Nuclear Darkness
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History of High-Alert Nuclear Weapons

Although the Cold War is said to have ended in 1991, the US and Russia each still operate under the assumption that the other could authorize a nuclear attack against them. The failure to end their Cold War nuclear confrontation causes both nations to currently maintain a total of about 2000 strategic nuclear warheads on high-alert status, which can be launched in only a few minutes, whose primary missions remain the destruction of the opposing side’s nuclear forces, industrial infrastructure, and political/military leadership.

High-alert, launch-ready nuclear weapons, i.e. operational rocket-mounted nuclear warheads capable of being launched in 15 minutes or less, have been deployed in the US and the USSR/Russia for decades. The solid-fuelled US Minuteman inter-continental ballistic missile (ICBM) went on alert in October 1962 and, by 1965, 800 Minuteman I missiles had been deployed. By the mid-1970s, the USSR had deployed a variety of second generation liquid-fuelled ICBMs capable of quick launch.

The Cold War created an arms race which led to the development of apocalyptically destructive weapons. Fear of a nuclear surprise attack was exacerbated by the development of ICBMs armed with multiple independently-targeted re-entry vehicles, which appeared to be ideally suited for a nuclear first-strike. Because no defense against such an attack was found to exist, the only military ‘solution’ seemed to require the launch of ICBMs from their silos before they were destroyed.

Thus, it seems clear that the primary purpose of keeping nuclear forces ready to launch literally at a moments notice is prevent their destruction from a surprise nuclear attack. But in order to do so, three critical components had to exist: (1) missiles capable of quick launch, (2) Early Warning Systems capable of detecting a surprise attack, and (3) a nuclear command and control system capable of relaying the attack warning to leadership who could then issue an order (through this system) for the quick-launch of their nuclear forces before the attack arrived.

By the early to mid-1980s, the US and USSR had each created automated nuclear command and control systems that worked in conjunction with a network of early warning systems and their nuclear-armed ballistic missiles. Consequently, both nations had demonstrated the ability to launch strategic missiles on tactical warning in less than 30 minutes, the nominal flight time of land-based ICBMs traveling to and from the US to Russia.