Command or Control – Choose One

I’ve been re-reading Ron Rosenbaum’s The Secret Parts of Fortune. This is at least the third time that I’ve read it. It’s a collection of his essays from the 1970s to the 1990s, so they are understandably dated, but even so they are still a fascinating read.

The essay that I’m currently on now concerns our nuclear command and control system. This is a pretty scary subject. Podcast fans might remember, I think it was This American Life (or Radiolab, I can never tell them apart) had a piece on it. Eric Schlosser wrote an entire book on this subject (Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety). Some time ago, I read Raven Rock, by Garrett Graff, which is more about the infrastructure of keeping the government going in the aftermath of a nuclear attack.

The concerns boil down to the phrase command and control. On the one hand, we want to make sure that if that horrible time comes when we must launch a full nuclear war, that the command will be carried out. On the other hand, we want to make absolutely sure that the launch order is never made accidentally or inappropriately (that is, there is control over the order).

Those two requirements make absolute sense and should be the bedrock of nuclear policy. The problem is that those two requirements are paradoxical.

Take a look at each requirements. Let’s start with command.

Back in the 1950s there was kind of a weird power struggle over who should have control over the nuclear weapons. The armed forces, thinking that this was just another weapon, fought to have launch authority. After all, a general doesn’t go to a president if, in a battle, he needs to use a tank. If I recollect correctly, I believe that it was actually Eisenhower, the only US president in our time that exuded an authority that the military respected, that ended that question once and for all in favor of the president having that authority.

Of course, the enemy would know that and would target the president in the case of a surprise attack. What if the president died? Then, it devolves to the vice president. And so on. At the end of the day, if the Strategic Air Command can’t get hold of anyone in the case of an emergency, then the SAC commander has the authority.

So, by making sure that the nuclear launches will be carried out even if the command structure is removed, we are, to a large extent, sacrificing control.

How about the other hard requirement? We certainly want to make sure that we don’t accidentally launch the missiles. We’ve invested billions of dollars in monitoring / tracking equipment to try to detect foreign missile strikes so that we can respond appropriately.

And yet…

In 1960, a moonrise over Norway was misinterpreted as a USSR mass attack.

At the height of Watergate when Nixon was at maximum stress and regularly drunk, he once told a group of congressmen that “I can go in my office and pick up a telephone, and in 25 minutes, millions of people will be dead”. It was so concerning that calls were made to the Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger, who quietly instituted a policy that all launch orders go through him or Kissinger (wow, that does not make me feel much safer).

In 1979, a training scenario was incorrectly loaded onto the production computer and it falsely reported that 2,200 missiles were in the air coming from USSR. The National Security Adviser at the time, Zbigniew Brzezinski, was woken up in the middle of the night and told that the president had three to seven minutes to decide upon a retaliatory attack. Brzezinski, thinking that the world was coming to an end, did not wake his wife because he wanted her to not be aware of her imminent death.

In 2010, the military lost monitoring control over 50 ICBMs for nearly 45 minutes. They had no idea if they had been hacked and/or taken over by rogue elements.

On the other side, in 1995, Boris Yeltsin actually activated the Russian nuclear briefcase over a Norwegian research rocket. Norway had informed the Russian authorities of the planned launch but that had never been passed on to the nuclear authorities. Yes, Boris Yeltsin was contemplating launching a nuclear retaliation. This is the same Boris Yeltsin, also in the same year of 1995, who was making a state visit and was caught in the middle of the night, drunk out of his mind, in his underwear, outside on Pennsylvania Avenue, trying to hail a cab so that he could get a pizza. The secret service agents escorted him back to the White House.

If you think that with the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War that this question is moot, keep in mind that we still have about 6800 nuclear weapons in various stages of operation and that Russia has about 7000.

And the world leaders with their proverbial fingers on the button? Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin.

Sweet dreams everyone.


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