Time to debate on nuclear politics. Is US nuclear weapons safe?
It so happened that I met with the father of the American hydrogen bomb Edward Teller. Some considered him a great American, others - the embodiment of evil. I once met Teller at a table in the house of my neighbor, a Hungarian aristocrat and an Israeli professor, with whom Teller studied at a gymnasium in Budapest. Unfortunately, I did not record the conversation that happened then, but I remembered Teller’s phrase that the real story - this is the story of anonymous ordinary employees who have dedicated their lives to nuclear arms.
In America, a huge number of books about nuclear weapons have been published, but for the most part these are biographies: about Robert Oppenheimer, Kissinger (his memoirs), about presidents, politicians, generals and other celebrity chiefs. The book by Eric Schlosser “Team and control. Nuclear weapons, the Damascus incident and the illusion of security ”are just such a rare book containing many interviews, testimonies and documents from those very nameless workers, those who developed this weapon, who repaired and serviced it, who worked with nuclear weapons carriers, with rockets and airplanes.
Schlosser said that everyone he talked to was surprised that a nuclear accident did not destroy a single major city. These people are sure that this is pure luck, but the author himself is not sure that it will be like this forever.
Accidents happen to American nuclear weapons to this day. Do we know how many such accidents happened?
After all, we are talking about issues that are not just “top secret”, but have much stricter access codes. The fact that until today the Americans have safety issues with a nuclear arsenal is a fact. The US Department of Defense has published a report on nuclear accidents, called the Broken Arrows. This is a list of 32 serious accidents that have occurred since 1950 of the year. According to Shlosser’s investigation and the documents he received under the Free Access to Information Act, this report by the Ministry of Defense reveals only a small fraction of the nuclear accidents in the US military.
According to a report by Sandia National Laboratories received by Schlosser, there were more such accidents than 1200. The document does not say how many of these accidents occurred in the United States, but Schlosser believes that the majority. In some cases, accidents were accompanied by a loss of control over nuclear weapons. The most routine problems were the cause for the most dangerous situations. In one case, only a short circuit saved the nuclear device from an explosion.
The “Damascus Incident” occurred in desert Arkansas. Another accident occurred over the town of Goldsboro in North Carolina in January 1961, just a few days after the inauguration of President Kennedy. When the accident occurred, the crew of the bomber with two powerful hydrogen bombs on board began to prepare for a forced landing. However, the plane entered at the peak and began to fall apart. In the cockpit the belt was torn, which served to launch an atomic bomb. The bomb was released and passed all stages of the bombing, except the last. The bomb did not explode just because the detonator miraculously did not work. The check found that the detonator breaker was faulty.
Robert McNamara, Secretary of Defense in the Administration of President Kennedy, told Schloßeru about the incident. He then just took office. The incident scared the minister to death. The explosion could wipe out the most populated region of the United States (from Washington to New York) and change the entire history of the twentieth century.
Most Americans believe that nuclear facilities are located “somewhere out there,” far from their homes, in deserted, desert areas in the southern part of the United States, in Arkansas, New Mexico, Nevada, and North Carolina.
Their confidence is invariably supported by Hollywood and other means of popular culture. There are indeed many military bases in the South, but a catastrophe can happen anywhere. The book describes a state of emergency, once introduced in the state of New Jersey. What is happening there is covered with a dense cover of secrecy, but it is known that New York rear services received a warning that a cloud of radioactive plutonium from New Jersey could reach the city.
The authorities are trying to hide what is happening not only to avoid embarrassment, but mainly because if the details of such incidents become known, then public debate about America’s nuclear policy will inevitably begin, about how many weapons it has, where it is and why .
The Goldsboro incident also revealed another problem. What if the bombs really had to be dropped in combat? The military command requires that if the bomb is dropped and the missile is launched, they would definitely explode. At the same time, most civilian developers of military technology are trying to prevent nuclear devices from exploding accidentally.
