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Launch Command Preserved In Power Failure, But Nuclear Designs Still Risky 167

Posted by timothy
from the look-we've-increased-and-decreased-risk dept.
With a follow-up to Tuesday's story, Martin Hellman writes "Slashdot reported that a system failure at Warren AFB in Wyoming affected 50 ICBMs and that 'various security protocols built into the missile delivery system, like intrusion alarms and warhead separation alarms, were offline.' Assuaging fears that America's nuclear deterrent might have been compromised during this failure, the source article notes that the missiles still could be launched from airborne command centers. Other reports cite an administration official offering assurances that 'at no time did the president's ability [to launch] decrease.' Given the difficulty of debugging software and hardware that is probably not a good thing. The history of nuclear command and control systems has too many examples of risky designs that favor the ability to launch over the danger of an accidental one."
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Launch Command Preserved In Power Failure, But Nuclear Designs Still Risky

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  • Why have them (Score:2, Insightful)

    by baresi (950718)
    Exaggerated threats from relatively weak entities. Questionable need in 1950 never mind 2010.
    • by blair1q (305137)

      Questionable need in 1950 never mind 2010.

      Then they worked, and are continuing to work.

      • Re:Why have them (Score:5, Insightful)

        by Pharmboy (216950) on Thursday October 28, 2010 @05:19PM (#34056602) Journal

        Expect some bad mods for being right. Everyone likes to pretend that the Cold War didn't happen, and most of the people with the strongest opinions didn't live during it, have never served in the military or had relatives that did during the Cold War. Plenty of mistakes have been made along the way (Vietnam for starters), but having a strong military and nuclear deterrent since WWII wasn't one of them.

        While I understand why, most people under 30 don't fully appreciate the threat of the USSR after WWII as they are fortunate enough to not have lived under it. Ironically, the reason they haven't lived under that threat is due to what some are complaining about to begin with.

        • "While I understand why, most people under 30 don't fully appreciate the threat of the USSR after WWII as they are fortunate enough to not have lived under it." Bull shit ( I am all for a strong nuclear force etc) but basically Russia had the USA hoodwinked into thinking they were 10* stronger than they actually were. The whole shit with russia was more or less just propagated to further the whole red scare.
          • by Q-Hack! (37846) *

            Bull shit ( I am all for a strong nuclear force etc) but basically Russia had the USA hoodwinked into thinking they were 10* stronger than they actually were. The whole shit with russia was more or less just propagated to further the whole red scare.

            *Facepalm*

            Bravo for making an example of the GP's point.

      • Then they worked, and are continuing to work.

        Dog barks at postman. Postman comes and goes away. Dog keeps barking at postman every day. Seems to work.

  • by RichMan (8097) on Thursday October 28, 2010 @04:35PM (#34055982)

    So a previous president lost the biscuit for months at a time. That is the president would have been unable to authenticate to military command that he was giving a launch order. Why was that not considered a problem? When 50 missiles going into a still usable but wacky state is?

    • by pixelpusher220 (529617) on Thursday October 28, 2010 @05:50PM (#34056974)
      Clinton never lost the biscuit. Did you see his waistline? ;-)

      Seriously though, Clinton didn't lose anything, his aide lost the codes but not the football itself (guess I'm assuming there's more to the football than just a folder of codes). The aide then covered that fact up for months before anyone checking on him bothered to do more than take his word for it.

      But Clinton was in no way involved in the loss or cover up of the situation.
  • As I understand it, the entire point of the system of nuclear launch codes and the enormous system built around the nuclear arsenal is to ensure that accidental or unauthorized launches will not happen. Any failure mode of the system should result in an inability to launch -- how is that not obvious? Any other design seems to run counter to the purpose of the system itself.
    • by CannonballHead (842625) on Thursday October 28, 2010 @04:46PM (#34056176)

      Or at least, I hope they run good protection software.

      Like ... Search and Destroy. Or Avast! Nothing like pirates for protecting nuclear warheads.

      [note: this was an attempt at comedy.]

    • 50's era logic. at that time it would seem unlikely for someone to want to accidentally launch them. ie hack the system to cause a fake launch.

      however it would be useful to prevent launch. thus giving a first strike advantage to the russians. so the failsafe is actually M.A.D

      honestly i think in the cold war context that makes sense. you build it so if something goes wrong you take everyone with you and if you know your enemy has that mentality you don't effin hack their shit.

      now in a more modern context wit

      • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

        by epine (68316)

        Ah, the evolution of language. In 1,278,698 I.D. use of the shift key diminished, but the point made was not lost on even the lowly four and five diggers.

