Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Gentlemen Need No Locks

Popular culture during the Cold War treated nuclear weapons with an almost religious awe, as befitted objects that could end the world. But the fact that nukes are after all only things guarded by men was brought home when B-52s based at Minot AFB accidentally carried five nuclear armed cruise missiles to Barksdale AFB earlier of this year. Now Ultraquiet No More links to a BBC article which claims that "until less than ten years ago, the locks on RAF nuclear bombs were opened with a bicycle lock key."

That kind of claim gets your attention, so I looked up the link. The BBC wrote:



Britain is the only nuclear weapons state which does not have a fail-safe mechanism to prevent its submarines launching a nuclear attack without the right code being sent, according to tonight's Newsnight on BBC Two. ...

They say that "Britain is unique" and British Trident commanders can still launch a nuclear attack without any command from Whitehall if the worst comes to the worst. Newsnight also reveals that, until they were retired in 1998, the RAF's nuclear bombs were armed by turning a bicycle lock key. There was no other security on the bomb itself.

The British military resisted Whitehall proposals to fit bombs with Permissive Action Links or PALs – which would prevent them being armed unless the right code was sent. ...

Newsnight reveals that RAF nuclear bombs were armed by opening a panel held by two captive screws – like a battery cover on a radio – using a thumbnail or a coin. Inside are the arming switch and a series of dials which are turned with an allen key to select high yield or low yield, air burst or ground burst and other parameters. The bomb is actually armed by inserting a cylindrical bicycle lock key into the arming switch and turning it through 90 degrees. There is no code which needs to be entered or dual key system to prevent a rogue individual from arming the bomb, although RAF crews were supposed to always work in pairs if they were near the bomb or had the keys for the bomb.

Correction. It took more than a bicycle lock. It took a coin, an allen wrench and a bicycle lock key. And that was ten years ago of course. But things weren't as bad as they seemed, there was security but it was located on a different level in system. A poster on Ultraquiet No More wrote:

... The Vanguard-class boats are a second-strike deterrent, so the patrolling boats need to be able to launch even if Britain (along with the Prime Minister, who has the launch codes) no longer exists. They still (AFAIK) use a dual-key system, so a single insane captain couldn't launch the missiles. It works like this: There's a safe on the boat, containing the trigger device and the Prime Minister's instructions in case of the destruction of Britain. Only the weapons officer and his deputy know the combination to the safe- the captain doesn't, and it's committed to memory not written down. The captain does, however, have a key without which the trigger device doesn't operate. So launching the missiles requires:The weapons officer to open the safe and connect the trigger to a control panel. The captain to turn the key in a different control panel.

I wonder how these things are handled in Pakistan?

31 Comments:

Blogger Peter Grynch said...

Early in my career I was Physical Security Officer on a nuclear-missile equipped Navy cruiser. We actually had very good security, including two-person key control.

The launch authentication codes were kept in a sealed safe, locked inside a second safe. NOBODY (myself included) was permitted to have both combinations, and the combinations were changed periodically.

In case the ship was sinking, or in danger of being taken over (by Steven Segal or the North Vietnamese), we had high explosive scuttling charges to destroy the missiles before they fell into enemy hands.

When we unloaded the missiles at the end of a deployment a large contingent of heavily-armed trigger-happy marines showed up to provide security at the missile depot, which was itself a high security facility.

I can't speak for anybody else, but US nuclear security is very good.

11/20/2007 05:58:00 PM  
Blogger eggplant said...

Peter Grynch said:

"... I was Physical Security Officer on a nuclear-missile equipped Navy cruiser. We actually had very good security, including two-person key control."

Years ago I was touring the ballistic missile submarine USS Patrick Henry. At the time, the Patrick Henry was an old submarine and about to be decommisioned. During my tour, I had a chat with one of the crew members who worked on the missile launch control system. He had just explained to me all of the safeguards that the Patrick Henry had to prevent an unauthorized launch of a ballistic missile. After his explanation, I asked him who maintained the launch control system and he replied that he did. I then asked him what prevented him from rewiring the safeguards against an unauthorized launch. He didn't have a snappy answer to my question (no one had asked that question before). An officer standing nearby replied that the different crew members prevented each other from making unauthorized changes to the safeguard system. I didn't want to appear rude so I didn't press the point. However it seemed to me that such a modification was possible if the crew member did it when no one was watching.

