Archive for October, 2010

To the Universe and Beyond!

October 31, 2010

Tales from the Nuclear Age:


Copyright © 2010 by Charles M. Glassmire


Oct. 30, 2010

“To the Universe and Beyond!”*


*(Captain Buzz Lightyear in Toys.)

During the cold war of the 1970’s, game theorists asserted that a nation which felt it could destroy an enemy with a massive nuclear first strike would be heavily tempted to actually use that option. The success of such a plan would depend upon the ability of the enemy to respond to such an attack with a devastating second retaliatory counterstrike. If the enemy nation possessed a strong counter punch it would deter the other from initiating an attack. Such were the grim speculations of two nations poised on the brink.

The Soviet leadership viewed the “evil” capitalist nation of America as pursuing a relentless improvement of its strike force, which seemed to be working toward a first strike capability. Such an attack, they reasoned, could decapitate the

Captain Buzz Lightyear

USSR command structure, and would prevent them from responding with a counter strike. During this time the American  force was comprised of bombers and silo based missiles. Both sides knew the accuracy of these forces was so low that there was no guarantee the enemy could be accurately destroyed. (“Accuracy” is measured in CEP or Circular Error of Probability. This was the radial distance of a circle with 50% chance of weapon impact.) The CEP was large in the ‘60’s, meaning accuracy was poor, so a first strike was not probable.

This leads to an interesting story about creativity, the interchange of technologies, and how the Soviets were ultimately responsible for improving the US nuclear missile accuracy. The story begins in 1952, when the International Council of Scientific Unions declared that July 1957 would begin the International Geophysical Year (IGY). It advocated putting satellites in orbit to map the surface of the earth. This year was picked because the 11 year sunspot cycle would be at its maximum.

President Eisenhower solicited satellite proposals from the government and chose the Navel Research Lab’s project for a Vanguard Satellite program.  It was to represent the United States by hefting a 3.5 pound instrumented satellite into earth orbit. Work progressed at a modest pace. Unknown to the public, Dr. Werner Von Braun, expatriate German scientist, was also marshalling a competitive US satellite project named Explorer. Von Braun had impressive credentials. He was the scientist who had produced the V-2 Rocket for Adolph Hitler, which rained down devastation on the British during the London Blitz. At wars end he fled to America, to work at the Army’s Redstone Arsenal, bringing many of his German rocket team along with him.

In deepest secrecy, the Soviet Union was also working on a satellite program.  One week after Eisenhower’s 1955 announcement, the Presidium of the Central Committee of the Communist Party moved to approve the idea of creating an earth orbiting satellite to be injected during the ’57-58 years. By early 1956 funds were approved and work was distributed among the Soviet Ministry of Defense and four other Ministries of the Soviet Union.  Work began in earnest, utilizing the Soviet R-7 rocket. The satellite was code named “Object D” (later replaced by the lighter weight “Object PS” when their rockets could not boost the initial D weight.)

Work continued. Soviet progress was marked by similar disasters as were plaguing the Vanguard Program. Rockets exploded on the launch pad. Rockets launched and then spun end over end during the boost phase. Rockets failed to gain orbital velocity and crashed miles from the launch pad. Stages failed to separate, dropping pieces over the landscape.

Nevertheless, on Friday October 4th 1957, the Soviet Union successfully launched the first satellite into a (relatively) stable orbit above the earth. Its name was Sputnik I. As an astonished American public looked to the heavens for a tiny star-like blip moving across the sky  (this was actually a piece of the booster rocket the Soviets had covered with shiny metal so it would be visible from the ground), the Space Race had officially begun.

Engineers at RCA Riverhead,  Long Island were the first to record the radio Beep Beep signals emitted on the 20 and 40 megahertz bands.  Temperature and Pressure were coded into the duration and spacing of the 1/3 second beeps, along with signal strength showing  electron density in the Ionosphere (although it’s unclear if anyone knew this at that moment.) On Friday night they rushed the recording into Manhattan. The NBC Radio headquarters broadcast the sounds to an America which had been comfortably sleeping, safe in the post-war knowledge that the United States was the world’s leader. Once again it was time for America to awaken.

I remember that moment on Friday evening well. I was a High School Senior, and I was riding in a car with my friend Jack going to a party, when the news flash came over the car radio. I was stunned. I could not believe what I was hearing. There was a foreign object flying over our heads, invading our space. I felt violated, frightened. I muttered out loud, “My God – this will change everything!” My friend was nonchalant and dismissed my comment. “No, no”, he said, “this won’t make any difference at all…it’s nothing”. I rode on into the darkness in stunned silence, but somehow I knew America had changed forever that night.

The media went hysterical; then the public followed. A wave of fear swept the country. Curiously, while the Soviets talked of going into outer space, the orbit they chose for Sputnik was a Polar Orbit. A Polar Orbit was the shortest distance between Soviet Union and continental US. This was the orbit which would be used if a nuclear missile attack was launched from USSR at the United States. The fear intensified.

