Friday, July 25, 2008

Asleep at the Switch

A few days back I wrote that the United States seems to have informally adopted a policy of nuclear disarmament through benign neglect, even as Russia is taking steps to modernize its nuclear capabilities, raising the prospect of a Second Cold War. I called the post "While America slept," without imagining that the title would within days take on a literal, rather than just figurative, meaning.

Today's news story about nuclear launch officers in North Dakota falling asleep on the job seems an eye-opening confirmation of the case I was making. Air Force officials try in the story to dismiss this as a "procedural violation," and to assure the public that there really was no danger because an investigation found that "the missile launch codes were outdated." So, even if someone managed to slip past the slumbering officers and turn the keys for an unauthorized launch, they would have been foiled -- haaah! -- by the useless launch codes.

Well, thank heaven for safeguards. A missile force with outdated launch codes may not be much of a military deterrent, but at least it's no danger to itself. I can rest easier at night, can't you?

An unnamed friend of mine has an unnamed relative who is a missile launch officer at an unnamed military facility in an unnamed state, and he once regaled me with a story about how this person, when required to work the overnight shift in the silo, swapped the usual stiff military uniform for cozy flannel pajamas. We had a good laugh, picturing the person with a finger on "the button" wearing fuzzy slippers and PJs with bunnies on them. But now it seems less funny.

I didn't mention in my earlier post, but should have, an episode not too long ago when an Air Force B-52 bomber flew cross-country with armed nuclear munitions strapped to its belly, which the crew believed were inactive dummy bombs. There was no real danger that Newark would get nuked (not that anyone would notice). But the incident was a serious enough breach of procedure that the president was alerted, and it not long ago cost some senior Air Force brass their jobs.

These incidents seem to confirm that the "tip of the spear" may have dulled a bit since the end of the Cold War, when America's nuclear weapons program was all but mothballed. The question is, does the political will exist to re-sharpen it?

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