This appeared in The Toronto Star in 1986
Picture this: It is summer, 1984, and the world is about to enter another of its seemingly endless crises.
Ten thousand Afghan troops have crossed the border into Pakistan (to “chase” rebels). The United States places its naval units in the Indian Ocean of Defence Condition (DEFCON) Three, an increased readiness stance activated only once since World War II. The remainder of the U.S. military machine goes from normal DEFCON Five (peacetime defence) to DEFCON Four (DEFCON One means nuclear war).
In northern Canada, a 32-year-old operator at an aging Distant Early Warning line station focuses a watchful eye on his radar scope, some of whose supporting components are older than he is. Suddenly, “targets” are probably being caused by the intense atmospherics of the North Pole region.
He also estimates that the “targets” are moving south at a nominal speed of 50 miles per hour, thus confirming his suspicions. Dutifully, he reports them via a computer terminal to his commander. The aged computer accepts the operator's report, but malfunctions by adding a single digit and prints the speed of the “targets” as 500 miles per hour, the speed of most Soviet cruise missiles.
The “confirmed” report (another station submits the same target report) is forwarded to the to the National Command Authority (NCA) in Washington. Due to the panic already created by a crisis situation (the “Soviet” incursion into Pakistan en route to her much coveted warm-water port), the report is taken at face value: Possible Soviet nuclear missiles have been launched toward the United States.
The U.S. President is alerted and he immediately decides to evacuate Washington and enter his Boeing 747 National Emergency Command Post. The Soviets, monitoring U.S. Communications, are alerted to this highly unusual activity and decide that further intelligence information is necessary. They launch five spy satellites which are always maintained in a state of readiness for “clarifying the picture” during such emergencies. The satellites are directed to fly over the United States to collect data.
The U.S. National Command Authority receives a report from its own spy satellite over the U.S.S.R. that five ICBMs have been launched and are on their way to United States, impact expected within three minutes.
There is no time to think, double-check or deliberate. The President, airborne, decides that before he loses the ability to control the situation he must demonstrate to the Soviets that he means business. So he orders a limited nuclear strike against pre-selected, non-populated Soviet targets. Two minutes later his orders are received aboard the U.S.S. Mississippi, a Trident class ballistic missile submarine. The button is pushed and all 24 missiles are launched.
There is no “recall” or “self-destruct” capability available.
Most people, including some extremely well-educated authorities who should know better, may feel the above scenario is just not possible due to the checks and double-checks inherent in the nuclear forces of both sides today. It is also widely, though incorrectly, believed that the president will wait until absolute confirmation of a nuclear attack (i.e nuclear bursts on U.S. territory) before initiating a response, a notion which supports the “second strike” concept.
However, there are certain aspects of modern strategic nuclear forces that, if examined more carefully, will clearly indicate that an accidental nuclear exchange is not only feasible, but a serious risk.
The ageless axiom that a chain is only as strong as its weakest link is more than applicable to the political-military infrastructure that controls the employment of nuclear weapons. The weakest link in that chain has been repeatedly identified as the Command, Control and Communications of the strategic forces.
The Communications which support Command and Control of the U.S. strategic forces are sophisticated and expensive, but highly vulnerable. The system employs all forms of modern equipment, including land-line phones, radios, optics... right up to satellite relay systems.
The entire magnetic spectrum from Very Low frequency to Extremely High Frequency is engaged to complicate an enemy's potential ability to sever communications. Unfortunately, almost all military (and most civilian) communication depends upon this electro-magnetic spectrum through the use of radio waves and its related equipment (switchboards, transmitters, receivers, etc.).
The president exercises control of his strategic forces through the National Command Authority via ground-based communication links to regional and sub-regional commanders. The backup behind this system is a fleet of command aircraft that will take commanders aloft and away from vulnerable land-based command posts. These airborne commanders will still have the ability to exercise command and control over their forces through airborne radio links with their individual units... or will they?
Today, it is common knowledge that sunspots (or increased solar activity) have substantial effects upon communications. This is due to increased disturbance of the electro-magnetic spectrum, the medium by which all radio communications travel.
A burst from a nuclear weapon at high altitude acts like a giant susnspot and will cause black-outs or distortions in most of the electro-magnetic spectrum. This effect is known as Electro-Magnetic Interference (EMI).
