Command and Control: Damascus Titan Missile Explosion

Last night I viewed the new documentary film, Command and Control from director Robert Kenner. It was released January 10, 2017, and broadcast by PBS as part of its American Experience series. [11] The documentary is based on Eric Schlosser’s book, Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety. The book focused on the explosion, as well as other Broken Arrow incidents during the Cold War.[6][7] It was a finalist for the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for History.[10]

The Damascus Titan missile explosion refers to an incident where the liquid fuel in a LGM-25C Titan II intercontinental ballistic missile exploded at missile launch facility Launch Complex 374-7 in Van Buren County farmland just north of Damascus, Arkansas, on September 18–19, 1980. The initial explosion catapulted the 740-ton silo door away from the silo and ejected the second stage and warhead. Once clear of the silo, the second stage exploded. The W53 warhead landed about 100 feet (30 m) from the launch complex’s entry gate; its safety features operated correctly and prevented any loss of radioactive material.

However, we came frighteningly close to a nuclear catastrophe that night. Had the warhead detonated, millions of people would have either been killed outright or died shortly thereafter from the effects of the radioactive fallout.

The documentary is riveting, especially when your realize how many times we’ve had nuclear close calls, incidents that could start an unintended nuclear war, and nuclear accidents, incidents involving nuclear material that led to, or could have led to, events significant consequences to people, the environment or the facility. Examples include lethal effects to individuals, large radioactivity release to the environment, or reactor core melt.”[4] The Chernobyl nuclear accident would be a quintessential example.

The simple fact is that we have so far avoided more costly failures primarily because we’ve been lucky. It is also ironic how the having these weapons poses as much threat to those who have them as to those at whom they are aimed. It’s reminiscent of the idea that the more personal guns we have the safer we’ll be—which is self-evidently absurd and contradicted by all available evidence from societies around the world.

Of course superpowers with thousands of nuclear weapons find themselves in a version of the prisoner’s dilemma. Russia and the USA, who possess more than 90% of the world’s largest nuclear arsenals, find themselves in the following situation: If they both disarm they both do better, they can spend that money on their societies; if they both arm they both do worse, they must spend that money on nuclear weapons and face mutually assured destruction. But both fear that they will disarm and the other side won’t, which would allow the other side to dominate them.

In matrix form, where B = best; S = second best; T = third best; and W = worst; and the first outcome in each parenthesis is the USA outcome, and the second is Russia’s outcome, the situation looks like this:

Russia

Arm                 Disarm

Arm             (T, T)                  (B, W)

USA

Disarm        (W, B)                 (S, S)

It is easy to see here that both do better and neither does worse if they both disarm, but disarming without assurance that the other disarms risks being made a sucker. Still, if each can be assured that the other will comply with an agreement to disarm, both sides should. The alternative is the inevitable nuclear wars and accidents that will result.

All of this reminds me of reading Jonathan Schell’s The Fate of the Earth years ago, when he warned of the existential threat posed by nuclear weapons. Then, in today’s New York Times we read that ” Thanks to Trump, the Doomsday Clock Advances Toward Midnight.”

It is now two and one-half minutes to midnight. Our organization, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, is marking the 70th anniversary of its Doomsday Clock on Thursday by moving it 30 seconds closer to midnight. In 2016, the global security landscape darkened as the international community failed to come to grips with humanity’s most pressing threats: nuclear weapons and climate change.

There can be little doubt that humankind threatens their own existence. How things will turn out or whether there will be anyone left to read these or any other words is unknown. The chances for using these weapons, either on purpose or accidentally, is almost certain given sufficient time. And when you consider even more deadly technologies in the future, the situation is truly dire. As for me, I’m not optimistic.

3 thoughts on “Command and Control: Damascus Titan Missile Explosion

  1. I’d like to argue against one of your points while emphasizing your other main point. To put it briefly: nuclear accidents are not a threat, but nuclear war is an increasingly serious threat.

    The basis of my first claim is my physicist’s appreciation of how a nuclear bomb works. It’s really, REALLY hard to get a bomb to explode. Everything must be absolutely perfect. Even a timing error of one millisecond is enough to transform a nuclear blast into “rapid disassembly”, in which the bomb explodes with the force of, say, a conventional bomb. This would still result in a ghastly mess, with highly radioactive material scattered over a square mile, but it would not be anywhere near as bad as an actual nuclear explosion.
    There have been a number of incidents in which nuclear bombs underwent severe damage without exploding. Perhaps the worst was the accidental release of two big bombs over Spain about 50 years ago. One hit the ground and dug a big crater, but did not release much radioactivity because the fissile material was undamaged. The other fell into the ocean and was recovered in one piece.
    Thus, I think it safe to say that the danger of an accident causing a nuclear explosion is very low.

    At the same time, however, I emphatically endorse your warnings about the nature of nuclear war. For most of my life, nuclear war has been unthinkable. We all read John Hersey’s book Hiroshima in high school, and we were all terrified of nuclear war. I still remember just how scared the adults were during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Yet Americans today do not seem to be too worried about a nuclear war. It’s not that they dismiss the possibility; instead, they seem rather blasé about it. Mr. Trump has made statements about nuclear weapons that, in any sane time, would have lost him the election, but many voters were unconcerned about those statements.

    Add to that the increasing proliferation of nuclear weapons, and the situation looks darker each year. While I am little concerned about Iran’s inevitable obtaining of nuclear weapons, I *am* concerned about the frantic response to it; I fear that either Israel or the USA will take pre-emptive actions that will themselves trigger a war. Mr. Trump is on record as declaring that he will not permit Iran to obtain a nuclear weapon.

    For the long term, I am cynically certain that the stresses on the geopolitical system arising from climate change will eventually trigger a downward spiral culminating in a nuclear war.

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