Sputnik Escalates the Cold War
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Launch on Warning

Strategic defensive concept that involves launching nuclear forces when incoming nuclear missiles are still in flight—that is, when radar warnings of an enemy attack are received. During the Cold War, it is believed that both the United States and the Soviet Union adhered to some type of Launch on Warning (LoW) strategy. With the advent of large nuclear missile forces in the late 1950s, both nations adopted a LoW posture, although neither side seemed willing to publicly admit to it.

LoW was theoretically designed to lessen the likelihood of a preemptive first strike. The logic went that if one side knew that its opponent's nuclear forces would be launched before any actual detonations occurred (during a sneak attack), then the fear of massive retaliation (and, later, mutual assured destruction, or MAD) would prevent a preemptive nuclear strike. LoW would also theoretically increase the odds of a retaliatory strike, because nuclear missiles would be launched before being destroyed by incoming missiles. In essence, military planners found unacceptable a scenario in which a retaliatory blow would be administered only after their country absorbed a crippling and catastrophic first strike. LoW went hand in hand with MAD. Both postures sought to discourage the use of a sneak attack by making the result of such an attack too nightmarish to contemplate.

After the U.S. Ballistic Missile Early Warning System was erected in 1959, the ability to implement LoW became far easier. The task became easier still in the 1970s with the advent of satellite-based warning systems. In most cases, these early warning devices gave commanders anywhere from fifteen to thirty minutes' warning of a nuclear attack. The Soviets, of course, developed their own early warning systems. It is interesting that neither the Soviets nor the Americans made LoW an explicit part of their nuclear strategies. Nevertheless, the capability to do so had existed since at least the early to mid-1960s. The extreme sensitivity and covert nature of the issue make it difficult to determine when and if LoW ever became standard operating procedure.

There are obviously very grave consequences associated with LoW, as its many critics have made clear. It most certainly raises the specter of an accidental nuclear exchange. If warning systems malfunction or are somehow misinterpreted, nuclear forces may be launched upon false alarm. Such scenarios are not just the bailiwick of fiction and Hollywood producers. Indeed, both the Americans and Soviets have documented false warnings of nuclear attack that might have unleashed Armageddon. Perhaps one of the most disturbing of such occurrences happened on 14 November 1979. In the wee hours of the morning, Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Jimmy Carter's national security advisor, was awakened by a phone call. What he heard was horrifying. An early warning system indicated that a full-scale Soviet nuclear attack involving some 2,220 missiles was under way. As he was about to inform the president, Brzezinski received another call indicating that the attack was indeed a false alarm. Had Carter been made aware of the attack, he would have had just three to seven minutes to decide on a response. As it turns out, someone had mistakenly inserted a war game exercise program into an early warning computer. The Soviets have reported similar incidents.

Paul G. Pierpaoli Jr.

Further Reading
Schwartz, Stephen I., ed. Atomic Audit: The Costs and Consequences of U.S. Nuclear Weapons since 1940. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 1998.; Speed, Roger D. Strategic Deterrence in the 1980s. Stanford, CA: Hoover Institute Press, 1979.

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