Keeping the bombs in their silos

Window and siding

Back in 2005, former US Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara wrote an article in Foreign Policy about the danger of the accidental or unauthorized use of nuclear weapons. The issue remains an important one: particularly given trends like Russia’s increasingly assertive behaviour (putting more nuclear weapons out where accidents or miscalculations could occur), as well as ongoing nuclear proliferation.

Writing for Slate, Ron Rosenbaum has written an article on steps the next US President could take to reduce ‘inadvertence.’ The danger of nuclear war may seem like a dated Cold War concern, but the sheer number of weapons on fifteen minute alert, the pressure on leaders to make an immediate decision when the military thinks an attack is taking place, and the growing number of states with nuclear technology all mean that it should remain a contemporary concern and area for corrective action.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

11 thoughts on “Keeping the bombs in their silos”

  1. Obama, Medvedev Agree to Reduce Nuclear Arsenals
    By VOA News
    06 July 2009

    The United States and Russia have signed an agreement committing the two countries to sharply reduce the number of their nuclear weapons and delivery vehicles.

    U.S. President Barack Obama says he and his Russian counterpart Dmitri Medvedev had reset U.S.-Russian relations on the first day of their Moscow summit.

    The two leaders signed a statement instructing negotiators to finalize a replacement for the Strategic Arms limitation treaty that expires in December. The agreement provides for a reduction of warheads from 2200 to a range of 1500 to 1675 and of launch vehicles from 1600 to a range of 500 to 1100.

  2. Death of the Whiz Kid
    Robert Strange McNamara, 1916-2009.
    By Fred Kaplan
    Posted Monday, July 6, 2009, at 6:33 PM ET

    Robert Strange McNamara, who died today at age 93, was the personification of postwar America, the original and ultimate “whiz kid” who rose to power on the firm belief that arms and rationality can solve all problems—and tumbled to tragedy as the illusion shattered in the fields of Vietnam.

    His ascent traced a path through Harvard Business School, where he was the youngest professor in its history; the Army Air Forces, where he pioneered the use of statistics to maximize the efficiency of bombing raids over Japan; Ford Motor Co., where he was promoted to president; and finally, in 1961 at age 44, to President John F. Kennedy’s secretary of defense.

    At the Pentagon, he hired a team of young “systems analysts” from the RAND Corp., the nation’s leading think tank, and subjected the military budget, the nuclear-war plan—everything within his domain—to the statistical methods that he’d mastered with a brash confidence in the rightness of his views.

  3. Even during their heyday, in the 1970s and ’80s, the chief benefit of SALT, START, INF, and the assorted other nuclear negotiations wasn’t so much their specific outcomes as that they gave the superpowers something to talk about—a forum in which their diplomats could engage one another, exchange information, probe and sometimes expand the limits of cooperation—in an era when it was impossible to talk fruitfully about anything else.

    To some degree, after the gloom-ridden years of George W. Bush (which exacerbated Vladimir Putin’s nationalistic paranoia), we’re in that spot again. If there really is a “reset button” in U.S.-Russian relations, nuclear arms talks provide a familiar vocabulary—and, even more, a very high chance of success—to get the process under way.

    It would have been a grave mistake if President Barack Obama had come to Moscow with an agenda that focused solely on strategic arms talks. One lesson learned from the bad old days: If nukes are all the two powers can talk about, relations very quickly devolve into fetishism.

  4. Fun with nuclear game theory

    According to a new story in Wired, the Soviet Union did develop a doomsday device, and it did fail to tell the world about it. Given how bad an idea this seems, what might the Soviets have been thinking?

  5. Notes from the No Lone Zone
    A computer scientist looks at ICBM security.

    If you can climb a fifteen foot ladder and fit through a two foot diameter hole, you can, with a bit of advance planning, take an extensive “top-to-bottom” tour of a Titan II ICBM launch complex, complete with missile silo and missile. Best of all, you no longer have to trespass or join the Air Force to do it.

    And so I just returned from Sahuarita, AZ and the Titan Missile Museum, a place known during most of the cold war as SMS Launch Site 571-7. I spent the better part of the day beneath the surface of the earth, part of a group of six hardy nuclear tourists under the direction of Lt. Col. Chuck Smith (USAF, retired, a former “missileer” at the site), exploring the nuts, bolts and welds of Armageddon.

    At the peak of the cold war, there were over 1,000 nuclear missiles in buried silos located throughout sparsely populated areas of the continental United States, all fueled and ready to be launched toward the Soviet Union on a few minutes notice. From 1963 through 1984, this included 54 Titan II missiles at sites in Arizona, Arkansas and Kansas, each equipped with a W-53 warhead capable of delivering a nine megaton thermonuclear yield. Nine megatons is horrifically destructive even by the outsized standards of atomic bombs, capable of leveling a good size city in a single blast. And the Soviets had at least as many similar weapons aimed right back at us.

    How did we keep from blowing ourselves up for all those years?

  6. US presidential nuclear codes ‘lost for months’

    The codes used by the president to launch a nuclear strike were mislaid for months during the Clinton administration, the former highest-ranking US officer has said.

    Ex-chairman of the joint chiefs of staff Gen Hugh Shelton made the claim in a new book.

    The codes are usually held by an aide who remains close to the president.

  7. An Unsung Hero of the Nuclear Age
    Maj. Harold Hering and the forbidden question that cost him his career.
    By Ron Rosenbaum
    Posted Monday, Feb. 28, 2011, at 5:40 PM ET

    It was a risk. Dedicating a book to someone I’d had had a five-minute phone conversation with three decades ago. Someone who, last I’d heard, had become a long-haul trucker and whom I’d given up trying to track down.

    But I went ahead and dedicated my new book, How the End Begins: The Road to a Nuclear World War III, to Maj. Harold Hering because Maj. Hering sacrificed his military career to ask a Forbidden Question about launching nuclear missiles. A question that exposed the comforting illusions of the so called fail-safe system designed to prevent “unauthorized” nuclear missile launches.

    It was a question that changed his life, and changed mine, and may have changed—even saved—all of ours by calling attention to flaws in our nuclear command and control system at the height of the Cold War. It was a question that makes Maj. Hering an unsung hero of the nuclear age. A question that came from inside the system, a question that has no good answer: How can any missile crewman know that an order to twist his launch key in its slot and send a thermonuclear missile rocketing out of its silo—a nuke capable of killing millions of civilians—is lawful, legitimate, and comes from a sane president?

    I tried to track Hering down before my book went to press but failed to connect. And so I chanced it, dedicating the book to someone who, for all I knew, had gone from self-sacrificing hero to—who knows?—subprime mortgage broker? Not that it would have diminished his original sacrifice; heroes don’t always fare well after they’ve left the stage, especially when they go unsung.

    But I had an intuition when I first read about Maj. Harold Hering and his Forbidden Question that in addition to courage he had a rare kind of uncompromising integrity. And when I finally tracked him down … well, let me first explain why I think he’s an American hero.

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