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.
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.)
The 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?