23 July 2018

How easy/hard is it to start a nuclear war?

A suggestion for more effective deterrance of nuclear war was first made by Roger Fisher in the March 1981 issue of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists:
There is a young man, probably a Navy officer, who accompanies the President. This young man has a black attaché case which contains the codes that are needed to fire nuclear weapons. I could see the President at a staff meeting considering nuclear war as an abstract question. He might conclude: “On SIOP Plan One, the decision is affirmative, Communicate the Alpha line XYZ.” Such jargon holds what is involved at a distance.

My suggestion was quite simple: Put that needed code number in a little capsule, and then implant that capsule right next to the heart of a volunteer. The volunteer would carry with him a big, heavy butcher knife as he accompanied the President. If ever the President wanted to fire nuclear weapons, the only way he could do so would be for him first, with his own hands, to kill one human being. The President says, “George, I’m sorry but tens of millions must die.” He has to look at someone and realize what death is—what an innocent death is. Blood on the White House carpet. It’s reality brought home.

When I suggested this to friends in the Pentagon they said, “My God, that’s terrible. Having to kill someone would distort the President’s judgment. He might never push the button.
Text from an old post at The Nuclear Secrecy Blog, with a hat tip to the staff at Radiolab (which has a somewhat unnerving podcast on this subject).

Reposted from 2016 to add some updated material on how easy or hard it is for someone to start a global nuclear war.  Herewith some excerpts from "How to Start a Nuclear War" in this month's Harper's Magazine:
Serving as a US Air Force launch control officer for intercontinental missiles in the early Seventies, First Lieutenant Bruce Blair figured out how to start a nuclear war and kill a few hundred million people. His unit, stationed in the vast missile fields at Malmstrom Air Force Base, in Montana, oversaw one of four squadrons of Minuteman II ­ICBMs, each missile topped by a W56 thermonuclear warhead with an explosive force of 1.2 megatons—eighty times that of the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima. In theory, the missiles could be fired only by order of the president of the United States, and required mutual cooperation by the two men on duty in each of the launch control centers, of which there were five for each squadron.

In fact, as Blair recounted to me recently, the system could be bypassed with remarkable ease. Safeguards made it difficult, though not impossible, for a two-man crew (of either captains or lieutenants, some straight out of college) in a single launch control center to fire a missile. But, said Blair, “it took only a small conspiracy”—of two people in two separate control centers—to launch the entire squadron of fifty missiles, “sixty megatons targeted at the Soviet Union, China, and North Korea.” (The scheme would first necessitate the “disabling” of the conspirators’ silo crewmates, unless, of course, they, too, were complicit in the operation.) Working in conjunction, the plotters could “jury-rig the system” to send a “vote” by turning keys in their separate launch centers. The three other launch centers might see what was happening, but they would not be able to override the two votes, and the missiles would begin their firing sequence. Even more alarmingly, Blair discovered that if one of the plotters was posted at the particular launch control center in overall command of the squadron, they could together format and transmit a “valid and authentic launch order” for general nuclear war that would immediately launch the entire US strategic nuclear missile force, including a thousand Minuteman and fifty-four Titan missiles, without the possibility of recall. As he put it, “that would get everyone’s attention, for sure.” A more pacifically inclined conspiracy, on the other hand, could effectively disarm the strategic force by formatting and transmitting messages invalidating the presidential launch codes.

When he quit the Air Force in 1974, Blair was haunted by the power that had been within his grasp, andhe resolved to do something about it. But when he started lobbying his former superiors, he was met with indifference and even active hostility. “I got in a fair scrap with the Air Force over it,” he recalled. As Blair well knew, there was supposed to be a system already in place to prevent that type of unilateral launch. The civilian leadership in the Pentagon took comfort in this, not knowing that the Strategic Air Command, which then controlled the Air Force’s nuclear weapons, had quietly neutralized it...

Today, things are different. The nuclear fuse has gotten shorter...
I suggest not reading the article.


