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By Peter Huessy, President of GeoStrategic Analysis, Potomac, Maryland - Senior Warrior Maven Columnist

Minuteman III and GBSD continue to be important topics of consideration in the current review of the proper US nuclear posture. One important criticism of the ICBM leg of the Triad, both MM IIII and GBSD, is the claim the missiles are on hair trigger, thus destabilizing, and serving only to draw Russian firepower onto the 400 silos and 45 launch control centers. This argument has been primarily put forward by former Defense Secretary William Perry, but also the wider arms control community, and has long been a part of the anti-ICBM narrative, first started by the late Bruce Blair, the founder of Global Zero. Blair claimed for much of his time at Global Zero that as a launch control officer in the USAF prior to 1973, he determined that he alone could launch America’s ICBMs. That claim after sustained criticism was later taken back by Blair. In a 2019 report he repeatedly emphasized that no one but the President of the United States could authorize and actually order the launch of US ICBMs. 

A report 40+ years old was actually written about the false warning scenarios William Perry has used to link ICBMs to a “hair trigger” danger. 

Linked below is the 9 October 1980 SASC report on the false alarms at NORAD. Senators Hart and Goldwater chaired the study.

In my opinion, based upon the report findings, claims of a near miss - that the false computer warnings came close to initiating a nuclear war - appear to be greatly exaggerated. 

Of specific note, the report found that no Missile Attack Conference has ever been convened.  Not just then but ever.

Since then, no one with whom  I have spoken over some nearly 40 years of nuclear seminars knows of any threat conference where the President has actually been involved and asked to even consider the use of a nuclear weapon.  There have been conferences to determine whether a missile launch occurred in various parts of the world and then to determine or authenticate such launches, but no threat conference has ever been convened contrary to Perry/Collina’s recent essay calling for the elimination of the GBSD and the land-based leg of the Triad.

Perry is also advocating that the US adopt a No First Use strategy for nuclear weapons.

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Few analysts have done a serious assessment of this issue until recently—see Matt Costlow of NIPP and his new report on ICBMs. 

Critical to sustaining support for the ICBM leg of the Triad is to carefully explain whether US strategy includes now or ever included a launch on warning or launch under attack or launch only after confirmed attack, strategy. A key reference was a 1999 Bob Bell press conference. Bell was a former SASC staffer for Senator Nunn, and then went to the US National Security Council and then to NATO as the representative of the Secretary of Defense. Bell’s press conference reiterated that the 1994 Nuclear Posture Review, contrary to press reports at the time of Bell’s remarks, did not call for a launch on warning US nuclear strategy. Bell emphasized the US had no such strategy at the time, or in the past and there was no prospect of the Clinton administration adopting such a policy.

From top professionals in nuclear community as well as from some Hill colleagues, I reviewed Perry’s claims and came up with this summary memo of what the best thinking was about both the 1979 and 1980’s incidences Perry writes about but also what US policy is re reacting to warning of missile launches aimed at the US or its allies. 

The US would only consider (and it’s not US policy to do so) launch under warning/attack in the most unlikely of all scenarios: a massive missile attack on the homeland and our ICBM forces. But the US does not reply upon such a strategy and would as a number of former top nuclear military officials explained to me ride out such an attack which is how our Triad is postured to do. 

Further analysis of the Perry claim follows.

First, any potential attack on the US has to be confirmed by dual phenomenology – a single phenomenology (e.g., radar, spaceborne infrared sensor) is insufficient.  Second, in almost any conceivable scenario short of the unlikely massive missile attack above, we would in all likelihood elect to ride out the act, assess the damage, and then make a conscious decision on how to respond. Because of our force posture, the inevitability of a response is far more important than its immediacy; our forces are postured so we can always wait.

  • Re the 1980 report from the SASC, the two incidents of what Dr. Perry calls “false attack warnings”, there was an initial reaction of a possible attack, but in neither case did that come close to involving the President in any consideration of launching a nuclear response.  One may have resulted in SAC simply re-posturing some of its forces (no one with whom I spoke seems to know for sure although the SASC report discusses alerting and de-alerting the bomber crews) while actions to confirm the attack were in process. 
  • The procedures in place to confirm a nuclear attack worked exactly as designed, identified the problem, and corrected it.  Furthermore, although critics frequently cite other near misses such as the Cuban Missile Crisis, there is no record available of any “near miss” that really came close to a national leader actually considering a nuclear strike because of a false or real warning.
  • The characterization that Bill Perry frequently uses that our strategic forces are on “hair trigger” alert is a red herring routinely used to justify de-alerting proposals.  This is also associated with strategies or policies such as “No First Use” and the strategy of “Sole Use”---if you assumed land-based ICBMs in fixed silos can ONLY be used first, then a No First Use policy would in all likelihood be a basis for arguing for an ICBM-less strategic posture,
  • In reality, multiple stringent procedural and technical safeguards are in place to guard against accidental or unauthorized launch and to ensure the highest levels of nuclear weapon safety, security, reliability, and command and control.  In peacetime, no US strategic weapons are aligned to potential adversary targets.
  • MMIII and the ICBM force is “on alert” continuously because as General Welch (former USAF COS) explains whether day to day peace time or in a crisis, there is no action a US commander needs to take to be ready to launch the ICBMs, except of course a Presidential order.
  • Although ICBM missiles are spun up and on alert, they are targeted on broad ocean areas and not on actual targets. 
  • It is true, missiles aboard an at-sea SSBNs are not spun up, and when they are spun up for exercises, they are aligned to broad ocean-area targets similar to ICBMs. Since bombers have not been on peacetime alert since 1991, they do not have any nuclear targets assigned unless they were generated back to alert status. Additionally, the policy of the US is not to rely upon “launch on warning/attack.” 
  • The key point: we have a Triad and pay for the significant cost of a TRIAD so that the USA  nuclear trigger is built so it can always wait to be pulled. So, there is not now nor has there ever been “hair trigger” as a characteristic of our nuclear forces, ICBMs or otherwise. .Note Perry’s argument that ICBMs are on a hair trigger status equally undermines his argument to keep a MM SLEP let alone eliminating GBSD form the budget.

Peter R. HuessyMr. Huessy is the President of Geostrategic Analysis, a Potomac, Maryland-based defense and national security consulting business, and Director of Strategic Deterrent Studies at the Mitchell Institute, a Senior Fellow at ICAS, a senior consultant with Ravenna Associates, and previously for 22 years Senior Defense Consultant with the National Defense University Foundation at Fort McNair in Washington, D.C.He is and has been a Guest Lecturer at the School of Advanced International Affairs at Johns Hopkins University, at the Institute of World Politics, at the University of Maryland, at the Joint Military Intelligence School, at the Naval Academy and at the National War College.