On May 22, Time reported that security forces at a U.S. nuclear missile base failed to speedily recapture a stolen nuclear weapon in a simulated drill. See Air Force Flunked Stolen Nuclear Weapon Test.
The report comes just one month after the Chatham House released a report ‘ Too Close for Comfort: Cases of Near Nuclear Use and Options for Policy‘ which expresses considerable ‘concern regarding current laxity in safety and security measures and in command and control.’
Time reported that the ‘stolen nuclear weapon’ simulation involved a security team at Montana’s Malmstrom Air Force Base responding to a hostile takeover of a Minuteman 3 nuclear missile silo. According to a review obtained by Associated Press through the Freedom of Information Act, the team showed an “inability to effectively respond to a recapture scenario” due to insufficient training and, lack of familiarity with “complex scenario” exercises and shortcomings in “leadership culture.”
The Air Force called the failure a “critical deficiency” at the base.
The Air Force nuclear missile corps has faced a series of recent embarrassments. A commander of the 450 Minuteman missiles was removed from his post last October after the Pentagon concluded that he drank too much and cavorted with “suspect” women on an official trip to Russia. And in March, the Air Force fired nine commanders at Malmstrom amid fallout from a cheating scandal.
The Chatham House report paints an even more alarming picture – detailing a number of incidents ‘in which nuclear weapons were nearly used inadvertently as a result of miscalculation or error.’ The close calls came as a result of various factors including faulty computer chips, espionage, poor communications, mistaken identity of research rocket launch, mistaken interpretation of simulated nuclear training, aircraft accidents and conflict escalation.
The report notes that ‘Incidents similar to those that have happened in the past are likely to happen in the future.’ The report also notes that the ‘probability of inadvertent nuclear use is higher than had been widely considered, and because the consequences of detonation are so serious,
the risk associated with nuclear weapons is high.’
The report gives a number of recommendations on reducing the risk of nuclear weapons use, including ‘buying time for decision-making,
particularly in crises; developing trust and confidence building measures; refraining from large-scale military exercises during times of heightened tension; involving a wider set of decision-makers in times of crisis; and improving awareness and training on the effects of nuclear
The report also calls for a shift in posture of the nuclear-armed States, in particular the adoption of policies of no-first-use and sole purpose (stating that nuclear weapons would be used only in response to a nuclear attack).
However, the report does not mount a challenge to nuclear deterrence policy and possession of nuclear weapons – the elimination of which is the only certain way to avoid any nuclear weapon use by intent, miscalculation or accident. Rather, it admits that “This report does not intend to undermine current nuclear policies or postures, but rather to suggest that history demonstrates there is cause for concern over the inadvertent use of nuclear weapons. The cases presented here are analysed not to encourage alarmist responses but in order to promote a fuller discussion, to avoid future close calls and, ultimately, to prevent the use of nuclear weapons.’
This approach may be intended in order to increase the possibility that the nuclear-armed States will more seriously consider the recommendations, but it runs the risk of being used to support ‘nuclear security management’ rather than nuclear abolition to address the risk of potential nuclear weapons use.