11/20/2007 06:23:00 PM  
Blogger Wretchard said...

Here's an open source history of PALS which can be read for curiosity. Whatever the technical accuracy of its speculations, I think any common sense person would conclude that security and safety are provided by the entire system in which the weapons are managed.

If the wider system is corrupted, incompetent or lax then my guess is that it will hard for the specific features of the warhead to compensate for these multiple weaknesses. In other words, US security and control has been good in large part because it is US security and control. The same physical systems deployed to Pakistan, for example, might not be secure.

But I'm guessing that Pakistani physical systems are less well designed than their American counterparts. And the organizational elements may also be weak. The fact no accidental explosions or thefts that we know of exist suggests they are not that bad. We know it's bounded, but not where the bounds are.

11/20/2007 06:43:00 PM  
Blogger Doug said...

U.S. Secretly Aids Pakistan in Guarding Nuclear Arms

11/20/2007 07:05:00 PM  
Blogger Doug said...

20 Questions
The most famous case of nuclear idea sharing involves France. Starting in the early 1970s, the United States government began a series of highly secretive discussions with French scientists to help them improve the country’s warheads.

A potential impediment to such sharing was the 1968 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, which bars cooperation between nations on weapons technology.

To get around such legal prohibitions, Washington came up with a system of “negative guidance,” sometimes called “20 questions,” as detailed in a 1989 article in Foreign Policy. The system let United States scientists listen to French descriptions of warhead approaches and give guidance about whether the French were on the right track.

11/20/2007 07:07:00 PM  
Blogger Doug said...

Warmer, warmer...

11/20/2007 07:08:00 PM  
Blogger Doug said...

While American officials say that they believe the arsenal is safe at the moment, and that they take at face value Pakistani assurances that security is vastly improved, in many cases the Pakistani government has been reluctant to show American officials how or where the gear is actually used.

That is because the Pakistanis do not want to reveal the locations of their weapons or the amount or type of new bomb-grade fuel the country is now producing.

The American program was created after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, when the Bush administration debated whether to share with Pakistan one of the crown jewels of American nuclear protection technology, known as “permissive action links,” or PALS, a system used to keep a weapon from detonating without proper codes and authorizations.

In the end, despite past federal aid to France and Russia on delicate points of nuclear security, the administration decided that it could not share the system with the Pakistanis because of legal restrictions.

In addition, the Pakistanis were suspicious that any American-made technology in their warheads could include a secret “kill switch,” enabling the Americans to turn off their weapons.

11/20/2007 07:11:00 PM  
Blogger Doug said...

This is the detail I was looking for:
"In the past, officials say, the United States has shared ideas — but not technologies — about how to make the safeguards that lie at the heart of American weapons security. The system hinges on what is essentially a switch in the firing circuit that requires the would-be user to enter a numeric code that starts a timer for the weapon’s arming and detonation.

Most switches disable themselves if the sequence of numbers entered turns out to be incorrect in a fixed number of tries, much like a bank ATM does. In some cases, the disabled link sets off a small explosion in the warhead to render it useless. Delicate design details involve how to bury the link deep inside a weapon to keep terrorists or enemies from disabling the safeguard.
"

11/20/2007 07:14:00 PM  
Blogger RWE said...

A friend of mine was working at the AF Space Museum in the early 1960’s. They received a US Army Jupiter missile for display, one that been pulled out of Turkey as a result of the deal that resolved the Cuban Missile Crisis. He noted that the missile had an interesting piece of equipment in the nose, noted the part numbers and called the Defense Nuclear Agency. They listened to him and then said “Put a guard on that missile and don’t let anyone near it. We are getting on an airplane headed for the Cape immediately.” The Jupiter had been shipped to the museum with a nuclear warhead installed.

