ICBM missile crews refusing to launch? (possibly apocryphal incident)

I recall reading once of an incident which allegedly occurred in the late 70’s in the US. Supposedly the powers that be were wondering how many ICBM crews would actually launch if given the order to do so. So to test this out they ran a full scale launch exercise without telling the missilers that it was only an exercise.

In the event (as the story goes) up to a third of the missile crews refused to carry out their orders, not surprisingly causing some concern in the higher ranks.

Any truth to this story? I find it unlikely to say the least but you never know.

I imagine they have a margin of error built into the plans because its unlikely even with strigent selection and training that if it came to the bit every missile crew would actually push the button (turn the key!)


I do not know if it is true, but I know one possible source for the story if it’s false. The movie War Games starts with exactly this scenario, and the results are used to justify turning over the launch control decision to a computer rather than a human.

I believe The Andromeda Strain mentions the incident, though adds that further study showed that it was married men who were most likely to disobey orders and not press the button.

In the book, it was “The Odd Man Hypothesis”.

It was not disobeying orders, it was making a command decision.

My father is retired Air Force (SAC), and spent many, many hours and weekends in silos. He would routinely “go on alert” and have to spend 3 or 4 days at a silo. Once when he got called up over Thanksgiving, the families got to spend three hours in the silo to prepare and have dinner with everyone on alert for those days. We got to see the missile, the launch key tumblers, etc. It was pretty awesome.

My point is, they routinely practiced and trained for this. Having my father go on alert to a missile silo somewhere during the cold war was a scary proposition, and if they determined you could not turn your key, you were replaced. What that means, I have no idea, and my father never said. Also, I’d be very surprised if the number of missile crews that refused to launch was a third. I’m sure if I asked him he’d have an idea of what that number is though.

This doesn’t answer the OP, but is somewhat related. The UK’s nuclear weapons are under the control of the Prime Minister, but they operate a system of designated alternates :- the Prime Minister designates an alternate who can make the launch decision if he’s unable to.

As Defence Secretary, Denis Healey, the retired Labour politician,was a designated alternate at one point. He said in an interview a few years back that if it came to it, and it was his decision, he would never have launched Britain’s nukes. His reasoning was that no matter what had been done to the UK, launching nukes against Russia would have just been slaughtering civilians.

Really? That must have been fascinating. I would have thought those areas would be considered “locked facilities”.

I’ve always wondered how much of the “overkill” in the arsenals was to compensate for LCOs who wouldn’t turn the key.

There’s a Titan launch silo near Green Valley AZ that’s been turned into a museum of sorts. The silo cover has been rolled back and blocked into position. You can go down into the launch complex and see all the equipment. Kind of reminded me of the “Twilight’s Last Gleaming” movie.

It’s possible I’m misremembering this scene but I’m fairly certain I recall reading about it once.

That must have been an interesting experience! I realise they routinely practiced alerts and launches but weren’t those known to the personnel concerned that they were just an exercise? Or did they sometimes run a drill where the people concerned thought it was actually the real thing?

I remember reading that as well, it was an interesting and honest admission. I wonder how many other national leaders would have refused to launch in the event? I also recall reading a book about a nuclear war (Warday by Whitley Streiber) I think which depicted the US President suffering a fatal heart attack under the pressure of having to make a decision to launch a retaliatory strike. I believe that almost happened in real life with the 1995 Norweigan rocket incident, apparently the Russians had their ‘nuclear suitcase’ open and Yeltsin is reported as sweating heavily and having difficulty breathing under the strain of making a decision whether to respond or not.

I read some similar things about Ronald Reagan. I think that was one of the reasons he was so big on SDI.

I’m not sure I buy the notion of secret drills. I mean, obviously, they didn’t actually launch, even those crews which went through all the motions. So they must have had some extremely reliable way of communicating with the launch control systems remotely, to put a lock somewhere in the line so the missile wouldn’t launch even when the controllers went through all of the steps. But if they had a system that could do that reliably enough, why didn’t they just use that system to control the missile launches entirely, and take the humans in the silo out of the equation?

The OP may be thinking of thefour known incidents of false alarms that triggered nuclear alerts, all of which were overruled by American or Soviet officers.

