High-alert nuclear weapon

High-alert nuclear weapon

High-alert nuclear weapon(s) commonly refers to a launch-ready ballistic missile(s) armed with a nuclear warhead(s) whose launch can be ordered (through the National Command Authority) and executed (via a nuclear command and control system) within 15 minutes or less. Can include any weapon system capable of delivering a nuclear warhead in this time frame.

Virtually all "high-alert nuclear weapons" are possessed by the U.S. and Russia. Both nations use automated command and control systems in conjunction with their early warning radar and/or satellites to facilitate the rapid launch of their land-based Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) and some Submarine Launched Ballistic Missiles (SLBMs). [Blair, Bruce. "The Logic of Accidental Nuclear War". © The Brookings Institution 1993.] Fear of a "disarming" nuclear first-strike that would destroy their command and control systems and nuclear forces led both nations to develop "launch-on-warning" capability, which requires high-alert nuclear weapons able to launch on a 30 minute (or less) tactical warning, the nominal flight time of ICBMs traveling to and from the U.S. to Russia.

A definition of "high-alert" requires no specific explosive power of the weapon carried by the missile or weapon system, but in general, most high-alert missiles are armed with strategic nuclear weapons with yields equal to or greater than 100 kilotons. [Starr, Steven. [http://www.wagingpeace.org/articles/2007/11/29_starr_explanation_terminology.php| "An Explanation of Nuclear Weapons Terminology"] . © Nuclear Age Peace Foundation 2008.] The U.S. [Correll, J. [http://www.afa.org/magazine/July2005/0705icbm.asp| How the Air Force Got the ICBM"] . © Air Force Magazine Online (Journal of the Air Force Association) 2005, July, Vol. 88, No. 7.] and Russia [NTI online database. [http://www.nti.org/db/nisprofs/russia/weapons/icbms/icbmhist.htm| "Russia: History of Soviet/Russian ICBMs"] .] have for decades possessed ICBMs and SLBMs capable of being launched in only a few minutes. The U.S. "Minuteman" ICBM earned its name for its quick-launch capability.

The U.S. and Russia currently have a total of 900 missiles and 2581 strategic nuclear warheads on high-alert, launch-ready status. The total explosive power of these weapons is about 1185 Mt (megatons, or million tons of TNT equivalent explosive power). [Starr, Steven. "High-alert nuclear weapons: examining the risks". SGR Newsletter, No. 26, Autumn 2008, in press.]

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