Book Review: “Command and Control” by Eric Schlosser – posted 5/25/2014
The safety of nuclear weapons is not a topic that typically pops up in everyday conversation. At least in my house, that is true. The existence of nuclear weapons has long been a background fact of life. We all know these weapons are there and we hope and pray the weapons are being safeguarded so there will never be any inadvertent accidents or mistakes (or use).
In his book, Command and Control, Eric Schlosser takes a hard look at how the United States has done both with keeping nuclear weapons safe as well as preventing accidental nuclear war. I wish I could say the results are reassuring. They are not.
Although we have not had any accidental nuclear explosions which has to qualify as a form of success, Schlosser shows that there have been many close calls.
In reading Command and Control, I have been genuinely surprised at how little we know about the history of nuclear weapon safety over the last sixty or so years. Considering the importance of these weapons to ultimate life and death on the planet, much more discussion is merited. Secrecy and national security concerns should not have vitiated awareness to the degree it has.
Schlosser did tremendous research and the thoroughness of his story is impressive. I certainly did not know about many of the incidents he recounts. It is hard not to think we have been very lucky in escaping a nuclear accident in the U.S. Here are a few of the vignettes captured by Schlosser:
In 1961, a B-52 bomber loaded with two 4 megaton hydrogen bombs had a refueling accident while refueling with a tanker over Greensboro, North Carolina. Fuel started leaking from the plane’s right wing. The pilot could not get fuel to drain from the tank inside the left wing. The B-52 went into an uncontrolled spin.
The two H-bombs both fell from the plane after centrifugal forces pulled a lanyard in the cockpit. The lanyard had been attached to the bomb release mechanism. When the lanyard was pulled one bomb responded as though released by a crew over a target. The crew had bailed out. Almost all the safety systems failed but the bomb did not detonate. If either bomb had detonated, North Carolina would have been a memory. Both bombs were far more powerful than the bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It was determined that a single ready/safe switch which was in a safe position when the bomb dropped saved the day.
In 1958, a B-47 bomber carrying a nuclear weapon crashed shortly after taking off from an air force base near Abilene Texas. The fireball from the crash caused detonation of the bomb’s high explosives. The detonation created a crater 35 feet in diameter and 6 feet deep. Fortunately the detonation did not produce a nuclear explosion.
Also in 1958, there was an accident in Mars Bluff, South Carolina when a crew member on a B-47 inadvertently grabbed a manual bomb release for support. This resulted in a nuclear weapon dropping out of the plane. The bomb landed in a garden. A high explosive detonation destroyed a nearby house and created a crater 50-70 feet in diameter and 25-30 feet deep. Fortunately the explosion only caused minor injuries to people who lived in the house that was destroyed. Again, there was no nuclear explosion.
I am only giving a couple examples. Schlosser recounts numerous situations where bombers carrying nuclear weapons crashed and burned. Then there were the situations where nuclear weapons have been lost or were missing. Schlosser recounts a 1966 incident over Palomares Spain when a B-52 bomber carrying 4 nukes collided in mid-air with a KC-135 tanker. Three of the bombs were accounted for. The fourth bomb fell in the ocean. The accident set off a huge search that lasted 80 days before the nuclear weapon was located. For anyone who remembers the James Bond movie Thunderball, there is a bit of a similarity to Ian Fleming’s plot. (Thunderball actually was written before this crash.)
Schlosser also describes a series of close calls with accidental nuclear wars. On November 9, 1979, the computers at the North American Air Defense Command (NORAD) outside Cheyenne Mountain said the U.S. was under attack. The military command computers at the Pentagon received the same message. Screens showed missiles being launched from submarines and also from sites inside the USSR. It appeared the attack was massive. It was projected missiles would begin to hit American targets within five minutes.
The military quickly arranged a threat assessment conference. Tensions between the superpowers were not high at the time but the pattern of the attack conformed to Pentagon assumptions about the Soviet war plan. NORAD contacted radar and ground stations which had sensors that could detect launches. The sensors showed nothing. Still bombers and fighter interceptors scrambled and took off to look for signs of an attack.
It turned out the cause of the alarm was an error where a technician put a wrong tape into one of NORAD’s computers. The tape was part of a war simulation training exercise that simulated a Soviet attack on the U.S..
Another time, in January 1995, then President Boris Yeltsin mistakenly believed Russia was under attack by the U.S. He turned on his nuclear football, retrieved launch codes and prepared to retaliate. After a few scary moments, the Russians realized they were not under attack. Norway had launched a weather satellite to study the aurora borealis. They had previously advised the Russians about the rocket but the Russians still believed it was a real attack. There have been quite a few incidents of this nature where one side believed the other side was launching its missiles.
A good part of the book describes a 1980 accident and explosion with a Titan II missile that occurred in Damascus Arkansas in 1980. The Titan II had a 9 megaton warhead. The story is a great illustration of how a trivial accident can wreak havoc with complex technology. Schlosser shows how dangerous systems have difficulty when standardized responses are impossible and creative action is required. The technology is so tightly coupled and interactive that margins for error are narrow.
I think there is a good and bad news aspect to Schlosser’s narrative. The good news is that we survived a bellicose and scary period that made Dr. Strangelove not too far from the truth. People were debating winnable nuclear wars. Remember the phrase “launch on warning”. It does seem that most of the really bad accidents happened over 30 years ago. The end of the Cold War and the improvement of safety procedures did lessen danger.
I did want to say a couple things about Dr. Strangelove. I recently saw the movie again and Schlosser deals with the central issue of the movie: the safety of command and control systems. In the movie a crazy out of control right wing general authorizes a nuclear attack by his fighter wing on the USSR. In spite of the best efforts of the President (played by Peter Sellers) to recall the planes, one bomber cannot be recalled. It gets through Russian military defenses. Unknown to the Americans, the Russians installed a doomsday machine where technology takes over once there is an attack. The movie was dead on and so prescient.
The bad news is the large number of nuclear weapons that remain as well as the proliferation of the weapons to many countries. Schlosser states that the U.S. has 4,650 nuclear weapons. Russia has about 1740 deployed strategic weapons and perhaps 2000 tactical weapons. He says France has 300 nuclear weapons; the U.K. has about 160; China is thought to have 240. Then there is Israel, Pakistan, and India.
Instead of the big war between superpowers, there is much more potential for regional wars or civil wars like in Syria or the Ukraine. We live in a vastly different era than the Cold War. Nuclear weapons are useless for these type conflicts. Despite their uselessness, the weapons have not gone away. The most common nuclear nightmare now that typically shows up in action/adventure novels is the threat of Al Qaeda or other jihadis getting their hands on a nuke and then trying to detonate it in a large American city. That scenario does reflect the twisted reality of how nukes can come back to bite us.
Rational self-interest should move all sides toward elimination of these weapons. Even if elimination is not possible, there is no good reason nuclear arsenals should not be greatly reduced. Majorly reducing numbers of nukes would greatly reduce risk to life on the planet.
Schlosser’s book makes me think of a famous quote from Albert Einstein: “The unleashed power of the atom has changed everything save our modes of thinking and we thus drift toward unparalleled catastrophe.”