5 Dumb Things I Saw (And Did) While In Charge Of US Nukes
The U.S. of A. holds nearly 8,000 nuclear weapons in its arsenal (that's an estimate, because the Department of Defense tends to play all nuke-related hands pretty close to its chest). We wrote an article earlier this year with a man who guarded nuclear silos at the height of the Cold War, but we wanted to know how our military treated nukes now, with Soviet Russia nearly three decades in the rearview mirror.
It's not super easy to get former nuclear missileers (the guys who'd actually fire our missiles in the event of a war) to talk. But our source had just been kicked out of the U.S. Army Aviation and Missile Command for reasons we'll explain momentarily. He gave us an inside of America's atomic arsenal and (SPOILERS), it's fucking terrifying.
Our Nuclear Arsenal Is An Underfunded Backwater
"My job," says our incredibly anonymous source, "was to -- if ordered by the president -- fire a nuclear warhead. Probably at some place filled with human beings." And while there is no proverbial "button," the reality isn't much more complex. "The basics are pretty simple. We have four t-switches, and all four have to be turned at about the same time." That launches the nuclear missile, and presumably ends human civilization.
If you've seen the 1983 movie WarGames, this all probably sounds familiar to you. But you might be surprised to know that the gear young Matthew Broderick played around with was probably more advanced than the gear that actually runs our apocalyptic arsenal here in 2015. The U.S. Army Missile Command hasn't received much new gear since the end of the Cold War, which is why you won't find any USB drives underground at the Air Force base where he was stationed. This is how they transfer files:
It would take four of these to play Oregon Trail.
Yeah, we're going to guess most of the people reading this have never even seen a floppy disk like that. And not only is the gear we use to control our missiles ancient -- the silos themselves are falling apart.
"So many things were broken ... bathrooms wouldn't work so there'd be toilet issues. Little things were always broken: The communications system wouldn't work because there was water in the line. There was a leak in one capsule, with mold. The missiles themselves ... there's always write-ups on those, little things are wrong. Like, there's this thing called a b-plug; it's a massive plug that blocks the manhole cover down to the missile. Those things are horrible, they break all the time. They put in a faster plug ... but the company that made and installed them all immediately went out of business to avoid being sued by the Air Force."
Which really seems like the perfect business model.
Here's what's really scary: That lack of funding and decent equipment sends a message to the airmen responsible for watching over our murderbombs. And that message is, "Your job is very close to worthless." Work in the U.S. Army Missile Command is often seen as something of a dead-end posting.
Which is insane, considering ...
The Job Requires You To Promise To Start The Apocalypse
It's not exactly easy to find people willing to contemplate doing this job, let alone actually do it if the time ever comes. The Air Force makes all would-be missileers sign a written promise to carry out the president's orders in the event of a global thermonuclear war. You can back out at any point, but that means leaving the Air Force and paying them for your education. So yes, the Air Force is literally gambling on the fact that most people see student loans as a fate worse than atomic holocaust.
Little do they know that the only two things that can survive a nuclear war are cockroaches and Sallie Mae.
"They ask you many times throughout your training if you're actually willing to key turn or launch the missile. You eventually realize it's a pretty important job. It feels important and worth doing. ... I would've done it with really no hesitation. And the training that you do, they try to make you not think about the consequences. You just run through the process really quick and do it from muscle memory."
We asked our source what he thought about Stanislav Petrov, a Soviet missile commander during the Cold War who refused to launch his arsenal during a glitch that made it look as if American missiles were incoming. Acting against orders, Petrov refused to launch his missiles and probably saved the lives of everyone reading this article.
And he wasn't even punished for his actions which, in the Soviet military, is the same as a reward!
"I am without a doubt grateful about how he acted. ... His position was very different from where I was in the capsule. He was allowed to see the bigger picture. I think he acted very appropriately. After a while in nukes, you do get an idea of how things will generally go if anyone starts to fire off ICBMs. We are not trained to expect to receive the order to launch out of the blue. I would hope that we could see the entire picture as well as Petrov and choose to not kill untold numbers of people."
As such, you can probably guess that ...
It's A High-Stress Posting, Even During Peacetime
The United States' arsenal of nuclear weapons are at every moment armed, fueled, and ready to fire. They have to be -- the reason the arsenal exists is to make it clear to the rest of the world that attacking the USA with nuclear weapons is suicide. Which means that once the enemy's missiles are in the air, we would have only minutes to give the order to shoot back (or else risk getting vaporized before we have the chance).
So it makes sense that "nuclear missile triggerman" would be one of those jobs that pretty much demands perfection. Having your hand on (or, rather, real damn near) The Buttons That End the World requires months of near-perfect grades on a series of exams that never end. "There are 10 tests you have to pass with over 90 percent accuracy -- and it's got to be well over 90 percent, because if your average drops below 95 percent, you're in trouble. You can only fail three tests before they push you back." And it doesn't end there. "Once you were on the job, you still had three tests every month. Two tests one day, a different test on another random day. The third test was your emergency war orders test. That was the hard one and, for all of these, you had to score a 90 percent or above ... in essence you felt like you career and your entire future was on the line with every test."
The klaxons and red alarm lights in the testing area seemed a bit much, though.
And the commanding officers on site were even more obsessive about the details. Here's how he described one colonel's reaction to minor errors during an important operation:
"This colonel ... saw that one switch on a piece of communications equipment wasn't in exactly the right spot: Everything was still working fine, nothing was in danger. The crewman responsible had just gotten busy before he could check that. The colonel flipped out, went to the evaluator office, and demanded those two crew members be written up as an 'error.'"
