The guy who got fired for pointing out a loophole in the nuclear command chain


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.

Let’s say you were a Minuteman missile crewman during the Richard Nixon presidency at the very height of the Cold War. You and your fellow crewmen are down in your underground launch control center, tending to your sector of the “silo farm”—the vast field under which nuclear missile silos (actually heavily reinforced concrete silo-shaped holes in the ground) shelter the instruments of mass death that lurk beneath the bleak badlands of the northern Great Plains. There you are, running through a drill, going down a routine checklist for launch readiness, when suddenly you get what seems like a real launch order. Not a drill. Get ready to twist your launch keys in their slots and send anywhere from one to 50 missiles rocketing toward Russia. World War III is under way.

Or is it? Your launch order codes are “authenticated,” everything seems in order, the seconds tick away. But in what may be the last seconds of your life—for all you know Soviet missiles are about to rain down on the plains—a thought crosses your mind. About “authentication.” It’s supposed to ensure that the launch order comes from the president himself, or (if the president has been killed) from the surviving head of the nuclear chain of command.

But what about that person at the top of the chain of command, the person who gives the order? Has he been “authenticated”? Who authenticates the authenticator? Can the president start a nuclear war on his own authority—his own whim or will—alone? The way Brigadier Gen. Jack D. Ripper did in Dr. Strangelove? What if a president went off his meds, as we’d say today, and decided to pull a Ripper himself? Or what if a Ripper-type madman succeeded in sending a falsely authenticated launch order? You’re about to kill 10 million people, after all.

How the End Begins. By Ron Rosenbaum.Such a scenario was not inconceivable at the time when Maj. Hering was going through missile training class at Vandenberg Air Force base. Bruce Blair (then a missile crewman himself, a wing commander in charge of 200 minuteman missiles, and now the head of the nuclear abolitionist Global Zero Initiative) discloses in my book that he had figured out a way to launch all 200 of his “birds” without authorization. Good thing he’s a very stable guy.

But you’ve probably read about Richard Nixon acting erratically, drinking heavily as Watergate closed in on him. You may not have read about the time he told a dinner party at the White House, “I could leave this room, and in 25 minutes, 70 million people would be dead.” (Try that line out at one of your dinner parties. I’ve always found it a good conversation starter.)

Anyway, back down there in your launch capsule you might allow yourself to wonder: “This launch order, is this for real or for Nixon’s indigestion?”

If you were asking yourself that question, you wouldn’t be the only one. James Schlesinger, secretary of defense at that time, No. 2 in the nuclear chain of command, was reported to be so concerned about Nixon’s behavior that he sent word down the chain of command that if anyone received any “unusual orders” from the president they should double-check with him before carrying them out.

So there you are, having just received the order to launch nuclear genocide. Should you suppress any doubts, twist your launch key in the slot simultaneously with your fellow crewman and send death hurtling toward millions of civilians halfway around the world? Without asking questions? That’s what you’re trained to do, not ask questions. Trainees who asked questions were supposed to be weeded out by the Air Force’s “psychiatric consideration of human reliability” requirement. I’ve read this absurd Strangelovian document, which defined sane and reliable as being willing to kill 10 or 20 million people with the twist of a wrist, no questions asked.

Maj. Hering decided to ask his question anyway, regardless of consequences: How could he know that an order to launch his missiles was “lawful”? That it came from a sane president, one who wasn’t “imbalance[d]” or “berserk,” as Maj. Hering’s lawyer eventually, colorfully put it?

Hering needed a lawyer because as soon as he asked the question he was yanked out of missile training class, and after two years of appeals, eventually had to leave the Air Force, trade in a launch key for the ignition keys to an 18-wheeler.


I read this a couple of weeks back, I’m a big fan of Rosenbaum’s articles. The inherent insanity that the existence of nuclear missiles and nuclear deterrence depend on in order to function is just mindblowing.

