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How easily America’s nuclear weapons strategy could go horribly wrong

THE PLAN TO MAKE AMERICA’S NUKES GREAT AGAIN COULD GO HORRIBLY WRONG, VICE News,  By Keegan Hamilton . It was nearly 2 o’clock in the morning on Oct. 23, 2010, when an Air Force lieutenant called from his base in Wyoming to report the nightmare scenario unfolding before him. Fifty intercontinental ballistic missiles — each tipped with a nuclear warhead 20 times more powerful than the bomb the U.S. dropped on Hiroshima — had suddenly lost contact with the computers at the base’s launch center.

“I… we… have no idea what’s happening right now,” the officer sputtered as he tried to explain the situation to support staff at a remote command center. Another officer barked orders behind him, interrupting the call. “Holy shit!” the lieutenant exclaimed. “I will have to call you back!”

The Air Force could tell that the weapons were still in their underground silos, but there was no way to know whether the missiles had been hijacked. A renegade missile crew, someone splicing into underground cables, or hackers exploiting radio signal receivers attached to the ICBMs could have set them on a countdown to launch. Even worse, without contact with the missiles, it was impossible to halt an unauthorized launch attempt.

Fortunately, the missiles were undisturbed. Altogether, they were knocked offline for a total of about 45 minutes, and the entire situation was resolved in a matter of hours. But for a chaotic stretch during the blackout, nobody knew what was wrong or how to fix it. As one colonel put it in an email, “the weapon system was kicking our butt.”

The culprit turned out to be a simple computer glitch: A circuit card had popped loose in the brains of the base’s Weapons System Processor.

The Air Force maintains that the situation was always under control. Still, it’s a stark reminder that even a minor mishap involving our nation’s aging nukes could have catastrophic consequences.

The U.S. keeps 416 “Minuteman” missiles ready to blast off at a moment’s notice. It’s unlikely — but not impossible — that a false alarm could make it seem like an attack is underway. In such a scenario, President Donald Trump, who has the sole, unchecked authority to launch U.S. nuclear weapons, would have only a few minutes to react. The codes used to fire the missiles are about the length of a tweet. And once one is launched, there’s no taking it back.

The technology that currently powers these nukes is notoriously antiquated. Most of the systems were designed and built during the height of the Cold War in the 1960s and ’70s, with the last major overhaul completed during the Reagan administration. Some computers in the missile base command centers still use eight-inch floppy disks.

In a May 2016 report, the Government Accountability Office determined that a key component of the Defense Department’s “command and control system,” which would be used to either start or prevent World War III, is “made up of technologies and equipment that are at the end of their useful lives.” The Pentagon is now in the midst of a $60 million overhaul of the system, which is expected to be complete by 2020.

The U.S. is on track to spend about $1 trillion over the next three decadesupgrading all facets of the nuclear arsenal, with $3.2 billion already budgeted for the 2017 fiscal year. A large chunk of that money will go toward upgraded missiles, new infrastructure, and overhauled command-and-control systems, such as digital phone lines and modern computers. Obama initiated the modernization plan, but it has found a new champion in Trump, who wants to boost the nuclear weapons program budget by an extra billion dollars……

Cyberwarfare has already moved into the nuclear realm. The U.S. has reportedly attempted to digitally sabotage North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs, perhaps as recently as last week, and it’s widely believed that malware created by the National Security Agency infected computers at an Iranian uranium-enrichment facility in 2010.

In February, the Pentagon issued a report on “cyber deterrence” that addressed the threat posed to nuclear weapons at home. It warned that “the cyberthreat to U.S. critical infrastructure is outpacing efforts to reduce pervasive vulnerabilities.” In other words, the bad guys are coming with new ways to attack digital weak spots faster than we can fix them.

As the mishap in Wyoming shows, the aging computers that control America’s nukes are by no means perfect. But with the modernization process already underway and multiple experts raising concerns about the plan to bring the most dangerous weapons known to man into the 21st century, the question is whether the solution to repair the creaky old machines is more dangerous than the existing problem…..https://news.vice.com/story/the-plan-to-make-americas-nukes-great-again-could-go-horribly-wrong

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April 21, 2017 - Posted by | USA, weapons and war

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