Thrawn Rickle 33

Deliberate Nuclear War

© 1993 Williscroft

While there is no doubt that an accidental detonation or launching of nuclear weapons is not realistically possible, could a ballistic submarine commander launch his missiles without specific presidential authorization? Could a few men conspire and successfully bypass the built-in safety systems to launch nuclear weapons?

The people who established our nuclear weapons control systems fully understood the omnipresent element of human uncertainty. To offset this, they created the Reliability Program.

Anybody with access to any element of nuclear weapons is under continuous, close scrutiny. From the admiral in command of a flotilla to the least significant seaman swabbing the deck around the outside of a missile tube—every individual having even the remotest contact with nuclear weapons and their means of delivery participates in the most closely supervised “buddy-system” in the world.

Every participating individual submits to a background investigation. It’s depth depends on the individual’s ultimate responsibilities and potential for causing a problem. Before being assigned to more sensitive positions, individual’s dossiers must be updated, with the level of the investigation appropriately intensified.

Beyond this, however, each individual is specifically and legally responsible for observing every other individual in the program with whom he or she comes into contact.

If Lieutenant Jones suddenly starts drinking three cups of coffee in the morning instead of just one, Seaman Smith, who brings him the coffee, must report this change. If he doesn’t, and if this change and Smith’s knowledge it become factors in a future problem, Smith will suffer consequences as severe as Jones. It has worked for more than thirty years!


Every element that is remotely connected with launch authorization is under continuous “two-man control” in a manner similar to weapons and maintenance procedures. It takes two individuals to bring together any system element that can ultimately lead to launch of a nuclear weapon. These individuals, while they usually will know each other, are prohibited from establishing close personal ties. In the event that such ties happen, they must voluntarily step forward with this information and be reassigned. Failure to do this requires their dismissal and disciplinary action.

Only the president can authorize a nuclear weapons launch. His authorization will arrive by secure radio, encoded by long-established, reliable methods. To ensure that the message is authentic, sealed authenticators are used. Created and distributed under continuous two-man control and with the tightest security available to modern technology, each set of these authenticators contains identical symbols, entirely unknown to anybody. To further safeguard their integrity, on a moment’s notice, sets are randomly invalidated system-wide. A launch message identifies an authenticator and lists the symbol. If the local authenticator does not match, launch is denied. The Reliability Program ensures the integrity of this step to the limits of human capability.

A presidential “shadow” carries the currently active authenticator set and several backups—always under two-man control. Should the president and his immediate staff be lost, the entire system can rapidly shift to the next responsible official so that within minutes appropriate launch messages can be authenticated—using another set of authenticators.

The system isn’t foolproof, but within the limitations of the trust we place in our highest officials it nearly eliminates the chance of a nuclear weapon being launched without proper authority.