Eggplant: People I know who used to work with operational ICBMs have told me that they were ordered not to think about ways to defeat the Failsafe system. I wonder how you order people not to think about something. However the people most likely to be able to think about the subject with some effect were the maintenance people, and they were not at the launch sites for hours on end with nothing to do.

11/20/2007 07:22:00 PM  
Blogger raymondshaw said...

People I know who used to work with operational ICBMs have told me that they were ordered not to think about ways to defeat the Failsafe system.

I was going to comment about the French inspired 20 questions routine and a culture obsessed by Jerry Lewis when I read this remark. Never mind.

11/20/2007 08:06:00 PM  
Blogger eggplant said...

Doug said...

"Delicate design details involve how to bury the link deep inside a weapon to keep terrorists or enemies from disabling the safeguard."

In the "History of PALS" link that Wretchard provided:

"it was disclosed that modern U.S. hydrogen bombs do, in fact, use a non-spherical core. ...states that two-point detonation is used on warheads like the W88."

If you look in the middle of the Wikipedia article on the Fatman fission bomb, you'll find disturbingly detailed diagrams of the bomb's inner workings along with some actual photos. The key text from the Wikipedia article is:

"An exploding-bridgewire detonator simultaneously starts a detonation wave in each of the 32 tapered high explosive columns"

Combining all of this information together leads me to speculate that a modern PAL works by firing the explosive lenses of the bomb pit at slightly different times because the components of the uranium/plutonium pit are of significantly different masses. With the Fatman, all of the explosive caps were detonated at the same time for the bomb pit to assemble into a single mass. However with a modern nuclear weapon, if all of the caps fired at once then the components would not assemble into a single mass. Under this situation, a modern nuclear weapon would fizzle (fail to produce a significant nuclear yield). Consequently a modern nuclear weapon won't produce a nuclear yield if it were struck by lightning thus accidently setting off all the caps at once or if a terrorist naively hot wired all the caps to go off at once. To be successful, the terrorist must construct a high speed electronic circuit that detonates the caps in the right order with the right time delay between each detonation. This would require a level of detailed understanding that only the bomb's designer could have.

I also suspect the Pakistani nuclear weapons are probably designed like the Fatman. Probably the only safeguard against accidental detonation is to have the bomb pit physically disassembled.

11/20/2007 11:06:00 PM  
Blogger rhhardin said...

The search continues for a decent bicycle lock, too. The best ones it turns out can be opened with a bic pen barrel.

11/21/2007 03:24:00 AM  
Blogger Pat Patterson said...

And all these years I thought that the Duchy of Fenwick was a fictional place in British cinema.

11/21/2007 04:46:00 AM  
Blogger demosophist said...

Actually it would take a coin, an allen wrench, and a bic pen: Kryptonite lock hacked with Bic pen!. (You do have to take the end cap off the pen first, however.)

11/21/2007 04:51:00 AM  
Blogger newscaper said...

Speaking of that "religious awe" WRT nukes...

I just watched Independence Day on cable the other day and was again impressed by the unnecessary stupidity on the part of the writers, turning what could have been, and should have been given the big budget, one of the best invasion movies ever made.

Instead, it was a dumb schlockfest in some ways worse than Armageddon.

The thing that always struck me was the obvious idiocy of attackign a mile-wide spaceship with Sidewinders and their [relatively] flea-bite warheads.

Then, when nukes are belatedly brought into the plot, the script is so infused with the typical left-Hollywood knne-jerk horror of nukes that there is all sorts of agonizing about nuking an alien ship over a city that is already destroyed, one that is about to go on to kill millions of people.

Sheesh. Hell, I would have tried multiple nukes rapid succession trying to overload the shield -- or done my best to evacuate an obvious target city as much as possible then use a prepositioned nuke as a sort of land mine, to be set off when the ship opens the doors protecting its death ray.

Finally, it was utterly absurd to not have nuked the hell out of 'em once their shields were taken down by the ridiculous "virus".

I have a feeling that some day in the next century or three, a lot of people somewhere are going to die because someone in charge is too reflexively hostile to using nukes in some dire circumstance.

