Friday, January 14, 2022

Mutually Assured Destruction

Titan Missile Museum
Sahuarita, Arizona

Today we live in an age of vast and growing uncertainty.  When will the brutal Covid-19 pandemic end?  Will Putin send his tanks into the Ukraine?  Will Chinese paratroopers start falling from the skies over Taiwan?  Will North Korea or Iran do something crazy?  No one can really provide satisfactory answers to these questions.  And so we tramp on through a forest of doubt.

During the Cold War, however, things were different.  We enjoyed the certainty of Mutually Assured Destruction or MAD.  All of us, on both sides of the Berlin Wall, knew that a third World War would mean the extinction of humanity.  As Tom Lehrer out it, "We'll all go together when we go."

Commander K at the Control!
Titan Missile Museum
Sahuarita, Arizona

A visit to the Titan Missile Museum near Tucson Arizona demonstrates the hardware that created these Cold War certainties...  This abandoned missile silo for a Titan rocket was converted into a museum that gives us a glimpse into the Cold War.  The Strategic Air Command had Missile locations built in three states...Arizona, Kansas and Arkansas.

Titan Missile Museum
Sahuarita, Arizona

Very young men, and later women, manned these bases.  The Air Force tested them on a weekly basis for mental stability.  They worked underground in 24 hour shifts.  Cigarette smoke was ubiquitous.

The Titan missiles were fairly safe though one 1965 accident in Arkansas did claim fifty-three lives.  A welding rod was apparently tossed into a hydraulic line igniting a fire with the oxidizer.  Most of the victims were asphyxiated.

Don't High Five a Cactus!
Green Valley, AZ

Tom Lehrer got it essentially correct in his 1960 song The Wild West is Where I Want to Be.  "'Mid the yucca and the thistles, I'll watch the guided missiles while the old FBI watches me..."

Strategic Air Command
Titan Missile Museum
Sahuarita, Arizona

Eventually the Titan missile program was replaced by the Minuteman ICBM Missile program.  The third iteration of Boeing-built missiles remain in active service in Montana, North Dakota and Wyoming.  Each missile can deliver a 300+ kiloton payload (equivalent to about 20 Hiroshimas) around 8,700 miles with an accuracy of around 800 feet.  These are slated for replacement by a new generation of Northrop ICBMs around 2030.

So the air in Arizona is no longer "radioactive," leaving the fortunate residents of nearby Green Valley safe to play pickle ball.  All of the fissionable materials were removed long ago from the Titan missile locations.  Many of these abandoned Titan sites have been purchased by private citizens.  A decommissioned site in Arkansas has been turned into a luxury Cold War hotel...!

This may have been MAD but it all seemed to work.  The fear of Mutually Assured Destruction deterred both superpowers from ever pushing the nuclear button.  Nixon bombed Hanoi but he never authorized the use of atomic weapons.  Nor did the Soviets turn Kabul into glass.

Now in 2022 the Nuclear Club is much larger than during the Cold War.  It includes India, Pakistan, North Korea and soon it seems Iran.  Mutually Assured Destruction depended upon the rationality of the participants in order to work.  Can we count upon the rationality of Kim Jung Un and other leaders?  The future is murky and foreboding leaving us nostalgic for the Cold War. 

We live in an age on uncertainty.  Of this we are certain.

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