The effects of a nuclear burst can best be illustrated by a natural phenomenon we all take for granted. Messages are transmitted across oceans by bouncing radio waves off the upper part of the Earth's atmosphere, the ionosphere. The Sun, with its outpouring of nuclear-fueled energy, affects the ionosphere so considerably that during daylight hours the ionosphere sits substantially nearer to the Earth than at night. The Sun's eruptions excite atoms inside the ionosphere and causes their electrons to escape; the atmosphere becomes ionized—charged—and this acts as almost an impenetrable barrier to certain radio waves. An air-burst nuclear explosion creates the same effect.
Fortunately, Very High Frequency communications, which provide the basis for satellite communication, are not badly affected by EMI disturbance. That's good news.
The bad news is this: There is another aspect of a nuclear burst that does indeed affect, if not totally destroy, this vital satellite link. It is known as Electro-Magnetic Pulse (EMP) and was first observed just before the cessation of nuclear atmospheric tests in 1962. EMP is a wave front of electro-magnetic energy that emanates from a nuclear burst.
Throw a stone into a quiet pond and watch the ripple of water that results. EMP works on the same principle, though in three dimensions. If one explosion were high enough and strong enough, it would create a rippling EMP that would blanket the entire United States. It degrades communication by damaging the related support system.
Electronic equipments today is ultra-sensitive and works on voltages measured in thousandths of one volt. If only one volt of electromagnetic energy is induced, an entire computer can be knocked out, programs erased, receivers zapped...and the list goes on. The result could be complete equipment failure either on a permanent or temporary basis which would not be limited to communications, but may affect missile-guidance equipment, firing circuits, launchers, etc.
The protection of circuits against EMP and a similar phenomenon known as Transient Radiation Effect on Electronics is possible, but no one knows how effective these protective measures will be since atmosphere nuclear tests are no longer permitted and laboratories cannot possible create conditions that could properly test system size equipment. (A Defence Nuclear Agency fact sheet declares that, “it is not particularly difficult to shield against the effects of EMP.” What is particularly difficult, we discovered, is to find anyone at either the agency of the Pentagon who can substantiate this misleading report.)
Satellites are not protected against EMP, nor will it be possible to protect them in the foreseeable future. Hence, satellite communications, the primary means of communication deployed by the strategic forces, may be virtually wiped out by the first high-altitude 10-megaton burst. It can be said with confidence that less than 100 well-placed nuclear detonations can completely wipe out the strategic forces' ability to communicate (the Soviet Union's strategic warhead arsenal is estimated at 9,000).
Soviet military strategists are well aware that one well-placed high-altitude nuclear explosion would wipe out between 40 to 70 per cent of all electromagnetic communication within the United States and dispatch a strong EMP over the entire country. This single tactic could effectively hamstring an American response to but a small trickle of retaliatory nuclear strikes.
That is precisely why the President cannot afford the luxury of waiting until a “confirmed” attack has taken place, but must push a button that might better remain untouched.
There have been recent breakthroughs, including the use of optic fibre communication, which it is thought will one day lead to protection from EMP. But these “advances” are at least 20 years away from operational use.
Recalling the scenario at the beginning of this article, you will note that vulnerable communications was not the sole thrust to disaster.
The situation described was taking place during a “crisis”. Recent history has proven that a time-tested communications system which operates perfectly during peacetime cannot be relied upon to do its job as well in a crisis situation.
The classic example occurred on June 6, 1967, when the U.S.S. Liberty was strafed, torpedoed and nearly sunk, with heavy casualties, by the Israeli Self Defenc Forces. The ship was under the direct authority of the National Security Agency (NSA), which shares a communications system with the National Command Authority.
The military uses what is termed Emergency Action Messages (EAM) to relay to its combat units vital information, including war and nuclear release orders.
On the morning of June 6, 1967, NSA became aware that the Israelis might attack the Liberty; the communications vessel was spying on Israeli advances into Egypt. At least three hours before the attack, NSA sent an EAM to the Liberty via the prescribed high-priority communication channel. This emergency warning to “move off” was never received by the ship. Nor were two other EAMs which followed. The first ended up on the Philippines, another in North Africa, and the third God know where else. The result—34 lives lost and one U.S. naval vessel out of service, permanently.
Why? No one really knows, or at least is not saying. And all this happened in a clear, pure, untainted electromagnetic environment free of Electro-Magnetic-Interference.
Within two years there were two more incidents involving vital communications failures during a crisis: The North Koreans captured the U.S.S. Pueblo and shot down an EC 121, a U.S. spy aircraft.
Although exhaustive attempts have been made to upgrade communications during a crisis situation, a vast amount of evidence remains that what works well in peacetime falls apart when the going gets tough.
For the rest of this decade and the next, the vulnerability of Command, Control and Communications, compounded by a crisis situation, could be the catastrophic prescription for accidental nuclear war.