        It's true: the M.A.D. doctrine (by which I mean M.A.D in newspeak) inverts the risk profile of the launch-fail condition. Deterrence is like that. In oldspeak, as we used to say, "when the cat's away the mice will play". No, those strange symbols are not mouse-whisker emoticons. We used to call them delimiters, back when both ends of a sentence had on

        • by Pharmboy (216950)

          Too bad we only have negative evidence that M.A.D. actually worked in the first place.

          "Positive evidence" as in real mutually assured destruction? The fact that no one used nuclear weapons in any capacity outside of testing (ie: USSR/Afghanistan, US/Vietnam, etc.) clearly shows that M.A.D. worked rather well. If only the U.S. had nuclear weapons during the middle 20th century, I'm quite sure that they would have been used in other conflicts, to "save lives". M.A.D. made it so everyone must wanted nuclear

          • by tsm_sf (545316)
            Sounds like it worked like a charm.

            It almost failed catastrophically at least half a dozen times. Here's [wikipedia.org] an interesting article on the guy who, although it's up for some debate, probably prevented world war three single-handedly.

            The fundamental principle of MAD assumes rational and informed actors on both sides of the table. At one point we had Khrushchev sitting across from us. At one point they had Reagan.
            • by Pharmboy (216950)

              At one point we had Khrushchev sitting across from us. At one point they had Reagan.

              Both of which I say were much more rational than given credit. One way to get your opponent to pay attention is if they think you are crazy enough to use the nuclear option. Even Obama has made it clear that it isn't off the table. And as for Reagan, I would gladly vote for him again. On the domestic side, he was the closest we have had to a libertarian president. Obviously his foreign policies were not libertarian.

              • by tsm_sf (545316)
                You're not remembering what condition Reagan was in when he left office. That wasn't a partisan dig, the man was unwell.
              • by tehcyder (746570)

                And as for Reagan, I would gladly vote for him again. On the domestic side, he was the closest we have had to a libertarian president

                I'm not sure if that is more insulting to Regan or libertarianism.

    • Better than Dead Hand [wikipedia.org] I suppose. But frankly I'd prefer 50 fewer nukes. Unless we're being purposefully kept in the dark, there aren't but one or two actors of concern that would respond to M.A.D. as a deterrent. The rest that concern us presently are stateless, and/or inclined towards self-sacrifice.
  • Risky!! (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Thursday October 28, 2010 @04:40PM (#34056066)

    It's "Risky." You need to know it's STILL RISKY. Risk we say!

    Be worried. Because their is risk. Don't think about the security those nooks have provided since WW2; there was and is absolutely no "risk" that another world wide conflagration might have or will happen without those risky missiles. But those nooks! The nooks are RiSkY you fool. RISKY. Don't worry about the risk to medical capabilities in the US as we legislate someones' idea of justice into medicine, either. No risk there at all. Running up 10% of our GDP as debt every year is also clearly risk free. So you just keep worrying about the nooks! They are Risky!

    • Don't think about the security those nooks have provided since WW2; there was and is absolutely no "risk" that another world wide conflagration might have or will happen without those risky missiles

      Yeah "security" at what cost? The only "security" that nukes brought us was the "security" that if someone tried to completely wipe us out we could wipe them out too. That isn't security. Should it be considered security to wear a suicide vest because if someone tried to rob you, you could kill the robber?

      And sure there hasn't been a world war on the scale of WWII, but for the inhabitants of countries like Vietnam and Korea where people's lives both westerners and natives alike were used as pawns in a

      • by jpmorgan (517966)

        And the only security you have that someone isn't just going to kill you for your stuff, is that they'll probably be caught and imprisoned for it.

        I don't normally resort to rudeness, but you are a naive fool. Naive because I had to explain the previous point, and a fool because you are criticizing something you don't understand.

        In the event of a nuclear war between Russia and America, the first target for Russian nuclear weapons would be American nuclear weapons. If you want deterrent, you have to make sure

        • Re:Risky!! (Score:5, Insightful)

          by Darkness404 (1287218) on Thursday October 28, 2010 @06:55PM (#34057616)
          And what was the reason for all this? Simple ignorance. If we had actually talked with Russia which basically saved the West's asses from Hitler and included them with our projects, sharing intelligence and the like and had closer American-Russian ties perhaps we could have avoided the entire cold war. Perhaps with the opening of relations between the two countries conditions would be better for the Russians and Americans alike.

          Our current diplomatic process will lead to another war like this, only the leaders of both countries might not be sane enough to avoid nuclear war next time.

          Neither Russia nor the US wanted anything from the other country other than safety. If we had avoided mutual suspicion at the end of WWII and had closer ties, perhaps both nations could have prospered and accomplished much rather than simply building more bombs.
          • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

            by Anonymous Coward

            You don't know much about Joesph Stalin, do you?

