Ok, I am back. Let’s all have an electronic round of applause for Anya, Bob and Andreas — three fine guest bloggers.

Last night I was flipping through my copy of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists. In the correspondence section, there were a few letters about The ever-ready nuclear missileer by Nathan Hodge and Sharon Weinberger (64:3, July/August 2008, pp. 14-21).

One letter that wasn’t published due to length (for complicated reasons relating to the Bulletin‘s shift to an all-digital format) is a detailed commentary by Bruce Blair. Instead, I am pleased to post it on Arms Control Wonk.com:

Letter to the Editor

I thoroughly enjoyed and admire the nostalgia-inducing article on nuclear missileers by Hodge and Wienberger. It deftly captures the attitudes and mores of the launch crews, as well as the atmosphere and practical side of their alert duty. It illuminates the core unresolved issue of their post-Cold War mission – what is the meaning of nuclear deterrence in the absence of enemies other than terrorist groups? It is generally accurate and quite insightful on many levels. The article fumbled some key details, however, some of which are important to get straight.

The assertion that missileers can only launch their missiles after
receiving codes that come directly from the president is not correct. The codes in question are not held by the president, but rather by various command elements of the U.S. military. All of the codes used to authenticate launch orders and unlock missiles for firing are strictly held in military hands. They are widely dispersed among commanders to ensure that attacks on high-level command centers could not ‘decapitate’ the authorization process. Such decapitation fears in the past led the Strategic Command to secretly circumvent the coding system mentioned in the article, unbeknownst to the Pentagon and White House.

The president possesses codes that are neither necessary nor sufficient to physically enable strategic missiles for launch. All this together with a long history of presidential pre-delegation of launch authority down the military chain of command raises some vexing questions about the true origin and lawfulness of a launch command. Although as the article intimates the issue rarely haunts the minds of firing crews, at least one courageous and conscientious missileer has ended his career by raising this issue. Throughout and after the cold war StratCom managed to keep this issue well hidden under the rug and to suppress the inconvenient truth that in many wartime scenarios a military commander instead of the president or his/her legal successors might have been the source of a lawful-appearing launch order.

The article’s discussion of launch ‘voting’ in which four people in two separate capsules are allegedly required to initiate a missile launch omits the exceptions to this rule. Everything in the nuclear world does not go in pairs, contrary to the article’s characterization. In reality, a single ‘vote’ issued by a single two-person launch crew in a single capsule will do the trick in some circumstances. As many as all fifty missiles in the squadron’s field can be launched this way if one capsule is the sole survivor of an attack, or if other factors cause launch crews in other capsules to take no action to inhibit a single-vote launch. Without straining credulity too much, suffice it to say that a variety of these factors exists, ranging from human error to confusion to negligence to terrorist sabotage. Uncertainty over the validity of a launch order may generate such unusual voting results. ‘Napping’ crew members with alarm circuit breakers pulled to enhance their rest could also generate such strange voting scenarios. By the way, it’s not rare for the missileer keeping watch while the other naps to fall asleep too. The prudence of allowing napping at all escapes me, since it technically violates the fundamental safety canon of nuclear weapons operations – the 2-person rule that normally requires two competent and watchful individuals working in tandem in sensitive positions. Tolerating an exception for duty launch crews for economic reasons is dubious judgment.

On a lighter side, the article understandably slid past the rich and sometimes somewhat twisted sub-culture of missileer society. Declaring as fantasy the idea of officers casually tossing the launch keys to the incoming shift, or as pure Hollywood the image of an officer on duty pulling a gun out as happened in the movie WarGames, the article’s authors just didn’t hang out long enough to hear the tales and the truth of life underground. Is it impossible to believe that an outgoing shift purloined the launch authorization codes and sent them back down to the duty crew under the hot plate covers of their dinner? As for the guns, while they no longer are carried by the duty officers as the article notes, they were indeed worn at the time of the movie’s release. The practice of arming the duty officers ended a few years later (late 1980s) after a curious launch officer accidentally discharged his firearm while on duty, and his duty squadron up to the level of squadron commander tried, ultimately unsuccessfully, to cover up the incident. The cover-up happened at the same Wyoming missile base the authors visited.

Bruce Blair
Washington, D.C.