Interview: Eric Schlosser's Command and Control
The Pulitzer-shortlisted journalist talks about investigating nuclear weapons and reveals how close we came to accidental Armageddon
You worked on your book, Command and Control, for years. It took a long time to come together.
I was spending time with the US Air Force in Colorado Springs, Colorado. My book Fast Food Nation was set in Colorado Springs. That book opens with a visit to one of the most important parts of the American command and control system which is the Cheyenne Mountain air station. Which is this early warning headquarters located deep inside a mountain overlooking Colorado Springs.
It’s sort of an ironic opening to the book in the sense that here’s one of our most top secret military installations but Domino’s will deliver. And the notion was there’s no spot in America that is immune to fast food.
Anyway, I was spending a lot of time in Colorado Springs. I got to know people in the air force there. Colorado Springs has some very important military installations. Peterson air force base, Schriever air force base. The headquarters of the Air Force Space Command and the US Space Command were located there too.
I thought about writing something about the future of warfare in space, because the United States is developing laser beam weapons, particle beam weapons, directed energy weapons to use against enemy satellites.
I wound up visiting other bases in New Mexico and California while researching the future of warfare in space, but mainly the officers I was spending time with had begun their career in the Missile Corps. It was a natural career progression to go from being a launch officer in a ballistic missile underground control centre to being in the US Space Command or Air Force Space Command.
And while we were hanging out they started telling me stories about nuclear weapons during the Cold War. And I became less and less interested in writing about the future of warfare in space and more and more interested in writing about nuclear weapons.
"It's extraordinary that no city has been destroyed by a nuclear weapon since Nagasaki."
There were numerous accidents – including some big explosions. How much of this stuff was classified?
Some of it has been released in documents and there are a couple of former USAF guys who’ve done a great job of putting together documents released through the Freedom of Information Act on broken arrows.
But what I soon realised was that the Department of Defence and the armed services had been less than truthful. Let’s just say there was outright lying about the risk of accidental detonations. About the number of accidents that occurred. So much of the book is based on documents that I obtained through the Freedom of Information Act. Or that others have recently obtained through the Freedom of Information Act. And I also spend a lot of time interviewing people who handled nuclear weapons on a day to day basis.
There have been hundreds of books written about nuclear weapons, some of them beautiful books that have focused on Robert Oppenheimer, Edward Teller: the famous Manhattan Project scientists. There have been books written about Henry Kissinger and Robert Reagan and high-level nuclear diplomacy. But I really wanted to write a book about nuclear weapons that was a form of history from the bottom up. About the ordinary servicemen, the bomber crews, missile crews, weapons designers. Not the famous physicists but the engineers who designed the innards of these weapons that would determine how they would operate. An enormous amount of the book is based on those interviews. Plus interviews with people who were present at various nuclear weapons accidents. I try to provide a history of this technology that really has not yet been written.
There was such an effort to deny that these things could go off or could be stolen or could be used by unauthorised personnel and those were just lies.
These weapons could detonate accidentally. They could be stolen and they could be used by people who weren’t supposed to use them.
You mention the big explosions and crashes. The Department of Defence has an official list of broken arrows. Broken arrows are nuclear weapons accidents that might cause a threat to the public. The official list contains 32 accidents and yet when you look closely at those accidents some of them didn’t even involve a fully-assembled nuclear weapon. So there was no chance of an accidental detonation. I obtained a document from the Sandia National Laboratory, one of our three weapons labs, that listed 1,200 American nuclear weapons involved in significant accidents or incidents just from 1950 to 1968. So there were another 24 years of the Cold War that that document didn’t even cover. And what’s interesting in going through those incidents and accidents is sometimes the most dangerous incidents didn’t involve a plane crash or a fire or an explosion. Sometimes a ground crew member would unload a nuclear weapon improperly from a plane on a runway and arm the bomb. So you’d have a fully armed nuclear weapon that could have been dropped from a height of three or four feet and detonated full scale.
There were incidents I found of short circuits in which someone’s walking past a missile and notices that smoke is coming out of the warhead, or a strange humming sound. Not a good thing. And in those more banal, mundane incidents you could have had a short circuit that provided electricity to the detonators; what you need to get a full-scale nuclear detonation. If electricity gets to the detonators you could have a really, really big problem.