            • I've read the protocols from Potsdam and Yalta conferences. He sure was a reasonable man as far as foreign politics goes. Even the Churchill acknowledges it. I failed to see the baby-eating monster with unlimited lust for power.
              Having survived the most devastating war in the history of mankind, having fought on Russian soil against best army of the time supported up by whole European industry, Soviet government naturally wanted to have buffer states just in case next war happens. Strict Soviet control over

          • Re:Risky!! (Score:4, Insightful)

            by Type44Q (1233630) on Thursday October 28, 2010 @08:52PM (#34058358)

            And what was the reason for all this? Simple ignorance. If we had actually talked with Russia which basically saved the West's asses from Hitler and included them with our projects, sharing intelligence and the like and had closer American-Russian ties perhaps we could have avoided the entire cold war. Perhaps with the opening of relations between the two countries conditions would be better for the Russians and Americans alike.

            Riiiiggghht... it was all a misunderstanding; Stalin was actually a nice, reasonable guy beneath that genocidal exterior and would have been a walk in the park to reason with.

          • by u38cg (607297)
            Run a small thought experiment here. Imagine for a second that Russia is not called Russia (or the USSR) and instead substitute another name, like, say, "North Korea" (I just made that up totally off the top of my head). It's still the USSR, we're just calling it North Korea. Ask your question again, substituting "North Korea" for Russia or the USSR every time it appears, and let's see if you still think the question is a good one.
          • Why was the above post rated funny? The OP is right. In retrospective it turned out that the USSR never intended to attack the US and that the "domino" theory which lead to proxy wars and support for atrocial dictatorships was based on a misjudgment of Soviet foreign policies. Basically, both sides were completely paranoid and built up their nuclear arsenal because they were convinced that the other side was planning a first strike, although neither of the side ever planned a first strike. This went so far

          • The other people that have replied should study more history. After 1990, when lots of formerly classified information became available, it became clear that East and West never planned a first strike and the whole cold war was based on paranoia and misjudgment of the other side's motives. The incapability of both sides to correctly assess their opponent's motives almost lead to the complete destruction of the world when a NATO maneuver was misinterpreted as the preparation for a first strike in 1983. At al

  • Once the power was cut, the missiles were supposed to interpret that as an attack, and carry out their last orders (launch toward Russia, North Korea, and David Hasselhof). So why aren't we sitting in a post-apocalyptic wasteland right now? I want an inquiry started immediately!
  • Obviously more fact checking is needed.

    And yes, the system is designed to be able to launch even if an attack (or something else) has damaged part of the system. You know, like "the Internet interprets censorship as damage and routes around it"?

    It's called "redundancy". Would you want a weapon system that is disabled by any damage that might occur? Like in a war?

  • Logo! (Who knew?)

    to spiral :size
    if :size > 30 [stop] ; an exit condition
    fd :size rt 15 ; many lines of action
    spiral :size *1.02 ; the tailend recursive call
    end
  • Canard. (Score:5, Informative)

    by blair1q (305137) on Thursday October 28, 2010 @05:04PM (#34056412) Journal

    "risky designs that favor the ability to launch"

    There are multiple safeguards built into the system that have to be released in order to launch even one missile. None of the safeguards are coupled, meaning that there is no cascading effect. Each one has different inputs and a different means to activate it.

    One of the simplest is that it takes the near-simultaneous activation of two mechanical, key-locked switches to send the fire command to the missile, and these are separated by enough distance that one person can't do it alone. And it only gets to that point after a number of other manual steps have been taken to prep the launch.

    Even the President's order is not sufficient to start everything rolling. The people in charge of monitoring the threat systems go to him to ask for authorization. He doesn't go to them - they'd never believe him if he did, since there's no way he'd know there was a threat. And they don't make their decision lightly.

    At the point where it's necessary to launch a nuke, it will be blindingly clear to everyone that we should have made the process simpler, not that it is too simple.

    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by Anonymous Coward

      At the point where it's necessary to launch a nuke,

      And that time is now! We must preserve the purity and essence of our natural fluids. How can anyone not understand this?

    • by jpmorgan (517966)

      Even the President's order is not sufficient to start everything rolling. The people in charge of monitoring the threat systems go to him to ask for authorization. He doesn't go to them - they'd never believe him if he did, since there's no way he'd know there was a threat. And they don't make their decision lightly.

      The US does not have an unconditional no-first-strike policy.

    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      by Anonymous Coward

      One of the simplest is that it takes the near-simultaneous activation of two mechanical, key-locked switches to send the fire command to the missile, and these are separated by enough distance that one person can't do it alone. And it only gets to that point after a number of other manual steps have been taken to prep the launch.

