So, gentle Heathen, gather round, and let me give you a decades-delayed case of the nightmarish heebie jeebies.
My sense is that most of you are cold war kids, like Mrs Heathen and I. Our impressionable teen years coincided with a period of time when nuclear war was taken as almost a given; we were all fucked, but we just tried not to think about it.
Or, rather, we sort of WANTED to think about it, but then regretted doing so, which is the only way to explain the existence of such destructo porn as Threads and The Day After. Even lighter fare during the 80s, like Wargames, hinged on the obviously-imminent thread of nuclear armageddon. The sky is blue. Ice is cold. We’re all going to die. Inshallah.
Somehow, it didn’t happen. We’d like to tell ourselves a fairy tale at this late date that it never could’ve happened, or that the Russians were too afraid, and our leaders too wise, to ever let it happen, and that the collapse of the USSR was foretold and inevitable and all we had to do was wait out the clock, but none of those dogs will hunt. We stared oblivion in the face for the very best part of 40 years, and somehow lived to tell the tale.
And here’s the kicker, gentle heathen: we only made it out by the skin of our goddamn teeth, and with a heaping ton of good luck. If you thought nukes were scary when you were 16 and knew little about them, well, you got another thing coming: once you know how they work, how poorly they were secured and made safe, and how political tomfoolery kept them that way, they get a shitton more frightening.
Read on, if you dare.
Eric Schlosser‘s exhaustively researched new book Command and Control explores some hugely significant but generally neglected aspects of the nuclear weapons age: the fundamental safety (or lack thereof) of the American nuclear arsenal, and the development of nuclear strategy during that same period of time. The book tells these two stories interspersed with the actual story of a massive accident around a Titan II missile in Damascus, Arkansas in 1980.
What he finds — all of which is more or less indisputable, as it’s mostly matters of public record — is horrifying.
Start with this: There were hundreds and hundreds of accidents, big and small, involving live nuclear bombs. They were dropped on runways, set afire, accidentally blown up (but not detonated), and thrown into the sky by exploding missile fuel. Crashing bombers disgorged their world-ending payloads over American farms and Spanish villages. Entire missile systems were considered unreliable and downright dangerous by experts, but kept in service as bargaining chips with the Soviets. The Titan II, which was to carry our most destructive payload (the 9 megaton W-53 warhead, i.e. 400 times the yield of the Nagasaki bomb), was plagued by maintenance issues and a criminally dangerous propellant mix, but was kept in service for years even after an accident that could have easily obliterated Arkansas.
Despite what you may have been told, every single one of these accidents, in fact, could have resulted in what the experts refer to as a “criticality event.” Nuclear weapons hinge on a primary explosion that compresses a nuclear core. They’re packed with conventional explosives that must be triggered in a precise manner to produce the desired nuclear or thermonuclear explosion. However, exploding part of the conventional payload COULD very well set of a partial reaction.
Since most modern weapons have absurdly high yields, even less-than-optimum nuclear detonations would far exceed the power of any conventional weapon, and would come with the added extra bonus of lethal radioactive fallout — and, given our paranoia for most of the nuclear period, a very real chance that the accident would be interpreted as a strike or launch by one side or the other. Boom.
The complexity of the weapons themselves, and the limits of the command and control infrastructure, created a system where an accidental detonation of a thermonuclear device was not just possible but entirely likely. As analyst, Joint Chiefs advisor, and Stanford professor Scott Sagan put it, the fact that we never had an accidental detonation of a nuke is explained less by “good design than good fortune.”
Let that sink in.
Here’s the other punch line: because organizations like the Strategic Air Command were routinely flying around with live bombs (no, really; for a huge chunk of the pre-missile era, the SAC kept armed bombers in the air ready to go, carrying live nukes, just in case), and because live missiles were armed at all times during the Cold War, instances of heightened alert were actually MORE likely to produce an accident than more placid periods. It is profoundly easy to envision a world where the 30 days of tension during the Cuban Missile Crisis included an accidental detonation somewhere, or an accidental launch of forward-deployed tactical missiles from Turkey, and then where would we be?
Sagan again: “Nuclear weapons may well have made deliberate war less likely, but the complex and tightly coupled nuclear arsenal we have constructed has simultaneously made accidental war more likely.”
Yeah. It’s like that. Freaking out yet?
And, in fact, it’s even worse. Safety problems were routinely hidden from civilian officials, or even from top brass, by commanders in charge of weapon systems to avoid difficult questions, and to protect jobs and commands.
The policies and practices, especially in the early days of the arms race, were built on a freakish and naive faith in giant, monolithic control systems, and assumed many such systems would mesh with each other flawlessly. But it’s also inevitably true that such monolithic systems could not possibly survive what theorists referred to as a decapitation attack; we more or less assumed that the Soviets, in a surprise launch, could probably kill the President, most of the Cabinet, and most of the top military leadership. Where’s the central control then?
The Soviets, for their part, actually had an answer to this: they built a “doomsday” system, designed to fire their missiles automatically and without human intervention if it detected a nuclear detonation on Soviet soil. But they didn’t tell anyone about it, which sort of defeats the purpose.
The gamesmanship of nuclear strategy is also a huge part of the book, and it’s fascinating. Nuclear parity between the superpowers was “healthier” for everyone than an imbalance. If you think the other guy can wipe you off the map and leave you with nothing, you also think there’s nothing to stop him from doing so, so the idea of a sneak attack to even things up becomes more appealing. On the other hand, if you’re sure you could still wipe him out even if he hit you first, everybody is thought to be more polite.
This is a horrifying sort of mental calculus, but it was a huge part of our strategic thinking for more or less the entire missile age. Especially during the nontrivial portions of the arms race when we had a giant advantage, and both sides knew it.
(That’s another thing: the arms race was, for most of its run, a giant money and power grab by the military-industrial complex. There was no “bomber gap” in the 1960s, and the Soviets were NEVER really able to keep up with us in the missile age. They had a brief moment of public superiority with Sputnik, but after that it was all Yanks, all the time. Of course, when both sides have enough to kill everyone, keeping up is sort of pointless, and despite a missile gap in our favor the Soviets would have been able to turn most of Europe to glass in any exchange.)
But that’s all in the past now, right? WE don’t need to worry anymore, and we can sleep well again. Whew.
Well, not so much. Despite all our best efforts, nuclear nonproliferation is a dead letter. It turns out tech is easy to export, which is how countries in the emerging world have joined the nuclear club. What’s not easy to export, though, is an organizational culture that includes deep engineering know-how and safety controls.
The arms race between the US and the Soviets was, in nationalistic terms, largely abstract. I didn’t meet a Russian until after the Wall fell. I had no personal, familial, tribal, or regional beef with Russia; they were just the Other. This kept rhetoric and emotionalism largely out of the picture during our long period of detent. This isn’t the case, though, for at least one pair of new nuclear adversaries: India and Pakistan. The South Asian states have their missiles aimed at each other over Kashmir, and both are poster children for the “plenty of tech, but no engineering safety culture” problem I mentioned above.