How have we not had a nuclear war? It is hard to maintain much faith in the long-term safety of our nuclear deterrent with each glimpse of the all-too human flaws of those with their finger on the button. Thirty-four Air Force officers in charge of launching nuclear missiles have been suspended over accusations that they cheated in proficiency tests about their knowledge of how to operate the weapons. The cheating, uncovered during a probe into the use of drugs by nuclear launch officers, betrays the complacency and boredom of men and women whose job is to refrain from doing the one thing they are trained to do.
Officials have been quick to reassure the public that these suspensions pose no risk of nuclear accident, but it's hard to be convinced. Consider the types of incidents that we now know happened during the cold war era: bombs almost detonating by accident and military exercises being twitchily misunderstood by officers on the other side. The pattern has been one in which the government reassures the public that no danger exists, while privately acknowledging their fears that human and technical error could conspire to catastrophic effect. The classification of military documents will hide current blushes for decades to come.
In 1961, a B-52 Stratofortress fell apart midair in an incident above North Carolina. The crash resulted in the release of two nuclear bombs, described at the time by a US Department of Defense spokesman as being unarmed and incapable of exploding. In 2013, declassified documents revealed that only one of the four safety mechanisms on the bombs worked.
The minutes from a now-declassified meeting with Secretary Of State for Defense Robert McNamara in 1963 says that he complained that this was one of two air crashes – the other in Texas – where "by the slightest margin of chance, literally the failure of two wires to cross, a nuclear explosion was averted." McNamara was demanding an end to the delegation of responsibility for launching nuclear weapons by anyone other than the president, noting that "despite our best efforts, the possibility of an accidental nuclear explosion still existed." Publicly, the military had no option but to reassure the public, whilst privately acknowledging the real risk created by the possibility of technical failure and human error.
The difficulty with the role of nuclear launch officers is that their job is almost entirely uneventful. It's easy to see how this would lead to professional frustration. In a post-cold war era, it is unlikely to be a career which attracts the brightest and the best, and 99.9% of the role would simply not require the Air Force's top talent.
Responsibility for the inception of all-out nuclear war is not without its pressures; occasionally there are moments when the world has to trust that the person making the decision isn't one of those bored, drug-taking nuclear launch officers who cheated on the proficiency exam. Take Vasili Arkhipov, a high-ranking Russian officer on board the B-59 submarine off the coast of Cuba during the Cuban missile crisis. With tensions running high, the B-59 was forced to dive and lose radio contact with its commanders. Fearing that nuclear war had already begun, Arkhipov was asked by his captain and the boat's political officer to give his vote to launch a nuclear torpedo. Rules dictated that the vote among the top three officers be unanimous, and Arkhipov vetoed the action, averting nuclear war.
US submarines today have the same capability to launch nuclear weapons, although it's not clear they have the authority to do so. In these rare situations, it is vital that the person making the decision is trained, clear-headed and reliable. Failures of vetting mean that less than ideal candidates can slip through into jobs with high levels of responsibility. The mental health of nuclear launch officers who have been said to suffer from serious "morale issues" can never be entirely guaranteed. If an accidental nuclear explosion were to occur on US soil, it is of little reassurance to learn that the men and women responsible for our military response are, according to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, in need of immediate review.
As long as we have nuclear weapons, we are compelled to place the ability to launch them in the hands of mere mortals. It is an unlikely gamble on human nature. Classification of information means that we usually only learn of the truly scary moments long after the fact, by which time they lose their ability to horrify us. A rare exception to this is 1995, when the Russians mistook a Norwegian research rocket for a US ballistic missile heading for Russia. Despite the end of the Cold War, it was the first time that the leader of a nuclear country was forced to literally open the "nuclear briefcase". Boris Yeltsin had inserted his nuclear key and was two minutes away from launching Russia's own nuclear missiles, when the flying object detected by Russian radars fell into the sea.
As we learn of near misses, and the failings of our last line of defense, it becomes harder to believe that nuclear proliferation will not ultimately lead to an accident. There is no knowing how professional the launch officers of other nuclear states are, or how they would react to a nuclear incident. As more countries develop their nuclear arsenals, an ever larger group of people must be trusted with the power to trigger nuclear catastrophe. The greater the number of men and women with the responsibility of not launching nuclear weapons, the greater the likelihood that the weakest link in this deadly international standoff will fail. Clouded in secrecy, the dangers are hard to quantify. The greatest danger might not be in a bunker near Tehran, but a silo in Montana.