Is the New START treaty a dead duck in lame-duck session?

Scrutinizing culture.
Nov. 17 2010 4:05 PM

Nukes Go Rogue

Is the START treaty a dead duck in lame-duck session?

LGM-30G Minuteman III missile.

Strange reports have been surfacing recently about missiles and nukes. The one that got the most media attention, the so-called "mysterious missile" filmed off the coast of Los Angeles, turned out not to be a secret U.S., Chinese, or other missile at all but—probably—a conventional flight's contrail. But the L.A. incident followed closely upon a far more real missile crisis, one that received much less attention: the rogue nukes of Wyoming.

It was just a one-day story in the last week of October, so you may have missed the fact that 50 nuclear missiles went rogue a few days before the election. And shortly before the Senate may vote on Obama's New START treaty, which proposes to reduce U.S. and Russian nuclear warheads by one-third.

(The odds for an imminent vote just got longer when influential GOP Sen. Jon Kyl* announced he wanted to wait till after New Year's—when his party would have more leverage in the new Senate line-up—for a vote, though Democrats vowed to continue to press for a vote in the lame-duck session.)

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But back to the rogue nukes of Wyoming. What happened was that 50 missiles—Minuteman III's, which lurk on hair-trigger alert in underground silos surrounding Wyoming's F.E. Warren Air Force Base, each tipped with a thermonuclear warhead whose megatonnage could slaughter upward of 10 million in an instant, depending on where it landed—simultaneously slipped their electronic leash. Stopped answering their e-mail, so to speak. Spam-filtered attempts to contact them. Became unreachable by their controllers at the base.

In the frantic moments after the loss of contact, those in charge had to have been hoping against hope these weapons of genocide-scale death hadn't been hacked by cyberterrorists from the outside or usurped by a madman on the inside who had decided to settle some score with humanity by starting a nuclear war.

The crisis was over before the day (Oct. 23) ended, and everyone in charge rushed to assure us that there was no big problem. But the way they defined the problem itself was deeply disturbing.

The assurances were all about how if the president had really, really wanted to fire those 50 nukes in Wyoming during the outage—hey, no worries! There were workarounds, airborne command posts that could have made it happen if necessary. The "problem" they were worried about, or at least spoke publicly about, was not unauthorized launches, but the inability to carry out authorized launches.

So if we really wanted to use those 50 nukes to kill a billion people that afternoon, yes, it could very easily have been done. Nothing to see here, folks, move along. Learn to stop worrying and live with the bomb.

But in his Atlantic blog Marc Ambinder, who along with Noah Shachtman of Wired's "Danger Room" was among the first to report the rogue nuke crisis, quoted one source in the military as saying, "We've never had something as big as this happen." And believe me, I've studied the history: There have been some very scary close calls. If they weren't as big as this, then this is very big.

Shachtman quoted a former missile man saying, "This is 50 ICBM's dropping off at once. I never heard of anything like it." So who do you believe? One could consult the precedent of the last high-profile missile control fail, back in 2007, when six nuclear cruise missiles were mistakenly attached to a wing of a B-52 long-range bomber and flown from Minot, N.D., to Barksdale, La.—nukes dangling from the wing—without anyone knowing there were nukes in the air. Indeed, this was the first time nukes had been flown over U.S. territory in 40 years.

Back then, too, everyone rushed to assure us it was a minor glitch, but by the time a year of investigation was complete, dozens of personnel, up to and including the Chief of Staff of the Air Force, were fired, and the investigation exposed a culture of carelessness that prevailed when handling nuclear warheads.

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