For Nearly Two Decades the Nuclear Launch Code at all Minuteman Silos in the United States Was 00000000

Karl Smallwood November 29, 2013 105
nuclear-launchToday 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.

There was particularly a concern that the nuclear missiles the United States had stationed in other countries, some of which with somewhat unstable leadership, could potentially be seized by those governments and launched. With the PAL system, this became much less of a problem.

Beyond foreign seizure, there was also simply the problem that many U.S. commanders had the ability to launch nukes under their control at any time.  Just one commanding officer who wasn’t quite right in the head and World War III begins.  As U.S. General Horace M. Wade stated about General Thomas Power:

I used to worry about General Power. I used to worry that General Power was not stable. I used to worry about the fact that he had control over so many weapons and weapon systems and could, under certain conditions, launch the force. Back in the days before we had real positive control [i.e., PAL locks], SAC had the power to do a lot of things, and it was in his hands, and he knew it.

To give you an idea of how secure the PAL system was at this time, bypassing one was once described as being “about as complex as performing a tonsillectomy while entering the patient from the wrong end.“  This system was supposed to be essentially hot-wire proof, making sure only people with the correct codes could activate the nuclear weapons and launch the missiles.

However, though the devices were supposed to be fitted on every nuclear missile after JFK issued his memorandum, the military continually dragged its heels on the matter.  In fact, it was noted that a full 20 years after JFK had order PALs be fitted to every nuclear device, half of the missiles in Europe were still protected by simple mechanical locks. Most that did have the new system in place weren’t even activated until 1977.

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.

Dr. Blair, whose resume to date is far to long to write out here, is the one who broke this “8 zeros” news to the world in his 2004 article “Keeping Presidents in the Nuclear Dark.” He also outlined the significant disconnect between the nation’s elected leaders and the military when it came to nuclear weapons during the Cold War.

Dr. Blair had previously made waves in 1977 when he wrote another article entitled “The Terrorist Threat to World Nuclear Programs“.  He had first attempted to communicate the serious security problems at the nuclear silos to congressmen starting around 1973. When that information fell on mostly deaf ears, he decided to outline it for the public in this 1977 article where he described how just four people acting in tandem could easily activate a nuclear launch in the silos he had worked in. Further, amongst other things, the PAL system McNamara had touted was barely in operation and thus launches could be authorised by anyone without Presidential authority.  He also noted how virtually anyone who asked for permission to tour the launch facility was granted it with little to no background checks performed. It is, perhaps, not coincidence that the PAL systems were all activated and the codes changed the same year this article was published.

So to recap, for around 20 years, the Strategic Air Command went out of their 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.

We don’t even think that could pass for a bad conspiracy theory film plot, but history is so often stranger than fiction!

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Bonus Facts:

  • Amazingly, if we were actually able to convert matter perfectly to energy with 1 kg of matter being completely annihilated, the energy produced from just that small amount of matter is about 42.95 mega tons of TNT.  So an adult male weighing in at around 200 pounds has somewhere in the vicinity of 4000 megatons of TNT potential in their matter if completely annihilated.
  • This is about 80 times more energy than was produced by the largest ever detonated nuclear bomb, the Tzar Bomba, which itself produced a blast about 1,400 times more powerful than the combined explosions of the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
  • To further illustrate, 1 megaton of TNT, when converted to kilowatt hours, makes enough electricity to power an average American home for about 100,000 years.  It is also enough to power the entire United States for a little over 3 days.  So 1 kg of some matter being completely annihilated would be able to power the entire United States for about four months.  One average adult male then, when completely annihilated, would produce enough energy to power the U.S. for about 30 years.  Energy crisis solved. ;-)
  • On a completely baffling scale, a typical supernova explosion will give off about 10,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 megatons of TNT. *cowers in the corner*
  • This coded PAL system was actually proposed long before JFK issued his memorandum on the subject, back in 1953, where it was suggested they be fitted on Polaris submarines, an idea that was never implemented.
  • Today the PAL system has been significantly upgraded using the “Code Management System”, which was fully implemented in 2004 and supposedly overcomes many of the time efficiency problems inherent in the earlier system, while still maintaining the security that is what such a system is all about in the first place.

