End Launch on Warning

Please note: Although WFMC hosts this page, RLOAD is a standalone project

Current RLOAD Proposal:
Download PDF format

(August 2009 version by Alan Phillips and Steven Starr)

En français:
Éliminer le lancement sur alerte,
par Alan Phillips et Steven Starr (PDF)

No Launch on Warning by Alan F. Phillips
(Ploughshares 2002 Working Paper 02-1)

“This paper outlines the policy called “Launch on Warning”, currently held by both Russia and the United States, and argues for its abandonment. Under this policy it would be standard procedure to retaliate with rocket-mounted nuclear weapons to the warning of a nuclear attack, without waiting for first impact. This policy risks nuclear war from a false warning which might be due to coincidence of radar, sensor or computer glitches.” (April, 2002)

The Case for Ending Launch on Warning
by Alan Phillips, in Mondial April 2002
(first publication of Phillips proposal)

Related Documents:
Nuclear Weapons Terminology by Steven Starr, et al.

Twenty Mishaps That Might Have Started Accidental Nuclear War  by Alan F. Phillips

Unacceptable Risk: Launch-on-Warning Policy
by Robin Collins, October 2005, Toronto

Alan Phillips (1920-2008)

AS LONG AS THE UNITED STATES AND RUSSIA retain their arsenals of nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missiles, some on high alert, the danger remains of a purely accidental nuclear war between the two countries. Neither side wants this: if it should happen, it would be an utter disaster for both countries and for the entire world – no matter which adversary started it.

One of the possible causes of an unintended nuclear war is “Launch on Warning” (LoW) – the policy of launching a retaliatory nuclear strike while the opponent’s missiles or warheads are believed to be in flight but before any detonation from the perceived attack has occurred. Each side is believed to have more than 1000 strategic nuclear warheads ready to launch before the incoming warheads have arrived. Once launched, they cannot be recalled or neutralized. LoW has exposed the world, for at least 30 years, to the danger of a nuclear war caused by nothing but a coincidence of radar, satellite sensor, or computer glitches, and a temporary failure of human alertness to appreciate that the message signaling attack is false.

Although the Cold War is considered over, both Russia and the United States have chosen to retain their LoW capabilities, and they are widely believed to be continuing their LoW policies. If this is the case, it is inexcusably dangerous.

The policy of LoW should be replaced by one of “Retaliatory Launch Only After Detonation” (RLOAD). We believe it should not be difficult to change the launch procedures so that in a situation in which, under LoW, retaliation would be launched before arrival of the attacking warheads, under RLOAD the decision to retaliate could be made during flight of the warheads, but the launch sequence would be held at the final step. The actual launch would be started instantly after the first detonation of an incoming warhead.

Adoption of an RLOAD policy by both parties would immediately remove the danger of an accidental war caused by a false warning, simply because after a false warning there would be no nuclear detonation at the predicted time. No uncalled-for “retaliatory” launch would take place.

There is no logical reason to maintain Launch on Warning. It is to the equal advantage of both sides even if only one changes its policy to RLOAD, and if both adopt RLOAD then one of the possible causes of an unintended nuclear war between Russia and the U.S. – an accidental war due to a false warning – will be eliminated.

Read on…