Personally, I was only involved in one Bent Spear, and two Dull Swords.
The summary that I got from the situation was that a plane heading through the heartland of America accidentally transported a nuke, when instead they thought it was just some other type of bomb which basically means a nuke was accidentally transported across the US without anyone controlling the shipment or noticing until much later.
The current chatter and inclinations are that things have improved due to more rigorous checks and inspections. For me this is very believable due to the amount of news that is made when one of the nuke squadrons fail a regular inspection due to minor mistakes .
I believe the 2008 actions were fallout from the 2007 Bent Spear involving six nuclear cruise missiles on a B52 (not a single bomb), described in the Wikipedia article cited upthread .
 here again: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_military_nuclear_...
"Nuclear Weapon History" would be a very fun class IMO.
The new Call of Duty game will feature these weapons which have the energy of small nuclear bombs yet contain no explosive. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kinetic_bombardment#Project_Tho...
Then there is this Vice video claiming that they found sources for purchasing nuclear devices: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0c4f4NJSB_4
It's near impossible to successfully invade a nuclear armed country. Countries like North Korea have small nuclear weapons and have the potential to use them if an invasion was attempted. They shelter them deep underground or in heavily reinforced bunkers to prevent a country (like the US) from blowing up all of their nuclear devices first. So the US has to develop huge bunker busters such as http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Massive_Ordnance_Penetrator to counter that threat.
Also something that is neat is Variable Yield nuclear weapons. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Variable_yield Many nuclear weapons can be adjusted depending on how big of a boom you want.
Many warheads http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/7/7f/Trident_C...
I'm at work so I can't respond at length, but this video is terrible. I've seen it and it seems quite clear that the device they show is not in fact a "nuke" but a dirty bomb made with radioactive waste, which is far less dangerous and pretty much is just a normal bomb with added terrorism potential due to misconceptions about the risks of radioactivity.
Depending on the size and type of material used. A dirty bomb could be anything from a local nuisance to a national disaster. car-bomb packed with mixed nuclear junk, is on the low end of danger & the authorities could contain & remediate within months anything like that. carefuly chosen isotopes ground to borderline areosol size, used via a sophisticated delivery device, you could seriously harm a double digit percentage of an entire state/country.
3/4 of the safety mechanisms on a 4 megaton bomb failed over US soil.
I would hardly call this a breathless article.
What does "highly vulnerable" even mean? Could it have been triggered by the wind? If I'm the guy at the control panel, am I accidentally hitting that switch a couple of times per week? Maybe the only way that switch gets triggered is if I black out from the stress and my nose hits it on my way to the floor.
I get the significance of three/four barriers failing, but if the fourth one has a one-in-a-billion chance, is it really fair to say North Carolina was "dramatically close" to being nuked?
The switch they're referring to is the arm/safe switch on the pilot's control panel. So the bombs didn't fail, one of them armed and tried to detonate exactly as designed when dropped from an aircraft. The only reason it didn't was because the pilot's arming circuit hadn't been activated. This isn't very reassuring because that arming switch may well have simply been a toggle switch under a cover, and even if it was better protected it still almost certainly boiled down to simply closing one or a pair of contacts, which can quite conceivably happen accidentally while bailing out of a spinning aircraft. Not exactly a one-in-a-billion chance.
There is a discrepancy between what TFA says (three out of four safety circuits) and what the wiki says (five out of six arming circuits) and I can't find anything to clear that up on my phone. Either way it's a disconcerting piece of history
The problem is that there are certain sorts of disasters where you really can't be sure you have the unknowns down well enough..... That's why aircraft components are rigorously tested. The only really safe solution I can think of is to try to anticipate the problem and sabotage the warhead first. For example one might, say, design warheads to destroy portions of the electronics if they get a signal that the pilot ejected.
So yes, it is probably possible. Is it possible to do so reasonably perfectly? I doubt it to be honest.
Maybe the breeze of the wind is less potent than a impact of the drop of a heavy metallic object from an airplane.
I would say its fair, would you feel safe if all bombs only had this switch from the 50s?
