Tag Archives: missile defense

Launch-On-Warning

minuteman3-test-launch

Set aside your latest horror novel and forget the terror from the Hollywood blood and gore machine. What follows is a true tale of existential horror.

It’s a story of potential catastrophic human error, aging and obsolete technology, testosterone-fueled brinkmanship, volatile rhetoric and nuclear annihilation.

Written by Eric Schlosser over at the New Yorker. He is author of Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety”.

I wonder if the command and control infrastructure serving the U.S. nuclear arsenal has since been upgraded so that the full complement of intercontinental ballistic missiles can be launched at a whim via Twitter.

What a great start to the new year.

From the New Yorker:

On June 3, 1980, at about two-thirty in the morning, computers at the National Military Command Center, beneath the Pentagon, at the headquarters of the North American Air Defense Command (NORAD), deep within Cheyenne Mountain, Colorado, and at Site R, the Pentagon’s alternate command post center hidden inside Raven Rock Mountain, Pennsylvania, issued an urgent warning: the Soviet Union had just launched a nuclear attack on the United States.

U.S. Air Force ballistic-missile crews removed their launch keys from the safes, bomber crews ran to their planes, fighter planes took off to search the skies, and the Federal Aviation Administration prepared to order every airborne commercial airliner to land.

President Jimmy Carter’s national-security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, was asleep in Washington, D.C., when the phone rang. His military aide, General William Odom, was calling to inform him that two hundred and twenty missiles launched from Soviet submarines were heading toward the United States. Brzezinski told Odom to get confirmation of the attack. A retaliatory strike would have to be ordered quickly; Washington might be destroyed within minutes. Odom called back and offered a correction: twenty-two hundred Soviet missiles had been launched.

Brzezinski decided not to wake up his wife, preferring that she die in her sleep. As he prepared to call Carter and recommend an American counterattack, the phone rang for a third time. Odom apologized—it was a false alarm. An investigation later found that a defective computer chip in a communications device at NORAD headquarters had generated the erroneous warning. The chip cost forty-six cents.

Read the entire sobering article here.

Image: Minuteman III ICBM test launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base, CA, United States. Courtesy: U.S. Air Force, DOD Defense Visual Information Center. Public Domain.

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Nuclear Codes and Floppy Disks

Floppy_disksSometimes a good case can be made for remaining a technological Luddite; sometimes eschewing the latest-and-greatest technical gizmo may actually work for you.

 

Take the case of the United States’ nuclear deterrent. A recent report on CBS 60 Minutes showed us how part of the computer system responsible for launch control of US intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) still uses antiquated 8-inch floppy disks. This part of the national defense is so old and arcane it’s actually more secure than most contemporary computing systems and communications infrastructure. So, next time your internet-connected, cloud-based tablet or laptop gets hacked consider reverting to a pre-1980s device.

From ars technica:

In a report that aired on April 27, CBS 60 Minutes correspondent Leslie Stahl expressed surprise that part of the computer system responsible for controlling the launch of the Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles relied on data loaded from 8-inch floppy disks. Most of the young officers stationed at the launch control center had never seen a floppy disk before they became “missileers.”

An Air Force officer showed Stahl one of the disks, marked “Top Secret,” which is used with the computer that handles what was once called the Strategic Air Command Digital Network (SACDIN), a communication system that delivers launch commands to US missile forces. Beyond the floppies, a majority of the systems in the Wyoming US Air Force launch control center (LCC) Stahl visited dated back to the 1960s and 1970s, offering the Air Force’s missile forces an added level of cyber security, ICBM forces commander Major General Jack Weinstein told 60 Minutes.

“A few years ago we did a complete analysis of our entire network,” Weinstein said. “Cyber engineers found out that the system is extremely safe and extremely secure in the way it’s developed.”

However, not all of the Minuteman launch control centers’ aging hardware is an advantage. The analog phone systems, for example, often make it difficult for the missileers to communicate with each other or with their base. The Air Force commissioned studies on updating the ground-based missile force last year, and it’s preparing to spend $19 million this year on updates to the launch control centers. The military has also requested $600 million next year for further improvements.

Read the entire article here.

Image: Various floppy disks. Courtesy: George George Chernilevsky,  2009 / Wikipedia.

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