Return to VANA archive page

Retaliatory Launch Only After Detonation

Alan F. Phillips, M.D. , April 2003

As long as USA and Russia retain arsenals of Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles, with some of these weapons on high alert, there remains a danger of a purely accidental nuclear war between the two countries. Neither side wants this. If it should happen it would be an utter disaster for both, and for the whole world, regardless of which of the adversaries started it. By far the most likely cause is the posture of "Launch on Warning" or "Launch under Attack", using these terms as equivalent, meaning a launch during the period while hostile missiles or warheads are believed to be actually in flight, and before any detonation. There is always the possibility, remote but never completely absent, that radar and satellite warning displays could be misinterpreted and result in a launch on a false warning. The Norwegian Rocket Event in 1995 was a recent example in which a number of experts gave their opinion that there had been actual danger of a nuclear exchange from the scheduled launch of an unarmed rocket for research.

Renunciation of the Launch under Attack (LUA) posture and replacing it by a policy of "No Retaliatory Launch Before Detonation" (NO RLBD) by both parties would obviously, at a stroke, remove the danger of a purely accidental war due to a false warning.

What is not generally realized is that NO RLBD does not require symmetry, nor verification, nor a formal agreement (much less a Treaty); nor does it undermine "deterrence". It could therefore be adopted quickly and unilaterally. When one side adopts it this risk of an accidental war is immediately reduced, approximately to one half. If the other side follows suit it falls to zero.

The elimination of LUA does not eliminate any other retaliation options nor reduce the alert status. It just ensures that retaliation would not take place without confirmation of a nuclear detonation. As soon as a warning of attack was received the order to prepare for a retaliatory launch could be given. The President (in the US case) would then be charged with deciding, not whether to launch immediately and risk it being an irrevocable response to what could still be a false warning, but whether to launch immediate retaliation in the event of a detonation. If the decision was to retaliate upon detonation, full preparation would be made during the missiles' flight so that the launch could be instantaneous upon receipt of a positive bomb alarm signal.

It is assumed that the two countries will insist on maintaining nuclear deterrence, whatever changes need to be made to eliminate the danger of accidental war. Some explanation is required to make it clear that the change to NO RLBD can be made and deterrence maintained.

The purpose of deterrence is to prevent either side from making a nuclear attack. This is theoretically achieved by each convincing the other that such an attack will inevitably bring unacceptable retaliation. Deterrence can only work if the ultimate decision-makers on both sides are rational. It would then only fail if either side were sure that it could launch such a rapid and massive surprise nuclear strike as would prevent retaliation. The reason for the dangerous posture of LUA is the fear that a massive first salvo, or a devastating electromagnetic pulse (EMP) attack, might prevent retaliation. However, it is not a risk that retaliation might fail that would impair deterrence, but a certainty (or very near certainty) on the part of the potential attacker that it will fail.

Bomb alarms which are triggered by the flash of a nuclear detonation, and instantly transmit their signal before the blast wave reaches them, have for long been installed near all big cities and at military bases. Retaliation would be ensured by having the launch silos carry out all steps towards launch, except the final one, during the flight of incoming missiles, just as they do under LUA. Any positive signals from bomb alarms would be fed directly to the launch silos as well as to command centres, so that destruction of the latter would not prevent retaliation. On receipt of a bomb alarm signal at the predicted time of arrival of the attack, retaliation (if already authorized) would be launched immediately, from all silos not already destroyed by the attack.

At the present time it is believed that both sides have more than 2,000 warheads on full alert and available for LUA retaliation. Five per cent of these reaching their targets would destroy either country. No rational head of state or commander-in-chief could be certain that an initial salvo could put 95% out of action within half a minute of the first detonation. As to EMP, it is known that great efforts have been made to screen military electrical equipment from the pulse, so it is not possible to be sure of EMP effectiveness against land-based missiles. Submarines and the missiles they carry are known to be completely protected by sea water.

Thus, under present conditions, there is no logical reason to maintain LUA. It is to the equal advantage of both sides even if only one changes its policy to No RLBD, and if both adopt No RLBD, then the most likely cause of a nuclear war -- an accidental war due to a false warning -- will be eliminated.

Dr. Alan Phillips graduated with honours in physics at Cambridge University in 1941. He spent the rest of World War II doing radar research for the British Army. After the war he qualified in medicine at Edinburgh University and specialized in the treatment of cancer by radiation. He retired in 1984. His retirement activities have included the study of nuclear armaments and the risks of accidental nuclear war.

Project Ploughshares is an ecumenical agency of the Canadian Council of Churches, formed to implement the churches’ imperative to pursue peace and justice. The mandate given to Project Ploughshares is to work with churches and related organizations, as well as governments and non-governmental organizations, in Canada and abroad, to identify, develop, and advance approaches that build peace and prevent war, and promote the peaceful resolution of political conflict.

"and they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation; neither shall they learn war any more" (Isaiah 2:4) Project Ploughshares • 57 Erb Street West, Waterloo, Ontario, Canada N2L 6C2 Tel: 519-888-6541 Fax: 519-888-0018