Bruce Blair disagrees with Ambassador Rocca about “hair trigger” alert:
As they have been configured for several decades, their command and early warning systems are geared to launch on warning – firing friendly forces en masse before the anticipated arrival of incoming enemy missiles with flight times of 12 to 30 minutes. The presidents of both countries would come under enormous pressure to make quick launch decisions in the event of an apparent missile strike by the other side. Much of this decision process has been designed to be quasi-automatic. It can reasonably be described as going to war by checklist, enacting a prepared script, with little margin for human error or technical malfunction. The nuclear war machinery has a hair-trigger quality. And that quality has been a constant in the nuclear equation for decades. Comparable pressures and deadlines apply to Russia. Both of the traditional nuclear rivals still stand ready, despite the Cold War’s end, to inflict apocalyptic devastation on one another in a first or second strike whose essential course would be run in less than one hour.
The procedural and technical safeguards against unauthorized or accidental launch are inadequate in today’s circumstances. Although both sides impose very strict safeguards on their strategic nuclear forces to prevent an unauthorized launch, the actual level of protection against unauthorized launch defies precise estimation due to the complexity of the nuclear command-control systems and of the threats to them. Serious deficiencies are routinely discovered.
I am still not sure “hair trigger” is a helpful phrase — but I do think he is dead on to worry about command performance under great duress.
If you blanche at the reference to “launch on warning” — it is our policy not to rely on low — you should read this article in which Bruce argues that limitations on command performance strongly bias the system toward an LOW posture in fact, if not policy.
By coincidence, I just picked up a copy of Bruce’s Strategic Command and Control: Redefining the Nuclear Threat_ for seven bucks at my favorite bookstore.