Everyone was discussing the event over the weekend. On Monday, two physicists at John Hopkins Applied Physics laboratory in New Jersey, William Guier and George Weiffenback, were curious. They were creative people, and decided to try to hear the signals. One had a microwave receiver hooked into an amp in his office, and they began a frequency search listening on earphones and finally heard the signals. They sensed they were hearing history and recorded the sound . Soon the entire office staff was lined up down the hall, all wanting to have a turn. Then, listening more precisely, they noticed a Doppler effect in the signal frequency. (This is a change in pitch as a source passes by the listener – we notice a car horn tone rise higher, then drop lower as the car passes us fading into the distance.)  This meant the beeps could tell when the elliptical orbit was closest above them and farthest away. Knowing the frequency rate of change they could also calculate the orbital parameters, farthest away distance and closest to surface distance – called Apogee and Perigee. They ran the numbers, and soon had calculated Sputnik’s orbit. So for the first time someone on the Earth’s surface had computed an orbital location. But the fun was only beginning.

After weeks of expanded research, the Lab Assistant  Director, Frank McClure, called them into his office. He asked a fundamental question. Could they do the calculation in reverse? Could they locate a position on the Earth’s surface from an orbital location above the earth? More number crunching and the answer came back YES! It was possible! This idea, created by a couple of guys just fooling around, was the beginning of our modern satellite based locators, now called the  Geographic Positioning System (GPS).  Today they talk to our digital cameras and allow our teenagers to play location games on their iphones.

The weight of the new Sputnik was a hefty 185 pounds. America compared this to the intended Vanguard satellite weight of 3.5 pounds. It was humiliating! A few months later, in January of 1958, America launched the first Explorer I into successful orbit. Soon the government began to pour large amounts of funding into education for science, engineering and mathematics. We were “behind” and needed to “catch up”. It wasn’t too long until a system of spy satellites was examining the Earth surface, and broadcasting geo-location signals to the military.

The implication of this discovery also had profound impact on nuclear war defense on both sides. The introduction of Submarine Launched Ballistic Missiles (SLBM’s) was a recent innovation in the US nuclear force Triad. The Polaris missile was introduced around this time, successfully launched from a sub under the water surface, and the US submarine force soon had five “Boomers” sailing the oceans with the nuclear navy, each armed with nuclear ballistic missiles.  But you really couldn’t hit a precise target on land, when you knew only approximately where your submarine was located in the ocean when you launched. So the Polaris SLBM Circular Error of Probability was awful. Even the Soviets knew it. In a strange way, this knowledge leant a certain stability to the Cold War situation.

But by the 1980’s the situation was changed radically. New smaller CEP weapons with greater accuracy appeared in the American arsenal. They had names like Pershing II, MX Peacekeeper, and Trident II. They carried Nukes from 50 Kilotons (2 ½ Hiroshima weapons) to 475 Kilotons. The CEP for some of these was down to 90 FEET. If the US Boomers crept in close to the European Coast before launch, the warning time for the Soviet Union would be cut from 30 minutes, which allowed a responsive counter strike, to 17 minutes, which was too little time to do anything but perish. Now the game was getting serious, and Soviet military planners became convinced there would be no time to mount a response to a US first strike attack.

We are only now discovering what they did in response to this situation. Taking a page from Dr. Strangelove, we now have some evidence that the Soviet military implemented a Doomsday system which they called Perimetr. In case the Soviet leadership was all destroyed in a first strike, Perimetr was to launch a counter strike against America. This was to be an automatic Soviet nuclear response to an assumed nuclear attack! There was to be no human intervention needed in this automatic response. Even more frightening, we have no indication that Perimetr was ever dismantled. Could it still be hidden there in Russia, waiting for a nuclear attack to launch?   …

(to be continued …)

The Doomsday Machine

October 14, 2010

Tales from the Nuclear Age:

 Copyright 2010 by Charles M. Glassmire 


Oct. 14, 2010

 The Doomsday Machine

          In 1964, director Stanley Kubrick released the motion picture Dr. Strangelove (or How I learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb).  At that moment America and the Soviet Union were

Movie Poster

heavily engaged in the cold war, and a nuclear exchange between the two countries was quite possible. In the USSR, paranoid fear of the United States was rampant, especially the fear of a US nuclear first strike against them. To the Soviet leaders, the United States’ image was that of an evil capitalist-based but devilishly clever nation, hell bent on world conquest. Similarly (but perhaps less hysterically) in the US, first strike fears of the USSR also circulated.  Strangelove  was a chillingly real but ironic black comedy examination of the dynamics of the international situation then balanced on a razors edge.

          The film tells the fictional story of a rogue cigar smoking US Air Force Base Commander, General Jack D. Ripper (played by Sterling Hayden), who fears the USSR is plotting to destroy his “precious bodily fluids…”.  He explains there is a communist conspiracy to fluoridate the US water supply. In the film he thus releases an unauthorized vengeful nuclear B-52 attack against the Soviet Union.

