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On January 23, 1961, a B-52 packing a pair of Mark 39 hydrogen bombs suffered a refueling snafu and went into an uncontrolled spin over North Carolina. In the cockpit of the rapidly disintegrating bomber (only one crew member bailed out safely) was a lanyard attached to the bomb-release mechanism. Intense G-forces tugged hard at it and unleashed the nukes, which, at four megatons, were 250 times more powerful than the weapon that leveled Hiroshima. One of them “failed safe” and plummeted to the ground unarmed. The other weapon’s failsafe mechanisms—the devices designed to prevent an accidental detonation—were subverted one by one, as Eric Schlosser recounts in his new book, Command and Control:
When the lanyard was pulled, the locking pins were removed from one of the bombs. The Mark 39 fell from the plane. The arming wires were yanked out, and the bomb responded as though it had been deliberately released by the crew above a target. The pulse generator activated the low-voltage thermal batteries. The drogue parachute opened, and then the main chute. The barometric switches closed. The timer ran out, activating the high-voltage thermal batteries. The bomb hit the ground, and the piezoelectric crystals inside the nose crushed. They sent a firing signal…
Unable to deny that two of its bombs had fallen from the sky—one in a swampy meadow, the other in a field near Faro, North Carolina—the Air Force insisted that there had never been any danger of a nuclear detonation. This was a lie.
Here’s the truth: Just days after JFK was sworn in as president, one of the most terrifying weapons in our arsenal was a hair’s breadth from detonating on American soil. It would have pulverized North Carolina and, depending on wind conditions, blanketed East Coast cities (including New York and Washington, DC) in lethal fallout. The only thing standing between us and an explosion so catastrophic that it would have radically altered the course of history was a simple electronic toggle switch in the cockpit, a part that probably cost a couple of bucks to manufacture and easily could have been undermined by a short circuit—hardly a far-fetched scenario in an electronics-laden airplane that’s breaking apart.
The anecdote above is just one of many “holy shit!” revelations readers will discover in the latest book from the best-selling author of Fast Food Nation. Easily the most unsettling work of nonfiction I’ve ever read, Schlosser’s six-year investigation of America’s “broken arrows” (nuclear weapons mishaps) is by and large historical—this stuff is top secret, after all—but the book is beyond relevant. It’s critical reading in a nation with thousands of nukes still on hair-trigger alert.
In sections, Command and Control reads like a character-driven thriller as Schlosser draws on his deep reporting, extensive interviews, and documents obtained via the Freedom of Information Act to demonstrate how human error, computer glitches, dilution of authority, poor communications, occasional incompetence, and the routine hoarding of crucial information have nearly brought about our worst nightmare on numerous occasions.
While casual readers will learn a great deal about the history and geopolitics of our nuclear arsenal, Schlosser’s central narrative is built around a deadly 1980 explosion at a missile silo in Damascus, Arkansas, where our most powerful weapon, a W-53 thermonuclear warhead, sat atop a Titan II missile. He puts us on site as the catastrophe unfolds, offering an intimate window on the perspectives and personalities of those involved. It’s a gripping yarn that shows how the military concept of “command and control”—the process that governs how decisions are made and orders are executed—functions in practice, and how it can unravel in a crisis.
Absent the Soviet threat, it’s easy to forget that these ungodly devices are still all around us. An entire generation, as Schlosser told me recently, is blissfully unaware of the specter of nuclear devastation. But Command and Control will leave readers of any age with a deep unease about our ability—to say nothing of, say, Pakistan’s—to handle these weapons safely. Schlosser wrote the book in the hope of reviving America’s long-dormant debate about “the most dangerous machines ever invented.” Fortunately, he delivers a page-turner, not a doorstop.
So below you’ll find the first chapter. It’s just a tease, but it’ll give you a taste of what’s in store. The book is available September 17. Buy it. Read it. Make noise about it. And don’t miss my chat with Schlosser about his epic project, and why he believes “it’s remarkable—it’s incredible!—that a major city hasn’t been destroyed since Nagasaki.”
The following excerpt is reprinted by arrangement with The Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, a Penguin Random House Company. Copyright © Eric Schlosser, 2013.
On September 18, 1980, at about 6:30 in the evening, Senior Airman David Powell and Airman Jeffrey Plumb walked into the silo at Launch Complex 374-7, a few miles north of Damascus, Arkansas. They were planning to do a routine maintenance procedure on a Titan II missile.
They’d spent countless hours underground at complexes like this one. But no matter how many times they entered the silo, the Titan II always looked impressive. It was the largest intercontinental ballistic missile ever built by the United States: 10 feet in diameter and 103 feet tall, roughly the height of a nine-story building. It had an aluminum skin with a matte finish and U.S. AIR FORCE painted in big letters down the side. The nose cone on top of the Titan II was deep black, and inside it sat a W-53 thermonuclear warhead, the most powerful weapon ever carried by an American missile. The warhead had a yield of nine megatons—about three times the explosive force of all the bombs dropped during the Second World War, including both atomic bombs.
Day or night, winter or spring, the silo always felt the same. It was eerily quiet, and mercury vapor lights on the walls bathed the missile in a bright white glow. When you opened the door on a lower level and stepped into the launch duct, the Titan II loomed above you like an immense black-tipped silver bullet, loaded in a concrete gun barrel, primed, cocked, ready to go, and pointed at the sky.
The missile was designed to launch within a minute and hit a target as far as 6,000 miles away. In order to do that, the Titan II relied upon a pair of liquid propellants—a rocket fuel and an oxidizer—that were “hypergolic.” The moment they came into contact with each other, they’d instantly and forcefully ignite. The missile had two stages, and inside both of them, an oxidizer tank rested on top of a fuel tank, with pipes leading down to an engine. Stage 1, which extended about 70 feet upward from the bottom of the missile, contained about 85,000 pounds of fuel and 163,000 pounds of oxidizer.
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A Sneak Peek at Eric Schlosser’s Terrifying New Book on Nuclear Weapons