Give us an overview of the build-up of weapons post-war. The bombs had been dropped on Japan. What next?
One of the things that has been forgotten is that right after the war there was a powerful world-wide sense that nuclear weapons must be abolished. They must be banned. That the fissile material and uranium and plutonium should be put under international control and that extremely strict sanctions, even involving war, should be waged against any country that seeks to have nuclear weapons.
And this is the scientists and the leaders as well. We’re not talking about a peace movement.
This is the leadership of the USAF. This is the President of the United States. And it’s remarkable now looking back the majority of the American people supported abolishing nuclear weapons. There was also enormous support for world government and the United Nations. It’s hard to remember that 50-60 million civilians had just been killed in the second world war. Huge cities, great cities of the world had been reduced to rubble and there was an awareness that nuclear weapons provided a destructive force orders of magnitude beyond anything that had really been seen for most of the second world war. Unfortunately as the Cold War settled into being this desire to abolish nuclear weapons vanished.
What’s been forgotten is the US demobilised its military to an astonishing degree after the second world war, which is not the behaviour of a traditional imperial power. There was no expectation that the Soviet Union would be our next enemy. We reduced the size of the army by an extraordinary degree. We scuttled ships and aircraft, reduced defence spending by 90 per cent. The problem with that is once relations with the Soviet Union began to deteriorate, the US really did not have a way to defend western Europe from a potential Soviet attack.
The US had maintained essentially constabulary forces, military police forces to patrol occupied Germany. But if the Red Army had wanted to go across Germany there really were not American conventional forces that could have prevented it. So that’s where the turn to nuclear weapons came. The threat of using them against the Soviet Union was the only way to prevent the Soviets from dominating western Europe. I don’t think the Soviets were necessarily going to roll their tanks across France. But in the absence of American nuclear weapons at that moment, Soviet political dominance over western Europe and Great Britain might have been complete. In the same way that it was over Finland.
So as the Cold War really begins to take effect the US is suddenly confronted with the fact they might have to threaten the Soviets. President Harry Truman, who has begun all of this strong anti-Soviet rhetoric thinking that he has powerful weapons to back it up, is informed by the head of the Atomic Energy Commission, who’s just taken control of the Atomic Energy Commission, that the US essentially doesn’t have any atomic bombs. Truman had assumed we had this big arsenal of bombs that we could use at a moment’s notice. Many of the war plans that were being drawn up called for 50, 60, 70 atomic bombs to be dropped on the Soviet Union. Dave Levinthal, the head of the Atomic Energy Commission met Truman and said “maybe one”. We had “maybe one” workable bomb. Most of the Manhattan Project scientists had left government service, were now in academia or working for private companies. They had even forgotten to keep some of the blueprints. For one of the atomic bombs, the bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima, they literally had not kept adequate files about how to build one again, and it was lucky that there was a workman who remembered how one of the crucial components of the bomb had been built. He had used a Coke bottle as a mould and then wrapped metal around it.
As the Cold War took hold in the late 1940s, the US began to build a nuclear arsenal in a serious way. And we went from having maybe one workable bomb in 1947 to having perhaps 32,000 20 years later.
These are weapons of different types as well. There’s a distinction to be made first of all between the bombs that would be dropped from a bomber, to the later ballistic missiles, missiles on a rocket that would fly themselves. But at one point a bomb is described as a “nuclear landmine”, which really boggles the mind. And then there’s thing called the Davy Crockett which is a sort of shoulder-held rocket.
After the demobilisation of the second world war President Dwight Eisenhower wanted investment to go into civilian industry. The Great Depression wasn’t that far away. He wanted the US to have a healthy economy. And even though he had been Supreme Allied Commander in Europe he really was not a big believer in defence spending.
So he was adamant that the US should not have a huge defence budget. But what that meant was that our defence became increasingly dependent on nuclear weapons. The thing about nuclear weapons to keep in mind is they are the cheapest way to have enormous amounts of destruction. You could do with one bomb what you would have to use a thousand planes to drop previous to the atomic bomb. So nuclear weapons became the centrepiece of American defence policy.
