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Nuclear weapons - we are still not safe

by: teacherken

Mon Feb 15, 2010 at 07:36:02 AM EST

James Carroll offers in today's Boston Globe an op ed Nuclear sites vulnerable to break-ins in which we read:
Six anti-nuclear activists climbed over an outer fence at Kleine Brogel Air Base, then cut their way through a pair of inner fences, and wandered around the "highly secure'' base for up to an hour, tracking a route through the snow of more than one kilometer, and ultimately coming within yards of the storage bunker where the nukes are held - all this before being challenged by a guard. They videotaped their unimpeded walk-through of one of the most "secure'' compounds in the world. Guards finally arrested them and confiscated their camera, but, in yet another show of ineptitude, not before the activists were able to remove its video-card. They posted their caper on YouTube.

And yet, this is a base at which similar entries have been attempted regularly for many years by an anti-nuclear group called Bombspotting

Let me offer more from Carroll, and some observations of my own, but first:

teacherken :: Nuclear weapons - we are still not safe
I do not know if this is the specific video Carroll has in mind, as he writes that the event was last week, and the date of this is last month.  Still, the video presents itself as the results of more than an hour wandering around the base.  It will take only a few minutes to watch:

Now, back to Carroll.   His father, who retired as a very high ranking Air Force General, was, as he writes,

a pretend nuclear saboteur, as I learned from declassified Air Force documents years after his death.

In the 1950s, as Director of the AF Office of Special Investigations, he headed up stealthy teams of faux-commandos to stage night-time raids on bases of the US Strategic Air Command around the world - "Operation Top Hat.'' SAC commanders haughtily claimed that their facilities were impenetrable, but OSI tested them anyway.

They were regularly able to penetrate security, cutting wires, disabling alarms, attaching fake bombs to the undercarriages of B-52s, and to parts of the structures at the bunkers where nuclear weapons were stored.  They could "capture" commanders, disable runways with spikes, and - in something for which the video show a vague parallel nowadays with its stickers -  leave evidence of their entry in the form of irreverent signs like "one dead bird."  Carroll rights that the success of his father's teams persuaded Air Force brass to keep 1/3 of the nuclear fleet airborne at all times.  

And as Carroll reminds us, the issue of security is not just overseas - he writes that in 2007 there was a serious incident at Minot Air Force Base in  ND which led to the firing of both the AF Chief of Staff and the Secretary of the Air Force.   Readers may remember a series of incidents.  One was when 6 nuclear-armed cruise missiles were improperly flown from Minot Barksdale AFB in Louisiana. There also were issues about a contract being steered to a retired general. But the culminating incident was when four MK-12 fuses were accidentally shipped to Taiwan, as you can read in this ABC News story from June, 2008

For years the American public has been told two things -  that America's nuclear arsenal is safe, and that we had to worry about securing "loose nukes" from the former USSR.  There have been major efforts about the latter - we can go back to 1992 to the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reducation Program.  And of course one justification offered for our invading in Iraq in the last administration was the supposed effort of Saddam Hussein to develop a nuclear capability - remember this:  

We may rightly worry about what the current regimes of the remaining two parts of the so-called "Axis of Evil" have done - N Korea - or are attempting to do -  Iran - with respect to nuclear weapons.  We should rightly worry about the control of the nuclear arsenal in Pakistan, a country whose intelligence service (ISI) has close ties with Muslim Fundamentalists (Taliban) and whose government is rarely stable -  the military has seized power in the past.

But there is, as Carroll points out, reason for grave concern about our NATO nuclear arsenal   (and as I write that, I am perhaps ironically remind of the words of the dying Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet, "Ask for me tomorrow, and / you shall find me a grave man.")  We may have NATO spokespersons (a) refuse to acknowledge the presence of nuclear weapons in any location - as if refusal to make public acknowledgment somehow hides their presence from potential enemies, and (b) deny that the security breach about which Carroll writes was serious.  

And yet, as in his father's time, there are and should be concerns about security.    Before reminding us of the incident(s) at Minot, Carroll writes

There are six storage sites in Europe where America keeps stockpiles of something like 200 nuclear warheads and bombs. Why? Twenty years after the Cold War ended, to what conceivable use could such weapons be put? Why have all US nuclear weapons not been returned stateside where controls can be made absolute?

