For the record, we did not "lose control" of 50 nukes. They just stopped working.

For the record, we did not "lose control" of 50 nukes. They just stopped working.

Summary: Some things are fun to mock. But when a chunk of our nation's nuclear capability suddenly drops off line, there's nothing funny about it.

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With all due respect to my ZDNet colleagues across the pond, sometimes their stories are a little sensational.

Take, for example, this story by ZDNet UK blogger Rupert Goodwins, entitled "US loses control of 50 nukes in cascading failure".

For the record, we did not lose control. The nukes just stopped working.

Okay, to be fair, technicians at F.E. Warren Air Force Base in Wyoming aren't entirely sure why 50 nukes decided to shut themselves down. But it wasn't like that time we flew a B-52 bomber across the U.S. without knowing its nukes were armed.

That was a loss of control! Defense Secretary Robert Gates was definitely not amused that day, and heads did roll.

But the incident this week in Wyoming wasn't nearly that bad. The nukes didn't launch, teams were dispatched to make sure all the nukes were still asleep in their silos, and we still had something like 400 other nukes we could toss if the need for total, global thermonuclear destruction suddenly rose during the weekend.

There's other good news here, as well. For example, it's quite unlikely our nukes were hacked. Those systems are isolated from the rest of the outside world, so we don't think bad guys got to them.

It's still not exactly clear why the missiles decided to shut down. According to a report in Atlantic Monthly, administration officials said, "It's not that big of a deal. Everything worked as planned."

Sigh.

I'd normally like to end a story like this with a funny, snarky comment, but I just can't. Some things are fun to mock. But when a chunk of our nation's nuclear capability suddenly drops off line, there's nothing funny about it.

It's just sad.

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About

David Gewirtz, Distinguished Lecturer at CBS Interactive, is an author, U.S. policy advisor, and computer scientist. He is featured in the History Channel special The President's Book of Secrets and is a member of the National Press Club.

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38 comments
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  • Yes it really funny , you see

    Its 50 nuke out of what 400 or 500 big deal if usa ever have to launch 450 nuke max, well the very very unlucky target would still become a parking lot and its sand would reflect the light across the world a nice light show ( woohhoo color) ---

    Davis what sad ??? at 350 or 450 mega nuke dont worry you will wipe humanity from the face of the planet. Dont worry the monkeys will find the way to use it :) God that quote show my age damn it
    Quebec-french
    • RE: For the record, we did not

      @Quebec-french <=== This guy needs his own column. I'm entirely entertained. I have no idea what he's said, but it's entertaining all the same.
      ejhonda
      • thx you

        @ejhonda
        After all Its only 50 nuke that where lost .... There no need to panic "if the USA need to fired Its nuke ..... They still have 450 nuke left ..... It enough to wipe the human race 2 time .

        Should usa need to fire nuke at someone with 450 nuke left . Well it more that enough to turn the target into a nice nothing full of radiation and glass ( sand expose to high heat turn to glass )

        THat glass would reflect light around the globe ( for the comment woohoo color )

        As for the the monkey joke, Since im old in PLanet of the ape the old version.


        hi hope that the understand the entertainment ... MY comment are better with beer a give you a hint samuel adams make a decent beer for usa
        Quebec-french
      • ALso As for my own column

        @ejhonda
        First .... There should be a lots of money , also it would turn into a dog and pony show based on american politic . with the point of view of a Quebecer ( a nice recipe for destruction and flame war )

        It would also mean to drink even more Beer ( can it be done ) but let me think. i could get a sponsor maybe Belle-Gueule or maitre brasseur hummmmmm two of the best micro brewery in Quebec hummmmmm tempting .

        Beer and blog to piss Loverock and No axe and John zern.
        SHiit im tempted . But It would end up bad with lawsuit, broken bone , and the rest thx for the good word anyway
        Quebec-french
      • Hmm. What's you beef with me, Quebec-french?

        Because I bring out the dark past (or present) deeds of Quebec that you want to keep hidden?

        for every misdeed you bring up with the US, we can do the same with Quebec (and Canada) just as easily. :)

        Enjoy the Sam Adams, and don't worry, we won't nuke their distillery! :)
        John Zern
  • Isolated from the rest of the outside world

    Is that isolated as in, like the Iranian nuclear reactor?
    dunraven
    • NO ...

