In the September/October 2010 issue of Foreign Affairs [“Smaller and Safer, A New Plan for Nuclear Postures”] Bruce Blair and his co-authors argue that de-alerting is an important step to prevent nuclear terrorism as well as a tool to de-legitimize nuclear weapons:

These [high readiness] postures also perpetuate a mutual reliance on nuclear weapons that lends legitimacy to the nuclear ambitions of other nations. When more states go nuclear, intentional use becomes more likely, and deficiencies in nuclear command and warning systems multiply the risk of accidental or unauthorized use or terrorist theft.

Bruce has been right for a very long time that the state of launch readiness for U.S. and Russian forces is excessive. Reductions in prompt-use capabilities would be welcome as confirmation of the distance we have all traveled since the Cold War ended. Another long-standing argument for de-alerting – that the high state of launch readiness is dangerous – was especially true during the Cold War and immediately before and after the Soviet Union’s demise. This argument is less convincing now that Washington and Moscow have nothing to fight about and since Russia has stabilized.

What about the argument that de-alerting can help reduce the threat of nuclear terrorism? This threat is near or at the very top of everyone’s list of nuclear nightmares, so any preventive measure would seemingly be welcome. Nevertheless, I have my doubts about the validity of this argument.

Take Pakistan, the state with nuclear weapons facing the greatest internal security threats. There have now been two commando-style raids with insider help against important military compounds. Army Headquarters in Rawalpindi was attacked in October 2009 and the Mehran naval base in Karachi was attacked in May of this year. These patrol-sized assaults took approximately eighteen hours to quell. Commando raids with insider help are a very different ballgame than truck bombs, meriting greater security measures at sensitive sites. Solutions to this problem do not include de-alerting, because military authorities normally maintain nuclear forces in a de-alerted state. Fissile cores may be separated from warheads, warheads are separated from launchers, and guarded as if they are crown jewels.

Another worrisome scenario in South Asia is that separated warheads and launchers are moved during periods of great tension. The tradeoff for Pakistan is that warheads in central storage sites are harder targets for internal security threats but easier targets for India. Conversely, warheads in motion are harder targets for India and less difficult targets for internal threats.

During crises, Rawalpindi and New Delhi employ changes in readiness to signal resolve and their interest in Washington’s crisis management. Nuclear-related alert rates on the subcontinent, along with the deployment of strike corps to fighting corridors and associated measures, are key elements of crisis behavior. All parties know exactly what to look for. Nevertheless, these moves can be overdramatized and misunderstood, even when warheads remain separated from launchers.

For these and other reasons, de-alerting is a weak remedy for nuclear dangers in Pakistan. Ditto for India, where fissile cores may be separated from warheads, warheads are separated from launchers, and military leaders are kept distant from civilian control. In the future, when India and Pakistan deploy nuclear weapon capabilities at sea, the remedy of de-alerting will become more useful, but also very hard to put in place with any degree of assurance.

The argument that de-alerting can be a useful instrument to de-legitimatize nuclear weapons is also questionable. Pakistan, India and other states possessing nuclear weapons aren’t inclined to emulate the United States and Russia in ways that begin to suggest the de-legitimization of their deterrents.

The Obama administration prefers the term “maximizing presidential decision time” to de-alerting. Team Obama found value in reducing force levels but not launch readiness in its 2010 Nuclear Posture Review. In my view, de-alerting U.S. and Russian forces is an idea that has been eclipsed by a far better idea — dismantling nuclear warheads and their delivery vehicles. Progress, whether by de-alerting or arms reduction, will occur incrementally, over considerable resistance. At this juncture, incremental reductions make far more sense that incremental de-alerting.