Parsing the quoted material above, it is not clear WHY we still maintain nuclear stockpiles in Europe.  But there is still a more basic question, one addressed in Carroll's final words:  

To err is human, but when it comes to nuclear weapons, the margin for error is near zero. That was true when the threat was massive, but, oddly, now that the threat is the narrower one from terrorists, it is even more true. The only safe nuclear weapon is one that no longer exists.

I lived through the Cold War and the fear of nuclear annihilation.  I remember the "duck and cover" drills -  here is a brief clip of the kind of "brainwashing" to which we were subjected by our own government:    and if you want to see the entire propaganda film from the early '50s,  try this:  

I was in my senior year of high school when we came very close to a nuclear exchange with the USSR over the Cuban Missile Crisis, an event that contributed directly to a powerful song by Bob Dylan, Hard Rain's Gonna Fall:  

If you explore the Bombspotting website linked above (available in Dutch and French as well as English), you will quickly discover that activism against nuclear weapons is much greater in Europe than it is here.  The question of why we still have nuclear weapons on their territory is one apparently of greater concern there than it is here.  Certainly if we define our most serious enemies as non-state actors like Al Qaeda our possession of nuclear devices in no way serves a deterrent purpose, even as I acknowledge that some in such groups would like access to such weapons to use against us.  The security of such weapons, wherever they are stored, is thus critical.

It is not the only security issue.  Our computer systems are essential to our basic functioning as a nation.  They are under constant attack, sometimes from adolescent hackers, sometimes from the military and intelligence services of nations like China.  Carroll wrote about the work his father did with respect to the security of nukes.  I know the Air Force used to take a similar approach towards its computer systems - one supervisor had been part of a a "Tiger Team" whose job was to find and penetrate any weaknesses in the security of such systems.  I presume that there are those doing similar functions today, because we know how insecure many computer systems are, as we are constantly reminded by breaches in the security of our medical and financial records.  

Computer systems breaches may actually represent a greater existential threat than the detonation of a single stolen nuke.  Yet any enemy who could detonate a nuclear device could cause a level of panic that would make the reaction to 9-11 pale in comparison.  I lived through 9-11, since i was teaching in Arlington VA - site of the Pentagon - at the time.  We had parents coming to pick up children because they thought we might all die, and they wanted to be together with their families.  We did not know what was next.

So long as nuclear weapons are stored, there will be some risk of their being misused, either by those with custody, or those who would seek to improperly gain custody.  There is no such thing as a totally fail safe system.  We might be amused by "War Games" even though to date there is no WOPR controlling our nuclear arsenal. For example, it is still possible that two officers on board a Trident Submarine could initiate a nuclear exchange without a direct order to do so.  Like many concerns we have over control of the nuclear arsenal, this is one which has been fictionally explored, in this case in the film "Crimson Tide" with Gene Hackman and Denzel Washington.

Carroll starts with the issue of the security of nuclear weapons.  Those involved with Bombspotting try to demonstrate the reality of the concern.  

It is perhaps simpler than that.  The existence of nuclear weapons is itself the threat.  I think the President recognizes this, and it is interesting that in the video posted by Bombspotting they intercut his remarks on nuclear weapons.

Carroll's last sentence is an appropriate summary:  The only safe nuclear weapon is one that no longer exists.

I do not know if we will ever get there.  I can only hope and pray that we will.


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The 2007 Minot "incident"
was never satisfactorily explained, IMO. The inventory of lost nukes is another, which at one time I explored here the question of how many nuclear bombs the US Air Force has either mislaid or lost, some in shallow waters, such as off the South Carolina coast. Then there are the nuclear stockpiles of the old Soviet Union, most of them in Central Asia in the "'Stans." Not to mention the Pakistani nuclear scientist, Khan, who was so generous with North Korea and others when it came to specific guidance on developing nuclear weapons.... all of which have haunted me personally over the years.

In other words, as you point out so well, we are far, far from safe. Whatever that means today.

Nukes Save the World
Agree that the world would be a safer without EACH nuke.

Even though the chances of accidental use or a fatal compromise of security are very small, the consequences of failure are far beyond what is described as catastrophic.

But so long as there are other countries that have them -- or reason to have them and capability to make them -- and is no way to disinvent them -- we remain stuck with the need for a survivable deterrent.

Much fewer -- after negotiations -- yes.  Zero no.  

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