Schlosser on nuclear security

Some quotes from Schlosser’s Command and Control.


On January 23, 1961, a B-52 bomber took off from Seymour Johnson Air Force Base in Goldsboro, North Carolina, for an airborne alert… [Near] midnight… the boom operator of [a refueling] tanker noticed fuel leaking from the B-52’ s right wing. Spray from the leak soon formed a wide plume, and within two minutes about forty thousand gallons of jet fuel had poured from the wing. The command post at Seymour Johnson told the pilot, Major Walter S. Tulloch, to dump the rest of the fuel in the ocean and prepare for an emergency landing. But fuel wouldn’t drain from the tank inside the left wing, creating a weight imbalance. At half past midnight, with the flaps down and the landing gear extended, the B-52 went into an uncontrolled spin…

The B-52 was carrying two Mark 39 hydrogen bombs, each with a yield of 4 megatons. As the aircraft spun downward, centrifugal forces pulled a lanyard in the cockpit. The lanyard was attached to the bomb release mechanism. When the lanyard was pulled, the locking pins were removed from one of the bombs. The Mark 39 fell from the plane. The arming wires were yanked out, and the bomb responded as though it had been deliberately released by the crew above a target. The pulse generator activated the low-voltage thermal batteries. The drogue parachute opened, and then the main chute. The barometric switches closed. The timer ran out, activating the high-voltage thermal batteries. The bomb hit the ground, and the piezoelectric crystals inside the nose crushed. They sent a firing signal. But the weapon didn’t detonate.

Every safety mechanism had failed, except one: the ready/safe switch in the cockpit. The switch was in the SAFE position when the bomb dropped. Had the switch been set to GROUND or AIR, the X-unit would’ve charged, the detonators would’ve triggered, and a thermonuclear weapon would have exploded in a field near Faro, North Carolina…

The other Mark 39 plummeted straight down and landed in a meadow just off Big Daddy’s Road, near the Nahunta Swamp. Its parachutes had failed to open. The high explosives did not detonate, and the primary was largely undamaged…

The Air Force assured the public that the two weapons had been unarmed and that there was never any risk of a nuclear explosion. Those statements were misleading. The T-249 control box and ready/safe switch, installed in every one of SAC’s bombers, had already raised concerns at Sandia. The switch required a low-voltage signal of brief duration to operate — and that kind of signal could easily be provided by a stray wire or a short circuit, as a B-52 full of electronic equipment disintegrated midair.

A year after the North Carolina accident, a SAC ground crew removed four Mark 28 bombs from a B-47 bomber and noticed that all of the weapons were armed. But the seal on the ready/ safe switch in the cockpit was intact, and the knob hadn’t been turned to GROUND or AIR. The bombs had not been armed by the crew. A seven-month investigation by Sandia found that a tiny metal nut had come off a screw inside the plane and lodged against an unused radar-heating circuit. The nut had created a new electrical pathway, allowing current to reach an arming line— and bypass the ready/ safe switch. A similar glitch on the B-52 that crashed near Goldsboro would have caused a 4-megaton thermonuclear explosion. “It would have been bad news— in spades,” Parker F. Jones, a safety engineer at Sandia, wrote in a memo about the accident. “One simple, dynamo-technology, low-voltage switch stood between the United States and a major catastrophe!”


On January 1, 1960, General Lauris Norstad, the supreme allied commander in Europe, placed all of NATO’s [USA-supplied] nuclear-capable units on a fifteen-minute alert, without consulting Congress. Every NATO air squadron was ordered to keep at least two fighter planes loaded with fuel and a nuclear weapon, parked near a runway. And thermonuclear warheads were mated to the intermediate-range Jupiter missiles in Italy and the Thor missiles in Great Britain. The new alert policy had the full support of President Eisenhower, who thought that NATO should be able to respond promptly to a Soviet attack…

Members of the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy visited fifteen NATO bases in December 1960, eager to see how America’s nuclear weapons were being deployed. The group was accompanied by Harold Agnew, …an expert on how to design bombs, and how to handle them properly. At a NATO base in Germany, Agnew looked out at the runway and, in his own words, “nearly wet my pants.” The F-84F fighter planes on alert, each carrying a fully assembled Mark 7 bomb, were being guarded by a single American soldier. Agnew walked over and asked the young enlisted man, who carried an old-fashioned, bolt-action rifle, what he’d do if somebody jumped into one of the planes and tried to take off. Would he shoot at the pilot— or the bomb? The soldier had never been told what to do… Agnew realized there was little to prevent a German pilot from taking a plane, flying it to the Soviet Union, and dropping an atomic bomb.

