Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Did the USSR really build a "doomsday machine"? One interesting tidbit about the American nuclear command and control system:
One crew member even disclosed to me a flaw in the "command and control" "permissive action" system that was supposed to prevent a madman missile commander from launching his "birds" and starting an apocalyptic nuclear war all by himself. The flaw: the system's susceptibility to the "spoon and string" improvisation.

So much focus has been placed—in film, fiction, and nonfiction—on our supposedly "failsafe" barrier to a lone-madman launch. We'd been told that to launch a missile, two keys must be inserted simultaneously into their slots by two separate launch officers, and that the slots for the keys were located at a sufficient distance from each other that one madman couldn't, say, shoot the other crewman and then use both his arms to twist both the keys simultaneously.

But the missile crewmen I talked to told me they'd figured out a way to defeat that impediment with a spoon and a string. Not that they were planning to do it, but that they knew someone could do it.

You just shoot the other guy and "rig up a thing where you tie a string to one end of a spoon," he told me, "and tie the other end to the guy's key. Then you can sit in your chair and twist your key with one hand while you yank on the spoon with the other hand to twist the other key over."

American ingenuity! Can't beat it for finding a new way to end the world.