Nuclear Weapons: Fact, Fiction and Loose Nukes

Several years ago, I wrote “Ballistic,”  a novel in which an Air Force missile base in Wyoming was attacked by terrorists. The story raised the fear of “loose nukes,” nuclear weapons in the hands of those who would use them. Or, in the shorthand language of flap copy:

A Nuclear Missile…

A Band of Terrorists…

And Only Two People Who Can Prevent Armageddon.

The set-up for the novel was that U.S. Air Force “missileers” — the personnel in underground launch control capsules who enter the codes and turn the keys — doubted their services would ever be used.  Discipline was poor, equipment was obsolete, and the missile silos were vulnerable to attack.

So what’s been in the nuclear weapons news lately?

Nuclear Weapons: Peacekeeper
A U.S. Air Force motivational poster for the missile forces

U.S. Nuclear Weapons: 1960’s Technology

If you watched “60 Minutes” last Sunday, you know the answer. The snarky headline describing the piece in the Huffington Post yesterday screamed: “Soooo Our Nuclear Missiles Are Run By Computers That Still Use 8-Inch Floppy Disks.” (The “60 Minutes video is also there).

“On a recent tour of one of the nation’s Air Force nuclear missile facilities in Wyoming, Leslie Stahl of CBS’ ’60 Minutes’ made the surprising discovery about the archaic state of technology inside the facilities. Dana Meyers, a 23-year-old missileer working at the facility, told Stahl of the floppy disks: ‘I had never seen one of these until I got down in missiles.’

“In the 1960s and 1970s, the U.S. government built several facilities like the one Stahl visited to operate and conceal its Cold War-era Minuteman missiles. Most of the technology hasn’t seen a hint of upgrade since then. For example, the missileers use analog phones for communication, as shown in the CBS report. The computers that would receive a launch order from the president to deploy one of the missiles are Internet-free, bulky and painted a retro-inspired muted yellow.”

The “60 Minutes” piece also showed a drill in which specially trained U.S. commandos attacked a missile silo overrun with “terrorists.” That was exactly what I had written years earlier…although the heroes of “Ballistic” were a lowly, drunken Air Force sergeant and a terrified female psychiatrist who had been tasked with testing the mental state of the missileers. (Yes, that was based on a real study involving the safety of our nuclear weapons).

nuclear weapons
Nuclear Weapons: Can a lowly sergeant prevent terrorists from firing a Minuteman?

Nuclear Weapons Tomfoolery

The CBS story comes hard on the heels of other embarrassments for the Air Force nuclear weapons program. Consider this: missileers were recently cheating on their fitness exams! “Air Force Secretary: 37 Nuclear Missile Launch Officers Involved In Drug, Cheating Scandal”

Nuclear Weapons: Silo
I commissioned an illustrator to make this drawing to help me with the logistics of moving U.S. troops and terrorists throughout the Launch Control Capsule and missile silo.

Then there’s this humiliation. Earlier last month, General Michael Carey, the man in charge of all 450 Minuteman missiles was forced to resign after a rowdy, drunken trip to Russia, of all places. As explained by Huffington Post:

“Investigators determined that Carey had engaged in ‘inappropriate behavior,’ including heavy drinking, rudeness to his hosts and associating with “suspect” women, according to the investigative report made public last December.

“After the Russia trip, a member of his delegation lodged a complaint about Carey’s behavior. That person, described as a female staff member in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, asserted to investigators that on the delegation’s first night in Moscow, Carey was drinking and speaking loudly in a hotel lounge about how he was ‘saving the world’ and that his forces suffer from low morale.”

All of which gives me an idea for a new book!

Paul Levine