      Not only that, with Minuteman systems a key turn by both the commander and deputy in a launch control center doesn't directly launch the 10 missiles they are in charge of; instead their key turns are registered as a launch "vote" within their squadron. The 50 missiles in the squadron do not actually receive the launch command until at least two of the five launch control centers in the squadron submit launch votes within a second or two of each other. This both prevents any of the launch control centers f

  • I've been foloowing this blog/news site over the past months -- it exposes the danger of thenuclear arsenals in qa quite rational way - and the way to address it is just giving more exposure to these rational dangers, sot hat people demand dismantling nuclear weapons over time.

    It is certainly worth a look - and an rss feed to follow! http://nuclearrisk.org/ [nuclearrisk.org]

    • Interesting... but... also interesting: we've had several nuclear power plant problems. Have we ever had an accidental nuclear bomb explosion?

      (I actually support nuclear power, by the way.)

      • Well - taht is the base for the author site risk assesment:
        While almost everyone would have an issue with living close to a nuclear ower plant, the risk of the M.A.D. policy uiis equivalent to that several times over, and no one cares.

      • by tehcyder (746570)

        Interesting... but... also interesting: we've had several nuclear power plant problems. Have we ever had an accidental nuclear bomb explosion?

        I don't think it's something that would have gone unnoticed, somehow...

  • Accidental launch? Pttth, please! As long as WOPR can play tic-tac-toe, there will be no accidental launches.
  • The entire point of such systems is to ensure that a launch can occur despite a given failure, but only if authorized to do so. The concept of MAD (the most succesfull peace plan in history) is entirely depenant upon the ability to launch even in the advent of other failures. This was a technical failure and the backup processes and systems all worked as designed. No missle somehow got a launch order and no missle lost the ability to launch if needed. The entire story is hyperbole fearmongering.
  • I am in definitly NO WAY feeling more secure knowing that ICBMs can be launched even with their safeguards down!

  • 'various security protocols built into the missile delivery system, like intrusion alarms and warhead separation alarms, were offline.'
    'at no time did the president's ability [to launch] decrease.'

    Were there any intruders? Were any warheads separated from their launch vehicles? I know, I know. I should RTFA.
  • Citation needed (Score:3, Informative)

    by DerekLyons (302214) <`fairwater' `at' `gmail.com'> on Thursday October 28, 2010 @05:54PM (#34057014) Homepage

    From the summary: The history of nuclear command and control systems has too many examples of risky designs that favor the ability to launch over the danger of an accidental one [nuclearrisk.org].

    [[Citation Needed]]

    Seriously - because the claim quoted above is not supported in either of the linked articles. In fact, the citations show precisely the *opposite* - as the PALs were specifically intended to reduce the ability to launch in favor of reducing the risk of accidental launch. That they were improperly used is an operational flaw, not a design flaw. (A difference roughly as subtle as a baseball bat upside the head - and that the writers are unaware of this is a sure and certain sign they aren't qualified to write on the topic.)

    The writer of the article cited above further compounds his error by using a situation from over three decades ago as 'proof' that a problem exists today - a situation which his own quote shows to no longer exist.

    • Re:Citation needed (Score:4, Insightful)

      by winwar (114053) on Thursday October 28, 2010 @08:17PM (#34058160)

      "In fact, the citations show precisely the *opposite* - as the PALs were specifically intended to reduce the ability to launch in favor of reducing the risk of accidental launch. That they were improperly used is an operational flaw, not a design flaw."

      If so, then the distinction between an operational flaw and a design flaw is a distinction without a difference. Or at least one without significance. If a system designed to prevent something from happening can be easily subverted when implemented as designed then it has a huge design flaw. It assumed (and required) that basic security practices would be followed (unique combinations). If this was not followed, it was worthless. This was by design.

      • If so, then the distinction between an operational flaw and a design flaw is a distinction without a difference. Or at least one without significance.

        Um, no. It's the difference between using a screwdriver to drive a screw - or to stab someone. It's a huge difference.

        If a system designed to prevent something from happening can be easily subverted when implemented as designed then it has a huge design flaw.

        Um, no. The system was designed to have a combination stored in it, and then have that combi

    • by cmowire (254489)

      Yeah, I'm under-impressed with the site's rigorousness as well. Everything the author talks about is something that's been talked about endlessly in the public literature. With the claims made, I kept thinking there was at least a rumor-mongering hint about something new and different.

  • There's an interesting talk given by Richard Rhodes a couple of months ago discussing the likelihood of the use of nuclear weapons:

    http://foratv.vo.llnwd.net/o33/rss/Long_Now_Podcasts/podcast-2010-09-21-rhodes.mp3 [llnwd.net]

    In a nutshell, it probably doesn't matter if they were offline, they're unlikely ever going to get used.

    Listen to the talk for some interesting takes on the "mutually assured destruction" situation.

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