      @dunraven ... as in no physical connection between the network controlling these missles and the Internet. How far inside US security would one have to be to sabotage these systems in such a way to activate a FAILSAFE?
      M Wagner
  • RE: For the record, we did not

    "For the record, we did not lose control. The nukes just stopped working."<br><br>Interesting. Can you cite a reference that the "nukes just stopped working?" According to media reports of AF comments, the "nukes" were quite launchable and the NCA had the ability to do so. Based on the fact that multiple news reports (granted, potentially from a single source) indictated that the silos had to be visited to confirm there was no tampering, it sounds to me like the monitoring systems for the missiles and silos went off-line - no loss of control, no "just stopped working". Just a case of not knowing for sure that the missile would fire when the fuze was lit, or knowing that it actually went when the fuze was lit.<br><br>Looks like this article is a case of one ZDNet story that was "a little sensational" being replaced by another ZDNet story that was "a little sensational."
    7mgte
    • Well....

      @7mgte
      I'm thinking any "issue" with anyone's nuclear deterrent is intrinsically sensational.
      Bill4
      • RE: For the record, we did not

        @Bill4

        That's true, but the jist of the story was that the nukes stopped working. If one reads the Atlantic Monthly article cited in the 8th paragraph, (on which this article is presumable based) one finds out that the missiles were still launchable. This means they were neither uncontrolled nor stopped working. So the article is "sensational" in that it does not represent reality.
        7mgte
  • I wonder....

    Was there an unidentified aerial phenomanon in the area of any of those silos or FE Warren itself at the time of the problem?

    Seems a similar problem occurred a few decades ago in Montana. Something was hovering over the site and all the systems shut down during the time it was there. Nobody is saying what it was or exactly what wasn't working (for obvious security reasons).
    Dr_Zinj
    • RE: For the record, we did not

      @Dr_Zinj
      If our technology is ever sufficiently advanced, we should to hunt down the aliens and kill them. What a bunch of hotsy totsy jerks they are.
      Bill4
    • RE: For the record, we did not

      @Dr_Zinj
      Unlike Bill4; if there are aliens doing this then we need to hunt them down and redirect them to North Korea and Iran. ;)

      I heard stories but did not find anything credible other than a possible coincidence.
      sboverie
    • More Illegal Aliens?

      @Dr_Zinj, we just need to bigger a bigger fence.
      Stoshie
  • RE: For the record, we did not

    I don't know why so many were concerned. We don't use those Nukes, they just sit there, eventually something is bound to go wrong. Perhaps those fifty should be deactivated, we could afford to also deactivate the oldest remaining fifty. After all 350 is more then enough to destroy the world.

    Sometimes I think the sole reason for having so many is simply bragging rights.
    shanedr
    • RE: For the record, we did not

      @shanedr Actually, the reason for having so many is so we never have to use them. That's the whole concept of nuclear deterrent. Any country that may ever consider attacking the US has to ask themselves "Am I okay with possibly having X number of nuclear warheads hit my country?" If you own 2 warheads, the dictator of any country larger than a postage stamp could consider that acceptable odds. On the other hand, even a country the size of Russia or China has to question whether they will have anything left to rule if they take hits from all 500 missiles, each of which carries multiple warheads. As long as there are people out there who don't have a moral limit against punching the button, you have to keep them *afraid* to punch the button by assuring them they will never survive the retaliation. People who are not restrained by right and wrong are only restrained by fear of consequence.
      dunfalach
      • RE: For the record, we did not

        @dunfalach That's right... and forget about semantical details on what have happened to those artifacts... Nobody is gonna publish things on these regards full of details... What they expect? Serial numbers??? Those are damn deterrence mechanisms and part of the deal is have them behind some secrecy.
        FuzzyIce
      • RE: For the record, we did not

        @dunfalach I think the point Shanedr was making is how many times do you have to destroy the planet, I would think once should be enough, so if we have enough to destroy the planet once, thats probably a good place to stop, being able to kill everything on the planet once is plenty of deterrence, anything over that is overkill and a waste of tax dollars, but wait, when republicans are wasting our tax dollars its not really wasting it is it? It for defense, WE CAN ALREADY DESTROY THE PLANET!!!! once its gone, we cant destroy it again....
        nickdangerthirdi@...
      • RE: For the record, we did not

        @dunfalach unless they are crazy, then they don't mind ..
        mad-man
  • RE: For the record, we did not

    I'll wager the missiles that "just shut down" are Cold-War era. That would make them quite old, and old things tend to break down, especially if they're mechanical. Up until 1991, the GPC in NASA's space shuttles had about 500 kilobytes of RAM, and now it's something like 1MB. The RAM capacity of a USA nuclear weapon is, in all probability, top secret, but I'll bet you a month of gasoline that it's somewhere between 16KB and 128KB, and even that's probably being generous. After all, it's just supposed to guide itself to a target and blow up, and I don't thing the US Department of Defense would pay for missiles with whole gigabytes of software.
    predcon