In the somewhat farfetched but still very interesting post-WWIII novel The Last Ship by William Brinkley, it’s mentioned that the U.S. Navy systematically disqualifies any officer from the prospect of commanding a nuclear weapons-armed ship if he has any qualms about using the nukes when ordered to do so. There’s lots of psych testing and simulations.

Me, too. I’m simply amazed that they would let civilians, even family members, into missile silos at any time, esp. during an alert.

Disposable Hero, as I remember Warday (great book, BTW), the President had a heart attack but it was nonfatal. It was in landing NEACP (the converted-747 airborne command post) on the beach along the North Carolina Outer Banks that he suffered a head wound and died.

Thanks for the link but those aren’t what I was thinking of, judging from the replies here I imagine its not based on an actual incident, which is kind of what I suspected.

I always wonder about the psychology behind people willing to use nuclear weapons, especially those that will be targeted in or near cities. I don’t for an instant think they’re unfeeling monsters or anything of the sort but I certainly couldn’t do it.

btw By Dawn’s Early Light is an excellent HBO made-for-TV movie released in the early 1990’s following the crew of a B52 bomber during a nuclear exchange with the USSR. My favourite scene is when the gung-ho commander insists on looking at the result of a nuclear strike he’s just carried out, the look on Powers Boothe’s face is just perfect. It’s based on a book Trinity’s Child by William Prochnau, for once the movie is better, the book had a tone I didn’t care for.

You’re correct, its been a long-time since I read that book, I’ll have to dig it out again. I also recall from that scene the downed crew watching the nuclear strikes in the distance and describing it as flickering grey light reflected from the clouds above the cities…I found that imagery chilling.

btw I remember that the authors had an intention of writing the story of that book as seen from a Soviet perspective, that would have been interesting and its a pity it never came to pass.

As usual, “Yes Prime Minister” explains the scenario perfectly…

And the officer that threatened to shoot the officer who refused to turn the key was played by a young(er) John Spencer, who went on the fame as Tommy Mullaney in LA Law and greater fame as White House Chief of Staff Leo McGarry in The West Wing.

Yeah, but with Yeltsin, I think he was in that condition a lot of the time!

Just one more argument for allowing gays in the military.

IIRC, John Spencer played the officer who refused to turn the key, and Michael Madsen played the officer who threatened to shoot him. (Because, seriously, would anyone cast those guys the other way around?)

I worked with USAF nukes, though not on missiles. Training events and drills would have gone on all the time out in the field. Receiving and decoding messages, making preparatory steps, etc.

But I’d bet my butt that anything involving what looked to the crews like a real no-kidding launch order, would have taken place in a simulator back at the base, not out in the real lauch control facilities connected to real weapons. As noted above, the consequences of an error giving an actual launch would be too high to run that risk even with extremely low probability of it happening.

As to the mindset as asked by somebody above …

I was supposed to drop “tactical” nukes, not launch “strategic” ICBMs. At the moment of truth, it’s just a weapon, folks. It doesn’t kill people any deader than a sharp stick in the gut does.

Part of being a responsible military member is checking a large fraction of your personal judgment at the door. You *must *have the belief that the folks in charge (mostly) know what they’re doing. That’s true whether you’re a Private with a rifle, a Captain with a nuke gravity bomb, or a 3-star General with a dozen bases of nuke bombers under your command.

You all paid a lot of money (and still pay a lot of money) every year to have an effective coherent fighting force that does what it’s told to do in the manner it’s told to do it. Perforce, that can’t include a lot of second-guessing up & down the chain of command.

For normal combat, there are all sorts of legalities meant to ensure everybody is aware that you can’t just follow orders to slaughter a village. Everybody from 3-star to Private is 100% duty bound to retain some judgment and not blindly follow criminal orders.

But a properly authenticated launch order isn’t (by definition) criminal, and neither me nor my replacements today were/are in a position to second guess whatever decision process let things get this far.

At that point my job is to go do what damage I can to the enemy’s ability to kill us and our allies. And that’s exactly what I would have done to the best of my ability.

Yes, I am & was well aware of the strategic & geo-political firebreak between nuclear & non-nuclear combat. And that I would be part of taking humanity across that Rubicon. Still, my duty to do what I promised to do for your benefit (however convoluted) *must *outweigh any other concerns. People unable to compartmentailze the issue to that degree are not acceptable to occupy that role.