That's not 1 in a million, that's 1 in 3.
Based on this tiny sample, here's the lottery analogy:
The lottery will flip 4 coins that have a 37.5% chance of being heads.
If you roll 4 heads lots of people die. So, just using this very inadequate sample from a single declassified document, you could estimate that a misfired bomb has a 2% chance of detonation (37.5%^4).
Obviously none of us know the real dataset, but my point is simply that it's not comforting that so many safety measures failed. (Which, as it happens, is also the opinion of the author of the original report in the article.)
That was exactly my point, that with such little data you cannot judge the probability.
I suppose they could have neglected to put a fuse in the circuit which should have protected it against a surge that would damage some very expensive equipment (not to mention cause nuclear detonation.) But I don't know. I wasn't there to see and I didn't read the report. And we all know fuses fail as well - would that be the fourth out of five failsafes?
To answer your question, no - I honestly would not feel safe. But "dramatically close" is different altogether. When I think "dramatically close" I think about the time my kid ran into the street and I grabbed him from in front of a car... I needed to act urgently to avoid disaster.
I could be wrong though (and often am.)
I don't know how big the primary on that bomb was, and can't find anything about that, but did find this (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Castle_Koon) test of a fusion bomb where the primary didn't fizzle but the secondary nevertheless did not ignite. The primary there was 110 kilotons. So the primary on that bomb, not fizzling, is around 5 or 6 Nagasaki blasts.
According to Wikipedia, the Mark 15 had a real thermonuclear second stage that generated significant yield. However, its second stage was also packed with enriched uranium, and it obtained most of its energy from fission.
Essentially, it was a two-stage thermonuclear weapon that had a lower fusion fraction than most two-stage weaopns.
Summary of atomic weapons:
1. Pure fission. Fusion contributes 0% of yield.
2. Boosted fission: Fusion is used solely to improve the explosive yield of the fission. Fusion contributes 1% of yield.
3. Dirty two-stage thermonuclear: Fusion contributes between 1 and 50% of yield. Most of the yield comes from fissioning of the U-238 tamper by fast neutrons.
4. Clean two-stage thermonuclear: Fusion contributes 90-99% of yield. The U-238 tamper is replaced with beryllium or lead, which does not undergo fission when hit with fast neutrons.
5. Three-stage thermonuclear: Same as two-stage. Thermonuclear bombs are considered to be an "unlimited" design, because you can keep stacking stages on top of each other, until you've got enough to blow up the planet.
A fizzle in the Tsar bomba (a 100MT capable device) would not be expected to release 1MT of energy or even 1/10th that, it would still release likely very much less than even a single kiloton.
Should assumes particular goals, and with almost any system you're looking at a trade off between safety and reliability. Like the sensors on a modern car; some cars refuse to start these days if the sensor's out.
The military's perspective is likely to be something like: We press a button, we want a mushroom cloud. Thank you very much. They're unlikely to want to introduce unnecessary points of failure in their system.
Timing systems, trigger mechanisms and the like will break, or be manufactured incorrectly. Nothing's perfect. Especially when you're designing something that's going to be thrown around a bit (slimmer margins.)
Which then gets weighed against the concern that that thing better not go off by itself.
I would imagine that the latter is why there were multiple safety devices on the weapon - reasoning that the chance of them all failing concurrently was very low.
Either way you do it, you're taking on some degree of risk of something - even if you make a system with a single point of failure, and make it fail safe as far as possible, that can never be entirely eliminated.
It seems rational to us that you'd err on the side of the thing not going off. But then again we're not in an arms race right now. Someone might well reason that if you introduce something that's going to introduce a certain failure rate into your system, that's going to mean you have to invest in more weapons to reach the degree of force you want. Especially if they're reasoning in a very constrained space - i.e. they primarily think about the threats they're used to - and just don't think of things like bombers going down, (which in any case they're going to find themselves encouraged not to do since it implies fault on their part) that's going to be a very easy rationalisation for them to make to themselves.
This article isn't about one person one switch away from death, it's about (potentially) millions of people one switch away from death after three of four switches failed.