The different armed services – because this was the weapon of the future – wanted to have their own nuclear weapons. The air force was adamant that the most powerful nuclear weapons should remain with the air force and be delivered by their bombers. This is in the 1950s. But the navy wanted nuclear weapons too and so did the army. So the navy got smaller nuclear weapons that would be delivered by aircraft from aircraft carriers. The navy came up with the idea of nuclear depth charges and nuclear torpedoes.
The army became convinced that they needed all kinds of nuclear weapons to use on the battlefield. At one point one of the leading generals in the army argued that the army itself needed 70,000 nuclear weapons to use on the battlefield, which is pure madness. The army was using nuclear weapons in anti-aircraft missiles, nuclear weapons in canon shells.
"I soon realised the army had been less than truthful."
They were also using nuclear weapons in the Davy Crockett, basically a bazooka that fired a small nuclear weapon, and they had atomic demolition munitions which were nuclear landmines small enough to be carried in a backpack. Infantrymen or frogmen would carry one of these nuclear weapons, either bury it in an area where they thought Soviet tanks would drive over or use it to destroy bridges or other facilities.
It’s incredible. Thirty-two thousand nuclear weapons, the great majority of them vastly more powerful than the bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
I guess also was this the time before we understood the dangers in terms of the after-effects. Things like fall-out.
The US government understood the impact of radioactive fall-out by 1954. In 1954 there was a major weapons test that kind of went out of control. It was called the Bravo test and the weapon wound up being three times more powerful than they anticipated.
This is Shrimp?
The nickname of the device was Shrimp. This was the device that used the techniques for the first deliverable hydrogen bomb. And they thought that it was going to be a 5 megaton explosion. That’s equivalent to 5 million tonnes of TNT. But they’d done their calculations wrong and it wound up being a 15 megaton explosion.
All the weapons we’re talking about are much more powerful than the atom bombs we’ve seen used on a civilian population.
One thing I want to make clear is that the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima was an incredibly crude, rudimentary weapon. It was so inefficient that of the 144 pounds of highly-processed uranium in it the amount that was turned into pure energy that destroyed Hiroshima was six-tenths of a gram. That is a miniscule amount of uranium to turn into pure energy and yet six-tenths of a gram turning into pure energy killed 80,000 people and destroyed two-thirds of the buildings in a major metropolitan area in an instant. The weapons that later came made the Hiroshima bomb seem minute by comparison.
It was so powerful that observers in a concrete bunker 20 miles away felt the earth moving like jelly and were trapped in their bunker because the levels of fall-out were so high. It created a fireball four miles wide. It was just an extraordinarily powerful explosion, about 1,000 times more powerful than the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima.
And there was a realisation soon that if one of these bombs, one of these 15 megaton bombs, were dropped on Washington DC it would kill everyone in Washington DC, everyone in Baltimore, everyone in Philadelphia, half the population of New York City, and deposit lethal radioactive fall-out as far north as Boston and Canada. This is one bomb.
So they understood the dangers of fall-out by the early 1950s and yet they made nuclear weapons like the Davy Crockett. There was an air-to-air rocket called the Genie that would be fired by American fighter planes at approaching Soviet bombers. And it would destroy the bombers if the bombers were close enough but it would also kill Soviet pilots who might be a greater distance away with this burst of radioactivity. But there were concerns at that time that the American pilot who fired this small Genie air to air missile would suffer radioactive illness. And particularly the Davy Crockett, which we come back to. This was very small, almost like a recoilless rifle bazooka-type weapon. It just didn’t have the range necessary and whoever fired it stood a good chance of being killed by it.
The image that we think of when we think of a nuclear war is often of a sort of world ending global winter conflagration, but at the time they believed there could be a more limited use: this thing called the SIOP: the Single Integrated Operation Plan.
Well the US went through a number of variations in its nuclear war plans. At first, when the US didn’t have very many nuclear weapons the strategy was one of an “atomic blitz”. The US would drop maybe 50-60, maybe 100, nuclear weapons on the principal cities of the Soviet Union and destroy them. It was known as the Nation Killing Concept. This is a plan that’s also supposed to serve as a deterrent. If the Soviets realise that all their major cities will be destroyed, they’d be unlikely to overrun western Europe.
