The Nuclear Shakes?

The AP news item about nuclear missiles leapt off my computer screen this morning like some anachronistic flash-back to the Cold War.

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Air Force stripped an unprecedented 17 officers of their authority to control — and, if necessary, launch — nuclear missiles after a string of unpublicized failings, including a remarkably dim review of their unit’s launch skills. The group’s deputy commander said it is suffering “rot” within its ranks.
“We are, in fact, in a crisis right now,” the commander, Lt. Col. Jay Folds, wrote in an internal email obtained by The Associated Press and confirmed by the Air Force.


Mark 45 Nuclear Torpedo

Back in the day, and I’m talking a half century here, my Naval duty involved tactical nuclear torpedos and now comes this stark reminder that nuclear weapons not only still exist but are still causing concerns about their safety. Was a shaky finger on the nuclear trigger here? Surely controls have improved in the past five decades, I thought, since I had the unpleasant duty to be in charge of some of the things. I still can’t reveal some specifics but I can tell you, dear reader, that there were relatively few physical controls back then. There was a hell of a lot of paperwork of course and a very intensive program to screen out of the program anyone who might be in any way unstable, at least to the extent personnel records go, but there was nothing that would have physically kept our CO and XO from agreeing just between the two of them to fire the things off. I can’t think of anyone on our ship who didn’t frankly dislike these horrendous weapons, if for no other reason that in port the security precautions were particularly onerous.

The proposed tactics were simple. Fire at as long a range as possible and run like hell.  That’s what Cold War paranoia appeared to engender in those days, a philosophy of ready, fire, aim.

I sincerely hoped that things hadn’t deteriorated as much as the AP article implies and, as it often does, Wikipedia came to the rescue. It turns out that not long after my own experience, something called a Permissive Action Link (PAL) was developed. It is “a security device for nuclear weapons. Its purpose is to prevent unauthorized arming or detonation of the nuclear weapon.” PAL’s now have a long history and their effectiveness and complexity have been steadily enhanced, according to the article, to the point where I wondered after reading whether PAL’s have become so complex as to possibly prevent a launch that is fully authorized.

Thus, the concern over the Air Force problem, the “rot” within the ranks of the missile personnel, is not that it could be launched irresponsibly but that the most unreliable part of the strategic defense system, the human part, might not be up to the task of launching the ICBM promptly according to orders,. It is clearly, as a commenter late in the article implied, a case of trying to keep up a state of high efficiency and attention to detail in a business that’s terribly serious but where nothing real ever happens, or as he put it,

The nuclear air force is suffering from a deep malaise caused by the declining relevance of their mission since the Cold War’s end over 20 years ago,” Blair said in an interview. “Minuteman launch crews have long been marginalized and demoralized by the fact that the Air Force’s culture and fast-track careers revolve around flying planes, not sitting in underground bunkers baby-sitting nuclear-armed missiles.

Not every country has pucker-strings as tight as ours about this stuff, however, according to the Wikipedia article:

In 2007 the UK Government revealed that its nuclear weapons were not equipped with Permissive Action Links. Instead, the UK’s nuclear bombs to be dropped by aircraft were armed by just inserting a key into a simple lock similar to those used to protect bicycles from theft. The UK withdrew all air-launched bombs in 1998. The current UK Trident warheads can also be launched by a submarine commander with the support of his crew without any code being transmitted from the chain of command.

The whole article on PAL’s is worth reading, trust me.  It reads like a Tom Clancy novel. It turns out, amazingly, that The People’s Republic of China, no less, once requested we give them our PAL technology so they could improve their own safety. (We declined.)

icbm siloThe biggest concern I have after reading the article is the apparent lack of controls by some of the other nuclear nations, and Pakistan particularly. It’s not reassuring. How, I wonder, do Pakistani missile personnel while away their time while waiting for the launch signal and just how tight are their pucker-strings?

About Jim Wheeler

U. S. Naval Academy, BS, Engineering, 1959; Naval line officer and submariner, 1959 -1981, Commander, USN; The George Washington U., MSA, Management Eng.; Aerospace Engineer, 1981-1999; Resident Gadfly, 1999 - present. Political affiliation: Democratic.
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10 Responses to The Nuclear Shakes?

