When The Nuclear Launch Code Was 00000000

Minuteman_Missile_NHS

Karl Smallwood tells the story of a day when every Minuteman missile silo in America had a nuclear launch code that would make any security expert cringe:

Today I found out that during the height of the Cold War, the US military put such an emphasis on a rapid response to an attack on American soil, that to minimize any foreseeable delay in launching a nuclear missile, for nearly two decades they intentionally set the launch codes at every silo in the US to 8 zeroes.

We guess the first thing we need to address is how this even came to be in the first place. Well, in 1962 JFK signed the National Security Action Memorandum 160, which was supposed to ensure that every nuclear weapon the US had be fitted with a Permissive Action Link (PAL), basically a small device that ensured that the missile could only be launched with the right code and with the right authority.

(…)

Those in the U.S. that had been fitted with the devices, such as ones in the Minuteman Silos, were installed under the close scrutiny of Robert McNamara, JFK’s Secretary of Defence. However, The Strategic Air Command greatly resented McNamara’s presence and almost as soon as he left, the code to launch the missile’s, all 50 of them, was set to 00000000.

Oh, and in case you actually did forget the code, it was handily written down on a checklist handed out to the soldiers. As Dr. Bruce G. Blair, who was once a Minuteman launch officer, stated:

Our launch checklist in fact instructed us, the firing crew, to double-check the locking panel in our underground launch bunker to ensure that no digits other than zero had been inadvertently dialed into the panel.

This ensured that there was no need to wait for Presidential confirmation that would have just wasted valuable Russian nuking time.  To be fair, there was also the possibility that command centers or communication lines could be wiped out, so having a bunch of nuclear missiles sitting around un-launchable because nobody had the code was seen as a greater risk by the military brass than a few soldiers simply deciding to launch the missiles without proper authorization.

(…)

So to recap, for around 20 years, the Strategic Air Command went out of there way to make launching a nuclear missile as easy, and quick, as possible.  To be fair, they had their reasons, such as the fact that the soldiers in the silos in the case of a real nuclear war may have needed to be able to launch the missiles without being able to contact anyone on the outside.  That said, their actions were in direct violation of the orders of the Commander-in-Chief, the President of the United States, during a time of extreme nuclear tension. Further, not activating this safeguard and lax security ensured that with very little planning, someone with three friends who had a mind to, could have started World War III.

Well, take that for what it’s worth.

H/T: Taegan Goddard

FILED UNDER: Military Affairs, National Security, Quick Takes
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020.

Comments

  1. This is such an oversimplification and absurd paranoic “OMG, we could have had World War III” foolish reaction about nuclear weapons that it really should go by without comment…as if the fact the PAL codes for the Minuteman force were set to eight zeroes on the checklist was new news today (it’s been publicly known for at least a decade). However:

    1) Within a Minuteman Wing, Squadron, or Flight it is IMPOSSIBLE for a single Missile Combat Crew (MCC) in one launch control center (LCC) to initiate a launch, and that’s been true since the Minuteman force first went on alert in the 1960s. Two “launch votes” by two different MCCs in different LCCs are required to start the countdown.

    2) There are five flights, each with 10 missiles and an LCC, in every Minuteman squadron. Even if you had four MCC members paired in two different LCCs within a Minuteman squadron decide to end the world, the missiles don’t launch the second the keys are turned as the sorties are programmed for specific times-on-targets based on a “war start time”, plus the automated steps required to launch the missile(s) don’t end when the keys turn, they start. Since every LCC in the squadron can command every flight in the squadron for redundancy purposes, a launch vote entry by any LCC is reported to the other four. MCC officers are trained that if one of their fellow LCCs enters an invalid launch vote – i.e. one that hasn’t been preceded by a validated, authentic emergency war order launch message – that they are to throw their inhibit switches, which will prevent the launch. It only takes one of the two MCC officers to prevent a launch from happening anywhere in the squadron. (And actually, there’s nothing except trust to prevent an officer from throwing an inhibit if a valid launch order is received and they can’t bring themselves to do their duty).

    All of what I just wrote is public knowledge available in any number of unclassified sources. If you honestly believe that at any time we were at risk of having 10 United States Air Force officers who would all be rostered for duty at the same time and who all were willing to launch nuclear weapons without orders I really think you’re disconnected from reality.

  2. Hal 10000 says:

    That’s the kind of code an idiot would have on his luggage.

  3. Grewgills says:

    @Allan Bourdius:
    So the fact that the SAC deliberately broke the law and presidential order for 20 years deserves no comment? The fact that no one at SAC that authorized this was disciplined for that is egregious and does deserve comment.

