Worrisome design flaws: Eric Schlosser’s Command and Control

November 7, 2013 by · Leave a Comment 

Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety. Eric Schlosser; $38.00 cloth 978-1-59420-227-8, 632 pp., The Penguin Press

Command_and_ControlEric Schlosser wants to scare the hell out of you. And in his massively detailed new book, he does a very good job of it.

When the Berlin Wall came down in 1999, followed by the final dissolution of the Soviet Union two years later, the Cold War officially came to an end. Many thought this also signalled the end of the Nuclear Era, when schoolchildren regularly practised duck-and-cover routines, the Emergency Broadcast System was still in place, and memories of the Cuban Missile Crisis, which brought the world as close to state-sanctioned nuclear war as it has ever come, were at the forefront of people’s consciousness.

Although the threat of nuclear war sparked by an international geopolitical conflict was indeed significant, what Schlosser makes clear in his exhaustive and sobering new book is that the United States in particular (though also other countries around the world with stores of nuclear weapons and lax safety systems to secure them) is equally apt (if not much, much more so) to fall victim to a nuclear catastrophe triggered by human error or a simple accident.

The central leitmotif in Schlosser’s book involves an incident that took place on September 18, 1980, at a nuclear silo located in the otherwise unremarkable countryside outside of Damascus, Arkansas. The silo held a Titan II missile, one of the most powerful weapons of mass destruction in the U.S. arsenal. It was capped with a nine-megaton nuclear warhead, which Schlosser points out had “about three times the explosive force of all the bombs dropped during the Second World War, including both atomic bombs.” On the night of September 18, one of the mechanics working in the silo dropped a socket from a wrench, which pierced the side of the missile, causing the weapon’s noxious oxidizer to leak. This began a chain reaction that resulted in several casualties and could, if not stopped in time, have culminated in the detonation of a nine-megaton nuclear warhead in the heart of the United States.

What is most unnerving about Schlosser’s account is that the Damascus accident was by no means a one-off. In the central part of the book, the author rhymes off a truncated list of near-misses in which vast swathes of the U.S. could easily have been obliterated due to nothing more than chance. One example will suffice. In 1961, a B-52 bomber carrying two Mark 39 thermonuclear weapons hit a tailspin caused by a fuel leak during an airborne alert. (At the heart of the Cold War, a certain portion of America’s air force was in flight at all times, prepared to respond to any surprise nuclear strike initiated by the Soviets.) As the plane spun out of control, a lanyard in the cockpit was tossed around by centrifugal force; the lanyard snagged the locking pins that held one of the weapons in place, jettisoning the bomb. The weapon crashed into the ground, but did not go off. “Every safety mechanism had failed,” Schlosser writes, “except one: the ready/safe switch in the cockpit. The switch was in the SAFE position when the bomb dropped. Had the switch been set to GROUND or AIR, the X-unit would’ve charged, the detonators would’ve triggered, and a thermonuclear weapon would have exploded in a field near Faro, North Carolina.”

The fallout from the potential blast would have resulted in the evacuation of Washington, D.C. With breathtaking understatement that is typical of the author’s approach in the book, Schlosser suggests the “spirit of youthful optimism” that characterized John F. Kennedy’s inauguration speech, delivered just three days previously, “… would have been dimmed by the detonation of a hydrogen bomb in North Carolina and an evacuation of the nation’s capital.” In the same  ironic tone, Schlosser elsewhere points to three separate incidents in the 1950s in which “the bridgeware detonators of nuclear weapons were set off by mistake during tests of their electrical systems,” calling the mechanisms that allowed for these inadvertent close calls “a worrisome design flaw.”

In the historical parts of the book, Schlosser traces America’s development of its nuclear arsenal, beginning with the Manhattan Project during the Second World War, and continuing through the Cold War, the Vietnam War, and the Reagan administration’s fixation on its Strategic Defense Initiative (commonly known as the “Star Wars” program). Throughout, he details efforts at ensuring a responsible and responsive command and control regime, defined as “the system of rules and procedures that guided … men, the network of radars and sensors and communications lines that allowed information to travel back and forth between headquarters and the field, the mechanisms that prevented accidental detonations and permitted deliberate ones, all of it designed to make sure that orders could be properly given, received, and carried out.” The problems with U.S. and international command-and-control systems are legion, ranging from jurisdictional rivalries to technological bugs and mechanical deficiencies to simple human error.

Schlosser crams a huge amount of material into his book, and it is for the most part fascinating, if baldly terrifying. Surprisingly, the least effective sections are those devoted to a narrative recreation of the Damascus accident and the response to it. These sections dispense with the technical jargon and backroom politicking and focus on the individual human beings involved in trying to contain the disaster. Yet these parts of the book, which are meant to read as a pulse-pounding thriller, come off as somewhat flat.

Elsewhere, however, Schlosser maintains his detached tone, and relates his litany of horrors (many arising out of documents that have only recently been declassified) in a matter-of-fact way that serves only to emphasize their appalling nature. In his epilogue, Schlosser points out that it is foolish to remain complacent simply because humanity has avoided an unintended nuclear catastrophe to this point. (He also remains sensitive to the fact that citizens of Japan may take a much different view than Americans, who have so far been lucky in escaping the destruction wrought by nuclear weapons.) “Had a single weapon been stolen or detonated,” Schlosser writes, “America’s command-and-control system would still have attained a success rate of 99.99857 percent. But nuclear weapons are the most dangerous technology ever invented. Anything less than 100 percent control of them, anything less than perfect safety and security, would be unacceptable. And if this book has any message to preach, it is that human beings are imperfect.”

Human imperfection and nuclear weapons are a highly dangerous combination. Schlosser does an admirable job of highlighting the problems associated with trying to secure an arsenal of weapons capable of causing massive destruction – weapons invented by human ingenuity that still sit in silos and compounds around the world, subject to thievery by rogue terrorist elements or detonation as a result of an accident caused by carelessness or mechanical failure. The fact that no such incident has occurred to date is due more to luck than foresight or proper planning, and should give us no comfort.

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