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Doomsday: what inspired a 'loss of trust' in the man who oversaw the nation's nuclear arsenal?

Doomsday: what inspired a 'loss of trust' in the man who oversaw the nation's nuclear arsenal?


When your finger is on the button, cool heads must prevail

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atomic bomb
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Last week, the highest-ranking official overseeing the largest nuclear arsenal in the world was relieved of duty. It garnered some attention, and a press release from Air Force Global Strike Command did nothing to diminish that. Maj. General Michael Carey — a decorated, two-star Air Force general with enough military clout to be placed in charge of the United States’ 450 intercontinental ballistic missiles — had been dethroned, the announcement said, because of a mysterious "loss of trust and confidence in his leadership and judgment."

The announcement really couldn’t have happened at a weirder time.

First of all, Carey’s demotion came just two days after the Navy’s Vice Admiral Tim Giardina had been ousted from his job as the nation’s number two officer overseeing nukes. Giardina’s ouster came in the wake of a failed safety inspection in August at a Montana nuclear base, which ultimately lead to a colonel losing his job. Months earlier in June, an officer at a nuclear base in North Dakota was fired for "not taking the job seriously enough." In May, the Associated Press reported that three missile launch officers at that same nuclear base in North Dakota had been relieved of duty because "rot" had developed among the missiles stored there. Air Force chief of staff, General Mark Welsh, told Congress that the officers’ problem was that they had a lack of "proper attitude."

Proper attitude would seem to be a requirement for overseeing doomsday devices. If this summer’s timeline wasn’t enough to make you nervous, investigative journalist Eric Schlosser published a book last month, Command and Control, that goes into all the reasons why "proper attitude" is integral. Schlosser’s book highlights, for example, the 1958 incident in which a hydrogen bomb caught fire on a Moroccan runway. It also describes, later that year, an incident in which a nuclear bomb landed (without any fatalities) in the backyard of a South Carolina home.

they had a lack of "proper attitude"

It details the hours of panic on October 5th, 1960, when the US Ballistic Missile Early Warning System misinterpreted the moon’s rising over Norway as a Siberian nuclear missile attack. The examples of simple mistakes that turn into near-world-ending catastrophes are breathtaking. A September 30th New Yorker review of the book points out that "most of the danger that human beings faced from nuclear weapons after the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki had to do with inadvertence — with bombs dropped by mistake, bombers catching on fire or crashing, missiles exploding, and computers miscalculating and people jumping to the wrong conclusion."

That explains briefly why the US military needs to be careful who it puts in charge of its nuclear stockpile. Hans M. Kristensen offered some deeper thoughts.

Kristensen is director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists in Washington DC. There, he provides the public with analysis and background information about the status of nuclear forces and the role of nuclear weapons in the US. Though he’s officially unaffiliated with the US’s nuclear stockpile, he tends to know a lot about it. With minimal help from the US government, he was able to estimate the size of the US nuclear arsenal within 13 warheads in 2010.

Since Air Force officials have been vague about the reasons for its mysterious "loss of trust" in Maj. General Carey, Kristensen guesses that it’s a character issue. "Officials have insisted that he was not fired because of anything having to do with command or operations," he says. "So it must’ve been something at the personal level."

"It had to do with alcohol use."

Recent reporting from the Capitol has backed that up. On Friday, the Associated Press reported that Carey’s ouster "did not have to do with gambling, or the loss of a nuclear weapon, or sexual misconduct." Sources told the AP, however, that "it had to do with alcohol use" on a "temporary duty assignment."

The circumstances of that alcohol use are still unknown. But Kristensen says this wasn’t a circumstance where an alcoholic had one hand on a bottle and the other on a big red nuclear button.

"He may be technically first in command, but we're talking about tens of thousands of people involved in this mission to secure our nuclear weapons," Kristensen says. "It’s not just people in command. It’s also the people who sit in the holds and people who support the wings of nuclear bases. It’s very broad — from the guys driving the trucks that transport the warheads in the ICBM force, to pilots flying single engine helicopters." The thousands of people involved in this mission are "part of manning the weapons and also part of surveillance," he says. "It’s a huge community."

Kristenten says the existence of such a huge community "doesn't mean that every single person has the ability to launch or get close to a nuclear weapon." Furthermore, he says that everyone who is involved with the nuclear program undergoes very strict personal surveillance through the Department of Defense’s Personnel Reliability Program. "This program is designed to monitor the people overseeing nuclear weapons," Kristensen says. "It serves the very purpose of finding problems with character."

And as for worry over who’s got their finger on the proverbial button, Kristensen says it wasn’t Carey. A report for the International Commission on Nuclear Non-proliferation and Disarmament answers the Big Red Button question this way:

The US uses the two-man rule to achieve a higher level of security in nuclear affairs. Under this rule two authorized personnel must be present and in agreement during critical stages of nuclear command and control. The President must jointly issue a launch order with the Secretary of Defense; Minuteman missile operators must agree that the launch order is valid; and on a submarine, both the commanding officer and executive officer must agree that the order to launch is valid.

In short, "it’s a long and tedious process," Kristensen says, noting that nuclear winter is "not something we have to worry about right now."

But, in all likelihood, we’ll worry about it nonetheless.