The U.S. military's reaction to a detected nuclear launch is built on the idea of a retaliatory strike. According to Walter Slocombe, former undersecretary of Defense, the time window for launching a retaliatory weapon under attack is under 30 minutes. But the majority of that time goes into mechanical steps, like detecting the enemy launch, relaying and confirming that message through the right channels, and finally, lastly, telling the president. After all that, a president has just a few minutes to decide whether or not we'd all like living in a Fallout-style wasteland.
That means that every time there is a false alarm in our detection system -- and there certainly have been false alarms (close ones) -- a chain reaction begins that ends with the president having less than the playtime of "Paranoid Android" to figure out whether to unleash hell. Regardless of your thoughts about current or recent presidents, that can't be comforting.
Russia Has Tighter Security At Its Nightclubs Than On Its Nukes
In 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed, Russia went from a "communist" economy to a "grab anything that isn't nailed down" economy. As you might imagine, that had some negative effects on their nuclear storage. In the mid-'90s, one Russian official investigating the theft of highly enriched uranium actually said: "Even potatoes are probably much better guarded today than radioactive materials."
The incident that inspired that quote took place in 1993 at a "secured" shipyard near Murmansk. A thief had climbed through one of several holes in the wooden fence, and then used a hacksaw to cut through a common padlock to steal three fuel assemblies of highly enriched uranium -- the intensely radioactive fuel used to power nuclear submarines. The stolen material was later traced to the house of a Russian naval officer, who presumably thought he was stealing an old bicycle, judging by security.
While it has gotten better in recent years, the county is still ranked 18 out of 24 in terms of nuclear security. Nuclear materials on the black market keep coming up with one conspicuous source, as three nearly identical samples of bomb-ready material have revealed. That means all that's stopping a very bad person from getting their hands on a substantial amount of nuclear material is a whole stack of rubles. Thankfully we're on such good terms with both Russia and the ultra-wealthy these days ...
For ways we're probably very, very screwed, check out The 6 Most Insane Things Ever Done With Nuclear Weapons and 5 Dumb Things I Saw (And Did) While In Charge Of US Nukes.
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Want to know how to go mano-a-mano with a president? Daniel O'Brien can help, with How to Fight Presidents: Defending Yourself Against the Badasses Who Ran This Country!