Risks Arising from Peacetime Nuclear Operations: A Report on a Presentation by Bruce Blair

At the Vancouver conference,1“Humanitarian Law, Human Security: The Emerging Paradigm for Non-Use and Elimination of Nuclear Weapons”, convened by The Simons Foundation and the International Association of Lawyers Against Nuclear Arms in Vancouver, Canada, February 10-11, 2011. on February 10, 2011, Dr. Bruce Blair, Co-Founder of Global Zero along with Matt Brown, was introduced by Dr. Jennifer Simons to discuss “Risks Arising from Peacetime Nuclear Operations.” Blair began by noting that that the term !peacetime nuclear operations! is “misleading” because of how close the world is at all times to nuclear war. Missile launch crews are constantly training to fight nuclear wars, even as the lunch session was happening. Blair had personally “fought hundreds of nuclear wars” in the training simulator, which had not changed for 30 years and were now being used for training by the “millennial” generation.

These simulations are designed, according to Blair, to give escalating notices of a crisis, in which “invariably and inevitably, you cross the nuclear threshold to wartime, culminating in the mass launch of every missile under your command […] in what they amusingly refer to as ‘the crowd-pleaser’. All out nuclear war is the crowd pleaser. It’s a rocket salvo that is likened to the finale of an Independence Day fireworks display. There‘s a lot of black humor in this business, as you can imagine.”

Blair stated his belief that it is more difficult for the current generation of young members of the US military to be in these roles, because it is puzzling “why they are launching the crowd-pleaser at a country they don‘t quite understand as their enemy” – the target of these simulations is still Russia, long after the Cold War has ended. Blair said that it is not a plausible scenario for these people to consider engaging in nuclear war with Russia, because they do not have the Cold War experience, and because it is actually implausible today.

Commenting on his own experience in this role, Blair noted that he understood then that what he was practicing would, if implemented in real life, result in the death of tens of millions of people. He called the experience “something you reflect on as you get older […] it surely corrodes the soul. It‘s corroding the soul of these young men and women in our society today.” Blair asserted that it was “morally corrosive” to American society at large to have this system of constant readiness and preparation to launch an all-out nuclear war which would kill millions. The preparation level was characterized by Blair as consisting of hundreds or even thousands of mobilized weapons, ready to launch “at a moment‘s notice,” since the 1970s and through today. “Many, many of them, are aimed at cities,” Blair added.

Blair spoke more broadly about the risks of the overall system, calling the young soldiers who would launch such weapons and start such wars “cogs in the larger war-making machinery.” Blair cited these drills as a representative example of a system geared towards actual usage of nuclear weapons, in which mere “possession doesn‘t begin to capture what‘s going on.” Blair said that while the common view was of weapons sitting around in stockpiles, the system is “dynamic […] it daily projects threat to any and all potential adversaries.” And as a result of this readiness, and constant activity, there are numerous risks inherent in the nuclear weapons regime, including the risks of inadvertent launch, unauthorized launch, launch based on inaccurate information, and possible theft and acquisition by non-state actors. Blair also argued that the existence of deployed and readied nuclear weapons, in interaction with non-nuclear conflicts such as the US engagement in Iraq, could create “nuclear tensions” and consequently, unintended conflicts. Blair warned that leaders can “play chicken” with nuclear weapons in a “game” designed to scare other countries, citing the 1973 Yom Kippur War as an example.

Blair drew from these examples the conclusion that the term “peacetime nuclear operations” was a misnomer: “we‘re really talking about preparing very seriously and intently to use nuclear weapons and running gigantic risks in the process.” He also noted that these operations are highly secretive, despite the efforts of himself and others to bring knowledge to the broader population, and in part because of the secrecy commitments members of the Armed Forces involved in such activities make when leaving the service to avoid revealing information. He stated that it is difficult to discuss the broader system without revealing classified information, and that this prevents open discussion by former nuclear crews and commanders.

Blair went on to discuss in more detail four risks associated with peacetime nuclear operations: unauthorized launch, mistaken launch on warning, terrorist theft of weapons, and inadvertent escalation. He also mentioned a fifth risk – an accident occurring, leading to detonation – and said he would not discuss that possibility here, but that it is presented in Global Zero‘s film, “Countdown to Zero.”

