Retaliatory Launch Only After Detonation

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One of the big arguments this year is to change the status of US nuclear weapon launch posture to Retaliate Only After A Detonation (RLOAD) as opposed to the current Launch on Warning (LOW) posture.  Once the early warning system detects a launch then commanders are authorized to launch.  The theory is that if we waited for the enemy attack to arrive then our arsenal might not survive making retaliation impossible.  Many argue, however, that the survivability of our arsenal is no longer in doubt because it is either much larger than other arsenals or other arsenals are not accurate/dependable or our arsenal is well defended/hardened to a first strike.

If it is true that our arsenal will survive a first strike then it makes sense to downgrade alert levels from LOW.  The enemy attack is getting through regardless of when our retaliation occurs.  The benefit to this downgraded hostility is the concern that our early warning system is fallible.  If we were to launch in response to warning detection and that detection ends up being a false positive then millions of people have died needlessly.  However, waiting for an actual detonation would guarantee those people would not have died needlessly.  I will leave the needless question for other venues as I want to deal, instead, with the lack of actual change RLOAD would bring.

There are a few reasons a needless launch might occur under LOW.  If there is an accidental launch on either our or someone else’s part then the change to RLOAD does not solve that problem.  Advocates will answer this argument claiming that RLOAD affords us more time than LOW so we can phone the Chinese, the Russians or whomever and figure out what happened.  However, LOW allows us this ability as well.  LOW does not require an immediate retaliation, but rather a retaliation before the first strike can arrive and decapitate the arsenal.  If a first strike provides a warning (not a nearby submarine launch, not a backpacked nuclear weapon, not a cruise missile attack, etc…) then it provides enough warning to make contact with the supposed aggressor.

A second cause of a warning comes from a faulty warning system.  This is supposed to be the area of largest gain for the change to an RLOAD posture, however, it is really the exact same system dressed up to make us feel better.  A warning of a launch serves as authorization for a field commander to issue the launch command.  Field commanders have the physical ability to order the launch, LOW is just a condition under which they are authorized to do so.  RLOAD merely reconfigures this authorization, but does not impede the physical ability to do so.  That is important to keep in mind.

The supposed benefit of RLOAD is that we ‘know’ a first strike has occurred because there is a detonation.  But, the field commander contemplating launching does not ‘know’.  This is Agamben’s insight on the witness problem.  If someone knew a nuclear detonation had occurred then the odds are they are dead.  Even if they survived they are not inside a secured military base lording over nuclear weapons.  The field commander ‘knows’ there was a detonation because some device relays that knowledge back to her.  However, that is precisely what the warning system does, and the premise why LOW fails is because there are mechanical malfunctions casting doubt on the accuracy of those knowledge relaying systems.  Why RLOAD is then immune from the problem its advocates is not dealt with.