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105 Comments »

  1. anonymous November 29, 2013 at 8:07 am - Reply

    First, there is no way missileers were ever given launch codes, they’ve always come direct from the POTUS. However missileers are given enable codes which is probably what they meant to say.
    Second, does the picture of the Titan 2 missile have anything to do with your article? I just thought you would have a picture of the Minuteman 1, 2 or 3 weapon system since that’s what your story was about

    • Daven Hiskey
      Daven Hiskey November 30, 2013 at 1:33 pm - Reply

      @anonymous: It has to do with what images we have rights to publish. :-)

  2. VoiceInTheWilderness November 29, 2013 at 8:59 am - Reply

    FYI:

    “went out of there way” – s/there/their/

  3. Russ November 29, 2013 at 9:33 am - Reply

    Interesting article. One minor point; the officers manning the Minuteman silos are Air Force captains and therefore airmen, not soldiers.

  4. Rocketman November 29, 2013 at 10:28 am - Reply

    Just one more blatant example of the government assuring us for decades that they have everything totally under control and then we the people find out after everything is over with that we were on the razor’s edge of disaster and barely survived.

  5. Larry Levinson November 29, 2013 at 5:36 pm - Reply

    typo alert: ” the Strategic Air Command went out of there way to” … should be `their way,’ not “there way”

    • Daven Hiskey
      Daven Hiskey November 30, 2013 at 12:15 pm - Reply

      @Larry Levinson: Thanks for catching that and being very polite about it. I can tell you the internet usually greets typos with nothing but insults. :-) Fixed!

  6. Required November 29, 2013 at 7:21 pm - Reply

    “…went out of ***there*** way…”

    their

  7. Jack November 30, 2013 at 8:27 am - Reply

    *their*

  8. DaveH November 30, 2013 at 10:10 pm - Reply
    • Daven Hiskey
      Daven Hiskey December 1, 2013 at 1:33 pm - Reply

      @DaveH: The funny part is, it’s all old news. Literally nothing we publish on this site (or Damn Interesting publishes) is even present day news, primarily as we’re not a news site. Much of the stuff we publish is hundreds of years old, sometimes much more! ;-) Damn Interesting is a damn fine site though. Being in the genre, I can tell you they are one of the really good ones as far as research and depth of content goes.

  9. mark December 1, 2013 at 10:03 am - Reply

    >It has to do with what images we have >rights to publish

    I think there are Minuteman pictures in the open domain you can use. This one on wikipedia seems fine since they used it.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Minuteman_III_in_silo_1989.jpg

    • Daven Hiskey
      Daven Hiskey December 1, 2013 at 1:28 pm - Reply

      @mark: That is a good one :-). I usually don’t check wikipedia as I pay for bulk licensing via a stock photo company that has like 26M photos, so I usually just search there. :-)

  10. laughingskeptic December 1, 2013 at 11:55 am - Reply

    Every general involved in direct insubordination should be court martialed and stripped of their retirements. These guys are still alive and pulling down 150k a year or more as retired generals. That should be ended.

  11. Ron Gardener December 1, 2013 at 6:33 pm - Reply

    At least the Minuteman HAD a code!
    The British ‘Yellow Sun’ freefall nuke was activated by inserting a hollow key into a slot on the side of the bomb. The key itself was indistinguishable from the type you might see in a gym locker door, or a $10 bicyle lock!

  12. dmac December 1, 2013 at 9:09 pm - Reply

    Fortunately, the only evidence of this “corruption” is the fact that we’re all here to comment upon it.