Beginning with mistaken launch, Blair noted that detected information was reviewed by U.S. and Russian teams whose job it is to “urgently assess” if the detected information “represent threats to their country.” Blair highlighted that these detections usually occur multiple times in a given day. Recalling an example from roughly a decade previous when he was in a tracking center inside Cheyenne Mountain in Colorado, Blair noted that when a rocket exhaust plume was detected, the facility immediately began reviewing the detected plume to see if it was a threat to North America or not. A few minutes later, the staff labeled the plume a missile launched by Russia towards Chechnya and was thus no threat to the North Americans. Blair cited Japanese civilian satellite launches, Iranian or Chinese tests of missiles, Hamas rockets fired at Israel, or even wildfires in the Southwestern United States as other detectable incidents that are reviewed as possible threats.

Blair noted that only three minutes are allowed to determine if something was a threat or not and decide whether to recommend that an emergency teleconference involving the President and his top nuclear advisors be convened to consider launching nuclear weapons in response. Blair stated that similar approaches are taken by other countries with “less reliable early warning systems,” increasing the possibility of a mistaken perceived threat, and that these risks increase even more due to states increasing the alert level of their nuclear weapons. Finally, Blair noted that in the event of an emergency conference, the strategic commander in Omaha would be allowed as little as thirty seconds to brief the President on the threat and possible nuclear retaliatory responses. The President has between 30 seconds and 12 minutes to choose a response option, which means that it is all “checklist-driven.” Blair said this is “the enactment of a prepared script … this isn‘t Presidential deliberation.” Blair quoted the memoirs of President Reagan, who lamented, “six minutes, to decide how to respond to a blip on a radar scope and decide whether to release Armageddon! How could anyone apply reason at a time like that?” Blair highlighted repeatedly the relative difficulty of preventing a launch in contrast with authorizing one, for Reagan as well as for Mikhail Gorbachev and other leaders in that era as well as today.


  • 3 Minutes: The amount of time a missile attack evaluation team has to “urgently assess” if detected information poses a threat to the United States.
  • 30 Seconds: The amount of time a strategic force commander has to brief the President on possible launch responses if there is a missile attack threat to the US.
  • 30 Seconds to 12 Minutes (varies): The President’s allowed response time, which would lead to the use of checklistbased decision making rather than judgment.

Blair turned next to unauthorized launch, warning that he could “really depress you… to no end” discussing this possible risk. The Russian system of command and control has historically been more stringent than the American one, because top-down control is the core value of the political culture of Russia. In the United States, on the other hand, the system is “highly decentralized, and represents a high degree of trust in the military.” As a result, Blair noted that the US has been slow to introduce physical safeguards on its weapons, and has delegated launch authority down the chain of command. Blair stated that in the event of the crisis in the United States, the delegation system in place from the Eisenhower administration until at least the end of the Reagan administration would have “overridden the constitutionmandated Presidential line of succession.” The American system had “tightened up,” Blair noted, but still is relatively relaxed.


  • Command and Control Systems: “Many undiscovered vulnerabilities exist, and perhaps fatal weaknesses exist as well.”
  • The American Experience: “The US has been very slow to introduce physical safeguards on its nuclear weapons […] And America has been much more apt to delegate launch authority down the chain of military command.”
  • The Limited Security of Safeguards on Deployed, “Ready” Nuclear Weapons: “Preparing for authorized use inevitably undermines protections against unauthorized use.”

While Blair stated that it is hard to guess at the odds that one of these risks would be realized, he noted that there are still extreme, possibly fatal, weaknesses in both the US and Russian systems. A 1990s study of the command and control system found numerous weaknesses in the US system, leading to locks being placed on the nuclear weapons deployed on Trident submarines in 1997, the first physical barrier to launch on a US Trident submarine missiles. The study also found an “electronic backdoor” into the Navy‘s internal communications system, which would allow terrorists or hackers to control the system used to broadcast launch authorization to Trident submarines. This study did lead to the retraining of Trident crews on how to respond to launch orders by the US Navy. All safeguards can be circumvented, Blair noted, but an attempt to circumvent can only be guaranteed success with “unlimited access.” Blair noted that there varying degrees of safety associated with the arsenals of countries possessing nuclear weapons. Pakistan is the least secure due to governmental instability. The United States has spent $100 million to overcome these risks through assisting in the improvement of safeguards on Pakistani weapons.

