Would the enlisted men in "Under Siege" get in in trouble? (Mild spoilers)

So I am currently watching the super accurate naval documentary “Under Siege” featuring the great actor and documentarian Steven Segal. For those not of familiar with this great work, the premise is a small group of ultra-skilled evil terrorists, through a completely plausible and not-at-all ridiculous cunning plan, take over a (nuclear armed) USN battle ship. The terrorists obviously achieve this easily and we end up with the whole crew unarmed and taken prisoner, by a small group of (like 10-20) armed terrorists. The terrorists make it clear (by example) that if anyone resists they will be shot, along with the person next to them. This works and the crew (except for Steven Segal, obviously) are taken prisoner below decks for most of the film.

So given the fact that the events leading up to this point are completely unavoidable and there is absolutely nothing any competent naval personnel could have done to prevent such a dastardly plan. (I mean I’m sure naval protocols were changed in response to the stark warning presented by this film :slight_smile: ) Would the sailors involved get in trouble afterwards? Would the navy expect its sailors to resist in these circumstances, knowing they are unarmed, and resisting even if it had worked would have resulted many of them being shot? Or would they have been treated by as former POWs? (are regular POWs expect to answer for the circumstances under which they were taken prisoner?)

Given the far-fetched nature of this scenario, this is better suited to IMHO than GQ.

GQ Moderator

Code of the United States Fighting Force.

Note especially Articles II and III. Now, if you’re unarmed, and facing armed opponents, you might reasonably decide that you don’t have means to resist. IIRC, the XO was in on the plot, there was only a skeleton crew on board, and the captain and the other senior officers are killed. At that point, it’s not clear who’s in command, but whoever was the most senior survivor might have decided that resisting further would just pointlessly get the sailors killed, and order them to surrender. Or, without clear leadership, everyone might have decided the same thing. Technically, they’re not supposed to surrender on their own, but if your entire senior leadership is killed or a traitor, that’s a bit of an unrealistic expectation.

Enlisted aren’t expected to offer suicidal resistance just for the sake of resisting.

But, it’s kind of iffy. In real life, in World War II, the two senior U.S. officers in the Philippines who surrendered to the Japanese, Lt. Gen. Wainwright and Maj. Gen. King, apparently both fully expected to be court martialed for their decision to surrender their forces. Instead, after the war, they were welcomed as heroes and decorated for their leadership.

Would the fact there are nuclear weapons involved change that? I mean if Steven Segal has been a little tardy kicking Tommy Lee Jones’ arse a million Hawaiians would have been toast.

I seem to remember reading (in this book I think?) that the lone enlisted man left guarding nuclear bomb carrying aircraft in west Germany had orders to shoot at the bombs if one of the west German troops decided to try and steal one of aircraft (which presumably would have ended badly for both the shooter and the pilot)

I checked, and Navy reg’s clearly say that before surrendering, let the Special Forces Ninja Mess Cook First Class know what the situation is.


There should have been armed security forces aboard. In 1992, I think battleships still had armed Marine detachments. There definitely should have been armed security for the nukes. I think the idea was the traitorous XO used the confusion of the party and shore leave as excuses to make sure no one was actually scheduled to be on guard duty. Which doesn’t really make sense - no guard should have left their post until properly relieved. I think whoever was pulling security detail might be subject to prosecution for abandoning their post. But the regular sailors, probably not. It’s not the job of Machinist’s Mate Third Class Jones to secure the nuclear weapons against boarders while unarmed.

That…doesn’t really make sense. You can’t set off a nuclear weapon by shooting it. You also can’t really disable it that way. Maybe shooting the aircraft would do some good…

I think the premise of that book is that actually that’s very much not the case. Actually its relatively easy to set off a nuclear weapon (or at least the explosives, which then stand a decent chance of detonating the bomb), especially in the time frame talked about which was fairly early in cold war (the “broken arrow” cases discussed in the book highlight that fact, it was actual dumb luck they didn’t result in a nuclear explosion). IIRC the orders were quite explicit, that he shouldn’t shoot at the plane, and instead shoot at the bomb,.

