A Conspiracy Theory

Mutually Assured Destruction relies on a second-strike capacity, that is, even if one nuclear power launches a pre-emptive strike on the other, the targeted nation must be able to respond with a nuclear strike on its own. To not have this capacity would be to invite a pre-emptive strike. But there is the ever present danger of a intentional launch by some crazy. One solution is to prevent any launch without presidential or high military approval with a “permissive action link.”(PAL) But this weakens second-strike capacity, as it makes a “decapitation strike” more likely to succeed.

America and the Soviet Union both nevertheless equipped their weapons with PALs. And it’s here that we get to the conspiracy. I’m not saying I think this happened, just that, unlike most conspiracies, it is plausible. There’s already a debate about whether certain elements in the military ever decided that PALs were a bad idea and thus disobeyed the order to enable them:

For nearly a decade, an awkward debate has raged about the U.S. military’s nuclear force: Did top Air Force officials really choose “00000000” as a code that could enable the launch of a nuclear missile? Ten years later, in a document obtained by Foreign Policy, the U.S. military told Congress that it never happened. But is the Pentagon telling the truth?

Bruce Blair, a nuclear security expert and former launch officer , says no. Blair, now a scholar and author at Princeton University, first raised the idea in a piece published in 2004. He accused the Air Force of circumventing President John F. Kennedy’s 1962 order to install extra security codes to safeguard against accidental or unauthorized launch by putting them in place, but making them painfully simple to the missile launch officers who manned underground bunkers. Doing so, Blair said, effectively eliminated the codes’ usefulness.

The U.S. military says that’s not the case. A new wave of media coverage sparked by online media outlets last year prompted the House Armed Services Committee to ask about the issue, and the military responded by insisting “00000000” was never used.

My suggestion is that maybe the generals never “disobeyed” anyone at all. Maybe it was the policy of the government to say that PALs were equipped, but to never actually equip them except in a few specific scenarios.(Such as tactical nukes where there was a fear of enemy capture, as in the American nukes in Germany.) The code really was “00000000,” but this wasn’t defiance of the President, he knew of and approved of the policy. Why go through the trouble? Creating the perception that PALs are enabled will improve the security of nuclear weapons, while somebody in the missile silo has to know the truth, the large majority of the operators can be led to believe the PALs are enabled and thus that it would not be worth trying to force a launch of the weapon. It’s also possible that this policy was agreed upon with the Soviet Union. You see, while the U.S. government would want to create the perception among those close to the weapons that the policy exists, it would certainly not want the Soviet Union to believe this, as it would lead them to believe that a first-strike decapitation attempt would be more likely to succeed. The Soviets, too, would have the incentive. So it’s possible that both met sometime in the 1960s, the Cuban missile scare hanging over their heads, and agreed on a plan to mislead their populations.

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