there are self-destruct mechanisms in fiction...

…are there any such things in reality?

Are there Flash Gordon types of “self destruct buttons” on the bridges of battleships, for example, where a wily saboteur could, by sneaking through the right plot hole, destroy everything… And if so, why so? As an auto-scuttling feature to prevent some kind of classified weaponry from falling into enemy hands?

Not exactly a self-destruct mechanism, but during the Second World War and likely for sometime after, some cryptographic keys or pads were printed on nitrocellulose paper (“flash paper.”) In the event that the enemy was about to storm the communication station, the codes could be burned instantly, guaranteeing the evildoers would not get their hands on them.

The Mob also occasionally used this technique to keep the identities of bookmaking customers secret from sudden police raids.

Most fighting craft will have plenty of stuff that could be rigged to scuttle the ship if the situation comes up. But having the charges permanently installed and armed is just asking for trouble - the risk of accidental activation does not outweigh the benefit of being able to press a magic button. A scuttle crew with a senior NCO or two who knows what to do when the CO yells the correct order over the intercom is just as effective.

I’ve seen the inside of some command bunkers, and they had “self-destruct mechanisms” in the form of heavy hammers to smash key components of radio and other gear, but that was about it.

Code books and crypto gear are obviously not the sort of stuff you want the enemy to get their hands on. More important, the ship itself is an asset to be kept out of enemy hands. Naval people consider taking a prize a bigger victory than sinking an enemy.

Most military personnel is trained to destroy their gear rather than let it fall into enemy hands, all the way down to the individual soldier’s rifle.

German WWII U-boats certainly had the ability to sink themselves (to prevent capture of Enigma machines), but there was nothing auto- about it.

The always reliable Wikipedia claims that

but fails to cite its sources.

Military airports sometimes have explosive charges embedded in the runways so they could be rendered unusable in a hurry in case of invasion. Can’t find a citation on that, but I recall several incidents where surrounding residential areas have been evacuated while these were decommissioned long after the airports had been given over to civilian use.

Relatives have told me that during WWII, bomber pilots were strenuously instructed to ensure that their Norden bombsight did not fall into enemy hands while still intact. Sometimes they had a self-destruct mechanism (basically a small grenade to blow it up), at other times they were just supplied with a small sledgehammer and told to smash the bombsight if capture was imminent.

ATM cash boxes have explosive devices in them that spray ink everywhere if tampered with.

When I was in the Army, I was given a class on how to use thermite slabs to destroy sensitive equipment, to prevent their capture by the enemy. Due to the risk of accidents, the instructor said that the thermite slabs were normally kept in storage. They could be quickly installed and connected to an initiation system if things got too hot.

That’s odd – I don’t recall ever being trained to damage the nuclear power plants I was assigned to in my Navy days. I suppose that’s a good thing :).

Of course, the official SOP for “Repel Boarders” was always good for a laugh – it involved such steps as jamming shut the doors going into the engineroom, taking up deck plates and turning out the lights. I guess we would have been hiding in dark corners with big wrenches in our hands waiting for the bad guys to fall into the bilge. We figured we were screwed if it came to that.

As I remember, when Victor Belenko defected with a MiG-25, he said that there was a “self destruct” button you were supposed to push before ejecting from said jet, to prevent prying eyes from getting any secrets from the wreckage. Supposedly, explosives would be set off after a time delay triggered after the ejection seat fired…and the wags in the Soviet Air Force guessed that there wasn’t actually a time delay at all.

The first space ship with a self-destruct mechanism I recall was in the underappreciated Robinson Crusoe on Mars. It was not only the first, but it was unique – it was used properly. Usually they have these things at the climax of a film, so that its explosion (always a terrific , flame-spewing affair) provides the rush and enmotional oomph for the film, usually killing the bad guy or monster* and solving all the problems. But in RCoM the self-destruct was built into the ship if it became necessary to get it out of the way in case of emergency, and the hero’s blowing it up served the same purpose that the original Robinson Crusoe blowing up the ship did in Defoe’s novel – it removed it as a landmark that indicated his position and might attract the attention of pirates (or, in the case of RCoM, unwanted hostile aliens). The hero’s problem in the film was that he couldn’t get to the orbiting spaceship (he was stuck on Mars), so he had to have a remote control sswitch to blow it up, if the SF film was to parallel the 17th century novel.

