Thursday, November 6, 2014

Command and Control by Eric Schlosser

Like a cork from a
bottle, 9 megatons flies
through the Ark. night sky.

There's nothing like a couple of plane rides for finishing a big book. Eric Schlosser's Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusions of Safety has been on my bookshelf for a while and it was nice to finally have a chance to finish it.

The book centers around the 1980 explosion of a Titan II nuclear-tipped missile in its silo in Damascus, Arkansas. The explosion, caused by the simple but unfortunate dropping of a tool that punctured a fuel tank, caused extensive damage including ejection of the warhead which, fortunately, did not detonate.

When you have complex and dangerous machines maintained and operated by kids in their late teens and early twenties the odds of accidental death, injury, and property damage go way up.

Wait, that's for automobiles, not nuclear missiles.

While the book is centered on the Damascus incident, its main thrust is a dialogue on the the lack of true control over the U.S. nuclear arsenal and goes into quite a bit of detail of the history of nuclear weapons development and deployment and accidents along the way. According to the author and some of the experts he cited, it's almost a miracle that we haven't yet had an unauthorized nuclear detonation due to how the weapons are designed, maintained, and deployed.

This illustration of the potential effects of a 9 MT ground burst at Damascus, Arkansas is from NUKEMAP.
On the other hand, there hasn't been an accidental detonation despite all the accidents. So one might say that the existing controls have worked. That might seem a bit cavalier since we're talking about nukes. The debate here, if there is one, is that you want to be 100% certain (OK, odds of 1 billion to 1) that a nuke will never go off unplanned. But when you need to launch one you want to be certain you can get that done quickly before the enemy's missiles take out your leadership, communications, or missiles. Those needs are, to a certain degree, incompatible.

A knife needs a sharp blade which makes it inherently dangerous.

Same argument is made in the intelligent community when dealing with human sources. If you act quickly and resolutely on every bit of intelligence they provide you risk revealing their identify. But if you hold back to protect your source, you're letting good opportunities go to waste while putting your source at risk.

Read Command and Control for nuclear history, for the tales of weapons accidents, and to engage in the debate about how to best control them. Then consider the fact that, despite the history of accidents in the U.S., other nuclear powers like Pakistan have even fewer and looser controls over their devices.

You can read more about Schlosser at his publisher's website.

"Insisting on perfect safety is for people who lack the balls to live in the real world."

I received no compensation of any kind for this review.

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