Sagan on the always/never dilemma with nuclear weapons


in Bombs and rockets, Geek stuff, History, Security

Still, at a fundamental level, it is important to recognize that the military commands controlling U.S. nuclear weapons have been asked to do the impossible. Peter Feaver has used the phrase, the “always/never dilemma” to describe the twin requirements placed on U.S. military commands. Political authorities have demanded, for the sake of deterrence, that the organization always be able and willing to destroy an enormous variety of targets inside the Soviet Union, at a moments notice, under every conceivable circumstance. They have demanded that military commanders always be able to execute such attacks at any time of day, 365 days a year. They have demanded that our nuclear forces always be effective, regardless of whether the U.S. struck first or was retaliating after having suffered a catastrophic nuclear attack. And, finally, they demanded that the military, while doing all this, never have a serious nuclear weapon accident, never have an accidental detonation, and never permit the unauthorized use of a weapon to occur.

In retrospect, it should be acknowledged that while the military organizations controlling U.S. nuclear forces during the Cold War performed this task with less success than we knew, they performed with more success than we should have reasonably expected. The problems identified in this book were not the product of incompetent organizations. They reflect the inherent limits of organizational safety. Recognition of that simple truth is the first and most important step toward a safer future.

Sagan, Scott D. The Limits of Safety: Organizations, Accidents, and Nuclear Weapons. Princeton University Press. 1993. p. 278–9 (emphasis in original)

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