The custody arrangements at the Jupiter missile sites in Italy were even more alarming. Each site had three missiles topped with a 1.4-megaton warhead— a weapon capable of igniting firestorms and flattening every brick structure within thirty square miles. All the security was provided by Italian troops. The launch authentication officer was the only American at the site. Two keys were required to launch the missiles; one was held by the American, the other by an Italian officer. The keys were often worn on a string around the neck, like a dog tag.

Congressman Chet Holifield, the chairman of the joint committee, was amazed to find three ballistic missiles, carrying thermonuclear weapons, in the custody of a single American officer with a handgun. “All [the Italians] have to do is hit him on the head with a blackjack, and they have got his key,” Holifield said, during a closed-door committee hearing after the trip. The Jupiters were located near a forest, without any protective covering, and brightly illuminated at night. They would be sitting ducks for a sniper. “There were three Jupiters setting there in the open— all pointed toward the sky,” Holifield told the committee. “Over $300 million has been spent to set up that little show and it can be knocked out with 3 rifle bullets.”

…Harold Agnew was amazed to see a group of NATO weapon handlers pull the arming wires out of a Mark 7 while unloading it from a plane. When the wires were pulled, the arming sequence began— and if the X-unit charged, a Mark 7 could be detonated by its radar, by its barometric switches, by its timer, or by falling just a few feet from a plane and landing on a runway. A stray cosmic ray could, theoretically, detonate it. The weapon seemed to invite mistakes… And a Mark 7 sometimes contained things it shouldn’t. A screwdriver was found inside one of the bombs; an Allen wrench was somehow left inside another. In both bombs, the loose tools could have caused a short circuit.


Agnew thought that sort of lock would solve many of the custody problems at NATO. A coded switch, installed in every nuclear weapon, would block the crucial arming circuits. It would make a clear distinction between the physical possession of a weapon and the ability to use one. It would become a form of remote control. And the power to exert that control, to prohibit or allow a nuclear detonation, would remain with whoever had the code.

Agnew brought an early version of the electromechanical locking system to Washington, D.C., for a closed-door hearing of the joint committee… To unlock a nuclear weapon, a two-man custodial team would attach a cable to it from the decoder. Then they’d turn the knobs on the decoder to enter a four-digit code. It was a “split-knowledge” code— each custodian would be given only two of the four numbers. Once the correct code was entered, the switch inside the weapon would take anywhere from thirty seconds to two and a half minutes to unlock, as its little gears, cams, and cam followers whirred and spun… everyone in the hearing room agreed that it was absolutely essential for national security.

The American military, however, vehemently opposed putting any locks on nuclear weapons. The Army, the Navy, the Air Force, the Marines, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Power at SAC, General Norstad at NATO — all of them agreed that locks were a bad idea. The always/never dilemma lay at the heart of military’s thinking. “No single device can be expected to increase both safety and readiness,” the Joint Chiefs of Staff argued. And readiness was considered more important: the nuclear weapons in Europe were “adequately safe, within the limits of the operational requirements imposed on them.”

…After reading the joint committee’s report, President Kennedy halted the dispersal of nuclear weapons among America’s NATO allies. Studies on weapon safety and command and control were commissioned. At Sandia, the development of coded, electromechanical locks was begun on a crash basis. Known at first as “Prescribed Action Links,” the locks were given a new name, one that sounded less restrictive, in the hopes of appeasing the military. “Permissive Action Links” sounded more friendly, as did the acronym: PALs.


Twenty-three years after Sandia became a separate laboratory, it created a nuclear weapon safety department. An assistant to the secretary of defense for atomic energy, Carl Walske, was concerned about the risks of nuclear accidents. He had traveled to Denmark, dealt with the aftermath of the Thule accident, and come to believe that the safety standards of the weapons labs were based on a questionable use of statistics. Before a nuclear weapon could enter the stockpile, the odds of its accidental detonation had to be specified, along with its other “military characteristics.” Those odds were usually said to be one in a million during storage, transportation, and handling. But the dimensions of that probability were rarely defined. Was the risk one in a million for a single weapon — or for an entire weapon system? Was it one in a million per year — or throughout the operational life of a weapon? How the risk was defined made a big difference, at a time when the United States had about thirty thousand nuclear weapons. The permissible risk of an American nuclear weapon detonating inadvertently could range from one in a million to one in twenty thousand, depending on when the statistical parameters were set.

