In 1994, when [William Perry] became President Bill Clinton's secretary of defense, the US faced an entirely different set of security problems. The cold war was over, and the nuclear weapons of the former Soviet Union were located not only in Russia, but also in three new republics that were not capable of protecting them. Perry gave these "loose nukes" his highest priority. He was able to arrange for the dismantling of all of the thousands of nuclear weapons in the Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan. He movingly tells of visiting a silo built for the Soviet SS-19 missile and watching it disintegrate in a cloud of smoke. Earlier he had visited the site and was briefed by young Russian officers on how the hundreds of missiles under their control would have been fired at targets in the United States. Observing a practice countdown at a site that at that very moment was targeted by American missiles, he realized what an absurdity had been created by nuclear competition.
-Jerry Brown, A Stark Nuclear Warning (Review of My Journey at the Nuclear Brink by William J. Perry)
Jerry Brown provides an excellent and thought-provoking review of William J. Perry's book, My Journey at the Nuclear Brink, this month at the New York Review of Books. Perry's impressive resume includes a "Ph.D. in mathematics, vast technical training and experience in high-tech business, management of research and weapons acquisition as an undersecretary of defense under President Carter, and deputy secretary and then secretary of defense under Bill Clinton."
Brown takes the reader through Perry's evolution of thought about the weapons that he was providing research, management and advice on over the course of decades. He started out as a senior scientist at Sylvania Electronic Defense Laboratories in what is now known as Silicon Valley but was, in the 1950s, one of the bastions of the defense industry, particularly nuclear weapons. Brown describes Perry's first job at Sylvania as providing his first epiphany about the utter insanity and nihilism inherent in nuclear weapons:
Perry's first job at the Electronic Defense Laboratories was "to evaluate a proposed electronic countermeasure system" intended to jam "the guidance signal of an attacking Soviet intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM)." After careful study, he reported that jamming could successfully reduce fatalities from a medium-size nuclear attack by about two thirds, that is, from 75 million immediate deaths to 25 million. But he later noted that this estimate did not take into account long-term deaths from radiation and "nuclear winter." Nor did it include the tens of millions of wounded who couldn't be treated or the total disruption of the economy and the fabric of our society. This was the moment when Perry concluded that there could be no acceptable defense against a mass nuclear attack, an opinion from which he has never deviated.- Advertisement -
At the end of the Eisenhower administration, Perry worked on the team that CIA director Allen Dulles oversaw to determine if the famous "missile gap" with the Soviets actually existed. Perry had determined that none existed but states in his book that his report was kept secret for years. During the Kennedy administration, Perry served on a committee set up by the CIA and NSA to assess the Soviet Union's ICBM weapons and was part of the analytical team that studied data and reported the results to the president during the Cuban Missile crisis. During that period, Perry feared each day that it might be the end.
At this point in the review, Brown relays Perry's observation that "it was by luck that we avoided a nuclear holocaust in the Cuban crisis." He describes additional dangers during the crisis that were unknown to many at the time but later came out, such as the fact that, due to communications challenges, Moscow had authorized the commanders of the submarines that were approaching the U.S. blockade of Cuba to fire without further approval. Of the three commanders on board one of the Soviet submarines that an American destroyer was attempting to force to the surface, one dissented from ordering a launch on the American vessel, averting a nuclear escalation.
Additionally, an American reconnaissance plane strayed into Soviet airspace during the crisis, triggering the scrambling of Soviet attack jets. Fortunately, the pilot realized his error in a timely manner and was able to exit Soviet airspace before the planes could reach him.
The volume of these near misses has been documented by journalist Eric Schlosser, author of Command and Control, and would almost make an atheist believe in the intervention of a higher power in saving humans from their sheer recklessness with respect to the most destructive weapons ever developed.
In a 2013 interview with Michael Mechanic for Mother Jones magazine, Schlosser discussed the accidents that served as an inspiration for him to write the book. This includes a 1961 accident in which a US Air Force plane dropped a hydrogen bomb in a North Carolina town. It failed to detonate thanks to one remaining safety valve that worked after the other five had failed.
A few of the other accidents included a 1966 collision between a B-52 bomber and a refueling tanker over Spain, resulting in the B-52 breaking apart and dropping its load of 4 hydrogen bombs with 2 partially detonating, polluting the Palomares region with radiation; a 1968 B-52 crashing in Greenland where 3 of its hydrogen bombs contaminated an icy area of roughly a quarter million cubic feet; a 1985 incident in which a weather anomaly set off a Soviet early-warning satellite indicating an American launch of 5 ICBMs - miraculously, the watch commander decided it had to be a mistake and chose not to report the alarm further up the chain of command, averting another possible nuclear escalation; and a 1995 incident in which the Russian Federation's early-warning system mistook a Norwegian weather rocket as "an incoming U.S. Trident missile." Before the mistake was realized, the Russian military had gone into preparations for a potential counter-attack.
In the Mother Jones interview, Schlosser discussed more recent incidents:
The incident in 2007, when we lost half a dozen hydrogen bombs for a day and a half, was an incredibly serious security lapse: The fact that nobody was asked to sign for the weapons when they were removed from the bunker, the fact that nobody in the loading crew or on the airplane even knew that the plane was carrying nuclear weapons is just remarkable. A few years ago, they lost communication with an entire squadron of Minutemen missiles -- 50 missiles! -- for almost an hour. They had to decertify the maintenance crew that looks after the biggest Air Force storage facility in New Mexico. Seventeen launch officers were taken off duty earlier this year for safety violations. There's a sense of a lack of direction, and mismanagement right now -- particularly in the Air Force. And it's intolerable. It's unacceptable.
Not only does a mail-order package from Victoria's Secret have more tracking requirements historically than flights with nuclear payloads, but Schlosser also documents that the guardians of the nuclear arsenal are often lackadaisical, inadequately trained and have substance-abuse problems:
One of the lessons would be, if you're going to have nuclear weapons, you must spare no expense in the proper maintenance of them. The Titan II was widely regarded as obsolete. They were running out of spare parts. There were frequent leaks, and the warhead was acknowledged not to have adequate safety devices. The people working on it were often poorly trained, poorly paid, overworked. There were shortages of trained technicians. In retrospect, it was completely irresponsible to have all those things occurring with a missile carrying the most powerful warhead ever put on an Air Force missile. It's just extraordinary. And there were high rates of drug use. I spoke to people who had been involved in sensitive nuclear positions who were smoking pot all the time. You don't want people smoking pot and handling nuclear weapons. [emphasis in original]