Frenchman Flat in Las Vegas, Nevada, on May 25, 1953, a moment after history’s first atomic artillery shell was fired. (AP Photo).
In his gripping new book Command and Control, Eric Schlosser shows that the United States has often relied on what he calls “the illusion of safety” when it comes to nuclear weapons. Throughout the cold war, there was a real danger that nuclear weapons could have detonated by accident. Schlosser’s centerpiece is the explosion in a Titan II missile silo in Damascus, Arkansas, in the early hours of September 19, 1980, that launched a nine-megaton warhead several hundred feet in the air before it finally came to rest in a ditch. Around this incident he weaves the larger story of nuclear weapons accidents, a danger that has not ended with the cold war.
In a startling number of cases, bombs crashed and burned, and the conventional explosions spread radioactivity in the surrounding areas. Scholars and members of the public vaguely knew about such incidents, but dismissed them or took the fact that they didn’t result in nuclear explosions as evidence of how safe the weapons were. Schlosser’s view is that we were lucky, and his penultimate sentence sums up the current concern: “Every one of [the currently deployed missiles] is an accident waiting to happen, a potential act of mass murder.”
This is bad enough, of course, but it gets worse because missiles and warheads are much less vulnerable than the means of communicating with them: the command and control system that gives the book its title. To be credible, the threat of nuclear retaliation requires the adversary to believe that the state’s weapons will survive in significant numbers along with the command and control system. At first glance, this seems an undemanding requirement since multiple channels can be deployed. But what works well in peacetime can fail under the stress of a nuclear attack, especially one aimed at disrupting it. Phone lines, of course, would be destroyed, various radiation effects would disrupt radio communication, and the blast effects would blow away sending and receiving antennas. In peacetime the problem is different: sensitive radars and other sensors have sometimes produced frightening false alarms, briefly raising the threat of nuclear war.
Schlosser’s point isn’t only that perfect safety is impossible and that some accidents will happen. As he shows in rich and vivid detail, the ways to cope with these dangers create new ones. Putting leaders and weapons deep underground will increase their chances of survival but make command and control more difficult. The chances that enough of the system will survive intact to strike back could be increased by placing it on alert. For much of the cold war, American missiles were ready to fire and bombers were on “strip alert,” armed and ready to take off in fifteen minutes. In the period when fear was great but large numbers of missiles were not yet deployed, bombers were in the air, where they were even less vulnerable. But these measures required moving bombs around and keeping them ready to fire, which heightened the risk of accidents.
Even these measures might not be sufficient, however, leading both sides to consider the policy of “launch on warning,” which, while fairly safe where bombers were concerned, meant something very different for missiles. For them, and even for the less hair-trigger alert stances, the United States needed systems that would give unambiguous warning of an attack. These were developed with enormous technical skill and money, but they introduced their own dangers. Radars could and did interpret reflections from the moon as a missile attack. Tapes designed to train crews on how to react to sightings of missiles were inadvertently fed onto the main system. And computer chips failed, telling the operators that an attack was on the way. All these dangers implied their opposites—that a real attack might be mistaken for a malfunction. So it is not surprising that American military leaders were led to contemplate and at times urge that the United States be ready to strike before the Soviets could.
Once the Soviets developed secure retaliatory forces, the impulse to strike pre-emptively subsided. But this development generated new problems. Since an all-out war would destroy the United States, how could it credibly threaten to respond to a Soviet conventional attack in Europe? As early as the Eisenhower era, analysts and administration officials were preoccupied with this question. The dominant answer was to develop limited nuclear options and to plan on a controlled nuclear war. While this made a sort of twisted sense, it vastly raised the requirements for the invulnerability of weapons and, even more, command and control systems. Starting with Kennedy, every president called for plans to fight controlled wars and by the end of their terms believed that they were in place. They weren’t. Out of the desire to preserve their autonomy, to strike at all Soviet forces as quickly as possible, and an understanding that the command and control systems would not permit a controlled nuclear war, the military never was ready to do what the White House called for. As each new administration came in, officials were shocked to find how inflexible the war plans were, and when they left they congratulated themselves—incorrectly—for having rectified the situation. Of course, it would have taken two to fight a limited war. The Soviets did not accept the American rules of the game, nor did they possess the hardware and software necessary to conduct a limited war.