Walske issued new safety standards in March 1968. They said that the “probability of a premature nuclear detonation” should be no greater than one in a billion, amid “normal storage and operational environments,” during the lifetime of a single weapon. And the probability of a detonation amid “abnormal environments” should be no greater than one in a million. An abnormal environment could be anything from the heat of a burning airplane to the water pressure inside a sinking submarine. Walske’s safety standards applied to every nuclear weapon in the American stockpile. They demanded a high level of certainty that an accidental detonation could never occur. But they offered no guidelines on how these strict criteria could be met. And in the memo announcing the new policy, Walske expressed confidence that “the adoption of the attached standards will not result in any increase in weapon development times or costs.”

A few months later, William L. Stevens was chosen to head Sandia’s new Nuclear Safety Department… Stevens looked through the accident reports kept by the Defense Atomic Support Agency, the Pentagon group that had replaced the Armed Forces Special Weapons Project. The military now used Native American terminology to categorize nuclear weapon accidents. The loss, theft, or seizure of a weapon was an Empty Quiver. Damage to a weapon, without any harm to the public or risk of detonation, was a Bent Spear. And an accident that caused the unauthorized launch or jettison of a weapon, a fire, an explosion, a release of radioactivity, or a full-scale detonation was a Broken Arrow. The official list of nuclear accidents, compiled by the Department of Defense and the AEC, included thirteen Broken Arrows. Bill Stevens read reports that secretly described a much larger number of unusual events with nuclear weapons. And a study of abnormal environments commissioned by Sandia soon found that at least 1,200 nuclear weapons had been involved in “significant” incidents and accidents between 1950 and March 1968.

The armed services had done a poor job of reporting nuclear weapon accidents until 1959— and subsequently reported about 130 a year. Many of the accidents were minor: “During loading of a Mk 25 Mod O WR Warhead onto a 6X6 truck, a handler lost his balance . . . the unit tipped and fell approximately four feet from the truck to the pavement.” And some were not: “A C-124 Aircraft carrying eight Mk 28 War reserve Warheads and one Mk 49 Y2 Mod 3 War Reserve Warhead was struck by lightning… Observers noted a large ball of fire pass through the aircraft from nose to tail… The ball of fire was accompanied by a loud noise.”

Reading these accident reports persuaded Stevens that the safety of America’s nuclear weapons couldn’t be assumed. The available data was insufficient for making accurate predictions about the future; a thousand weapon accidents were not enough for any reliable calculation of the odds. Twenty-three weapons had been directly exposed to fires during an accident, without detonating. Did that prove a fire couldn’t detonate a nuclear weapon? Or would the twenty-fourth exposure produce a blinding white flash and a mushroom cloud? The one-in-a-million assurances that Sandia had made for years now seemed questionable. They’d been made without much empirical evidence.


Four Jupiter missiles in Italy had also been hit by lightning. Some of their thermal batteries fired, and in two of the warheads, tritium gas was released into their cores, ready to boost a nuclear detonation. The weapons weren’t designed to sit atop missiles, exposed to the elements, for days at a time. They lacked safety mechanisms to protect against lightning strikes. Instead of removing the warheads or putting safety devices inside them, the Air Force surrounded its Jupiter sites with tall metal towers to draw lightning away from the missiles.

Stan Spray’s group ruthlessly burned, scorched, baked, crushed, and tortured weapon components to find their potential flaws. And in the process Spray helped to overturn the traditional thinking about electrical circuits at Sandia. It had always been taken for granted that if two circuits were kept physically apart, if they weren’t mated or connected in any way— like separate power lines running beside a highway— current couldn’t travel from one to the other. In a normal environment, that might be true. But strange things began to happen when extreme heat and stress were applied.