Designing a bomb that always explodes, and a bomb that never explodes, are two different tasks that require different specifications. A safe bomb may not explode when needed.
The book traces the constant struggle between military customers and civilian developers. Indicative of the history of the designer of nuclear weapons, Robert Pyurifoy of the laboratory in San Diego. In 1960-X - the beginning of 1970-s, Pyurifoy concluded that there were serious safety issues. The military had fierce resistance. The point is not only that enhanced safety equipment lowers combat qualities. Much stronger was the conspiracy of universal denial of the problem. After all, if we admit that there are safety problems, then it must be admitted that for decades in the arsenals there were weapons potentially dangerous for the Americans themselves. In such battles, the military, as a rule, win. And this makes nuclear arsenals susceptible to an accidental explosion, all the more dangerous for society, the country and the whole world.
While reading the book, I constantly wondered: how did the author obtain his completely secret information?
Even people who are involved in nuclear weapons are often confronted with various bans and lack of access. However, we are still talking about America, where it is easier to get to the bottom of truth than in other, more secretive societies. Even in our time, when in the corridors of power under the presidencies of Bush and Obama, exceptional suspicion and reticence reigned ... A lot of interesting things were found out from conversations and interviews with ordinary employees. However, the bulk of information was received quite officially, under the “Law on Freedom of Access to Information” (ZSDI).
In Washington, there is a wonderful institution - the National Security Archive, which is precisely what is engaged in by declassifying and making secret information accessible to the general public in accordance with the ZSDI. Anyone can go there, but not everyone knows what to look for and how to ask.
Schlosser knew what he was looking for. Through the archive and in other ways, he received thousands of pages of classified materials that were not available to the researchers before him. True, many materials were censored, large pieces of text, names and details were erased from them.
The author painstakingly compared various documents to understand exactly what was censored. His conclusion is that most of the exemptions did not threaten the national security of America, but threatened the reputation and well-being of the military and civilian bureaucrats responsible for national security.
An interesting fact, which notes not only Schlosser, but all the authors, and my interlocutors, with whom he had to communicate in the corridors of American power. Even today, when the everlasting bureaucratic secrecy has added an unprecedented scale of political and corporate corruption, everywhere there are honest and brave people who feel committed not to one or another boss, not a party, uniform, team, corporation or president, but exclusively the Constitution of the United States . Among them are weapons designers, retired military personnel and Pentagon and military-industrial complex employees.
Resistance to nuclear weapons today is not in vogue. Probably because fewer and fewer people who saw a nuclear explosion with their own eyes. After all, the United States conducted the last air test of nuclear weapons in the 1962 year. The book contains the words of one of the directors of the Los Alamos Laboratory, Gerald Agnew, who observed the Hiroshima explosion. Egnew said that if he could, he would have gathered all the presidents and world leaders to watch the nuclear explosion - and they would understand that it is too scary and dangerous to use.
Interestingly, almost everyone who was involved in the development of nuclear weapons eventually became his opponents.
All the fathers of the Manhattan Project and its rank-and-file staff one way or another protested against the monster that they had created. Edward Teller is a rare exception. Many have joined the movement for nuclear disarmament. There were those who believed that it was necessary to transfer nuclear technology to Russians in order to avoid a catastrophe. I had to meet with such a man. This scientist hated Stalinism, he was not a fan of Leninism, but he believed that the Russians did not deserve to be wiped off the face of the earth, and nuclear technology would serve as a deterrent. However, quite a lot has been written about Soviet nuclear espionage in the United States without me.
Nuclear equilibrium strategy of fear. On paper, everything looks logical and beautiful, but the distance between what we are told about this strategy and the actual staff plans of a nuclear war is striking.
Americans are told that we have many nuclear warheads capable of destroying Russians or Chinese. They have a lot of nuclear weapons that can destroy us, and therefore we are afraid and will not use them. In fact, the strategic and tactical plans that are developed at the headquarters and practiced at the exercises are not much different from the strategy of General Lamey 1950's. As in the days of the Cold War, the main American strategy is to attack first, with superior forces, to break down defenses and destroy everything they have there: all the bombers, all the means of delivery. Such a strategy leaves no room for maneuver. Each side will strive to strike first, and if a mistake is made, then it will not be fixed.
