Thrawn Rickle 32

Accidental Nuclear War

© 1993 Williscroft

Is there a realistic chance that we could have a nuclear war by accident? Could a ballistic submarine commander launch his missiles without specific presidential authorization? Could a few men conspire and successfully bypass built-in safety systems to launch nuclear weapons?

The key word here is “realistic.” In the strictest sense, yes, these things are possible. But are they realistically possible? This question can best be answered by examining two interrelated questions.

Is there a way to launch a nuclear weapon by accident? Can a specific accidental series of events take place—no matter how remote—that will result in the inevitable launch or detonation of a nuclear weapon?

Can one individual working by himself or several individuals working in collusion bring about the deliberate launch or detonation of a nuclear weapon?

We are protected from accidental launching of nuclear weapons by mechanical safeguards, and by carefully structured and controlled mandatory procedures that are always employed when working around nuclear weapons.

Launching a nuclear weapon takes the specific simultaneous action of several designated individuals. System designers ensured that conditions necessary for a launch could not happen accidentally.

For example, to launch a missile from a ballistic missile submarine, two individuals must insert keys into separate slots on separate decks within a few seconds of each other. Barring this, the system cannot physically launch a missile. There are additional safeguards built into the system that control computer hardware and software, and personnel controls that we will discuss later, but—in the final analysis—without the keys inserted as described, there can be no launch—it’s not physically possible. Because the time window for key insertion is less than that required for one individual to accomplish, it is physically impossible for a missile to be launched accidentally by one individual. Any launch must be deliberate. One can postulate a scenario wherein a technician bypasses these safeguards in order to effect a launch by himself. Technically, this is possible, but such a launch would be deliberate, not accidental. We will examine measures designed to prevent this in a later column.

Maintenance procedures on nuclear weapons are very tightly controlled. In effect always is the “two-man rule.” This rule prohibits any individual from accessing nuclear weapons or their launch vehicles alone. Aside from obvious qualification requirements, two individuals must be present. No matter how familiar the two technicians may be with a specific system, each step in a maintenance procedure is first read by one technician, repeated by the second, acknowledged by the first (or corrected, if necessary), performed by the second, examined by the first, checked off by the first, and acknowledged by the second. This makes maintenance slow, but absolutely assures that no errors happen.

Exactly the same procedure is followed every time an access cover is removed, a screw is turned, a weapon is moved, or a controlling publication is updated. Nothing, absolutely nothing is done without following the written guides exactly, always under two-man control. This even applies to guards. Where nuclear weapons are concerned, a minimum of two guards—always fully in sight of each other—stand duty.

There is no realistic scenario wherein a nuclear missile can be accidentally launched…ever…under any circumstances…period!

Submariner, diver, scientist, author & adventurer. 22 mos underwater, a yr in the equatorial Pacific, 3 yrs in the Arctic, and a yr at the South Pole. BS Marine Physics & Meteorology, PhD in Engineering. Authors non-fiction, Cold War thrillers, and hard science fiction. Lives in Centennial, CO.

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