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Warning and Decision Time in Nuclear Deterrence

Dr. Matthew G. McKinzie

Natural Resrources Defense Council

While the Cold War ended more than two decades ago, the United States and the Russian Federation together maintain an estimated 1,800 strategic nuclear warheads at levels of combat readiness that permit prompt launch of missiles. Proponents of reducing these alert rates argue that such nuclear postures increase the risk of catastrophic consequences from accidental or unauthorized launch of  nuclear forces, or from rushed decision-making in a crisis situation,  and are relics of a bygone era. By contrast, the position of the Obama Administration is that reducing the alert status of U.S. nuclear forces would on balance negatively impact nuclear deterrence. The Russian Federation has thus far not expressed an interest in reducing the alert levels of nuclear forces, and there has been almost no debate within Russia on the subject. This seminar will review historical data, technical and policy issues regarding warning and decision time in nuclear deterrence, with a focus on a central question: Under what conditions can nuclear forces off alert form a stable deterrent?