Though he later calmed down and had it officially reduced to a "whoopsie daisy."
Perfection sounds like a reasonable expectation considering what's at stake (that is, the world and everything you hold dear) but experts on the U.S. missile program have described this as a systemic problem, referring to, "leaders who demand zero mistakes in every operational and administrative action." There's been at least one report of a colonel forcing his men to shit in a box rather than take the missile offline to fix the bathroom.
So, adding it all up here, we've got:
A. The most deadly serious job in the world;
B. The soldiers doing it are treated like crap and given poor equipment;
C. Said soldiers are expected to perform every task, every day, with absolute perfection or risk ruining their careers.
"WHY IS THAT SO MUCH TO ASK?!"
It should therefore be no surprise that ...
Cheating Was Part Of The Culture
And now we get to the reason our guy is no longer on the job.
Since we haven't had a nuclear war in ... ever-ish, missileers spend a lot of time on "alerts," where they spend 24 to 34 hours straight "in the hole" with their missile. Fail one of those thrice-monthly tests, and you're removed from alert. Which isn't as nice as it sounds, because then one of your peers will have to pick up the slack. "So by fucking up on the test with almost no margin of error, you screw over your buddies."
"This is the exact size of how stretched out our assholes are from you getting us fucked."
As a result, cheating is a ubiquitous part of life for missileers. "In tech school instructors even told us that testing would be 'different' when we got out there, [because] 'people will look out for you.' Cheating has gone on forever; older missileers have told me about the cheating that went on back in the 70s. It's almost bad to call it cheating -- is it cheating when everyone's doing it?"
His personal bias on the subject aside (he did get caught, after all), other former missileers have reported the same thing -- cheating so common it was universal, from the instructors on down to the triggermen. Our source insisted that the cheat sheets he and his fellows used were more of a "security blanket" than anything else, so no one got the odd question wrong and left his buddies to pick up his extra shifts. "You'd call friends who'd already had their test for the month -- they'd write down answers and hand it to you."
"We'd change up the order of questions, but computing random numbers takes six weeks on these computers."
Our source "sort of inherited" control of one of these cheating networks, organizing the dissemination of test answers via text messages. He became one of the four "librarians" responsible for organizing his base's cheating ring. He was given the job by an exiting officer and didn't think much of it. Everyone was cheating, and the brass didn't take much interest in the matter. "There was an incident a couple years ago where someone teaching an emergency war orders test found an answer sheet and reported it to the major in charge of their vault. His response was to ... take the cheat sheet, tell everyone to be quiet, and wipe it all under the rug."
He also insists that the missileers weren't cheating on questions that might lead them to accidentally glass Duluth, Minnesota, or anything: "The most common errors were related to maintenance issues and security. The worst thing that happened regarding the Emergency War Orders was that someone would accidentally open the wrong code book; that was an expensive mistake but not exactly a threat to security. Also, the procedure for actually firing the missile is trained a lot and pretty simple, so it is very rare that it is messed up even during training; damn near everyone has that procedure mastered. ... In the real world, you would never be by yourself making the decisions you would be asked to answer on the test."
The instruction pamphlets were very helpful, too.
Some Of The Cheaters Are Still On The Job
When the hammer came down on the nuclear missile cheating ring, our source described it as "like a bolt of lightning." As it happened, the cheating ring was actually broken up more by accident than anything else. The Air Force Office of Special Investigations was looking into a drug-dealing ring within U.S. Army Missile Command; certain missileers were dropping ecstasy and taking bath salts on (and around) the job.
Sometimes being the harbinger of unimaginable destruction becomes a bit routine, you know?
While those investigators were busting drug dealers, they came across text messages that finally revealed the cheating scandal to a group of people who cared. "They arrested the people they considered 'librarians' or 'ringleaders' first: fifteen or 20 of us on the first day. ... Eventually more and more people were brought down, and eventually they got into really big numbers ... too many people. Basically everyone."
Ninety-two officers were suspended for their part in the cheating ring. That's a little over a fifth of all the officers in the program. According to our source, so many people were implicated that the Air Force couldn't suspend or fire all the guilty parties without leaving our nukes guardless. So they tasked someone with figuring out "the maximum number of people who could be brought down and still continue the mission."
Also known as the "Too Big To Fail Strategy."
Our source was eventually kicked out of the Air Force for his part in the scandal. Most of those 92 suspended officers wound up back at work, though. Only nine officers at the base where our source was stationed wound up getting canned -- even though the Air Force admits "nearly half" cheated, or knew about the cheating.
There is some good news: The Air Force fired several of their worst missile commanders, and the Department of Defense finally agreed to put some money into upgrading our aging silos. (Note: The year before, the general in charge of all of our nukes was fired for getting completely trashed at a diplomatic event in Russia and spending three days drunkenly flirting with two women he was pretty sure were spies.) The tri-monthly tests are now pass-fail, rather than graded. The changes to the testing system and the additional funding have -- at least temporarily -- lead to fewer officers running in terror from nuclear missile postings. For the time being, all we can do is cross our fingers, hope the reforms work, and know that our nation's stockpile of civilization-ending weapons are now in safe custody.
With the cheapest bike locks the government can buy.
Robert Evans runs the Personal Experience section of Cracked, and has a Twitter.
Eh, what's cheating on one or two nuclear missile tests? Wait until you read 6 Tiny Mistakes That Almost Ended The World and you'll thank Vasili Arkhipov in your prayers when you read 6 People You Have Never Heard Of Who Probably Saved Your Life.
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