A nuke is just a bigger weapon, albeit one with geopolitical and environmental consequences.

[And I'll add that the opposition to the "neutron bomb" was stupid because it actually made it less impractical to use a nuke on your own soil to destroy an invasion w/o the escalation of nuking targets deep in enemy territory.]

11/21/2007 05:47:00 AM  
Blogger Doug said...

A Hillary presidency would render the whole question moot, as the entire World would be held hostage by her Testicle Lock Box.

11/21/2007 06:25:00 AM  
Blogger slimslowslider said...

I am interested in hearing the script for the "once terrorists get nukes" scenario. what would be their demands and would we negotiate?

11/21/2007 09:49:00 AM  
Blogger Wretchard said...

Showslider,

The script will depend on whether the terrorists have a single or limited number of nukes or have the capability to produce a potentially unlimited number of them. (This scenario applies to biological weapons and perhaps more readily to that case).

If the terrorists have simply stolen a limited number of weapons it may actually make sense to buy them off in exchange for the surrender of the weapons. The negotiation process will probably include an active hunt, so that the terrorists are forced to choose between the certainty of great wealth and the possibility of extinction.

But the scenario changes if terrorists acquire the ability to produce potentially unlimited numbers of WMDs. If that technology truly proliferates then there is no benefit to buying a nuke or granting concessions because the next one will come along. In fact if terrorists get WMDs they will probably use them against one another. This creates a very tragic situation where only some kind of huge worldwide massacre of possible terrorist hotbeds will buy a doubtful security for the world.

The first scenario could accidentally lead to the second. If terrorists successfully use stolen nukes to extort large amounts of money from the West, then there will be an incentive to find ways to produce more of them.

11/21/2007 10:12:00 AM  
Blogger slimslowslider said...

is it really about money for them though?

11/21/2007 10:17:00 AM  
Blogger Wretchard said...

If al-Qaeda gets it they'll use it out of hatred for the West. But they might also use it to obtain "money". Money must be understood in the wider sense of concessions. For example, al-Qaeda might say, 'we have a nuke in New York city, leave Saudi Arabia'. Or they might ask for actual money, as their theology allows them to "tax" the infidel.

11/21/2007 10:23:00 AM  
Blogger slimslowslider said...

After the money was transfered do think the terrorists would give themselves up?

11/21/2007 10:31:00 AM  
Blogger Wretchard said...

No. Normally, after receiving several billion dollars, spending the rest of your life in jail seems like an unattractive future.

11/21/2007 10:38:00 AM  
Blogger slimslowslider said...

Money is not what has prevented this scenario from occuring and I dont think it is what their demand would be (it may be their phony demand). After all, how much money do the people who have been funding thier activities have?

11/21/2007 10:50:00 AM  
Blogger eggplant said...

Wretchard said:

"But the scenario changes if terrorists acquire the ability to produce potentially unlimited numbers of WMDs. If that technology truly proliferates then there is no benefit to buying a nuke or granting concessions because the next one will come along."

That situation is almost guaranteed to happen (probably within a decade). There will initially be a fair amount of hand wringing and pious statements from moonbats. Then two major American and/or European cities will disappear with casulties in the millions. Then things get "interesting".

At that point either the United States unilaterally or NATO collectively declares that only they have the right to hold nuclear weapons and all others must surrender their weapons within a set time period. The moonbats will naturally complain about the unfairness of this declaration but their complaints will be ignored. A period of extreme bloodshed would then follow with a signficant fraction of the human race ending up dead or dying (Third Conjecture scenario). Afterwards a single entity would be armed with nuclear weapons and effectively becomes the World Government.

The only way I see the above situation being avoided is if the terrorists/terrorist-state opt to attempt Israel's destruction first (canaries in the coal mine). In that situation it might be possible to quarantine the Middle East. The developed nations would demand that all nations of the Middle East (including Isreal) and developing world surrender their weapons. Essentially the Middle East would be declared a weapons exclusion area. Nations that did not comply would be annihilated. After establishing their hegemony, the developed nations would establish severe restrictions against any nation that sold weapons to the exclusion area. Essentially a Master/Serf duality would be established. This sort of situation would probably lead to some sort of economic exploitation as well (Spartiate/Helot scenario).

