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Eric Schlosser’s Command and Control – Living on the Nuclear Knife Edge

December 8, 2013

Nuclear weapon test Romeo (yield 11 Mt) on Bikini Atoll

There are natural events that leave you stupefied by their power, and sometimes by their beauty. Volcanic eruptions spewing lava into the air. Pyroclastic flows racing down a mountain like a malevolent genie long bottled up. Tsunamis altering the face of a coastline in minutes, creating chaos out of order. Tornadoes streaked with lightning, bearing down on man, beast and building with irresistible force.

Then there’s the Bomb. Is there a more beautiful sight than a hydrogen bomb detonation, with the white-gold orb at its core, the raging column ringed by glowing doughnuts, and finally the mushroom, with little tendrils of vapour falling away like creeper from a tropical tree?

Maybe not for you, but if you can divorce yourself from the apocalyptic consequences and focus on the spectacle, you might agree that it’s up there with the most awesome sights in the natural world, even if its genesis is decidedly unnatural.

I’ve been fascinated by the mushroom cloud – and by its implications – for as long as I can remember. I lived through the Cuba crisis. I’ve repeatedly watched Dr Strangelove, Stanley Kubrick’s immortal black comedy about nuclear miscalculation. I’ve read books and watched countless documentaries on Hiroshima, Nagasaki and the fear that gripped the world as the US and the Soviet Union built up their nuclear arsenals, each blinded by fear of the other, and threatening oblivion that could arrive as easily by mistake as through deliberate intent.

For all that, even if like me you are a bit of a nuclear nerd, Command and Control, Eric Schlosser’s book about the vulnerability to mishap of America’s nuclear arsenal since World War 2, offers a fresh perspective on the subject.

Command and Control tells the story of an emergency a few miles from the small town of Damascus, Arkansas. It happened in September 1980. It was a period of high tension in US-Soviet relations. The US had boycotted the Moscow Olympics in protest against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The ailing Leonid Brezhnev, soon to be replaced by the equally ailing KGB boss Yuri Andropov, presided over a stagnant Soviet economy and a paranoid military establishment. Under Andropov, the leadership was convinced that the US was planning an attack on their country. He sent his spies out around Britain and America looking for signs of unusual activity that might indicate preparations for war – stockpiling of foodstuffs, for example, and lights burning late in government offices.

Since the beginning of the Cold War, the United States was no less paranoid. Dotted around the country in obscure locations were silos encased in concrete and steel. They were populated with intercontinental ballistic missiles, ready to be launched at the Soviet Union at a moment’s notice in the event that America’s early warning stations detected a Soviet attack. One of the missile types was the Titan II, an aging weapon that relied upon two types of liquid fuel to ignite. Sitting on top of the Titan was a fully-primed hydrogen bomb.

When a maintenance technician dropped a wrench into the Damascus Titan II silo, his tool pierced the missile’s skin, causing a leak in one of the fuel tanks. One of the fuel components, designed to ignite when mixed with the other, started to fill the void.

Over several hours US Air Force technicians struggled to fix the problem to no avail. Help arrived from various sources, but as the seriousness of the situation became ever more apparent to those in the command chain, the speed of decision-making slowed accordingly. People in the locality, and even the state government, were told that the Air Force had everything under control, until it became apparent that this was not the case. Eventually the order came for civilians to evacuate the area.

Six hours after the emergency began, the missile exploded in its silo, forcing the massive steel roof hundreds of feet into the air and creating a huge debris shower. By a miracle, most of the Air Force staff near the explosion were not in the direct path of the debris. But one technician died, and several others were wounded. The blast left a huge crater where the silo once was, although the command bunker remained intact.

The bomb? It was discovered in a ditch in a remarkably intact state. Had it detonated, it would have taken half of Arkansas with it.

Schlosser splits the narrative of the Titan II accident into a number of chapters. Between episodes he tells the story of how successive generations of bombs were developed within a culture that valued reliability of detonation over safety. He describes the determination of the military to gain control of nuclear weapons from the civilian body originally entrusted with their custody, the Atomic Energy Commission; the inter-service rivalry that caused the development of separate delivery systems for the Air Force, the Army and the Navy; the creation of the SIOP, the war plan that would have launched thousands of missiles at cities and military installations in the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe and even China. In its first incarnation, the SIOP was all-or-nothing – no gradation, no escalation phases, just a devastation attack.