  1. I saw the same article, and had flashbacks to the opening of the movie “War Games”, where one of the two-man crew refuse to go through a launch drill that they believe is real. I’m surprised somebody hasn’t brought forth the idea of a computer-controlled launch system to remove the “human” factor!


    • Jim Wheeler says:

      @ John Erickson,

      Given the current sophisticated state of PAL design, John, I believe the system is very near to doing just what you suggest, removing the “human” factor altogether. However, I can imagine there are still a few things that humans can do more reliably than a system. Computers are very good at black/white decisions but not at judgements on changing or marginal conditions. The human in this case needs to assess things like the status of maintenance, battery conditions (always a variable), security of the site, and faulty or intermittent sensors. Hmm. Now that I try to list such things I can see that “babysitting” a nuclear missile likely boils down to a really boring job. I think it might be similar to that of a commercial airline pilot’s whose plane is so automated there’s not much left for him to do (unless they run into a flock of geese of course), hence the incident where two of them over-flew their destination while gossiping about their pay and benefits – I think that was last year. No wonder the boss has to get all snippy with them from time to time, eh?


      • Sorry, I was being a bit “flip’ with the “computer-control’ comment. But I whole-heartedly agree – I’ve spent long hours staring at a computer screen, waiting for a credit-card processing system to fart or belch on Black Friday, so I can begin to imagine what it would be like to sit waiting for a phone call or an alarm to go off. (But admittedly, JUST.) But I know, too, what those bloody boxes can and, more importantly, CAN’T do. And if I ever board a plane and there’s nobody in the cockpit but an overgrown PC, I’m running back off! And I will feel a WHOLE lot safer with men down in the command bunkers, even if we do find a few performing to a somewhat lower level of excellence. (There’s a little incident that occurred in 1983 during Exercise Able Archer, where a Soviet Lt. Colonel had to make a call whether to respond to what machines told him was a major US nuclear launch. Thank God that man was in the loop to make the call it was a false alarm, or none of us would be here now!)


      • ansonburlingame says:

        In my view PALs are NOT any sort of cure for much of anything, period. The chain of events to shot a nuclear weapon are long standing and VERY clear. The PRESIDENT must order a release, big, little, ones or 100s. All that is controlled by the SIOP, (You can explain that on Jim if needed). Releases are sent out by every imaginable means (and some sneaky unimaginal ones as well). That part of the system is called CONNECTIVITY, a crucilal and very complex part of the whole system.

        Once the ship at sea or men in silos, etc. become CONNECTED, with the release order all sorts of things go on to be SURE it is a valid order. The details are unbelievable to the uninitiated that have never been part of that system.

        Once the CONNECTION (the order) has been AUTHENTICATED (confirmed as a real and lawful order), THEN and only THEN are weapons prepared for actual release. It takes many different men is various locations to make such preparations. ONE MAN can stop the process in its tracks, period.

        Once the weapon is in fact ready to launch the COMMANDING OFFICER orders the launch and the WEAPONS OFFICER, in a separate location on the ship acutally pulls the trigger. Result after all that is a weapon is “away” with no ability to recall it. A bombs away out of an airplane is just like a missile away from a submarine. It takes the missile about 30 minutes to hit and a bomb only one or two minutes.

        Now PAL. The ONLY thing a PAL does is to unlock ANOTHER DEVICE by another individual, just to “make sure” no launch is inadvertent.


        Yes, PAL is “another link in the chain” but only a very small one and one carried out by INDIVIDUALS (working as a team called two man control teams), AT the location of the weapon to be launched. It is NOT some remote controlled gizmo out there somewhere else operated COMPLETELY AND INDEPENDENT LY of the non-PAL system described above.


        • Jim Wheeler says:

          @ Anson,

          You said,

          Yes, PAL is “another link in the chain” but only a very small one and one carried out by INDIVIDUALS (working as a team called two man control teams), AT the location of the weapon to be launched. It is NOT some remote controlled gizmo out there somewhere else operated COMPLETELY AND INDEPENDENT LY of the non-PAL system described above.

