In the scuttlebutt of two generations of nuclear weapons technicians I have heard a story. Stripped of its technical details, it goes like this:
A nuclear device is undergoing maintenance at its deployed location. It is not out of control by the normal command authority, and is in a “safe” configuration. Multiple levels of fail safe design are present to assure that those safeguards cannot be removed. Access to the device is strictly controlled, and all personnel with access have been trained on proper procedures.
A lieutenant orders that a test procedure be implemented. Pursuant to that legal order, a technician attempts to mate a complex testing device to the nuclear device, believing he is doing the appropriate procedure. The connecting cable does not easily connect. In direct violation of procedure, but unhindered by those present, he drives the two cable ends together with a rubber mallet. He has driven the ends of two male connectors together, and created an undocumented set of circuits between the warhead, and the testing device. The ignition circuits on the weapon fire. Because of a single remaining fail-safe design factor, the warhead itself does not explode. All of the design fail safe parameters have been bypassed, but one. The explosive charges have been initiated in the correct time sequence to achieve nuclear detonation.
I have excellent reason to believe that the story could be true, although it is not impossible that that same information was used to concoct the story. But the elements were consistent with the possibility, prior to some rather extensive design changes to the equipment. Now even so, the fail-safe principle did operate, and there was no detonation, even in the extreme scenario presented. The remaining fail-safe system is highly reliable alone. It was implemented for entirely different reasons, but still functioned to prevent the catastrophe of accidental detonation.
But it gives one pause to consider the probable consequences, back there in the cold war days. A report comes in that one of our nuclear bases has just been obliterated by a ground level nuclear burst, dead center on what was an obvious first strike target for our principle antagonist force. Undetected, and unexpected, the first step in disarming our retaliation force has already been achieved. MAD doctrine is clear in this case. If you don’t launch soon, you loose the ability to respond. How long before the rest of the first strike lands?
One step from the end of life as we know it, or just barracks legend, used to scare the new guys? I know it scared me, and I was not a new guy, I was the guy who was supposed to hook up that circuit.
I checked. It won’t work that way now. Not even if you deliberately wire it up wrong. Really. It’s been fixed. We’re safe now. Sleep well tonight.
“Sic transit gloria mundi. And Tuesday’s usually worse.” ~ Robert A. Heinlein ~