  4. Peter says:

    While this isn’t something easily confirmed, the story goes that the military realized that there was a flaw in the labeling of the safety switches on nuclear weapons. They used to read “On” and “Off,” and there were fears that in the heat of the moment this could be confusing to crewmen (e.g. does ‘Off’ mean that the switch is deactivated and the bomb can detonate, or does it mean that the bomb is off?) To avoid any possible confusion, the military changed the switches to read “Peace” and “War.”

  5. mt noise says:

    @Grewgills: How did SAC break the law? They were told to put a code system in place and they did so. The memorandum never said what the code had to be.

  6. @Grewgills

    Slight problem with your assertion: the much ballyhooed JFK National Security Action Memorandum 160 which is the whole basis of this kerfuffle didn’t apply to the Strategic Air Command, it applied to US nuclear weapons allocated to NATO under “dual-use/dual-key” provisions. That is to say, the weapons themselves were in the custody of the United States, but they were intended by use by the Luftwaffe or other allied air force.

    Unless you’ve got a source which placed the Minuteman force located entirely in the continental United States at Ellsworth, F.E. Warren, Grand Forks, Malmstrom, Minot, and Whiteman Air Force Bases under the authority of NATO, you can’t say that particular restriction applied. 🙂

    Now, were there others that did apply? Hmm…if there were, interesting that no one ever talks about them, isn’t it?

    And again, as easy Google searches show this same canard of a story being reported widely back in 2004, isn’t this just a symptom of a slow news week?

    Well, actually, it’s a ridiculous plea for nuclear disarmament, in a time where we should be undoing some of the nuclear posture drawdown put in place by President Bush – the first one.

  7. Grewgills says:

    @Allan Bourdius:
    These were high ranking US military officers under command of the President of the US, correct? They were given an order authorized by him were they not? They then directly and intentionally subverted that order. How is that unworthy of comment? How is my thinking that the persons responsible should have been punished for that wrong?

    To be clear, I don’t think it put us in significantly more mortal peril during the cold war, but that doesn’t mean I approve of the action.

  8. Tyrell says:

    @Grewgills: When I was a child we were in the middle of the cold war. I always felt secure and slept well knowing that SAC had a fleet of bombers up there all the time guarding this country and on the lookout for any funny business in Russia.

  9. JohnMcC says:

    @Tyrell: My dear, dear Tyrell. How charming is your naive trust. You’ve never heard of the B-47 that was struck by lightning over Alaska during the Cuban Missle Crisis causing it to lose it navigation gear? It wandered free as a bird over Siberia in the midst of the closest thing to an actual nuclear exchange we’ve had. The aircrew didn’t know where they were until the sun came up at the ‘wrong’ time. The Soviets let them (and you and me) live. When JFK was notified he made one of his famously witty cracks: “Well, there’s ALWAYS one dumb sunufbitch that doesn’t get the word.”

    Read plenty about other ‘skin of our teeth’ escapes at nuclearfiles-dot-org, “20 Mishaps That Might Have Started Accidental Nuclear War.”

    And don’t take anything like that on faith every again! Make them prove that they’re not stupider than anyone should be who is holding the death of millions in their hands.

  10. swearyanthony says:

    The actual story is even more insane. This is covered in depth in Eric Schlosser’s recent book “Command and Control” (which is absolutely, without hesitation recommended to everyone).

    Briefly – there were two possible ways to design nuclear weapons. Number 1 was that they’d *always* go off when fired, but have a non-infinitesmal chance of going off accidentally. Number 2 was that they’d have almost no chance to go off accidentally but might then not go off when fired. SAC strongly preferred the former, despite the risks. After many many near disasters (seriously, read the book and be absolutely gobsmacked how many near misses occurred) the SAC were ordered to put the safety mechanisms in. In a passive aggressive fit of petulance they set the code to all zeroes.

  11. rudderpedals says:

    @swearyanthony: Eric Schlosser’s recent book “Command and Control” (which is absolutely, without hesitation recommended to everyone).

    Seconded. Fast, fun read.

  12. I’ve read “Command and Control”; picked it up after hearing Schlosser on the Diane Rehm show, hoping it would contain at least some “new” information. However, if you’ve been the least up on the nuclear history of the United States or aren’t looking for “OMG! World War III” nuclear weapons paranoia, I’d suggest looking elsewhere.

    Still waiting for someone to explain how JFK’s NASM 160 mandating PALs for US nuclear weapons assigned to NATO and based in Europe can be rationally used as a justification for criticizing SAC over Minuteman practices…

  13. rudderpedals says:

    @Allan Bourdius: I’d suggest looking elsewhere.

    Any specific suggestions?