NBC Weapons: Footballs, Biscuits And Irrational Opponents

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NUCLEAR, BIOLOGICAL AND CHEMICAL WEAPONS

January 29, 2018: During 2017, when North Korea tested what appeared to be a usable nuclear weapon and claimed to have a version that could operate with their longer range ballistic missiles, control of that weapon became an issue. The North Korean leader (a hereditary dictator) made threats to use these nuclear weapons on the United States, which could defend itself and respond in kind. Nevertheless even for the American side this all made the technology for ordering a nuclear weapons attack a hot news item.

Popular lore in the United States was that the U.S. president was accompanied at all times by a military officer carrying “the football” device that the president would use to order nuclear weapons use. Actually the “football” is a 20 kg (45 pound) electronic device carried around in a briefcase. The president carries a small card or device (called “the biscuit”) containing his personal authorization code needed to activate the football. One interesting item that came out in all this frantic news coverage was that in the 1990s an American president (Bill Clinton) misplaced his “biscuit” for several months and told no one. This apparently resulted in several unpublicized (classified) changes in how the biscuit was managed.

The biscuit and football are needed to activate the PAL ("Permissive Action Links") technology of codes and other tech and procedures that protect nuclear weapons from unauthorized use. It does not appear that North Korea has PAL technology. The United States began developing modern PAL technology in the 1960s and had it in use by 1970s. From the beginning the U.S. offered to share PAL technology with other nuclear powers. Only France adopted the American PAL tech largely intact but other nations, like the Soviet Union and Pakistan, adopted greatly modified versions of their own. The Russians did it with just the published details while the U.S. spent over $100 million to help Pakistan develop a nuclear weapons security system that the Pakistanis were satisfied was not secretly controlled by the United States. For that reason China did not adopt PAL although neither did Britain, but not because they didn’t trust the Americans. The Brits did trust their officers to act according to orders.

Even with some kind of PAL tech the Chinese government is apparently uneasy with sending off an SSBN (nuclear ballistic missile nuclear sub), armed with twelve or more SLBMs (sea launched ballistic missiles), each with one or more nuclear warheads. Western nations carefully select the officers and crews of their SSBNs and use a host of codes and procedures (including PAL) to insure that a single madman cannot use any of those SLBMs. Russia also screened crews and had PAL codes but also had, in effect, representatives of the secret police on the SSBN, whose main job was to insure that the SLBMs were used as the government back in Moscow commanded. Another common security feature for land and sea based nuclear missiles was the use of the two key system, in which two people had to turn a key at the same time to enable missile launch.

China has always been much less trusting of the armed forces when it comes to nuclear weapons. China also lacks the advanced PAL technology although they may be secretly developing their own. All this doesn't get much mention in the West but it is very real inside China. It is still unclear how China will cope with this when they finally get a reliable SSBN. Right now they do not have one. But the new Type 96 SSBN enters service sometime in the 2020s and may contain some kind of PAL tech the Chinese leadership trusts. China continues to work on overcoming their reluctance to trust a crew of Chinese sailors with all those nukes by screening such crews even more thoroughly and constantly reminding officers that their main job is to keep the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) in power.

Meanwhile there are other secrets involved with these nuclear weapons. For example, what are the plans for actually using them. It is unclear what North Korea intends to do, given all their other problems (mass starvation, growing corruption and unrest plus economic collapse). It is not known if North Korea has a plan, which is pretty scary all by itself.

What are America’s options when it comes to nuclear weapons? They exist, and are all laid out in a top secret document. This plan has been undergoing a lot of revision since the end of the Cold War in 1991. Things got more complicated after the war on terror showed up a decade later. The current version, officially called CONPLAN (Contingency Plan) 8044, was adopted gradually between 2004 and 2007. This one apparently has nuclear missiles aimed at Iran and North Korea, and perhaps other Middle Eastern nations as well. Just in case there’s a nuclear terrorist attack, and the American people demand retribution.

In the very beginning there was SIOP (Single Integrated Operational Plan) which was developed and introduced in the early 1960s and stayed pretty stable throughout the Cold War. That was a time when you knew who your key strategic enemies were. But things changed in the 1990s. The Cold War ended, and the age of terrorism began. The SIOP was renamed to OPLAN (Operational Plan) 8022 in 2003 and then replaced with a revised CONPLAN 8022 in 2007. This was later modified again as CONPLAN 8044.

SIOP details have always been kept secret, lest the enemy, or the American tax payer, discover how many nuclear weapons were aimed at what targets. This would tell potential enemies how good, or not-so-good, American intelligence was on those targets. This was particularly true during the Cold War, when Russia and China had many secret underground headquarters and weapons storage areas. The U.S. currently has about 6.800 active (ready for use) warheads, and some 1,800 installed in delivery systems (missiles, aircraft bombs). Russia has about as many as the U.S. and China has less than 500.

But many more are now aimed at nations like Iran and North Korea that do not have reliable ICBMs aimed at the United States? What these two nations do have is the capability to provide terrorists with nuclear weapons, and that’s what makes Iran and North Korea targets for American nukes. This much of the SIOP/CONPLAN has been revealed in the last few years, as a reminder that, if Islamic terrorists get their hands on nukes, the suppliers can expect nuclear retribution if any of those nukes are used. Another big change since the end of the Cold War has been the speed with which ICBMs can have their targets changed. This is the result of improvements in hardware and software and further warnings that this made American nukes much more flexible in unique situations. These days there is less concern about a massive exchange of nuclear weapons via missiles and more interest in unexpected use of one or a few nukes by some irrational opponent.

 


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