  13. trevor999 December 2, 2013 at 5:23 am - Reply

    You do realize that command authority has never rested entirely with the president. If the NCA (National Command Authority) is wiped out, then it falls to a brigadier or major general in the air in the Looking Glass plane to send the launch codes. Failing that, there will always be someone to give the order, even if it’s just a junior staff officer.

    “Congratulations, Major. You get to give the order to blow up the world.”

  14. Jake Lakota December 2, 2013 at 7:28 am - Reply

    What is amazing is during the Kennedy asassination and amid all the chaos the man with the “football” was nowhere to be found. He had been riding in the parade in one of the last limos and when Keendy’s limo sped off, nobody thought to send the man to Johnson. I believe they finally were joined on Air Force 1 flying back to DC.

  15. Eric December 2, 2013 at 11:57 am - Reply

    Title is completely misleading / misrepresentation. Launch codes vs. Enable / Missile Lock codes.

  16. Rush December 2, 2013 at 12:43 pm - Reply

    Okay guys, let us try to straighten out this controversy:

    Prior to “Force Modernization” that began in 1967, missiles had to be “ARMED” before the missile crews turned the launch keys. All it took to arm a missile was for the Deputy to flip up a switch on his “Arming and Status Panel”.

    After Force Modernization that happened in the missile wings between 1967 and about 1972, the new “Force Mod” missile wings had a new piece of equipment in the Launch Control Center designated as the Launch Enable Control Group Signal Panel. After Force Mod a missile had to be “Enabled” rather than “Armed” The new panel had an EIGHT DIGIT SELECTOR SWITCH. This new panel gave SAC the -potential- capability to require an eight digit code to be dialed in before a missile could be enabled.

    I say “potential” because it would have added a huge dose of additional complexity to require that an -additional- code be added to the message that contained the go code. I left the on-alert missile force in 1975, and that potential capability had still not been seen as being required.

    Since the Launch Enable Control Group Signal Panel required that the numbers be set to some digit, the Technical Order (crew checklist) designated that the numbers be set to all zeros. There was no loss in security: after all, there were a number of missile wings that just had to flip up ARMED/SAFE switches to ARM their missiles.

    So this story confuses the very secure with a new potential additional safeguard of a secure “Enable” system.

    The launch codes were never all zeroes. Anyone who ever pulled a day of missile alert would laugh at that story, after remembering all of the hundreds of hours they endured being trained in how to recognize a valid launch message.

    Oh, all of this is UNCLASSIFIED. My unclassified Airborne Launch Control System Checklist from 1972 really confuses those Ruskies by directing me to set the eight-digit thumb-wheels to “01234567″. The developers of the Airborne Launch Control System software decided that we guys flying 33,000 feet over the missile wings should show we were competent to dial in something other than 00000000.

  17. Just for fun December 2, 2013 at 8:43 pm - Reply

    All one needs is a WOPR to decipher the codes and launch the missiles. Gosh, don’t y’all know anything?

  18. Len December 3, 2013 at 8:06 pm - Reply

    Yeah, I’m calling Bullshit on this story too.
    The guy giving us this supposed info is a big lefty anti-nuke activist, and he just happens to be peddling a book about the subject.

    It’s all HEARSAY … no evidence, no documents, no nothing to support the claim.

  19. Rush December 4, 2013 at 3:51 am - Reply

    The problem isn’t that the issues in C&C aren’t legitimate, the problem is that the original story is deeply misleading as I already noted.

    The launch codes were never set to all zeros, or anything similar. Even when Bill Clinton made a big deal about re-targeting all the missiles to empty ocean, and disregarding FLFIS timetables, that was BS too. It would have taken all of about zero time to change that back if the weapons were needed.

    This is about the story above being deeply and intentionally misleading (not by the present author). Find an old unclassified (it was always unclassified) dash 2 manual.

    Sheesh, no missileer would call the launch crew a “firing crew,” nor use the term “launch bunker.”

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