          I note that this contradicts the Wikipedia page on Permissive Action Links which portrays the PAL components such as the CMS cryptographic processor and the ESD as the critical means by which U.S. nuclear forces are prevented from any possibility of unauthorized launch or detonation. It portrays the PAL as the essential difference between our forces and those without PAL’s, for example the U.K.’s Tridents. Given your experience and expertise you might consider editing that page as a public service – Wikipedia allows you to do that.


  2. PiedType says:

    Yep, there’s a big difference between having nukes, and having both the self-control and technology to manage them responsibly. If the US is falling asleep at the switch, so to speak, I hate to think what might be going on in other countries still interested in making their mark in the world.


  3. jkmhoffman says:

    Reblogged this on kjmhoffman.


  4. ansonburlingame says:

    For 23 years I had far more than a casual association with such weapons, nuclear weapons. Every ship upon which I ever served had them on board.

    When this news “hit” my college classmates were “all over it” commenting one way or the other. I paste herein my own contribution to that discussion, for what it is worth.

    “I have just recently become aware of the headlines in this matter and frankly am not too worried, overall. I speak only for SSBNs, the Navy’s part in this “system”.

    From time to time an SSBN, the whole ship with all missiles (16 or 24 depending) was SHUTDOWN for not being “good ships”. SSBNs would “just” flunk on ORSE, an inspection that had NOTHING to do with nuclear weapons control. The WHOLE ship would go “offline” for a month or so until corrective actions were implemented on that ship, alone. COs got relieved for cause, etc., sometime other disciplinary actions were taken (not just administrative ones). But in time the ship was back online, with missiles ready to go.

    Same with NTPI’s, inspections that DID evaluate nuclear weapons command, control, security, etc. Same things happened when such inspections demonstrated “bad ships”.

    My “guess” and certainly my HOPE, is that despite all the “command climate” bullshit going on today, those inspections, some being surprise inspections still happen and still have very strong TEETH in them.

    If a ship is found wanting in its ability to control nuclear weapons, a nuclear reactor, or even not be able to shoot torpedoes (TRIs they used to be called I think) then shut it down and fix it and the people causing the failure as well.

    While I do not worry a lot about those matters, well read my rant against “ladies in Congress” going after UCMJ to better control sexual harrassment. THAT scares the ….. out of me!!!”

    To clarify for you land lubbers, ORSE is an inspection of all aspects of nuclear reactor controls. NTPI (referenced by Jim above) is an inspection of any and all matters related to nuclear weapons controls. TRI is an inspection of the ship’s ability to control (and use) torpedos. ALL of those inspections are conduct at least once a year, and are VERY detailed and comprehensive and NEVER in my day at least allowed the unsafe or even marginal performance, attitudes, behavior, you name it from ANY member of the crew on a given ship, no matter what. They were TOUGH and career threatening examinations of EVERYONE involved, from the skipper down to the mess cooks.

    Rereading before posting I left out the definition of SSBN. It is the “big” submarines carrying intercontinental ballistic missiles carrying multiple nuclear warheads in each missile. Other smaller submarines, SSNs now exclusively (we have no more diesel powered subs in the Navy), carried nuclear tipped torpedos, most of the time and only a very few of such weapons as well.

    PAL (protective action links) are also used in SOME areas of nuclear weapons command and control. Check out the old movie Crimson Tide with Gene Hackman as a fictional but “crazy” CO. The Navy refused to endorse that movie (a French aircraft carrier was used in the first scene) because it raised issues about the use of PALs on American nuclear submarines. That is a whole different discussion, pro or con, however.


    PS: Pardon the language in the clip posted above. On my class web site we can cuss, reasonablely if you will, from time to time, just to make a point or two.


    • Anson, I’m disappointed in you. As an ex-sailor, a sole reference to cow dung qualifies your post as positively sparkling clean! I expected so much more from you. (I kid, I kid! 😀 )


  5. ansonburlingame says:


    If you followed all the various disciplinary cases in the Navy today, many of which are related to male, female issues, and are characterized as “poor command climate” well, I just cannot think of a better word to use for such……., yep, bullshit, pardon the expression. And with female members of Congress wanting to change the LAW of the military services (UCMJ) I just shutter to think what might come out of sucn changes. UCMJ is designed to legalize men (people) under arms, in peace or war and in conditions far different than you civilians ever experience, most of the time.



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