One thought on “Retaliatory Launch Only After Detonation

  1. Steven Starr

    I am not sure if Mr. Neal is attempting to define Launch on Warning (LOW) or our proposal, Retaliatory Launch Only After Detonation (RLOAD). It appears he is speaking of RLOAD, in the second sentence, “When he states, “Once the early warning systems detects a launch then the commanders are authorized to launch.” In RLOAD, the same threat conference process takes places as it does in LOW, and the authorization to prepare for launch is given, with the caveat that the actual launch itself is held until the perceived attack is unequivocally verified by confirmation of nuclear detonation(s) Under LOW protocol, the order to launch is given at the end of the threat conference, assuming the attack is believed to be real and the President decides to launch a responsive attack. My first point here is that Mr. Neal is not accurately describing RLOAD, the commanders are authorized to launch upon confirmation of the nuclear attack.
    Mr Neal states: “If it is true that our arsenal will survive a first strike then it makes sense to downgrade alert levels from LOW. The enemy attack is getting through regardless of when our retaliation occurs”
    My Comment: If deterrence has actually failed and the enemy has attack, then immense destruction is inevitable. There is no danger of an accidental nuclear war, because war has already occurred. The point of RLOAD is to prevent accidental nuclear war based upon a false warning of attack.
    Mr. Neal states: “The benefit to this downgraded hostility is the concern that our early warning system is fallible. If we were to launch in response to warning detection and that detection ends up being a false positive then millions of people have died needlessly.”
    My Comment: Yes, this is the point of RLOAD, to prevent the launch of nuclear weapons in response to a false warning.
    Mr. Neal states: “However, waiting for an actual detonation would guarantee those people would not have died needlessly.”
    My Comment: If the attack is real, then it is likely that many launches will occur and many millions or perhaps billions will die. I am not clear on how launching a nuclear strike which kills millions more will make the initial death of millions any more or less needless.
    Mr. Neal states: “I will leave the needless question for other venues as I want to deal, instead, with the lack of actual change RLOAD would bring.
    There are a few reasons a needless launch might occur under LOW. If there is an accidental launch on either our or someone else’s part then the change to RLOAD does not solve that problem”
    My Comment: RLOAD is designed only to address the danger that a retaliatory strike will occur based upon a false warning of attack. It is not designed to prevent a strike in response to a confirmed nuclear attack; that is up to the leadership to decide.
    Mr. Neal states: “Advocates will answer this argument claiming that RLOAD affords us more time than LOW so we can phone the Chinese, the Russians or whomever and figure out what happened”.
    My Comment: Wrong, see above.
    Mr. Neal states: “However, LOW allows us this ability as well. LOW does not require an immediate retaliation, but rather a retaliation before the first strike can arrive and decapitate the arsenal.”
    My Comment: Sorry, this is a very confused sentence. LOW is about as immediate as you can get in the retaliation department. In fact, it is actually a preemptive strike, because it is being executed to a PERCEIVED nuclear attack which has not been confirmed by nuclear detonation(s). For example, suppose the US goes ahead with its plan to put conventional warheads on its ballistic missiles, and then launches these missiles from a Trident sub or ICBM silo; Russia then does what if the launch is interpreted as an incoming nuclear attack? If under LOW (again, this is Launch ON WARNING of attack) they launch a ”retaliatory” nuclear strike before the (non-nuclear) attack arrives, then they have actually launched a preemptive nuclear strike in response to a conventional attack . . . and started World War III.
    Mr. Neal states: “If a first strike provides a warning (not a nearby submarine launch My Comment: National Technical Means can easily detect a SLBM attack! , not a backpacked nuclear weapon, not a cruise missile attack, etc…) then it provides enough warning to make contact with the supposed aggressor.
    Mr. Neal states: “A second cause of a warning comes from a faulty warning system. This is supposed to be the area of largest gain for the change to an RLOAD posture, however, it is really the exact same system dressed up to make us feel better. A warning of a launch serves as authorization for a field commander to issue the launch command”.
    My Comment: Wrong, as noted above, it is NOT the launch, but the confirmation of NUCLEAR DETONATION(S) which causes the release of authorization codes to allow field commanders to execute the launch
    Mr. Neal states: “Field commanders have the physical ability to order the launch, LOW is just a condition under which they are authorized to do so. RLOAD merely reconfigures this authorization, but does not impede the physical ability to do so. That is important to keep in mind.”
    My Comment: Under LOW, the launch order is given and executed with no delay. That is, once the President gives the “permission order” to launch, then the actual launch order is either passed down the chain of command via the nuclear C3 system, or possibly in the case of Russia, the SRF headquarters issues the launch command directly to the missiles via technical means which bypass all intermediate and lower levels of command.
    Under RLOAD, the “physical ability” to order the launch is impeded by the command to wait for confirmation of the nuclear detonation before the release of weapons.
    Mr. Neal states: “The supposed benefit of RLOAD is that we ‘know’ a first strike has occurred because there is a detonation. But, the field commander contemplating launching does not ‘know’. This is Agamben’s insight on the witness problem. If someone knew a nuclear detonation had occurred then the odds are they are dead. Even if they survived they are not inside a secured military base lording over nuclear weapons. The field commander ‘knows’ there was a detonation because some device relays that knowledge back to her. However, that is precisely what the warning system does, and the premise why LOW fails is because there are mechanical malfunctions casting doubt on the accuracy of those knowledge relaying systems. Why RLOAD is then immune from the problem its advocates is not dealt with”
    My Comment: This is the most interesting point that Mr. Neal makes. In our paper, we did suggest that one way RLOAD could be implemented rapidly was to route the technical information from nuclear detonation detection systems to the launch command centers, so that confirmation of nuclear detonation would allow the commanders to rapidly implement the last step of the launch sequence. It is, however, an open question as to what exactly the criteria for the launch would be . . . would one detonation suffice? Two? Assuming that they would occur in the precise time and place predicted by Early Warning Systems (EWS), would the report have to confirmed by redundant systems (for example, optical, seismic, radiological, satellite-based, land-based, etc.) or would one system suffice? Would the launch command centers have to lose contact with the National Command Authority simultaneously with the confirmation of detonation(s)? (This is one criteria that apparently has to be met in Russia to implement the launch of the Perimetr, or “Dead Hand”, system)
    The criteria for launch may hinge upon a number of qualifying circumstances being met in a very short period of time. I am not uncomfortable with the idea that many criteria need to be met before weapons are launched which will incinerate entire cities . . .
    But this argument misses the point entirely about the efficacy of RLOAD. In other words, this is a technical argument about how RLOAD would or would not “work” after nuclear war had already begun. RLOAD, however, is designed to “work” by preventing the launch of nuclear weapons to false warning . . . this is not a false warning, it is a REAL attack, and once deterrence fails, immense destruction is inevitable. Mr. Neal is mixing up the idea that RLOAD is somehow going to prevent an attack that has already occurred by waiting for confirmation of that attack via detonation.
    Mr. Neal states: “RLOAD is a change that is supposed to make us feel more comfortable that there will not be an accidental nuclear war, but it does not significantly lessen those chances.”
    My Comment: Again, Mr. Neal has reached this conclusion through a mistake in his logic. He claims that RLOAD won’t work to prevent an ACTUAL nuclear attack; it is not designed to do this at all . . . it is designed to prevent the execution of a responsive nuclear attack to a false warning of attack. This occurs by merely waiting for the attack to arrive in the precise time and place it is predicted to arrive in; if it does not arrive, then obviously the warning was false, and nuclear war has been prevented because the so-called “retaliatory strike” was not launched . . . there was nothing to retaliate against.
    Mr. Neal seems to accuse us of using “Technostrategic language” which is designed to confuse the reader. However, it is Neal who is confused about our arguments. Throughout this flawed critical analysis, he never once seems to understand our point that the perceived attack must be unequivocally confirmed as a nuclear attack, via nuclear detonations, before ANY nuclear response is made. Admittedly, this can be confusing to many casual readers. But if someone decides to write a critical essay, they are well advised to study the matter thoroughly first, before launching their own preemptive strike.

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