When circuit boards were bent or crushed, circuits that were supposed to be kept far apart might suddenly meet. The charring of a circuit board could transform its fiberglass from an insulator into a conductor of electricity. The solder of a heat-sensitive fuse was supposed to melt when it reached a certain temperature, blocking the passage of current during a fire. But Spray discovered that solder behaved oddly once it melted. As a liquid it could prevent an electrical connection— or flow back into its original place, reconnect wires, and allow current to travel between them.

The unpredictable behavior of materials and electrical circuits during an accident was compounded by the design of most nuclear weapons. Although fission and fusion were radically new and destructive forces in warfare, the interior layout of bombs hadn’t changed a great deal since the Second World War. The wires from different components still met in a single junction box. Wiring that armed the bomb and wiring that prevented it from being armed often passed through the same junction— making it possible for current to jump from one to the other. And the safety devices were often located far from the bomb’s firing set. The greater the distance between them, Spray realized, the greater the risk that stray electricity could somehow enter an arming line, set off the detonators, and cause a nuclear explosion.


Another Sandia safety effort was being concluded at roughly the same time. Project Crescent had set out to design a “supersafe” bomb — one that wouldn’t detonate “under any conceivable set of accident conditions” or spread plutonium, even after being mistakenly dropped from an altitude of forty thousand feet. At first, the Air Force was “less than enthusiastic about requiring more safety in nuclear weapons,” according to a classified memo on the project. But the Air Force eventually warmed to the idea; a supersafe bomb might permit the resumption of the Strategic Air Command’s airborne alert. After more than two years of research, Project Crescent proposed a weapon design that — like a concept car at an automobile show — was innovative but impractical. To prevent the high explosives from detonating and scattering plutonium after a plane crash, the bomb would have a thick casing and a lot of interior padding. Those features would make it three to four times heavier than most hydrogen bombs. The additional weight would reduce the number of nuclear weapons that a B-52 could carry— and that’s why the supersafe bomb was never built.


Far from being grounds for celebration, the absence of a missile gap became a potential source of embarrassment for the Kennedy administration. Many of the claims made by the Democrats during the recent presidential campaign now seemed baseless. Although General Power still insisted that the Soviets were hiding their long-range missiles beneath camouflage, the United States clearly had not fallen behind in the nuclear arms race. Public knowledge of that fact would be inconvenient— and so the public wasn’t told. When McNamara admitted that the missile gap was a myth, during an off-the-record briefing with reporters, President Kennedy was displeased.

At a press conference the following day, Kennedy stressed that “it would be premature to reach a judgment as to whether there is a gap or not a gap.” Soon the whole issue was forgotten. Political concerns, not strategic ones, determined how many long-range, land-based missiles the United States would build. Before Sputnik, President Eisenhower had thought that twenty to forty would be enough. Jerome Wiesner advised President Kennedy that roughly ten times that number would be sufficient for deterrence. But General Power wanted the Strategic Air Command to have ten thousand Minuteman missiles, aimed at every military target in the Soviet Union that might threaten the United States. And members of Congress, unaware that the missile gap was a myth, also sought a large, land-based force. After much back and forth, McNamara decided to build a thousand Minuteman missiles. One Pentagon adviser later explained that it was “a round number.”


Amid all the consideration of how to protect the president and the Joint Chiefs, how to gather information in real time, how to transmit war orders, how to devise the technical and administrative means for a flexible response, little thought had been given to an important question: how do you end a nuclear war? Thomas Schelling — a professor of economics at Harvard, a RAND analyst, proponent of game theory, and adviser to the Kennedy administration — began to worry about the issue early in 1961. While heading a committee on the risk of war by accident, miscalculation, or surprise, he was amazed to learn that there was no direct, secure form of communications between the White House and the Kremlin. It seemed almost unbelievable. Schelling had read the novel Red Alert a few years earlier, bought forty copies, and sent them to colleagues. The book gave a good sense of what could go wrong — and yet the president’s ability to call his Soviet counterpart on a “hot line” existed only in fiction. As things stood, AT&T’s telephone lines and Western Union’s telegraph lines were the only direct links between the United States and the Soviet Union. Both of them would be knocked out by a thermonuclear blast, and most radio communications would be, as well. The command-and-control systems of the two countries had no formal, reliable means of interacting. The problem was so serious and so obvious, Schelling thought, everybody must have assumed somebody else had taken care of it. Pauses for negotiation would be a waste of time, if there were no way to negotiate. And once a nuclear war began, no matter how pointless, devastating, and horrific, it might not end until both sides ran out of nuclear weapons.


