Senate Debate: Motion to Urge Nuclear Weapons States to TakeWeapons Off AlertStatus-Debate Adjourned

Debates of the Senate (Hansard)

1st Session, 36th Parliament,
Volume 137, Issue 158

Tuesday, September 14, 1999

The Honourable Gildas L. Molgat, Speaker

Nuclear Arms

Motion to Urge Nuclear Weapons States to Take Weapons Off AlertStatus-Debate Adjourned

Hon. Douglas Roche, pursuant to notice of September 7, 1999, moved:

That the Senate recommends that the Government of Canada urge the nuclearweapons states plus India, Pakistan and Israel to take all of their nuclearforces off alert status as soon as possible.

He said: Honourable senators, the prestigious journal Scientific Americanrecently reported that on January 25, 1995 military technicians at a handfulof radar stations across northern Russia saw a troubling blip suddenlyappear on their screens. A rocket, launched from somewhere off the coast ofNorway, was rising rapidly through the night sky. Well aware that a singlemissile from a U.S. submarine plying those waters could scatter eightnuclear bombs over Moscow within 15 minutes, the radar operators immediatelyalerted their superiors.

The message passed swiftly from Russian military authorities to PresidentBoris Yeltsin, who, holding the electronic case that could order the firingof nuclear missiles in response, hurriedly conferred by telephone with histop advisors. For the first time ever, that nuclear briefcase was activatedfor emergency use.


For a few tense minutes, the trajectory of the mysterious rocket remainedunknown to the worried Russian officials. Anxiety mounted when theseparation of multiple rocket stages created an impression of a possibleattack by several missiles. However, the radar crews continued to tracktheir targets. After about eight minutes, senior military officersdetermined that the rocket was headed far out to sea and posed no threat toRussia.

The unidentified rocket in this case turned out to be a U.S. scientificprobe, sent up to investigate the northern lights. Weeks earlier, theNorwegians had duly informed Russian authorities of the planned launch fromthe offshore island of Andoya, but somehow word of the high altitudeexperiment had not reached the right ears. That frightening incident,according to Scientific American, aptly demonstrates the danger ofmaintaining nuclear arsenals in a state of hair-trigger alert.

Doing so heightens the possibility that one day someone will mistakenlylaunch nuclear missiles, either because of a technical failure or a humanerror. A mistake made, perhaps, in the rush to respond to false indicationsof an attack.

The Norway incident was not an isolated one. The U.S.-based Centre forDefense Information reported this month that in the years 1977 to 1984, atotal of 20,784 false warning nuclear indications, most of them minor, wereprocessed.

Last March, appearing before a joint meeting of Senate and House of CommonsForeign Affairs Committees, General Lee Butler, former commander-in-chief ofthe U.S. strategic command, said that upon receiving confirmation of animpending attack, the U.S. president would have only 12 minutes to decidewhether to retaliate.

Both the U.S. and Russian military have long instituted procedures toprevent an accident from happening. However, their equipment is notfoolproof. Russia's early-warning and nuclear command systems aredeteriorating. The safety of all other nuclear weapons systems, inparticular, those of India and Pakistan, is even less reliable. All told,there are 5,000 nuclear weapons on hair-trigger alert status, meaning theycould be fired within minutes. The fate of humanity must not hang by such aslender thread.

Thus, a movement is building up around the world to de-alert all nuclearweapons. This would be done by the physical separation of the warheads fromthe delivery vehicles. That is the intent of the motion I respectfullysubmit to the Senate. It reads:

That the Senate recommends that the Government of Canada urge the nuclearweapons states plus India, Pakistan and Israel to take all of their nuclearforces off alert status as soon as possible.

Honourable senators will recognize that the motion is narrowly drawn. Thesubject of nuclear weapons is huge and complex. The abolition of nuclearweapons, for which I stand, entails a lengthy debate, but de-alerting isprecise and sharply focused and can be done immediately under conditions ofmutual verifiability. It must be done in order to prevent a calamityoccurring through human error, system failure, irrational acts, or by thesimple working of the laws of chance.

Some may interpret this motion as connected to the famous Y2K problem, whichdeals with the ability of computers to properly interpret the correct datechange when the year 2000 arrives. It is true that the failure of computersto recognize the year 2000 could infect the command, control, communicationand intelligence systems of nuclear forces. There may or may not be aproblem on New Year's Eve, at midnight.