With the difference that law-mowers usually aren't dropped from 10,000 feet to the ground in airplane accidents.
And, when I'm not in my "let's cheerlead for engineering / throw-all caution-to-the-wind cavalier attitude", I wouldn't really guarantee that they'd stay turned off if that happened.
There's also the little known fact that lawn mowers usually don't even have the potential to kill 3 million people in an instant.
So, I'd rather go with the opinion of the expert who prepared the accident report and who was actually "a senior engineer in the Sandia national laboratories responsible for the mechanical safety of nuclear weapons".
As for the accuracy of the cheerleading: I've had fickle switches turn on on me. Much more frequently than one in a thousand even. Try some low cost electric products and you'd be surprised (nay, shocked).
E.g., an automatic system senses the bomb is dropping, so it deploys the chute and charges up the firing capacitors. Then another system detects the bomb has reached firing altitude and tries to detonate, but nothing happens because the arm/safe switch is on safe.
Also, do people really switch off their electric lawnmowers and root around inside with the thing still plugged in? Sounds like a great way to get an unnecessary amputation to me. When I work with electricity which must not be turned on, I always either cut it off with something that can't possibly be undone by accident e.g. unplugging the device entirely, or I'm at least using a much more robust circuit breaker.
Of course if there's a lesson here it's already been learned - this is more a commentary on "things we did in the Cold War".
How often are hundreds of thousands of people simultaneously one (single) switch away from likely death?
Do you think that a switch on a device is more likely to fail/flip when that device has been dropped from a plane (than when it is sitting still in your garage)?
Also, these are pretty much standard these days: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Residual-current_device
The switches in this case are likely soft switches or relays, if they could be triggered electrically. If the other three failed, there could be all sorts of reasons to be concerned about this.
Interestingly I had been told about this incident growing up in the 1980's by pro-nuclear-disarmament folks.
But the question in my mind is what would have happened if the bomb had detonated? Would we have jumped to the conclusion that the Soviets were somehow responsible? Could the accident, have triggered nuclear war?
The second bomb plunged into a muddy field at around 700 miles per hour (310 m/s) and disintegrated. The tail was discovered about 20 feet (6.1 m) below ground. Parts of the bomb were recovered, including its tritium bottle and the plutonium. However, excavation was abandoned as a result of uncontrollable ground-water flooding. Most of the thermonuclear stage, containing uranium, was left in situ. The Army Corps of Engineers purchased a 400 feet (120 m) circular easement over the buried component. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill determined the buried depth of the secondary component to be 180 feet (55 m), plus or minus 10 feet (3.0 m).
A first strike in the cold war was expected to be all out -- many, many missiles at once in an attempt to disable the enemy before he could respond. One explosion, in the middle of nowhere, is not a sensible first strike. I'd think "accident" would be the top hypothesis, even if "What are we dealing with?" was definitely a burning question.
There were plenty of times when a much more credible first strike came up. Computer glitches that made it look like dozens of missiles were already in the air. Large exercises that looked legitimately like immediate attacks. Those were scary crises, but they were navigated with caution and skill. A lone explosion in the middle of nowhere wouldn't even rate as a close call, I don't think.
Not universally. The potential for a limited exchange wasn't completely discounted -- the US or the USSR could detonate a single explosive in a side conflict or in the mainlands to signal that they're no longer posturing and are willing to deal with the diplomatic consequences of a single detonation.
Similarly, submarines and SLBMs (with MIRVs, no less,) guaranteed MAD even in the face of a full first strike; responding to a single explosion with a single retaliation (and a diplomatic message of "you knew this was going to be the response; don't escalate") was a lot less suicidal than responding with a full attempted first strike. As a side note, SLBMs also provided for the potential of decapitation strikes, which are a far more measured (...) nuclear strike than attempting to destroy the entire population.
Both sides knew that nobody wanted to suicide their entire country, and knew that both sides knew that (et cetera,) which lead to a number of responses between "do nothing" and "kill the entire world." I'd like to think that the US and USSR wouldn't've attempted a first strike even if the tanks were rolling into the capitals, but that might be idealistic.