The lack of direct, secure communications between the White House and the Kremlin, the distrust that Kennedy felt toward the Soviet leader, and Khrushchev’s impulsive, unpredictable behavior complicated efforts to end the [Cuban missile] crisis peacefully. Khrushchev felt relieved, after hearing Kennedy’s speech, that the president hadn’t announced an invasion of Cuba. Well aware that the Soviet Union’s strategic forces were vastly inferior to those of the United States, Khrushchev had no desire to start a nuclear war. He did, however, want to test Kennedy’s mettle and see how much the Soviets could gain from the crisis. Khrushchev secretly ordered his ships loaded with missiles not to violate the quarantine. But in private letters to Kennedy, he vowed that the ships would never turn around, denied that offensive weapons had been placed in Cuba, and denounced the quarantine as “an act of aggression which pushes mankind toward… a world nuclear-missile war.”

…While the Kennedy administration anxiously wondered if the Soviets would back down, Khrushchev maintained a defiant facade. And then on October 26, persuaded by faulty intelligence that an American attack on Cuba was about to begin, he wrote another letter to Kennedy, offering a deal: the Soviet Union would remove the missiles from Cuba, if the United States promised never to invade Cuba.

Khrushchev’s letter arrived at the American embassy in Moscow around five o’clock in the evening, which was ten in the morning, Eastern Standard Time. It took almost eleven hours for the letter to be fully transmitted by cable to the State Department in Washington, D.C. Kennedy and his advisers were encouraged by its conciliatory tone and decided to accept the deal— but went to bed without replying. Seven more hours passed, and Khrushchev started to feel confident that the United States wasn’t about to attack Cuba, after all. He wrote another letter to Kennedy, adding a new demand: the missiles in Cuba would be removed, if the United States removed its Jupiter missiles from Turkey. Instead of being delivered to the American embassy, this letter was broadcast, for the world to hear, on Radio Moscow.

On the morning of October 27, as President Kennedy was drafting a reply to Khrushchev’s first proposal, the White House learned about his second one. Kennedy and his advisers struggled to understand what was happening in the Kremlin. Conflicting messages were now coming not only from Khrushchev, but from various diplomats, journalists, and Soviet intelligence agents who were secretly meeting with members of the administration. Convinced that Khrushchev was being duplicitous, McNamara now pushed for a limited air strike to destroy the missiles. General Maxwell Taylor, now head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recommended a large-scale attack. When an American U-2 was shot down over Cuba, killing the pilot, the pressure on Kennedy to launch an air strike increased enormously. A nuclear war with the Soviet Union seemed possible. “As I left the White House… on that beautiful fall evening,” McNamara later recalled, “I feared I might never live to see another Saturday night.”

The Cuban Missile Crisis ended amid the same sort of confusion and miscommunication that had plagued much of its thirteen days. President Kennedy sent the Kremlin a cable accepting the terms of Khrushchev’s first offer, never acknowledging that a second demand had been made. But Kennedy also instructed his brother to meet privately with Ambassador Dobrynin and agree to the demands made in Khrushchev’s second letter— so long as the promise to remove the Jupiters from Turkey was never made public. Giving up dangerous and obsolete American missiles to avert a nuclear holocaust seemed like a good idea. Only a handful of Kennedy’s close advisers were told about this secret agreement.

Meanwhile, at the Kremlin, Khrushchev suddenly became afraid once again that the United States was about to attack Cuba. He decided to remove the Soviet missiles from Cuba— without insisting upon the removal of the Jupiters from Turkey. Before he had a chance to transmit his decision to the Soviet embassy in Washington, word arrived from Dobrynin about Kennedy’s secret promise. Khrushchev was delighted by the president’s unexpected— and unnecessary— concession. But time seemed to be running out, and an American attack might still be pending. Instead of accepting the deal through a diplomatic cable, Khrushchev’s decision to remove the missiles from Cuba was immediately broadcast on Radio Moscow. No mention was made of the American vow to remove its missiles from Turkey.

