Monday, February 10, 2014

Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Incident, and the Illusion of Safety

Command and control

Command and Control is a non-fiction scary book. Eric Schlosser writes about America's nuclear weapons. Their history, manufacture, testing, safety and how we planned on using them. He illustrates the big picture by focussing on a nuclear missile accident involving a Titan II missile explosion at a silo near Damascus, Arkansas back in the 1980's. A technician accidentally dropped a socket in the silo that pierced the skin of the rocket and started a slow leak of the oxidizer that over the course of some hours eventually led to the missile exploding. The Air Force was totally unequipped for such an emergency and took very few steps to protect their own people or the general public. They wouldn't even tell the doctors treating the enlisted men what the oxidizer was to help in the treatment. Eventually the lowest level person involved was blamed for the whole thing and it was swept under the rug. 

Convair Atlas
(Rocket Garden at San Diego Air and Space Museum. Creative Commons license on Flickr)

Turns out that there were hundreds of accidents involving nuclear weapons some of which could have led to an accidental nuclear detonation. In fact some warheads were lost at sea in some of these accidents. The Air Force refused to retrofit existing warheads with the latest safety measures because they would rather spend their money on acquiring new weapons and they were afraid that the safety feature could be hacked by the enemy to make the weapons inoperable in case of war.

Ordnancemen training on B57 weapon
(Training on a B57 Nuclear Weapon. San Diego Air and Space Museum.  Creative Commons license on Flickr)

He also talks about the nuclear strike plans of the United States up until recently. There was to be no throttled response to a nuclear attack. Once a nuclear attack order was given the US was going all in with all of its thousands of warheads including hundreds for the city of Moscow alone. The command and control system of the USA has always been a problem and planners were afraid that a pre-emptive Soviet attack would "decapitate" the USA and not allow for a measured response. He goes into how for a long time we and Russia were on high alert and how easy it would be for a war to accidentally begin.
B-52D Seattle flightline P18817
(B52 Bombers, photo by Air Force Global Strike Command. Creative Commons license on Flickr)

Schlosser point in all this is not that our leaders were evil or that our military was not dedicated and patriotic in performing their duties. It is that the weapons systems are so complex that we can never guaranty their safety but we need to do what we can. So far we have been very lucky that we haven't had an accidental nuclear detonation but we cannot count on being lucky. Fortunately both sides have now backed off our triggers a little bit but there are new players now" China, India, Pakistan, Israel, and North Korea and some of these guys are very irrational.

I loved this scary book. Get it from your library and give it a read. 


EG CameraGirl said...

I heard the author interviewed on the radio. Isn't it incredible how careless humans can be? Scary doesn't seem like a strong enough word. ;)

Sylvia K said...

EG is right, scarey isn't a strong enough word and it is scary!!

Ellen said...

Sounds very interesting and quite disturbing at the same time.


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