This is why you should make sure to show up to vote for Obama in an Obama/Tea Party oddball face off even if you think Obama is a bit of a disappointment.

Pretty much. Scary stuff.

I can see Russia from my window. The button is right here …

Scary indeed.

This has been a concern since the dawn of the atomic age, pretty much. Books and movies like Fail Safe explored the idea of a mistaken or improper launch order, and no one really ever has come up with a way to square decisive control with precautions against insanity.

I always wondered about ballistic missile submarines. I mean, out there in the middle of the briny deep, what’s to stop the two guys necessary to launch from launching, other than what we hope are really good psych profiles? Maybe there’s more tech stuff helping out in that regard; I don’t know that much about it. Luckily most of the submariners I’ve met have been pretty stable people.

But as the article mentions, what the military considers a ‘good’ psych profile in a fellow whose job is to hover over the launch button is not what you and I are probably hoping for.

I don’t quite see how it’s a “loophole,” though. The problem with the logic of nuclear retaliation is that there must be an assurance that it will definitely happen, were an attack launched against you, while it makes little to no sense in any situation to actually do it after an attack is launched.

Yeah, it starts to get pretty weird in philosophical/logical terms if you go far enough down the rabbit hole.

When you consider the rationale, the guy being fired isn’t malicious… it’s not like he was fired for being a whistleblower or something.

They simply remove people who demonstrate that kind of questioning. While it seems so counter to our normal society, which values things like questioning authority, it’s necessary in that kind of chain of command.

If you’re the guy down in that bunker, it’s not really your job to decide whether the order is “right” on some kind of broad moral, ethical, whatever ground. Your job is to turn the key when you’re told, if that order is authenticated. You’re not making the decision to kill millions of people. You’re just performing a simple action. You are essentially a switch in a circuit.

Consider the alternative…
While people may demonize Nixon, since he’s a pretty easy target, and he’s dead… The reality is that he was actually elected by the people. Whomever the president is, he was chosen to hold that power. The guy in the silo? He wasn’t elected by anyone. It’s not his decision to make. And hell, if it were? That job would basically be impossible.

At the same time, as actually mentioned in the article, it’s not like the president just has the button next to his bed like in that old Genesis music video. Those orders go through a number of layers… and really, if it makes it through the top few layers then it’s unlikely that someone has just pulled a Ripper. Because, while there’s this notion that you’re suppposed to do what you’re told, we are talking about humans here rather than circuits. But once you get down to the operational level? Ya, you really need to just do what you’re told.

Of course, it’s all balanced by the fact that nuclear weapons only really serve the purpose as a deterrent if it’s certain they’ll be used… but when the cards are on the table, the only winning move is not to play, as Joshua said. Once you’ve got a bunch of nuclear ICBM’s coming down on you, firing off your own isn’t going to save you. It’s just going to reboot the earth.

It’s one of the reasons I support the idea of missile defense… yes, yes… I know… evil reagan-esque idea. But missile defense, while having all kinds of issues you need to address, at least does offer a chance of survival from such an attack. I generally like the idea of spending that money on something which could save us, rather than just spending the money on the ability to exact revenge on whoever killed us.

Missile defense will work just great for whoever the crazy US president nukes, I guess.

Does your obeying orders argument also apply to the rest of the chain of command?

The president’s nuclear orders would have to go through the Pentagon, and there are several layers where the rules are very clear.

For the order to be legal it has to be approved by both the president and an official who was approved by Congress (a cabinet secretary, for example, but not the national security advisor).

In the event of an overt attack (the Russian nukes are inbound T-minus 20 minutes), a senior military officer can confirm the president’s order. But only in the event of an incoming attack.

Kinda related:

Petrov’s responsibilities included observing the satellite early warning network and notifying his superiors of any impending nuclear missile attack against the Soviet Union. If notification was received from the early warning systems that inbound missiles had been detected, the Soviet Union’s strategy was an immediate nuclear counter-attack against the United States (launch on warning), specified in the doctrine of mutual assured destruction.