Interesting to speculate that this by-now hoary cliche of science fiction might have had its origin in the desire to provide an updated version of a literary classic, and the “Destriuct” button was created as a logistical necessity because Paul Mantee’s character couldn’t climb aboard his ship and physically stow explosives.

In any event, the ship explodes far downrange, almost out of sight, far from the hero and far from the climax of the film. The ship was destroyed out of necessity, not spectacle.

Arguably the detruction of the Enterprise in Star Trek III had some of the same features – it was destroyed out of strategic necessity, and didn’t occur at the climax. It was spectacular, and did get rid of a few unneeded Klingons, though, but it was a piognant experience, unlike most of those self-destructs.
The ultimate comment on this was in the TV movie Something is Out There, where the (Earthguy) hero asks the very humanoid (Alien) heroine if she has a self-destruct mechanism on her ship (so they can blow it up and get rid of the alien monster on board).

“No,” she replies, “Why would I have something like that?” Why, indeed. How many cars, boats, or planes do we have with self-destructs on board? It’s a great fantasy for foiling would-be thieves (as in the James Bond movie For Your Eyes Only), but think of what it would do to your insurance premiums.

  • Or so you think at the time. Look at Alien, though/.

The Ariane rockets certainly have a self destruct system. When Ariane-5 went berserk, it was self-destructed.

The secure computing units inside ATMs have auto self destruct mechanisms should they detect any anomalies (such as a surge of current on their IO lines, anyone trying to open them, etc.). They’re able to flash themselves within nanoseconds, to prevent anyone prying on the secret key data within them.

Rockets and missiles definitely have self-destruct devices built in; for example, the Space Shuttle Solid Rocket Boosters, and the Apollo Program’s Saturn rockets.

Not quite as dramatic, but railroads have “catchpoints” or “derails” at certain key locations. These are essentially switches leading to nowhere, and are used to intentionally derail runaways in what is hopefully a controlled smash in a relatively safe location, in preference to a collision with another train later.

I imagine that strategic rockets and missiles do not have these devices, because you wouldn’t want to risk the enemy being able to self-destruct your nuclear strike.

Yeah, but picture it from the point of view of the boarders. You open the hatch and it’s pitch black… With maybe a few dimly flashing lights in the recesses… And somewhere in there are armed opponents.

If they’ve played DOOM it could be very unnerving. Especially if you made little grunting noises like the “Imps” did in that game, or put a bright spotlight on some kind of tantalizing looking key on a pedestal on the far end of the room.

Y’know, I submit that there’s a BIG difference between putting a self-destruct on an unmanned missile (especially one with some sort of warhead) and putting one on a manned craft.

I suspect that Robinson Crusoe on Mars got the idea of having a self-destruct from all those unmanned missiles, since they were pretty much in the public eye at the time, liked the idea of using that mechanism to allow Mantee to blow up his spaceship, and simply ignored the implications of the Mars crew flying atround on what was basically a flying bomb. Everybody since has been so enamored of the Big Boom you get from blowing up the ship that they didn’t think about it at all.

They aren’t strictly self-destruct devices. It’s more accurate to call them thrust termination systems. The goal isn’t to blow the rocket into small pieces, it’s the termination of powered flight, so that the debris follows a ballistic trajectory into a safe impact area. That’s why they use things like linear shaped charges to “unzip” solid rocket motor casings and fuel/oxidizer tanks.

Back in the late sixties, we had destruct devices, but they were not built in. They were on hand, and stored in the same location as the stuff we might have to destroy, but it would have required fifteen or twenty minutes to set up, and boogie out of range to set it all off. We practiced the setup fairly often, like quarterly, I think. You could set them up, and leave them in place for as long as tactical necessity demanded, and still operate on mission. We did that, once for week or so.

(Working next to a thermite grenade is an attitude adjuster, I assure you.)

The missile’s themselves did indeed have an inherent self destruct capability, and could do so without a command, if they lost contact under specific conditions. Falling shrapnel is bad, but powered missiles full of explosives plunging into the ground uncontrolled is potentially much worse.


I’ve heard similar stories about the B-2 bomber. Rumor has it that when the B-2s were used in combat (in Iraq and Serbia) the ejection seats were disabled, to prevent any possibility of the enemy capturing the crew of the Air Force’s l33t new bomber.