However, Russia and the U.S. are sufficiently concerned about this that theyintend to establish a joint centre in the United States which would seat ahandful of U.S. and Russian officers side-by-side for a few days during the2000 date switch to monitor blips on nuclear screens. The officers would bein direct touch with their respective national command authorities toalleviate any concern about blips that may occur on the date change. KeyUnited States senators have called for the inclusion of China, India andPakistan in this early warning centre, so concerned are they thatill-prepared computers may malfunction.

This response to a potential problem is clearly inadequate. The year 2000date change merely highlights the existing danger to the world because ofthe alert status of nuclear forces. The world needs the safety thatde-alerting would ensure, not just on New Year's Eve but throughout everyday of every year.

Honourable senators, in short, the argument as put forth by the Canberracommission of international experts is that the practice of maintainingnuclear-tipped missiles on alert must be ended because: It is a highlyregrettable perpetuation of Cold War attitudes and assumptions; itneedlessly sustains the risk of hair-trigger postures; it retards thecritical process of normalizing U.S.-Russian relations; it sends theunmistakable and, from an arms control perspective, severely damagingmessage that nuclear weapons serve a vital security role; it is entirelyinappropriate to the extraordinary transformation in the internationalsecurity environment.

Honourable senators, terminating nuclear alert would do the following:reduce dramatically the chance of an accidental or unauthorized nuclearweapons launch; have a positive influence on the political climate among thenuclear weapons states; and it would help set the stage for intensifiedcooperation.

The Canberra commission concluded that taking nuclear forces off alert couldbe verified by national technical means and nuclear weapon state inspectionarrangements. De-alerting has a wide basis of support. The Government ofCanada is in favour, and has expressed its support in a formal response tothe report on nuclear weapons of the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairsand International Trade. Therefore, this motion falls within governmentpolicy.

The U.K. government recently relaxed a notice to fire its nuclear weaponsfrom minutes to days. Resolutions of the UN General Assembly have urgedde-alerting.

The chairman's report of the three-year preparatory process for the 2000review of the non-proliferation treaty calls for de-alerting to preventaccidental or unauthorized launches.

Friends of the Earth, in Sydney, Australia, have obtained the support of 380organizations around the world for de-alerting.

Honourable senators, a few years ago I went back to Hiroshima and Nagasaki,the two cities in Japan that suffered atomic bomb attack. I have seen thesesites several times. Each time, it is a profound experience in understandingthe destructive power of nuclear weapons.

Accidental nuclear war remains an immense treat to humanity today. We canhelp to lessen that threat. I commend this motion, honourable senators, foryour consideration.

Hon. John. B. Stewart: Honourable senators, I should like to ask SenatorRoche a question.

He has made a persuasive speech and my question is: Given the plausibilityof the argument he advances, why is it that the nuclear weapons states plusIndia, Pakistan and Israel, have not already taken their nuclear forces offalert status? Is there some argument, or is it recalcitrance among one ormore of the states?

Senator Roche: I thank the Honourable Senator Stewart for that question.

The main reason that the principal nuclear weapons states, led by the UnitedStates and Russia, along with the U.K., France and China, have notde-alerted is that nuclear weapons fit into the strategy of nucleardeterrence. It is argued by some that, by de-alerting, they are taking awayor diminishing the constant status of nuclear deterrence. That argument hasbeen rebutted. After all, in the case of an emergency or some crisishappening in international affairs, nuclear weapons could be reactivated.

Therefore, it is for the safety of the major areas of the world that thede-alerting process, campaign or movement has grown. It is held byproponents of de-alerting that it is a more important consideration for thesafety of humanity to take weapons off alert status than to preserve nucleardeterrence as we have known it through the Cold War years.


On motion of Senator Carstairs, debate adjourned.


Leave having been given to revert to Government Notices of Motions:

Hon. Sharon Carstairs (Deputy Leader of the Government): Honourablesenators, with leave of the Senate and notwithstanding rule 58(1)( h), Imove:

That when the Senate adjourns today, it do stand adjourned until Tuesdaynext, September 21, 1999, at 2 p.m.

The Hon. the Speaker: Is leave granted, honourable senators?

Hon. Senators: Agreed.

Motion agreed to.

The Senate adjourned until Tuesday, September 21, 1999, at 2 p.m.