Shortly after midnight, the bunker’s computers reported that an intercontinental ballistic missile was heading toward the Soviet Union from the U.S. Petrov considered the detection a computer error, since a United States first-strike nuclear attack would be likely to involve hundreds of simultaneous missile launches in order to disable any Soviet means for a counterattack. Furthermore, the satellite system’s reliability had been questioned in the past. Petrov dismissed the warning as a false alarm, though accounts of the event differ as to whether he notified his superiors or not after he concluded that the computer detections were false and that no missile had been launched.

Later, the computers identified four additional missiles in the air, all directed towards the Soviet Union. Petrov again suspected that the computer system was malfunctioning, despite having no other source of information to confirm his suspicions. The Soviet Union’s land radar was incapable of detecting missiles beyond the horizon, and waiting for it to positively identify the threat would limit the Soviet Union’s response time to minutes.

Had Petrov reported incoming American missiles, his superiors might have launched an assault against the United States, precipitating a corresponding nuclear response from the United States. Petrov declared the system’s indications a false alarm. Later, it was apparent that he was right: no missiles were approaching and the computer detection system was malfunctioning. It was subsequently determined that the false alarms had been created by a rare alignment of sunlight on high-altitude clouds and the satellites’ Molniya orbits, an error later corrected by cross-referencing a geostationary satellite.

Bruce Blair, an expert on Cold War nuclear strategies, now president of the World Security Institute in Washington, D.C., says the U.S.–Soviet relationship at that time “had deteriorated to the point where the Soviet Union as a system — not just the Kremlin, not just Soviet leader Yuri Andropov, not just the KGB — but as a system, was geared to expect an attack and to retaliate very quickly to it. It was on hair-trigger alert. It was very nervous and prone to mistakes and accidents. The false alarm that happened on Petrov’s watch could not have come at a more dangerous, intense phase in U.S.–Soviet relations.”

But he should have followed orders, or the system doesn’t work!

According to that article:

“The president of the United State is now, for 50 years, is followed at all times, 24 hours a day, by a military aide carrying a ‘football’ that contains the nuclear codes that he would use and be authorized to use in the event of a nuclear attack on the United States. He could launch a kind of devastating attack the world’s never seen. He doesn’t have to check with anybody. He doesn’t have to call the Congress. He doesn’t have to check with the courts. He has that authority because of the nature of the world we live in.”

That guy totally ignored the two-man rule. The same two-man rule that has two guys that need to turn the keys in the silo goes all the way to the top.

The president gives the order, but the order has to be confirmed by the SecDef. If the SecDef is killed, another official, who was approved by Congress, can confirm the order.

The Saturday Night Massacre makes the two-man rule academic until you get down past the Presidential appointed level. At which point, of course, they’re supposed to just obey orders.

If the president is giving crazy launch orders that the SecDef is refusing to confirm, and the president fires him, then it’s going to get noticed.

He’s then got to find an yes man who not only has the congressional authority to confirm the launch, but who is also willing to kill millions of people. And he’s got to do it fast, because the senior military and the SecDef and the sane people are going to be on phones pronto.

In 1965 how many people do you think he’d have to fire to find someone willing to authorize a first-strike? I’m guessing 1 or 2. The PR fallout and people running around trying to plan a coup to stop him is academic; the time from order to firing is something like 2 hours.

The sane people wouldn’t be calling CBS. There’s a pretty clear pecking order for military affairs in Congress. The heads of the armed services committee, the speaker of the house, etc. Those people don’t just go off the grid for the weekend.

If it were a first-strike launch order, it’d have had to go through the generals at SAC, and you’re assuming they’re robots. Sure, they’d launch if the missiles are incoming, but do you think there wouldn’t be some hesitancy if the order to end the world came through, out of the blue, and the confirmation order came from the Secretary of Education and not the SecDef?