly classified core of the ‘nuclear strategy’.
It would be dangerous to predicate employment of strategic forces on presumptions of “mirror image” conclusions of an adversary’s concept of ‘alert status’. I am of the view that theories on the concepts of ‘alert’ and ‘employment’ as advocated in the US or Russia would be unlikely to assess the state of strategic forces in the Indian Subcontinent. In the light of this, I am sceptical of the presumption that he has a clue of strategic doctrines, structures and systems in South Asia, to write meaningfully about de-alerting in the context of Pakistan and India.