Half a century after Kubrick’s mad general, Jack D. Ripper, launched a nuclear strike on the Soviets to defend the purity of “our precious bodily fluids” from Communist subversion, we now know that American officers did indeed have the ability to start a Third World War on their own. And despite the introduction of rigorous safeguards in the years since then, the risk of an accidental or unauthorized nuclear detonation hasn’t been completely eliminated.
If you havent read it, Stephen Hunter (of “Point Of Impact” fame) wrote a terrific book, The Day Before Midnight, about some guys busting into a launch facility to do a little DIY WW3. It was a really great book and would make an awesome movie. It’s my favorite book of his, narrowly edging out POI. And, yeah, it’s a little derivative of “Twilight’s Last Gleaming.”
Anyway, the gist of the article is that despite the protestations of the military and the government, there have been times when the ability to launch nukes on one’s own has been possible. I suppose in Cold War planning that made sense – if command-n-control is knocked out there has to be a way for weapons to be used without authorization from the smoldering radioactive ruins of DC.
I mention this because it’s a fascinating little bit of history that sort of segues into preparedness. For those of us who grew up in the world of first strike, second strike, MADD, and Minuteman missiles its rather interesting.
The article is also interesting because it details how the .gov tried to balance a very complicated equation – nukes had to be tightly controlled so no one could go off-kilter and start WW3 on their own, BUT there had to be mechanisms in place to allow an individual command to launch independently if higher authorities were disabled/destroyed. The solution (if you want to call it that) was two-man rules, no-lone-zones, layers of verification, split codes, and a few other ‘team’ requirements. Basically, it was a lot like having two names on a checking account…without both people signing off, nothing happens. (At least, thats the plan anyway.)
And, to segue to a slightly less on-topic matter, it’s interesting to note that while it supposedly takes more than one person to launch a nuclear attack, it has historically taken only one to prevent it.
Although there is the premise of the rogue individual starting WW3, most folks are unaware of the rogue individual who prevented WW3. There are at least two Soviet officers (here and here) who, when given the opportunity to allow a some fissionable matter to do its thing, said nyet and prevented what might have been the start of WW3.
Interestingly, once you start looking into these sorts of matters you discover there have been quite a few times that we’ve been just a phone call and a button press away from having a nuclear exchange. Nowdays I suspect the incidence of nuclear war is fairly low but the risk of nuclear attack is unchanged or perhaps a bit higher. Somewhere there is a cargo container with a couple nuclear artillery shells in it just waiting to go through the Port of Seattle or somewhere similar. I mean, you look at the numbers and you realize there is a huge amount of smaller, less dramatic nuclear devices out there…man-portable stuff that some zealot can stuff in the back of a Cessna 182 and detonate over pretty much anywhere. There’s a lot of those little nukes out there..artillery shells, torpedoes, ‘special weapons’, demolition packages, etc, etc….stuff that fits into a 55-gallon drum or smaller.
Anyway, an interesting article for those of us who have an interest in control (or lack thereof) of these sorts of things.