Regarding the risk of terrorist capture of nuclear material, Blair said that there are hundreds of nuclear weapons in transit at all times between various locations. Weapons move via numerous routes, including by land, sea and air. Transport is the “most vulnerable part of their operational life cycle.” Additional risks are posed by the highlyenriched uranium and plutonium being produced today, which around the world would be sufficient to produce over one hundred thousand nuclear weapons. Some of this material has made it to the black market, where it was recaptured by police. Blair warned that we likely have not recaptured even a quarter of the black market nuclear material. Blair also warned that nuclear material cannot be fully protected, or “locked down,” as has been pledged by nuclear weapon state leaders such as President Obama, while nuclear weapons continue to be operated and transported.

Finally, regarding inadvertent escalation, Blair mentioned that there are currently US spy planes all over the world, “provoking” by looking for holes in the air defenses of Russia, North Korea, or China through which another plane could eventually fly to deliver a nuclear bomb. US surface ships and submarines are tailing submarines, and Russian bombers near North America probably routinely find themselves with US or Canadian fighter jets “on their wings” as well. These interactions constantly increase the risk of a military escalation, which could possibly lead to the outbreak of nuclear conflict.

Blair closed by stating that the United States and Russia have been “minutes away” from nuclear war involving hundreds or thousands of bombs numerous times already. Other countries are “following suit, shortening the fuses as well.” Blair called it a “hydra-headed risk of unacceptable proportions” – one that he cannot quantify, but, he said, it is “reasonable to expect a nuclear disaster” as a result of peacetime nuclear operations. Blair warned of nuclear weapons, “if we don‘t eliminate them in our lifetime, there‘s a very strong probability that they will be used in our lifetime.”

Responding to a question regarding the impediments to reduction of alert status for the United States, Blair cited a lack of civilian knowledge of the risks of high-alert status, or even the existence of that status, and noted the inaccurate statements made by UN representatives or government officials. Most of the information related to the alert status requires certain security clearances. A study he himself had conducted on behalf of Congress on the risks of unauthorized launch was classified by the Joint Chiefs of Staff at a level above the US Senate level, copies were destroyed except those held by the Pentagon, and he was no longer authorized to read the report that he wrote. The current Nuclear Posture Review states that de-alerting would provoke preemptive attack against the United States; Blair stated that the Department of Defense didn‘t take the suggestion of de-alerting seriously enough to really respond to it as if it was in fact a serious possibility. Blair stated that the United States government does not even have a plan in place to eventually, possibly, get to zero nuclear weapons; it simply has not been called for because it is not considered a realistic possibility.

Another question focused upon the US ability to assess the lawfulness of a use of nuclear weapons given the incredibly short response times. Blair reiterated his understanding that the decision to launch nuclear weapons is essentially automated – if the box on the checklist is checked, the next level is reached, and this process continues until a nuclear launch is authorized, without any time to evaluate what is being done in the big picture because of the speed of each step.

Yet another question concerned whether reliance on nuclear weapons has increased due to an increased risk of terrorist acquisition. Blair responded that this calculation is illogical: if terrorists have nuclear weapons, “what role do our weapons play?” Soon after 9/11, Blair co-wrote an op-ed with two nuclear officers, one of whom was in a missile launch center during the attacks. They pointed out that despite “having the most destructive weapons ever invented at its hands, our military was powerless to deter, disrupt, punish or destroy this new type of adversary.”2Bruce Blair, Damon Bosetti, and Brian Weeden, ―Bombs Away,‖ New York Times, December 6, 2010, available at http://www.nytimes.com/2010/12/07/opinion/07blair.html.



  • SAMEER KANAAL is a Research Associate with the Lawyers Committee on Nuclear Policy.

References   [ + ]

1. “Humanitarian Law, Human Security: The Emerging Paradigm for Non-Use and Elimination of Nuclear Weapons”, convened by The Simons Foundation and the International Association of Lawyers Against Nuclear Arms in Vancouver, Canada, February 10-11, 2011.
2. Bruce Blair, Damon Bosetti, and Brian Weeden, ―Bombs Away,‖ New York Times, December 6, 2010, available at http://www.nytimes.com/2010/12/07/opinion/07blair.html.
Sameer Kanal

About Sameer Kanal

Sameer Kanal is a Research Associate with the Lawyers Committee on Nuclear Policy.