          Could a single person launch a US nuclear strike? We laughed at the movie, but knew it was impossible, so we said. The government explained all the safeguards which had been installed, and besides, only the President could order missiles and aircraft to attack anyone. When Secretary  McNamara came to power during the administrations of Kennedy and Johnson, he sensed that, in the event of the Presidents death during a war, launch authority might diffuse downward among lower commanders to insure survival of the nation. So he additionally ordered that secret launch codes (called “Permissive Action Links” or PAL’s) be installed in all Minuteman missile silos. So we all knew no one could launch their own personal nuclear war.

          Launch Officer Bruce G. Blair (Ph.D. and now president of CDI) was a SAC missile commander during the early 1970’s. Writing an article dated February 11, 2004  in The Defense Monitor, published by the Center for Defense information, Washington DC, Blair testified to the actual conditions existing in the Minuteman Silos where he served during the 60’s and 70’s.

           [Fearing the PAL locks would interfere with launch orders in the event of war] “… the Strategic Air Command in Omaha quietly decided to set the “locks” to all zeros in order to circumvent this safeguard. During the early to mid-1970’s during my stint as a Minuteman launch officer, they still had not been changed. Our launch checklist in fact instructed us, the firing crew, to double-check the locking panel in our underground launch bunker to ensure that no digits other than zero   [author’s emphasis]  had been inadvertently dialed into the panel…So the “secret unlock codes” during the height of the nuclear crises of the Cold War remained constant at 00000000 …”

          Thus all SAC launch crews knew the launch codes were set to all zeros.  Did anyone bother to tell McNamara?  In 2004 Blair interviewed McNamara. When he told the former Secretary about the lock codes being reduced to zeros, Blair writes the Secretary responded

          “ I am shocked, absolutely shocked and outraged. Who the hell authorized that? …“

          Blair further tells us that the PAL’s were not reset away from zeros until 1977.  An optimist might say, in recognition of this terrifying situation, it is a hugh tribute to the personnel of SAC that this system remained firmly in their control throughout the height of the Cold War.

          But Dr. Strangelove goes on to suggest an even more chilling “fantasy”.  In the film, as General Jack D. Rippers’ nuclear armed wing of B-52’s leave their fail-safe orbits and charge into the enemy airspace, the movie depicts a fantasy Pentagon War Room where all the leaders of the United States gather around a hugh circular table to carefully consider the situation.  (All this in an age of thirty minute reaction time?) Even the Russian Ambassador, Alexei DeSadeski (Peter Bull) has time to drop in on the meeting.  

          General “Buck” Turgidson (George C. Scott – perhaps modeling SAC Commander Curtis LeMay), tries to persuade President Muffley (a Peter Sellers character  modeled after Adlai Stevenson) to take advantage of the situation and press the attack to destroy all the Soviet missiles. Muffley protests angrily that Turgidson told him a SAC personnel program would prevent a single commander from ever launching his own nuclear war. Turgidson grudgingly pouts that he doesn’t think “it’s quite fair to condemn a whole program because of a single slip-up”.

          On the hot-line Red Phone, the Soviet Premier, Dmitri Kisov, is drunk. The Premier tells Muffley if the USSR should suffer a nuclear strike which wipes out their Command Authority, the Soviets have deployed a Doomsday Device which will automatically launch a nuclear counter-attack to destroy America, and will subsequently eliminate all life on Earth. He assures Muffley the system is in place and is activated and is no longer under human control. The terrified Muffley now asks Dr. Strangelove (also played by Peter Sellers) for advice.

          The Strangelove character portrays a wheelchair bound ex-Nazi scientist. He wears coke-bottle eyeglasses and his cigarette is perched precariously in the air between two stiff artificial fingers of his bent right arm. The arm seems paralyzed from an old war wound, but occasionally still goes out of control. Wearing a frozen smile/grimace on his face, when the scientist becomes agitated the arm spontaneously erupts in the Nazi salute, causing him to occasionally shout “Mein Fuhrer” at Muffley.  

          Dr. Strangelove logically explains the Doomsday Machine is perfectly possible, even simple to implement, and outlines the technical details. He gets more and more agitated in the telling. Shouting at the Soviet Ambassador that a Bland Corporation Study has shown that such a device would be a credible deterrent, except that “the whole point of the Doomsday Machine is lost  IF YOU KEEP IT A SECRET!  WHY DIDN’T YOU TELL US” he shouts?  The humbled Ambassador looks at the floor and mumbles they were going to reveal it next week at the Party Congress because Premier Kisov likes surprises …

          So in 1964 we went to the movies, we viewed the Strangelove film as a masterfully creative fantasy, we laughed away our Cold War tensions, and thanked our stars, reassured that in our comfortable rational world such things could never ever occur. 

          Surely not?  Dear Reader, read on …

 (to be continued …)