  1. What a very fine idea, in principle.

    I suspect, though, that anyone who would seek the US Presidency, or the Russian Premiership or any other position where their utterances determine the fates of millions, might be too much of a psychopath for the plan to be effective.

  2. Actually, wouldn't they be sociopaths?

    1. There's no difference between a psychopath and a sociopath. Some people propose that making a distinction would be useful, but there's no widespread agreement on what that distinction (if any) should be, so for now the terms are officially interchangeable.

  3. Nah, I bet Cheney would have done it without a second thought.

  4. This is the kind of thing that sounds profound until you think about it for a few seconds.

    Okay, so you have about 30 minutes give or take. Cutting open a person's chest isn't like slicing a tomato. You got to get through bone and cartilage to access the heart, and even then the tiny capsule might be difficult to locate. Presidents usually aren't in their prime physical shape either, so add that into the equation. Is he going to get to practice? Proper gear? Blood is slippery, so he'll need some good gloves to keep a grip. Are we stuck with just the knife, or can we get a scalpel a rib spreader too? Minutes count here, people!

    I presume this is just for strategic-level nuclear bombardment? Sure would suck for George if Soviet tanks were cruising over NATO and the only recourse was a tactical-level strike. I wouldn't want to give my life for anything less than the total destruction of the USSR, so a tank column would be kinda disappointing. Unless we have multiple Georges. I hope they're kept organized. I'd be embarrassed to chop up one George and find out 5 minutes before the missiles hit that all I had the codes for were a few B1s in Alaska. And those poor submariners! Cruising around under the sea until God knows when, wondering where all that background radiation came from!

    Well, I guess it's a good thing our leaders somehow resist the temptation to destroy the world without George.

    But for HOW LONG!?

    1. "so you have about 30 minutes give or take"

      Why do you have 30 minutes? Note this tactic was proposed (somewhat tongue-in-cheek) as a deterrent to a first-strike attack only - not as a counterresponse to a nuclear attack.

  5. If you're psychopathic enough to launch a first strike, why would one more death bother you?

    I suspect this would be more like Stalin, who murdered millions of people, but never actually killed anyone himself. The psychopath would just mention he was thinking about it, and his sycophants would whisk the "code holder" away, and their heart would be delivered, beating and still warm, on a silver tray.

    However, launching a nuclear strike is launching a nuclear strike. Having a system like this in place will make it harder to launch a response-strike. In that case, you haven't stopped the psychopath from launching his first strike, and you've added time and difficulty to launching a response strike. That reduces the nuclear balance, and actually decreases deterrence

  6. would work better if it was his granddaughter

  7. Aww come on, man....

  8. It's somewhat surprising that it seems Americans can not fathom not retaliating after a nuclear strike. But let me point out at no point in history has a country ever retaliated after having been attacked with a nuclear bomb. In fact, one country was attacked with two nuclear bombs and did not retaliate.

    That country is now a peaceful industrial global power.

  9. It's not just the President(s) we have to worry about...



  10. http://www.bioethics.net/2018/07/ethics-of-war-ai-keep-the-humans-in-charge/

    This fascinating reflection on the role of AI in starting war also came up today - worth a read!

  11. Hmm.. if memory serves, the premise that only two people must conspire to start a nuclear war is incorrect. To launch a flight (several silos) you need to have 2 groups of people in geographically separate locations turn their keys simultaneously. There's a C3 location, where two people need to insert their keys and turn simultaneously, and then there is the flight control center where two people also must insert and turn their keys simultaneously. If any one of the 4 does not turn their key simultaneously with their paired mate -- then the system doesn't launch.

    This is true on nuclear submarines too -- the captain and the Executive Officer on the boat must turn their keys simultaneously, and two people in the SICBM center must turn theirs as well. Two people is not enough in any situation to launch a nuclear missile -- at least in the US.

    Even the President does not have sole authority to launch a nuclear attack. If you go read into the subject, the President's order has to be confirmed by the Secretary of Defense, before it will be executed.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...