The Strategic Air Command was in control of our most powerful nuclear weapons. The Strategic Air Command was the most elite unit in the USAF. The general who commanded it, Curtis LeMay, was never fond of the Nation Killing Concept. He wanted to use nuclear weapons as military weapons. Once the Soviet Union had its own atomic weapons LeMay thought it essential that the US destroy the Soviets’ nuclear weapons before they could be used against America.
So the war plans really began to focus on the Soviet military and Soviet airbases. The thing about that sort of plan is, in order to ensure that the Soviets can’t attack the US you pretty much have to attack the Soviets first.
The US never really had plans for a surprise attack on the Soviet Union but if it looked like the Soviets were getting ready to attack us, we would hit them first, and hard. We would try to destroy all their airfields, all their nuclear facilities in order to prevent anything happening to the US.
But as the Soviets got more airfields and more nuclear weapons and eventually missiles we needed more and more nuclear weapons in our nuclear war plan to hit every one of those.
And then things became complicated when the navy got its own nuclear weapons because then it came up with a philosophy very similar to that original atomic blitz. The navy began to argue that it’s crazy to have thousands of nuclear weapons. You’re never going to be able to destroy all the Soviet forces on the ground. You should just have a small number of nuclear weapons, maybe 300-400. They should be aimed at Soviet cities and it should be clear to the Soviets that if you attack us we’ll destroy all your cities. That will be the deterrence.
By the late 1950s the air force and the navy really hadn’t discussed their war plans with one another. There was such inter-service rivalry that when they had their first meetings in the late 1950s there was a realisation that the air force and the were often targeting often the same cities, the same military bases without talking to one another. So you’d have a situation in which there were what they called Time Over Target Conflicts. in which the air force and the navy would be sending its planes at the same time to bomb the same target and might destroy one another.
So out of that came a desire to formulate a single American war plan, the “Single Integrated Operational Play”. And they constantly afterwards talked about the SIOP. It was America’s nuclear war plan, and it wound up being a compromise between the air force desire to hit Soviet military targets and the navy desire to hit civilian targets.
They came up with a compromise that was called “the optimum mix”. That meant about 80 per cent military targets, about 20 per cent civilian targets. By the early 1960s the number of weapons had become so huge that the devastation unleashed by the SIOP was going to be almost unimaginable. It would probably, if it had been used, killed more than 200 million civilians. It would have wiped out the major cities not only of the Soviet Union but of the eastern bloc and of China. One of the most terrifying things about the SIOP in retrospect is that once it was begun it couldn’t be altered and it couldn’t be stopped. So once the signal was given and the bombers took off and the submarines got ready to fire, if the president changed his mind it would be too late.
It was deliberately created as a mechanistic plan. There were fears that once nuclear war began we would lose communication with our own forces. We didn’t want errors, we didn’t want mistakes so every sortie by every bomber, every small attack plan was in place, everyone knew what they were supposed to do and once they were given the green light they would just do it. And there was very little thought about what would happen once all the bombs were dropped. What would you do next? It was just this extraordinary unleashing of devastating force.
The Soviet Union did have what looks like a joke in Dr Strangelove, the Doomsday Plan which, as in the film, they didn’t tell anybody about.
As the 1960s went on and there were concerns about the SIOP; that the only thing you could do was basically push a button and destroy everybody. There were all sorts of attempts to come up with alternative war plans. Ones that were much more limited. Ones in which the president could select certain categories of targets and not have to destroy every Soviet city. So there were all kinds of theories about limited nuclear war that became popular. And there was this notion that maybe we hit the Soviets with a few nuclear warheads and then negotiate an end to the conflict; or maybe we could just limit to military targets and not hit any of their cities and if we did that they wouldn’t hit any American cities and we could have rules of nuclear warfare.
