Mobilization Slowing

M. Shane Smith

November 2003

What is Mobilization Slowing?

Conflicts often escalate to unintended levels and lead to inadvertent violence. Often escalation is started intentionally to try to mobilize one's own side to action. But as conflicts escalate there is a tendency to spiral: more and more people, resources, and armed forces get drawn into the fray. The result is heightened tensions that preclude conflict avoidance, at best, and precipitate violence, at worst. For instance, mobilization has polarizing effects, when dehumanizing or exaggerating the threats posed by an enemy is used as a means to justify mobilizing. Once this justification is accepted within a political constituency, the set of negotiating options available to a political leader is narrowed; no one wants to be perceived as being soft against a treacherous or evil adversary. Mobilization slowing is aimed at limiting the speed or extent of mobilization during a crisis; it allows for alternative policies, which may avert heightened conflict by better controlling the mobilization process.

In 1995, for example, the United States tested a missile off the coast of Norway. Notification of the test failed to reach the Russian leadership, resulting in panic when detection by Russia's early-warning radar systems suggested a first strike from the U.S. With its nuclear forces on high alert, and guided by a policy of "launch on warning" as part of a deterrence strategy in the face of deteriorating conventional capabilities, Russia's strategic weapons were readied for nuclear war. A nervous commander, or a malfunction in the launch systems, could have led to unconscionable and unintended destruction. Fortunately, no rapid action was taken, and Russia's command and control structures remained steadfast; President Yeltsin waited, and the heightened posture of Russia's strategic forces was eventually relaxed.

This scare led many analysts to advocate "de-alerting" nuclear forces, [1] by developing processes that increase the time between the start of a crisis and the readiness of nuclear forces for deployment. The intent is to slow the mobilization of forces, to avert unintended consequences, and to lessen the potential for escalation, by establishing unambiguous and observable steps that must be taken to alert one's forces. For example, separating nuclear warheads from missiles is a verifiable step that creates delay in missile deployment.

Why is mobilization slowing an important tool for managing conflict?

Decreasing the ability of opposing forces to mobilize against each other can leave open alternative policy options and provide a signaling mechanism that can trigger reciprocal action, thereby building trust among opponents that mobilization efforts have not surpassed a particular threshold of inevitable conflict. These procedures can reduce the potential for conflict to escalate. For example, during the crisis described above, had U.S. warheads been held separately from their missiles, with mechanisms that allowed for Russia to verify the de-alerting technique, Russia could have been reasonably confident that the U.S. was not mounting a devastating attack. Its reaction then would probably not have been to activate its nuclear arsenal. Likewise, had Russian forces been de-alerted, the readying of their nuclear weapons would have signaled heightening tensions to the United States. This might have prompted communication efforts that would have resolved questions regarding the missile test, rather than prolonging the Russians' state of alert.

Problems with slowing mobilization

The slowing of mobilization can leave open the door for a negotiated settlement. However, opposing forces may be in a race to mobilize as an effort to gain a stronger negotiating position. For instance, arms-control negotiations are often preceded by one or more sides' building up their forces, providing the stronger actor with greater leverage for reaching a more favorable agreement. Distrust among adversaries may lead to circumvention of or disregard for any processes intended to slow one's mobilization. Yet, once established, the skirting of such mechanisms would signal the intent to mobilize against one's adversary. This could precipitate a spiral that is much more difficult to curtail than if these processes had never been put in place.

This consequence has been part of the argument of analysts who oppose de-alerting nuclear forces. They suggest that if a situation, perhaps generated by a third party, compelled one side to partially or fully re-alert its nuclear weapons, then there would be a race to be the first to fully activate one's weapons. The side that did so would have a significant incentive to strike first, before the other caught up. Opponents of this strategy propose that forces should instead remain on hair-trigger alert, relying on able command-and-control systems, to deter any capricious moves by either side; this maintains a stable environment for negotiation, because there is no incentive for one side to strike first.


Mobilization slowing is a concept that should be considered as a subset of arms-control and confidence-building measures. It can also be considered in domestic disputes, as litigation often requires the sequential mobilization of one's resources, with official steps that must be taken as one climbs the ladder of escalation. At each step, there is the potential for negotiation and settlement instead of moving on to the next.

Mobilization is often a negotiating strategy, and procedures that decrease its effectiveness as such are often viewed skeptically. However, third-party monitoring can alleviate fear that one side is skirting such measures in an attempt to gain an advantageous position. Mobilization slowing is a key feature of managing conflict in a manner that helps prevent unnecessary or unintended escalation.

[1] For instance, see Tony Taylor, "A De-Alerting Primer" on the web-site of the Union of Concerned Scientists, (no longer available) 

Use the following to cite this article:
Smith, M. Shane. "Mobilization Slowing." Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: November 2003 <>.

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