As the narrative progresses, we learn of some of the notorious accidents, such as Palomares, the Spanish fishing village that became the unwitting recipient of four hydrogen bombs. Then there was the incident when a B-52 bomber released two bombs over North Carolina. One of them went through the normal arming sequence as if it had been released in anger. It was a single open circuit away from detonation..

After the Damascus incident, the Titan II was scrapped, but under President Ronald Reagan investment in new weapons continued apace, not least the Star Wars initiative.

Safety features on atomic weapons, at least American ones, have improved, but command, control and delivery systems have become so complex that technical failure is an ever-present threat. As is human error. Like the time when a technician accidentally sparked a nuclear alert by loading a training tape into the command and control system. Within minutes, it appeared that the US was under massive attack. Bombers were scrambled and missiles readied. Before it was too late, the error became apparent and the alert cancelled.

Schlosser tells a tale of lax security and weapons handling – for example a single soldier with a hand gun guarding nuclear ordnance at an Italian air base, and bombs falling onto runways or incinerated in fires. At the end of the book he makes the point that if one of the world’s most technically advanced nations has struggled to develop weapons that work when they’re supposed to and not when they aren’t, it doesn’t give one much confidence that other members of the nuclear club, especially the newer ones – India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea – are not still struggling to ensure that their weapons will not detonate by accident, or that they even care about the risks.

Command and Control is a pretty chilling account of technical and human fallibility. One only needs to look at failures in America’s other great engineering enterprise over the past 50 years – the space programme, to realise that two downed shuttles could have been two detonated hydrogen bombs. If I have a beef with his book, it is that Schlosser only briefly touched on near-misses on the “other side”. Almost certainly there would have been a similar story to tell.

Just as was the case with the US in 1945, if you are a country struggling to develop your atomic bomb, would safety be your first priority? Unlikely. The thought process would surely be “let’s build the damn thing and worry about safety later”. Cause for concern on the part of the people of Iran, perhaps.

Command and Control serves to confirm in my mind a number of fundamental rules governing nuclear weapons, their control and use. They are:

  1. It would be naïve to accept at face value 100% of what any government, including your own, tells you about their weaponry, readiness, safety and deployment policies.

  2. It is impossible to build nuclear weapons and command and control systems that are 100% immune from technical breakdown

  3. Even if the technology works, without full automation systems will always fail because of human error

  4. Even if I’m wrong about the previous two rules, we may only ever be safe from nuclear conflagration if those entrusted with making launch decisions are thinking rationally. That said, one person’s rationality is another person’s madness

  5. For as long as the technology exists, we will never be able to eliminate nuclear weapons. Unless, of course, the world is reduced to a smouldering ruin

  6. If you have an option as to which country you live in, chose one that neither hosts nor deploys nuclear weapons. Failing that, live in a country that has a semblance of the rule of law – that way there’s at least a chance that you will be informed up to a point about what your government is doing in your name.

All things considered, the odds of a nuclear detonation as the result of accident, technical failure or a deliberate act – possibly leading to multiple detonations – somewhere in the world over the next century seem extremely high. My gut feeling is that it is a certainty.

On the other hand, we live, love, dream and die in the full knowledge that events great and small will eventually carry us off. Earthquakes, volcanoes, tsunamis, hurricanes, tornadoes and even lightning strikes are happening all the time. There are many natural and unnatural ways for us to die.

Just as most of us don’t spend our days looking up in the sky for the meteorite that ends it all, perhaps we should think of the hydrogen bomb as one of those hazards that probably won’t affect us, and just get on with our lives hoping for the best.

Or perhaps we should be watching our masters like hawks and holding them to account for the mishaps that they can’t conceal.

What Command and Control teaches me is how much we owe to a few scientists, engineers and technicians who have dedicated their lives to making nuclear weapons as safe as they know how, often against the obstacles placed in their way by bureaucrats and bull-headed cold warriors. Without them, it’s almost certain that there would be many more little patches of our planet where nothing will grow again as nature intended for the foreseeable future.

59steps book reviews on related subjects:

Hiroshima Nagasaki: The Real Story of the Atomic Bombings and Their Aftermath, by Paul Ham

The Dead Hand: the Untold Story of the Cold War Arms Race and Its Dangerous Legacy, by David E Hoffman

From → Books, History, Politics, USA

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