But what’s come out since the end of Cold War is that the Soviet Union didn’t buy into any of these notions of limited war. In Dr Strangelove one of the major plot elements is that the Soviets have this Doomsday Machine and once the war begins they’re just going to unleash all of their nuclear weapons. At the end of the film there’s this outrage that they never told the US about it, because the whole point of a Doomsday Machine is to tell your enemy that you’ve got it so your enemy won’t attack you.
What’s remarkable is the Soviet Union actually wound up having something very similar to that. It was called the Perimeter System. Nicknamed the Dead Hand, it was an automated, computer controlled nuclear-missile-launching system. And the way it would work is if the Soviet Union thought they were soon to be under attack the Soviet leadership would turn on the Perimeter System. What that meant is the Soviet leaders could feel confident that if the US killed the leadership of the Soviet Union, the Soviet Union could still retaliate against the US. The Perimeter System was designed to detect the detonation of nuclear weapons on Soviet soil. And once it was clear that detonations had occurred on Soviet soil, missiles would be automatically launched at the US.
The American government had no idea that such a system existed. So if they had tried to do their limited nuclear war and just destroyed a handful of Soviet military installations all these missiles would have been launched automatically by the Soviet Union and you would have had all-out nuclear war anyway.
Even in the absence of this system there was never going be a nuclear war in which one side hit the other with a few weapons and then they negotiated. If there had been a nuclear war during the Cold War it would most likely have been an all-out nuclear war in which the Soviet Union or the US struck first and did everything they could to wipe out their adversary and protect their own nation. We’re very, very fortunate that such a war never took place.
We know there wasn’t a world-ending nuclear conflagration. But there’s been plenty of times when something could have happened.
At least 1,200 significant incidents involving American nuclear weapons. Actually, the 1,200 refers to the weapons themselves. I did many Freedom of Information Act searches, I interviewed leading weapons designers, I did the best I could to find and describe as many accidents as I could but I know there were many more that I never found, and many more that were hidden in the files of the Department of Defence and the Department of Energy.
In 1968 there was a crash, a B-52 crashed in Greenland at the Thule airbase.
At the height of the Cold War, the US had a policy of airborne alert, as depicted in the films Failsafe and Dr Strangelove. We had about a dozen B-52 bombers in the air at all times loaded with hydrogen bombs ready to attack the Soviet Union. The fear was that the Soviets might launch a surprise attack on us and destroy all our air bases and all our planes, so by having bombers in the air they couldn’t be destroyed by attacks on air bases on the ground.
These planes would fly circular patterns within striking distance of the Soviet Union awaiting the Go Code, and when they got the Go Code they’d attack the Soviets.
But there was one unusual mission of the airborne alert, one of the most top secret missions in the entire American military. It was called the Thule Monitor. In Thule, Greenland, we had one of our most important air force installations. Again a very top secret base. It had an early warning radar that would tell the US if Soviet missiles had been launched and were on their way to America. This base was considered so important that the air force had a plane flying above it in a circular pattern 24 hours a day. The goal of the Thule Monitor, which was this one plane, was to make sure that Thule had not been destroyed. Its job was to maintain constant visual contact and radio contact with this base. it’s an incredible mission when you think about it; flying around just looking at this base.
It was believed that if the Soviet Union was going to attack the first thing it would do would be to destroy the Thule radar installation, because it would essentially blind the American early warning system and we’d have no idea if missiles were on the way. So the Thule monitor was supposed to just look at the base and make sure it hadn’t been destroyed yet – because if it was it meant we were at war. Now the Thule Monitor was an extremely boring and tedious mission to fly. Just flying in a bow tie pattern above a base. These flights lasted 20-24 hours.
One day in 1968 the crew flying the Thule monitor decided to bring some foam rubber seat cushions to make the flight more comfortable. They stowed four foam rubber seat cushions beneath one of the seats in the cockpit and forgot about them. About 10 hours later one of the crew members went, “sniff sniff, I think I smell smoke” and another said, “smells like burning rubber”.
They had inadvertently put the cushions next to a heat vent and the foam had ignited.
Suddenly there’s a desperate battle to put out the fire. The cockpit was filling with smoke and the fire was raging out of control. The pilot radioed Thule asking for permission for an emergency landing. He was granted it, but then the power went off on the plane.