There is a traditional struggle between the military and civilian authorities. Traditionally, civilians in the presidential administration and the Pentagon have tried to take control of the nuclear strategy. The military was firmly convinced that it was their professional duty and they were responsible for making decisions. President Truman dismissed General MacArthur, who aggressively and publicly demanded China’s nuclear bombardment. The military plans of a nuclear war were always completely secret, and time after time civilian political leaders were horrified by what was written there, by what types of lethal weapons they planned to use and how.
Even the "hawks", the flesh of the military-industrial complex, became opponents of nuclear weapons.
When he was a political science professor at Harvard, Kissinger wrote best-selling books in defense of the aggressive use of nuclear weapons, counted the proportions of casualties from the Soviet and American sides. However, when he entered the national security adviser to President Nixon, he went to the center of the nuclear command in Omaha and received a briefing on the plans for the use of nuclear weapons, he sharply changed his point of view. He called the plans of the military "strategy eerie." Actually, there were no plans, but there was only one plan called “Simple Integrated Operational Plan” (SIOP). Kissinger was struck by the fact that the military, in fact, are going to bring down all the nuclear power on the enemy. And most importantly, this plan in the event of a launch was impossible to stop. Another example is Secretary of State George Schultz in the Reagan Administration.
In the popular 1950 culture, the US Air Force strategic command was portrayed as noble patriots. In 1960-x - as a gang of right-wing extremist militarists, maniacs and arsonists of war.
Schlesser believes that the truth is in the middle. They were both patriots and militarists. There were different people there, and there were responsible, thinking, good professionals who were responsible for their duty to protect America. They walked and observed nuclear tests, climbed into the crater, to understand how soldiers would react in combat conditions.
Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara described the situation: “Each step in itself was completely logical and dictated by circumstances, but these steps, step by step, led us into complete insanity.” This is exactly what happened during the Kennedy presidency with McNamara at the head of the Pentagon. They knew that in order to balance fear with the Russians, they needed 300-400 warheads, but they also brought the American nuclear arsenal to 32 thousands of warheads during the short rule of Kennedy.
How reliable is the US nuclear weapons from computer hacking, hackers and terrorists?
In 2007, the US Air Force lost sight of six nuclear warheads. They were searched for a day and a half. Warheads simply disappeared from the bunker. No one signed for their receipt, no one knew that they were taken and loaded onto a plane. Nobody informed the pilot that he had been cruising over the territory of the United States for a day and a half, having six nuclear warheads on board. Bombs could be stolen. Could be unauthorized use by military personnel. Robert Gates, the Secretary of Defense for the Bush and Obama administrations, soon organized a uniform defeat, dismissed the head of the Air Force and senior officers. It seemed to everyone that the suggestion had been made, order had been put.
Just three years later, in 2010, the operators on 45 minutes lost sight of an entire squadron armed with Minuteman missiles with nuclear warheads. 50 missiles simply disappeared from online mode. At the Pentagon then reigned real panic. They were afraid that the hackers were able to penetrate the holy of holies of the strategic command and turned off the missiles, or even launched them at all.
Each of us had problems with our computer. Why wouldn't problems happen in strategic command? The Military Science Commission at the US Department of Defense brings together civilian experts in science and technology. In 2015, the commission published a report stating that the vulnerability of computer systems serving America’s nuclear shield was never fully evaluated. During the Senate hearings, the responsible general said that the Air Force is confident in the reliability of its computer systems, but "we do not know what we do not know." What the general did not know, knew a low-ranking contractor named Edward Snowden, who managed to penetrate their system and copy secret materials from there.
Have remote warfare, computers and drones psychology of today's nuclear warriors?
The author thanks Vasilisa Vinnik (Moscow) for his help in preparing the material.
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