The US/NATO would have to be very careful to avoid getting sucked down the Spartan/fascist path where we were constantly looking for any tiny Helot resistance and our whole way-of-life being exclusively focused on military preparation (Samurai Japan/Sparta/Nazi Germany on a global scale).

11/21/2007 10:54:00 AM  
Blogger slimslowslider said...

maybe the short term scenario would be a blend of the Iranian hostage situation and Black September in Munich. Long, torturous and ending very badly.

11/21/2007 11:21:00 AM  
Blogger NahnCee said...

Taking Israel's nukes away from them strikes me as being about as likely as taking Charlton Heston's guns away from HIM. Ain't gonna happen, and I don't blame them.

I could, however, get behind offering them a new country away from the Middle East where they could bring their nukes, their wealth, their knowledge and their ambition and start all over again with our support and best good wishes. Maybe Mexico, since no one's using it for anything very much.

11/21/2007 11:24:00 AM  
Blogger eggplant said...

NahnCee said:

"Taking Israel's nukes away from them strikes me as being about as likely as taking Charlton Heston's guns away from HIM."

More like Roy Rogers. I think the Israelis will eventually see nukes as more of a liability than an asset.

"I could, however, get behind offering them a new country away from the Middle East where they could bring their nukes, their wealth, their knowledge and their ambition and start all over again with our support and best good wishes. Maybe Mexico, since no one's using it for anything very much."

Actually Baja California is a natural assuming the Mexicans could be compensated enough.

The Middle East is a sceptic tank and the Jews deserve better. After Jerusalem gets cratered, the Israelis might buy into moving to Baja California.

11/21/2007 11:40:00 AM  
Blogger Ari Tai said...

What's the current rate that the terrorists exchange captives for convicted criminals held in Israel's prisons? 1 for 100, 1000?

I hope these fools that talk of harming the residents of Jerusalem understand the implication of the "exchange rate" they've set.

Would/should the rest of the world stand by while Israel returned the favor at these rates, with this justification?

11/21/2007 04:02:00 PM  
Blogger NahnCee said...

Would/should the rest of the world stand by while Israel returned the favor at these rates, with this justification?

Oh, hell, yes! You misread the situation. It's not a matter of "standing by". You need to think of it more in terms of a bullfight, where you have various classes / waves of matadors sent in to harry the bull before the coup de grace is delivered.

America wouldn't be "standing by" and "allowing" the Israeli's to take out Arabs, although I can't speak for "the rest of the world" but since "the rest of the world" really doesn't matter and won't do anything any way, we don't need to concern ourselves about that.

America would be actively conniving with them, giving them our best intel and weapons (not that they need *American* intelligence), and cheering them on until it was our turn to step out from behind the curtain and back them up.

You know, like we came to the aid of our allies in WW2, England and perfidious France, and won the war for them. Israel has been a much much better ally than France ever hoped to be, and I think the world view, ambitions and goals of Israel and the United States are much closer now than whatever the goals of Europe might be ... provided Yurp even has any goals any more.

I don't see either Russia or China allowing themselves to get involved, unless it was as arms dealers selling inferior toys to the Arabs.

11/21/2007 04:41:00 PM  
Blogger Doug said...

The crossborder imagery Nahncee and Eggplant evoke!
---
...from Wetbacks to Skullcaps!

11/21/2007 05:38:00 PM  
Blogger nucint said...

eggplant said:
"An officer standing nearby replied that the different crew members prevented each other from making unauthorized changes to the safeguard system. I didn't want to appear rude so I didn't press the point. However it seemed to me that such a modification was possible if the crew member did it when no one was watching."
Fact is, there is never a time when someone isn't watching. Policy of "No Lone Zone" and two-man policy is used to ensure a single person never has access to weapon or launch controls. The saolor in question would not be allowed to work on the circuits without at least one other knowledgeable person watching him.

11/21/2007 07:39:00 PM  

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home


Powered by Blogger