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.