Both leaders had feared that any military action would quickly escalate to a nuclear exchange. They had good reason to think so. Although Khrushchev never planned to move against Berlin during the crisis, the Joint Chiefs had greatly underestimated the strength of the Soviet military force based in Cuba. In addition to strategic weapons, the Soviet Union had almost one hundred tactical nuclear weapons on the island that would have been used by local commanders to repel an American attack. Some were as powerful as the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima. Had the likely targets of those weapons— the American fleet offshore and the U.S. naval base at Guantánamo— been destroyed, an all-out nuclear war would have been hard to avoid.


After taking the new job, Peurifoy made a point of reading the classified reports on every… major [nuclear] weapon accident, a lengthy catalog of fires, crashes, and explosions, of near misses and disasters narrowly averted. The fact that an accidental detonation had not yet happened, that a major city had not yet been blanketed with plutonium, offered little comfort. The probabilities remained unknown. What were the odds of a screwdriver, used to repair an alarm system, launching the warhead off a missile, the odds of a rubber seat cushion bringing down a B-52? After reading through the accident reports, Peurifoy reached his own conclusion about the safety of America’s nuclear weapons: “We are living on borrowed time.”

Peurifoy had recently heard about an explosive called [TATB]. It had been invented in 1888 but had been rarely used since then— because TATB was so hard to detonate. Under federal law, it wasn’t even classified as an explosive; it was considered a flammable solid. With the right detonators, however, it could produce a shock wave almost as strong as the high explosives that surrounded the core of a nuclear weapon. TATB soon became known as an “insensitive high explosive.” You could drop it, hammer it, set it on fire, smash it into the ground at a speed of 1,500 feet per second, and it still wouldn’t detonate. The explosives being used in America’s nuclear weapons would go off from an impact one tenth as strong. Harold Agnew was now the director of Los Alamos, and he thought using TATB in hydrogen bombs made a lot more sense— as a means of preventing plutonium dispersal during an accident— than adding two or three thousand extra pounds of steel and padding.

All the necessary elements for nuclear weapon safety were now available: a unique signal, weak link/strong link technology, insensitive high explosives. The only thing missing was the willingness to fight a bureaucratic war on their behalf— and Bob Peurifoy had that quality in abundance. He was no longer a low-level employee, toiling away on the electrical system of a bomb, without a sense of the bigger picture. As the head of weapon development, he now had some authority to make policy at Sandia. And he planned to take advantage of it. Three months into the new job, Peurifoy told his superior, Glenn Fowler, a vice president at the lab, that all the nuclear weapons carried by aircraft had to be retrofitted with new safety devices. Peurifoy didn’t claim that the weapons were unsafe; he said their safety could no longer be presumed. Fowler listened carefully to his arguments and agreed. A briefing for Sandia’s upper management was scheduled for February 1974.

The briefing did not go well. The other vice presidents at Sandia were indifferent, unconvinced, or actively hostile to Peurifoy’s recommendations. The strongest opponents of a retrofit argued that it would harm the lab’s reputation— it would imply that Sandia had been wrong about nuclear weapon safety for years. They said new weapons with improved safety features could eventually replace the old ones. And they made clear that the lab’s research-and-development money would not be spent on bombs already in the stockpile. Sandia couldn’t force the armed services to alter their weapons, and the Department of Defense had the ultimate responsibility for nuclear weapon safety. The lab’s upper management said, essentially, that this was someone else’s problem.

In April 1974, Peurifoy and Fowler went to Washington and met with Major General Ernest Graves, Jr., a top official at the Atomic Energy Commission, whose responsibilities included weapon safety. Sandia reported to the AEC, and Peurifoy was aiming higher on the bureaucratic ladder. Graves listened to the presentation and then did nothing about it. Five months later, unwilling to let the issue drop and ready to escalate the battle, Peurifoy and Fowler put their concerns on the record. A letter to General Graves was drafted— and Glenn Fowler placed his career at risk by signing and sending it. The “Fowler Letter,” as it was soon called, caused a top secret uproar in the nuclear weapon community. It ensured that high-level officials at the weapons labs, the AEC, and the Pentagon couldn’t hide behind claims of plausible deniability, if a serious accident happened. The letter was proof that they had been warned.

