Retaliatory Launch Only After Detonation

Briefing 03-4

Author
Alan F. Philips

Alan Phillips’s work focuses on the study nuclear armaments and the risks of accidental nuclear war.

As long as the United States and Russia retain arsenals of Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles, with some of these weapons on high alert, there remains a danger 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, and for the whole world, regardless of which of the adversaries started it. By far the most likely cause is the posture of “Launch on Warning” or “Launch under Attack”, using these terms as equivalent, meaning a launch during the period while hostile missiles or warheads are believed to be actually in flight, and before any detonation. There is always the possibility, remote but never completely absent, that radar and satellite warning displays could be misinterpreted and result in a launch on a false warning. The Norwegian Rocket Event in 1995 was a recent example in which a number of experts gave their opinion that there had been actual danger of a nuclear exchange from the scheduled launch of an unarmed rocket for research.

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