How come no unintended missile launches yet?

I am mildly surprised the world has thousands of nuclear-tipped missiles, but we have never had a rogue launch (yet). I’d imagine their control systems have to pass through insane amounts of testing (and it helps they were not written in Java), but ultimately, these are complex software elements, and must have some points of failure.

Many are decades old, developed at an age when modern CPUs were not around. Still they work very well. (Not that I am complaining.)

Either these software and hardware elements work extraordinarily well together, or more likely IMO, there is so much redundancy in the system that it essentially cannot be operated at all unless there is pointed intent to do so. And plenty of codes to key in.

Or maybe the propulsion system is altogether detached and kept on a table by the side, to be latched on when the end of the world is near.

It is also surprising that at least the major countries/blocs with nuclear ballistic arsenals (US/Europe, Russia, China, India, NoKo) have developed control systems of their own design, and of equal effectiveness. I guess you could say if they can manufacture a nuke they can write control systems for it, though I cannot believe NoKo engineers could come up with something as sophisticated as US/Russia.

All this means that a rogue launch is inevitable, somewhere and at some point of time. The more time passes the more inevitable it becomes.

Somebody please tell me I am wrong. :frowning:

I don’t believe there is any reason to suspect that a missile will be fired by accident due to a software flaw, no more than an airplane will take off by itself because the autopilot has a bug. But, the risk of someone intentionally launching a missile without authorization remains a risk.

You’re wrong. The number of things that would have to happen in the correct sequence compounded by the probability that each would spontaneously occur at just the right time is very unlikely. Be much more worried about the stuff we simply can’t account for, like the warheads lost in the Florida swamp (while it’s extremely unlikely they’ll ever explode they may one day begin to leak), or the material the USSR could not account for after the cold war, etc.

There’s no lost nuke in Florida, as far as I can tell. There’s one lost off the coast of Georgia* but even that one is near to the S. Carolina border well away from Florida. And in ordinary ocean water, not a swamp. S. Carolina itself has been nuked.

(As a young’n I lived near a bombing range where stuff went off target from time to time. E.g., someone got their well destroyed by a dummy bomb. But none of them nukes. I hope.)

  • There was a fake news report a bit back that said it had been found and recovered. Nope.

To the OP. They are North Koreans, not mental defectives. They (and everyone else) will spend considerable time and effort training the operators and maintenance personnel to ensure the extremely valuable assets don’t go off when they shouldn’t.

There have been a few reported accidents with missiles, a Titan II upper stage ignited a few years ago in a silo & deposited its payload nearby and its known the Soviet and Russian Strategic Rocket are known to have seen some rockets destoyed during repair and others operations.

Not an unintended launch, but I read somewhere, can’t find the cite now, that the only submarine missile launch with a live nuke
see Frigate Bird
scared everyone when the missile briefly veered off course and headed toward Hawaii before correcting itself and continuing to the target. The Navy decided once was enough of that!

Ah, thank you, I misremembered.

This is probably not correct. The actual software/hardware elements that effectuate the actual launch are likely fairly simple. You have a set of required inputs, the launch authorization, and a set of outputs, possibly consisting only of a “go” signal.

This can be tested exhaustively, and you can make sure that no possible software/hardware state (excluding a launch signal shaped lightning bolt making its way inside the bunker) lead to an accidental launch.

Even once you add in navigation, that is only complex in its internal mathematics. The types of inputs and outputs are not so many you can’t design a safe system.

For a fairly in-depth study of this precise problem, take a look at this book:

Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety by Eric Schlosser

Interleaved with the unfolding story of a fuel explosion in a Titan II missile complex, the author covers dozens of scary incidents over the years, provides lots of details about the command and control processes and challenges, and also provides plenty of material to cause one to lose sleep.

I second this. A very good book.

The possibility of rogue launches is not as scary as having a plane with a nuke in it catch on fire on the ground, and no one is sure if the fire will set off the detonation charges. Or having an armed and almost ready to fire nuke fall out of a bombay onto the US.

IANA Rocket Scientist, but don’t nuclear missiles require human interaction before they can be launched? By that I mean, no matter what the sequence of computer codes, there has to be a human (or two) to turn a key, push a button or whatever?

Give that book a read.

One key point I got from it was that even with incredible amounts of training and a checklist for everything, if you operate long enough something weird will happen that could not possibly have been foreseen.

To choose one of the juicier incidents, in 1968 someone stuffed a foam cushion in a bad place in a B52 that eventually resulted in a fire, that caused the single plane responsible for verifying our northernmost outpost at Thule was still there to crash, almost taking out Thule itself, which would have appeared to NORAD as “Thule is not responding…check with the Thule Monitor plane…they are not responding…must be war!”).

Thank you, I will definitely read this one. A little insomnia can’t hurt. :smiley:

Same guy who did Fast Food Nation. It’s definitely not a rah-rah book for the military-industrial complex. Excellent, gripping read, and the bibliography/notes are almost the best part of the book.

You end up at the end of the book, wondering why one of the damned things hasn’t gone off accidentally yet.

As to the OP, Red Star Rogue makes the hypothesis that there very nearly was an (unintended by the Politburo) launch of a submarine IRBM. I don’t believe it, but then I’m not sure what to believe.

It’s one of my guesses that the US makes available to new members of the nuclear club, a lot of the technology discovered on the way to developing things like PRP and PALs and one-point safe architecture.

Not a launch, but a missile exploded in its silo due to a dropped socket wrench (and the ensuing comedy of errors)


There is an excellent This American Life Episode about it