Fail Safe. What would really happen?

**If you haven’t seen the movie or tv adaptation of Fail Safe and want to, this thread will contain spoilers so move on ** :slight_smile:

In the movie Fail Safe a electrical malfunction leads to Moscow being nuked by the US. In order to stop WWIII the US president orders a strike on New York to even things up and placate the Russians.

What would happen if IRL a malfunction or intentional sabotage (ala Dr. Strangelove) lead to a nuclear power striking another? Would Americans accept NY being destroyed or would the Administration just “go for the car” and launch a full out strike and hope for the best? On the other hand how would countries like the UK, China, Russia, France, Pakistan or India deal with such a crisis if it was them who initially set things in motion by striking the US?

Would America accept a tit for tat strike or would a full on war be required?


No, thank you. I try not to think about it.

Scariest movie I ever saw in my life.

“Great debates”? … great nightmare is more like it …

I don’t know if it’s actually possible that a missile could be launched unintentionnally, but there has been several instances in the past where the US and the USSR alike mistakingly believed that the other side had launched a nuclear strike. In all cases (obviously) they eventually figured out it was a false warning, but it seems in some cases it was a close call. And given the short reaction time, I guess this sort of mistake is much more likely to cause a nuclear war than a situation similar to what is apparently depicted in this movie. Actually, I believe it will eventually happen. So I hope we’ll find someday a way to get rid of these weapons.

Well…I was searching for a link to a site listing the incidents I was refering to above (I already posted such a link some months ago) but couldn’t find the site, this time (it wasn’t on the web that I found references to these “close calls” originally, anyway). However, while searching, I found a piece about the disarmement negotiations between the US and Russia. Amongst other things, there apparently has been negotiations about the “detargeting” of nuclear missiles, which would insure that a missile launched by accident would cause no harm (or at least wouldn’t be launched on a populated area/military target). So apparently, the negociators don’t think that such a mistake is totally impossible.

Whether you are aware of it or not, you have just outlined the scenario which most justifies a limited missile defense system. When I proposed such a system in 1979 (student congress - not the real thing) my three points were 1) terrorists will get nukes eventually 2) horizontal proliferation to unstable nations, and 3) accidental launches.

Over time the probability of an accidental launch does not seem like such a small risk.

What would happen? Probably a large scale retaliatory strike. Sorry, but that is plan A, B, and C right now.

As for near misses look for the “Canadian geese” brush with total world destruction. To summarize, geese apparently can look like inbound ICBMs on radar. Can you say DEFCON 1? As in we were minutes from launching.

For details: put “missiles Canadian geese” into any search engine.

First off, the scenario described at the start of Fail-Safe is not a realistic one. Nuclear bombers simply didn’t/don’t operate on a fail-deadly principle, and parts that would short out are designed so that a short would result in a ‘no-go’ rather than ‘go’ signal.

But, lets set that aside and look at the rest of the book. After the US plane is set to accidentally nuke a Russian city, the president ends up (at the end of the book) deciding to order the USAF to nuke New York City in retaliation. That is probably the piece of the book that you really want to debate, and IMO its simply a stupid premise.

First of all, on a moral level, simply destroying a city of innocent people because of someone else’s mistake doesn’t work too well. An offer to turn over for trial (or simply execute) the people responsible, possibly including the president himself, would be much, much more morally justifiable. There’s simply no way for the president to allow a city to be nuked for that sort of thing, and IMO the next chapter in the book would be the army refusing the order and, if they didn’t, the president desperately avoiding assasination attempts before the quickest impeachment, treason trial, and execution in US history if the attempts all failed. Further, all of the other countries in the world are going to be a tad miffed at having their ambassadors turned to dust (where is the UN again?), though the president won’t live long enough to care.

‘But’, you say, ‘this isn’t really about morals is it? This is about how the Russians would react!’ Fine. The Russians would have to be insane to accept the deal, and the US would have to be insane to offer it. Why would the US president’s willingniss to nuke NYC been seen as a since of his sincerity instead of his insanity? Losing NYC to take out the Russians, by having a bomber nuke Moscow and the high command order units not to retalite, and following up with OTHER planes sneaking in in the immediate aftermath would be an excellenct cold-blooded exchange if the US president was that type, and is certainly the sort of thing that would occur to their generally paranoid mindset. Even if they believe that he’s not just using this for a very twisty attack on the USSR, by offering to nuke his own city he’s showing that he’s dangerously unstable (both mentally and politically) - even Stalin came up with justifications for killing millions of people. Why would they expect a US run by a madman NOT to turn on them in the very near future? The only sensible response by the Russians is to immediately launch an immediate counterstrike once they can’t shoot down the US plane; either the US president is simply insane, is doing this as part of a plot to destroy them, or it was a genuine mistake and he’s crazy enough to nuke his own city, which means he might not respond with force to the Soviet counterstrike. No, there’s no way in Hell the Soviets would respond like they did in the book.

Further, the US president has a LOT of non-insane options to offer the USSR. West Berlin, arms limitations and inspections, big bags of money, and all kind of other concessions could be offered instead of nuking NYC (which isn’t a fair exchange anyway - the USSR was and is far more centered on Moscow than the US is on NYC). Simply asking the USSR to name their demands, or even offering to let the Russians nuke a US city makes far more sense than the scenario given. If the USSR decided to believe the story (and nuking NYC is not going to make it more plausible), there are a lot better things to offer them.

The retargeting of ICBM’s was a Clinton PR campaign.In the old days it took a Combat Targeting Team to retarget a Minuteman.Now ,with the Command Data Buffer,it can be done in minutes from the launch control center or the airborne command post.I really think a US crew would refuse an order to attack a US city .A more likely option would be a Russian sub attack to hit Washington-warning time >5 minutes.A good movie to rent about this is “By Dawns Early Light”.Scenario-a soviet missile is smuggled into Turkey and launhced at USSR.They respond against US by going for SAC bases and Washington.Very well done,except for the politcally correct female B52 copilot.

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 ~

I didn’t see the movie but did read the same story. I think it was serialized in The Saturday Evening Post.

The situation portrayed in the story wasn’t a “fail safe” operation. The plane received a “go” command and then didn’t receive the “stop” command because of some kind of malfunction. The “fail safe” system was that the plane was cleared to a particular initial point and then had to receive positive orders to go on from further from there. The actual clearance to go ahead and drop a bomb was delayed until the latest possible time. Thus a communications breakdown resulted in no action.

It was still a scary situation but the method worked, there were no accidents and the story was just that. A story which wasn’t based on the truth about how the system worked.