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Greg Mello | Los Alamos Study Group

On Friday 16 October, the US delegation hosted a side event on the US nuclear posture chaired by Undersecretary of State Rose Gottemoeller, with senior Department of Defense nuclear planner Greg Weaver as the main speaker.

The event was narrowly focused on the question of whether further de-alerting of US nuclear forces would decrease the risk of nuclear war. The answer provided was no, it would not. While de-alerting is a perennial topic, this event took particular aim at a substantial report issued by Global Zero earlier this year advocating further de-alerting.

Weaver and Gottemoeller expounded on the results of classified Pentagon studies showing that further dealerting measures, beyond those taken at the end of the Cold War, would decrease crisis stability by setting the stage for an unpredictable, hard-to-read “re-alerting race” in the event of a nuclear crisis.

The current risk of accidental or unauthorized launch is nil, it was claimed. Because of this, and because the risk of a nuclear first strike is judged to be extremely low under the present conditions given the survivability and retaliatory capacity of US forces in their present alert posture, de-alerting measures would provide no benefit under present conditions. Instead, de-alerting would increase nuclear risk just when it should not be increased, i.e. in a crisis.

All this was explained in the most general terms, the details being classified. So there was no discussion or rebuttal of any specific de-alerting proposal. The nature of the de-alerting proposals studied in depth at the beginning of the Obama administration was not revealed.

There is no possibility of any cyberattack leading to unauthorized or accidental nuclear launch, either from within the government or from outside, it was claimed. Remarkably, it was also claimed that no military personnel can authorize the launch of nuclear weapons, though it was not stated that it was physically impossible for military personnel to launch a nuclear strike.

Listeners were told that the whereabouts of all potential successors to the presidency are constantly tracked by STRATCOM, which apparently would provide hardcopy launch authentication codes as needed—codes which are not resident in any computer—to the next individual in this long line of possibilities. Apparently, STRATCOM manages the process.

Answers to the many troubling questions that could be raised about these bland conclusions are of course classified. Leaving aside all the pesky details affecting the survival of humanity, then, the main conclusion on offer was that for the US, only intentional nuclear attacks are possible.

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