The crew was given the order to bail out. The pilot heroically stayed on the plane long enough to guide it away from the airbase before he bailed out.
The Thule monitor was carrying four hydrogen bombs. Its mission if Thule was destroyed was to proceed immediately to the Soviet Union and drop the bombs.
When the B-52 hit the ice it exploded in an enormous fireball from the jet fuel being consumed. Thankfully those hydrogen bombs did not detonate full scale. They were a model of hydrogen bomb that was later found to have significant safety problems. In this case there was not a full-scale nuclear detonation. But they did explode, scattering plutonium across the Arctic ice.
Now the huge significance of this accident is the following. The control tower at Thule, in talking to the bomber, aware that it was coming in for emergency landing, had never let anyone in the US know that a B-52 was coming in for an emergency landing at Thule. At Omaha, the headquarters of the Strategic Air Command they had no idea there was a problem at Thule.
If that bomber had hit that base, either through a conventional explosion or if there had been a full-scale detonation of one of those hydrogen bombs, Thule would have been destroyed. The entire base. And in the US the logical conclusion would have been “We’re at war”. There would have been no way to know that this had been a bomber crash. There would have been the assumption that Thule had been destroyed by a Soviet first strike.
Here you have the premier bomber in the USAF brought down by four foam rubber cushions. And the crash of that bomber could conceivably have led to a nuclear war between the US and the Soviet Union. It’s almost impossible to anticipate while you’re designing a nuclear command and control system, or a modern jet bomber, that four rubber seat cushions could destroy them all. But that’s what happens when you have human beings designing highly complex technologies: people are fallible. Anything they invent is inherently fallible. Nuclear weapons are fallible but they’re also the most dangerous machines ever invented.
An equally terrifying incident happened in 1961, when a B-52 broke up over a place called Goldsboro in North Carolina.
This was another American bomber on an airborne alert. It was about to undergo refuelling mid-air when it was noticed that there was a fuel leak. Jet fuel was pouring out of one of the tanks.
The plane asked to make an emergency landing at Seymour Johnson air force base in Goldsboro, North Carolina. As it was preparing to make an emergency landing there was a weight imbalance in the plane because some of the fuel was still in some tanks and wasn’t in another wing tank. So the bomber, because of the weight imbalance, began to break apart mid-air. Literally the wings were falling off, the tail was falling off. The crew had to abandon the plane and bail out.
But as the bomber was breaking apart centrifugal forces in the cockpit pulled a lanyard. That was the lanyard that a crew member was supposed to pull to drop a hydrogen bomb over an enemy target. The hydrogen bomb didn’t know that it was over North Carolina and not over the Soviet Union, and so it went through its arming sequence step by step. It went through all the proper arming sequences. There was one safety switch that had prevented a full scale detonation of the bomb. So in one sense the system worked. But that safety switch had already become grounds for concern in the weapons community. That safety switch was later found to have failed on more than 30 occasions and was later replaced because it seemed completely inadequate to its task.
"The bomb that destroyed Hiroshima was an incredibly erude, rudimentary weapon"
More importantly, even if the safety switch had worked as intended, when a B-52 bomber is breaking apart mid-air there are a lot of wires and a great deal of electronics falling apart, hanging around. If there had been a short circuit in which one of those wires had connected to the arming wire of that bomb, that bomb would have detonated. This was just three days after the inauguration of John F Kennedy. He had just given this highly optimistic speech about a new frontier. The destruction of the state of North Carolina by a hydrogen bomb and the radioactive fallout that could have been deposited up and down the Eastern Seaboard of the US would have put a real damper on the optimism of the early days of the Kennedy Administration!
I spoke to former Secretary of Defence, Robert McNamara, who’d only been in office for a week, for a few days. And when he was told about this accident, he was terrified. It was a very close call and it sounds like hyperbole but it would have changed the course of history.
Again and again we had these near misses throughout the Cold War. It’s quite fortunate, in many ways miraculous, that with all these thousands of nuclear weapons that a major city was never destroyed, that the Soviet Union collapsed, and the Berlin Wall came down without a third world war. It’s amazing. But it was not pre-ordained. It was not inevitable. The story could have ended very badly.