“Most of the aircraft delivered weapons now in stockpile were designed to requirements which envisioned… operations consisting mostly of long periods of igloo storage and some brief exposure to transportation environments,” the Fowler letter began. But these weapons were now being used in ways that could subject them to abnormal environments. And none of the weapons had adequate safety mechanisms. Fowler described the “possibility of these safing devices being electrically bypassed through charred organic plastics or melted solder” and warned of their “premature operation from stray voltages and currents.” He listed the weapons that should immediately be retrofitted or retired, including the Genie, the Hound Dog, the 9-megaton Mark 53 bomb— and the weapons that needed to be replaced, notably the Mark 28, SAC’s most widely deployed bomb. He said that the secretary of defense should be told about the risks of using these weapons during ground alerts. And Fowler recommended, due to “the urgency associated with the safety question,” that nuclear weapons should be loaded onto aircraft only for missions “absolutely required for national security reasons.”


Random urine tests of more than two thousand sailors at naval bases in Norfolk, Virginia, and San Diego, California, found that almost half had recently smoked pot. Although nuclear weapons and marijuana had recently become controversial subjects in American society, inspiring angry debates between liberals and conservatives, nobody argued that the two were a good combination.

…At Homestead Air Force Base in Florida, thirty-five members of an Army unit were arrested for using and selling marijuana and LSD. The unit controlled the Nike Hercules antiaircraft missiles on the base, along with their nuclear warheads. The drug use at Homestead was suspected after a fully armed Russian MiG-17 fighter plane, flown by a Cuban defector, landed there unchallenged, while Air Force One was parked on a nearby runway. Nineteen members of an Army detachment were arrested on pot charges at a Nike Hercules base on Mount Gleason, overlooking Los Angeles. One of them had been caught drying a large amount of marijuana on land belonging to the U.S. Forest Service. Three enlisted men at a Nike Hercules base in San Rafael, California, were removed from guard duty for psychiatric reasons. One of them had been charged with pointing a loaded rifle at the head of a sergeant. Although illegal drugs were not involved in the case, the three men were allowed to guard the missiles, despite a history of psychiatric problems. The squadron was understaffed, and its commander feared that hippies—“ people from the Haight-Ashbury”— were trying to steal nuclear weapons.

More than one fourth of the crew on the USS Nathan Hale, a Polaris submarine with sixteen ballistic missiles, were investigated for illegal drug use. Eighteen of the thirty-eight seamen were cleared; the rest were discharged or removed from submarine duty. A former crew member of the Nathan Hale told a reporter that hashish was often smoked when the sub was at sea. The Polaris base at Holy Loch, Scotland, helped turn the Cowal Peninsula into a center for drug dealing in Great Britain. Nine crew members of the USS Casimir Pulaski, a Polaris submarine, were convicted for smoking marijuana at sea. One of the submarine tenders that docked at the base, the USS Canopus, often carried nuclear warheads and ballistic missiles. The widespread marijuana use among its crew earned the ship a local nickname: the USS Cannabis.

Four SAC pilots stationed at Castle Air Force Base near Merced, California, were arrested with marijuana and LSD. The police who raided their house, located off the base, said that it resembled “a hippie type pad with a picture of Ho Chi Minh on the wall.” At Seymour Johnson Air Force Base in Goldsboro, North Carolina, 151 of the 225 security police officers were busted on marijuana charges. The Air Force Office of Special Investigations arrested many of them leaving the base’s nuclear weapon storage area. Marijuana was discovered in one of the underground control centers of a Minuteman missile squadron at Malmstrom Air Force Base near Great Falls, Montana. It was also found in the control center of a Titan II launch complex about forty miles southeast of Tucson, Arizona. The launch crew and security officers at the site were suspended while investigators tried to determine who was responsible for the “two marijuana cigarettes.”

The true extent of drug use among American military personnel with access to nuclear weapons was hard to determine. Of the roughly 114,000 people who’d been cleared to work with nuclear weapons in 1980, only 1.5 percent lost that clearance because of drug abuse. But the Personnel Reliability Program’s 98.5 percent success rate still allowed at least 1,728 “unreliable” drug uses near the weapons. And those were just the ones who got caught.


  1. DSimon says

    Two thoughts:

    – This is the scariest thing I’ve read in quite some time.

    – Metal Gear Solid 3 seems to have been very well researched, or at least its opening scenes were. It almost makes me wonder if the US military ever actually looked into having soldiers control swarms of bees…

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