Well, I Am Not A Nuclear Weapons Engineer, but that’s contrary to everything I’ve ever read about them. My understanding is that getting a critical reaction is really difficult to do on purpose, much less by shooting a bomb and hoping you accidentally set it off. If you did set off the explosives, I think at most you’d just get a “dirty” bomb, although I suppose that would still serve the purpose of preventing it from being stolen. Still, I’m very skeptical of the claim that there was ever an SOP of shooting nuclear weapons with a sidearm or rifle to try to prevent them from being stolen. I just doubt it would have done much of anything.

(On the other hand, my unit seriously did have an SOP to shoot the hard drives of our laptops in the event we were about to be over-run. So, I accept the general concept of shooting materiel to deny it to the enemy, I just question whether this was applied to a lone guard using a personal weapon on a nuclear bomb).

Nope. Set off a charge early and you don’t get the proper timed implosion to a critical mass. (Might not apply to the gun-type. No idea if those are still used.) You just scatter the radioactive material.

Shooting the bomb could screw up the complex gadgets that detonate the plutonium. So now the thieves have a big conventional bomb and a big radiation hazard, but they do NOT have a thermonuclear explosive device.

The only way that shooting at a nuke could set it off would be if you hit one of the triggers (usually either time or altitude-based), and just happened to cause it to malfunction in a way that would be interpreted as reaching its triggering condition. You could, however, render the weapon at least temporarily nonfunctional. In Heinlein’s historical account The Long Watch, a servicemember finding himself in a similar situation disables a number of bombs by smashing the plutonium cores with a hammer to ruin their precisely-machined shape.

Back to the OP, there is the notion that “it is the duty of a prisoner to escape”, but that’s not because the brass seriously expects successful escapes. Rather, it’s to force the enemy to dedicate resources to guarding and securing the prisoners, resources which they could otherwise be using on the front lines. If the prisoners were resisting enough that the terrorists had to keep armed guards on them at all times, then they were doing their duty. Now, if the guards left for some reason, then the prisoners would be expected to try to break out then, but I don’t think that happened in the documentary.

Ok, I can buy that. Especially with early Cold War designs, a bomb might have been delicate enough that shooting at it with an M1 might actually have a reasonable chance of disabling the trigger.

I don’t know enough about the explosive charges involved - could shooting it actually set off the conventional explosives in the trigger? A lot of military explosives are surprisingly hard to set off - you can literally burn C-4 without it exploding, and shooting it doesn’t do anything.

It’s been quite a while since I’ve seen the documentary, but I think the chef (primary MOS)/SEAL (secondary MOS) (which I believe part of the standard ship’s complement) does eventually free some of the sailors, who then do fight back against the boarders when given the opportunity.

BTW, in the real world, when I was in the Army back in the '00s, I remember getting briefings on the Code of the U.S. Fighting Forces which actually explicitly noted that the normal rules didn’t apply if we were taken hostage by terrorists. The scenario envisioned was serving overseas in a relatively low-threat environment where U.S. military personnel aren’t normally armed, and being snatched off the street. In that scenario, the briefing was explicit that our duty was to try to survive, not to fight to the death.

So I actually looked up my copy of the book. Here are the passages in question. The bombs in question absolutely could be set off by accidental impact:

Though that said I misremembered the incident. It wasn’t that the lone sentry (who didn’t even have an M1, only a bolt action rifle) was ordered to shoot the bombs. He hadn’t been given orders either way:

That said it is a complete side track though is an opportunity to bring up that other great documentary, Broken Arrow:

Command and Control also has an actual excellent documentary based on it, but nobody gets round house kicked in it, so meh.

It depends on who’s still there. I don’t recall the details of this particular documentary, but not everybody on board has the same training or obligations with regard to Nuclear Weapon Security. On something as large as a battleship, there’s a good chance that many of the crew have no obligation at all other than to get out of the way and freeze when the security teams come through.

We have dropped and broken a lot of weapons and, while there were some disturbingly close calls, none of them have ever gone off.

Even in the early days, when there weren’t nearly as many safeguards, it was never so simple as “shoot here for mushroom cloud”.