So on to the Damascus incident then Eric. It’s an accident at a Titan II, a particular inter-continental ballistic missile silo. But you also describe two other incidents at similar silos.
Well, they were doing construction work at a Titan II missile silo in Arkansas and a fire broke out. There was no nuclear warhead on the missile but the fire occurred so quickly and spread so quickly and smoke filled the underground complex so completely that dozens of workers were trapped there and died. I think the number was 53. Only two workers who had been down there managed to get out alive.
The site was later reopened and it was widely known as a ghost site because strange things happened there. They’d cleaned it up and fixed it up but on some of the silo walls you could still see the soot from the fire that had trapped and killed all these workers, many of them young men.
The Titan II was the largest inter-continental ballistic missile the US ever built. It was more than 100ft high, the size of a 10-storey building, and on top of it was the most powerful nuclear warhead the US ever put on a missile. It had a destructor force of nine megatons. What that means is that one warhead, a single warhead of a Titan II missile had three times the destructive force of all the bombs used by all the armies in the second world war combined, including both atomic bombs.
This was an extraordinarily powerful warhead.
This is 1980. It’s a missile silo designated 374.7 outside a place called Damascus in Arkansas. Completely coincidentally it’s the same rocket as was in the silo when the fire happened.
Which is incredible. I mean there were dozens of these missiles and by some strange quirk of coincidence it was the same missile in the silo when both severe accidents happened.
What happened on that day in 1980 that caused this incident?
Well by 1980 this was an aging weapon system. It had been first deployed around 1963 and during the Kennedy administration they were already talking about decommissioning the Titan II missile. Robert McNamara had planned to start getting rid of it around 1967-68. But for one reason and another they kept on keeping it in service so by 1980 it was long past its sell-by date but was still being kept on alert. A couple of missile repair men were doing routine maintenance on the Titan II in the silo at Damascus, Arkansas at about 6.30 in the evening on 18 September 1980.
What they were doing was the kind of thing that was done all the time without a second thought. They were just adding a little bit of pressure to one of the fuel tanks. And as one of the workmen reached up to move a pressure cap from the missile the socket fell off the wrench handle that he was using – the workers were standing on a steel work platform near the top of the missile and the socket fell – hit the work platform, bounced. The worker reached for it, just missed it and it fell between a narrow gap between the missile and the work platform and then it dropped about 70ft, bounced off part of the silo, ricocheted, hit the missile, pierced the metal skin of the missile, cut a hole and suddenly thousands of gallons of highly toxic, highly flammable, highly explosive rocket fuel was pouring into the missile silo. And suddenly the air force had no idea what to do. They had deployed the Titan II missile for 17 years. They had dealt with all kinds of different problems, but there had never been a fuel leak like this in a silo with the warhead on top of the missile.
"There's an entire generation that's growing up without knowing this existential threat of impending nuclear war, and that makes the situation more dangerous"
There are scenes of high comedy. Various occasions where people find themselves on the wrong sides of doors or outside the gate of the silo. Everybody runs away from the silo then realises they can’t get back in.
At one point the crew, the launch crew in the underground complex is ordered to evacuate. Some of the crew members didn’t want to evacuate because as soon as they left the underground control centre they wouldn’t have any readouts from what was happening in the missile. They’d basically be acting in the dark from then on, completely unaware of what was happening in the silo.
So the decision was made to evacuate this underground control centre, but they didn’t leave the door unlocked – so that when other airmen have to go back in there and check on the missile they literally have to break into an intercontinental ballistic missile underground complex and you’ve got these guys wearing essentially space suits in order to protect themselves from the toxic fuel vapour. They’ve got bubble helmets and air packs and they look like something from a 1960s science fiction movies. You’ve got a guy with a space suit and a sledgehammer trying to break into one of the most top secret missile installations in the US. There was just chaos.
