How to Start a Nuclear War
The increasingly direct road to ruin

Cockburn, Andrew

Publisher:  Harper's Magazine
Year Published:  2018  
Resource Type:  Article
Cx Number:  CX23003

A chilling look at the security measures and processes behind the U.S. nuclear weapons system. The article examines how safeguards and procedures have evolved, including more recent efforts to curb the President's absolute authority to push the button.



Among students of nuclear command and control, this practice of precluding all options but the desired one is known as "jamming" the president. Blair's irksome protests threatened to slow this process. When his pleas drew rejection from inside the system, he turned to Congress. Eventually the Air Force agreed to begin using "unlock codes" - codes transmitted at the time of the launch order by higher authority without which the crews could not fire - on the weapons in 1977. (Even then, the Navy held off safeguarding its submarine-launched nuclear missiles in this way for another twenty years.)

Following this small victory, Blair continued to probe the baroque architecture of nuclear command and control, and its extreme vulnerability to lethal mishap. In the early Eighties, while working with a top-secret clearance for the Office of Technology Assessment, he prepared a detailed report on such shortcomings. The Pentagon promptly classified it as SIOP-ESI - a level higher than top secret. (SIOP stands for Single Integrated Operational Plan, the US plan for conducting a nuclear war. ESI stands for Extremely Sensitive Information.) Hidden away in the Pentagon, the report was withheld from both relevant senior civilian officials and the very congressional committees that had commissioned it in the first place.