So my mom was a civil-service accountant/programmer for the armed services at NAS Moffett Field in the 1970's. She recounted story after story of conspicous waste, especially related to expensive aircraft parts (lost/stolen/missing).
Also, a guy I know became very unpopular (career ending) with COs for objecting to needlessly chewing up $1 mil helicopter turbines.
So it seems par for the course.
The actually budgetary cost was much lower.
But don't let that stop you from panicing.
He did the right thing, too. It was an already tense situation, and letting it escalate into all out war . . . no one can say where it would stop.
Whatever you think of current politicians, JFK was a great man. There's no way, no way at all, he would have started a global hot war out of sheer pride.
But beyond that, it was a very different time. The US really was in mortal combat, which is not something this generation has witnessed. "We will find those terrorists" was a popular message on 9/11. "The Russians hit us for real and we have to hit back," during the Cold War, would not have been. It would have sounded like the end of the world. The political temptation would not have been to make an accident look like a real strike, but -- if anything -- to make a real strike look like an accident.
That's why it was a cold war. If anyone on either side had wanted a hot one, they could have started it easily a dozen times over.
"Noone" felt like going to war with the big other superpower.
As for places of strategic interest, they absolutely LOVED going to war over them, Korea, Vietnam, tons of Latin America, etc etc.
Yes, because radars at the time were so advanced that nothing could go wrong. They were made by the same guys that lost 2 bombs near a major metropolitan area.
Yay for engineering!
I remember thinking "that would be the nice gag in James Bond movie, but it was real"!
This time, all this "we dropped bombs all the time" doesn't sound crazier that "Dr. Strangelove."
Given that there haven't (as far as I know) been any accidental nuclear detonations despite the ridiculous number of accidental drops, I'd say the fail-safe control engineers are doing a pretty good job.
"British nukes were protected by bike locks" - http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/7097101.stm
That's nice for when one uses official statistics to defend the safety of such things...
> "large enough to have a 100% kill zone of seventeen miles"
Wow, this quote makes you realize the scale. Nuclear bombs are discussed so frequently that it's easy to forget their potential.
> "Five of the six arming mechanisms on one of the bombs activated, causing it to execute many of the steps needed to arm itself, such as charging the firing capacitors and, critically, deployment of a 100-foot-diameter (30 m) retard parachute. The parachute allowed that bomb to hit the ground with little damage."
What would cause any of the "arming mechanisms" to activate?
Would there be any evidence of what even happened if the nuclear bomb had exploded? The plane and bomb would be completely vaporized. It would be nothing but conspiracy and rumors as to why a nuclear bomb went off that day in Goldsboro.
Mr. Schlosser is doing a good job promoting his book though.
Would you see any of the past/recent administrations blame themselves for it?
Wouldn't the blame instantly be put on terrorists/russians/iranians/etc? And wouldn't this have lead to some kind of WWIII?
Accidents do happen.
You're just thinking of a different narrowly avoided nuclear catastrophe.
You think carrying bombs on this flight is extraordinary? You don't know the half of it. They were dragging bombs all over the place, all the time, to a ridiculous extent. The practice run could turn into nuclear war while the planes were in the air.
And some of the terminology-fiddling is Fun: when they told people things like "the bombs were not armed", they meant that were only a quick switch away from being armed. in related news, the NSA doesn't have "direct access" to Google servers. :P
US was narrowly spared a disaster of monumental
proportions when two Mark 39 hydrogen bombs were
accidentally dropped over Goldsboro, North Carolina
on 23 January 1961
The bombs fell to earth after a B-52 bomber broke
up in mid-air, and one of the devices behaved
precisely as a nuclear weapon was designed to behave
in warfare: its parachute opened, its trigger mechanisms
engaged, and only one low-voltage switch prevented
As it went into a tailspin, the hydrogen bombs
it was carrying became separated. One fell into
a field near Faro, North Carolina, its parachute
draped in the branches of a tree; the other plummeted
into a meadow off Big Daddy's Road.