At one point the air force wanted to evacuate the surrounding towns. Rural Arkansas was one of the worst places to put intercontinental ballistic missiles. It was really a local congressman who had gotten the missiles for these districts as a way of getting investment in the state. But as opposed to many of the missile fields in North Dakota or South Dakota that are in vast empty spaces, in Arkansas you have towns and farms and homes right near these missile bases. And when they decided to evacuate the area around Damascus, Arkansas, the air force realised suddenly, we don’t have any maps. The security forces that were supposed to be evacuating the local townspeople did not have a map of the area they were supposed to evacuate. And again and again, you see how they have all these standard operating procedures, they have all these checklists, they have all these kind of symbols of control and then the moment something goes wrong all these things go out the window and the situation rapidly spirals out of control.
Bob Peurifoy was an engineer at Sandia, one of the mission construction groups, and he fought a long battle to introduce some fairly basic safety mechanisms to the missile. Why was there such a reluctance to do this for so long?
One of the other narratives in Command and Control is the effort by engineers, largely at the Sandia National Laboratory, to introduce better safety devices on nuclear weapons. You’d think that’s a no-brainer. Who could oppose putting more safety devices on nuclear weapons?
There was remarkably strong resistance to it, particularly from the military. The military was concerned that these safety devices would interfere with the reliability of the weapon, so that a bomber might fly to the Soviet Union and the bomber crew would risk its life and drop its bomb and the bomb would be a dud because of the safety mechanisms that some engineer at Sandia had put in there.
The military wanted these weapons to be always available for use. But there were many civilians who wanted to make sure these weapons would never detonate by accident, could never be stolen, could never be used by our own military personnel without permission of the president of the US. And these were very often competing design goals, always versus never.
I write in the book about how again and again the military’s desire for “always” often trumped the civilian desire for “never”. Bob Peurifoy is a real hero in my book because he recognised that many of our nuclear weapons had safety deficiencies and he devoted his career to this bureaucratic battle to install adequate safety devices in our weapons. You would never build a nuclear weapon today in the US without the safety devices that he pushed for, fought for and eventually got introduced into the arsenal.
The Cold War is over. We’re still here. But America still has its nuclear arsenal. There’s a former Soviet Union arsenal and we now live in a world where India and Pakistan and Israel as well Britain, France and China are nuclear powers. North Korea and Iran are trying to get nuclear weapons. In some ways, although that threat of a total global nuclear war has gone, the threat of a nuclear accident or a couple of detonations is obviously a lot higher I would have thought.
Yes. There are many who believe that the threat of an all-out nuclear war, particularly one involving the US, Russia, Great Britain, is vastly lower, I mean exponentially lower than it was during the Cold War.
But the threat of an individual city being destroyed by a nuclear weapon may be greater now than during the Cold War as other nations get nuclear weapons. And there are still 17,000-20,000 nuclear weapons in the world. There are a few thousand on alert right now ready to be used at a moment’s notice.
The safety mechanisms in American weapons are much better than they were during the Cold War, but again these are complex technological systems. Accidents happen. I’m very critical of America’s management of its nuclear arsenal in my book. But we invented this technology. We perfected it. We probably have more experience with it than anyone else, and if we’ve had the number of problems that we’ve experienced with our weapons, think about how other countries with less technological expertise and what they may encounter.
At the end of the book I look at the rate of industrial accidents in other countries like India and Pakistan as a rough measure of their capability to handle complex technological systems, and it’s not reassuring.
Every nuclear weapon in the world is an accident waiting to happen or a potential act of mass-murder. We’ve largely forgotten the nuclear threat. There’s an entire generation that’s grown up without knowing this existential threat of impending nuclear war and I think that the lack of awareness makes the situation more dangerous. A sense of complacency about these weapons make them more dangerous. So we need much more public attention on nuclear weapons, on the arsenals in the world, how they’re being managed. And I hope to see many fewer weapons held by many fewer countries because if nuclear proliferation continues and nuclear arsenals continue to be built it’s only a matter of time before a major city is destroyed by one of these weapons.
It’s extraordinary that no city has been destroyed by a nuclear weapon since Nagasaki in 1945. But that good fortune is by no means inevitable. I hope that there can be public awareness of this problem and public action before one of these things go off – and not as a result of one of these things going off.
This interview was taken from issue 1 of the Little Atoms magazine, which also features exclusive articles from Fergal Keane, Suzanne Moore, Nick Cohen, Martin Robbins and many more. Order your copy here