Worse than Ivan the Terrible
The “balance of error” for a missile boat’s captain
Prompting this post is a recent report that Russian Akula-class hunter-killer submarines are stalking British Vanguard-class submarines carrying Trident nuclear missiles. It’s the sort of thing that happened routinely during the Cold War. Thomas Harding, defence editor of the Daily Telegraph, quotes a senior Royal Navy source as saying: “The Russians have been playing games with us, the Americans and French in the North Atlantic. We have put a lot of resources into protecting Trident because we cannot afford by any stretch to let the Russians learn the acoustic profile of one of our bombers as that would compromise the deterrent.”
Bombers, by the way, is Navy slang for missile-carrying boats.
The special problems of controlling them figured in one of the predictions of possible routes to nuclear war explored in 1979 by Peter Batty and me in our BBC-TV programme “Nuclear Nightmares”.
In the accompanying book of the same title I wrote:
… the submarine as the weapon of the last resort remains an important concept and an awkward problem in command and control because, by definition, the submarine ought logically to be able to launch its missiles without receipt of explicit orders.
Communication with submerged submarines is difficult even in peacetime; unless they come close to the surface the only radio signals that can penetrate to them through the salt water are extremely long waves. The superpowers have the necessary transmitters (for example at Cutler, Maine, and at Khabarovsk near Vladivostok) but these are presumed to be targeted by the opponent’s missiles. I do not know what emergency provision the Soviet Union makes for communicating with its submarines when the regular links are broken, but the US Navy maintains a fleet of aircraft codenamed Tacamo (‘take charge and move out’). Some of the aircraft are on constant airborne alert and they unreel wires several miles long behind them as they fly, for transmitting the very long radio waves that will reach the submerged submarines. …
Nevertheless, one has to contemplate the possibility that this chain of command, too, can be broken and the captain of a missile-carrying submarine ma y find himself without communications from the national or naval headquarters, and without instructions.
What the ‘last-resort’ orders that he carries with him say can only be a matter of speculation. Perhaps the instructions are extremely cautious and tell the submarine captain to do nothing without direct orders to launch his missiles. Conceivably the orders can vary according to the state of national alert at the time of the last message. But a military planner could well blanch at the risk of the submarine force being rendered impotent, given such orders. The logic of the submarines seems to require a measure of personal initiative for the submarine captain, in the final analysis.
If that is so, and the last message he received told of an impending missile attack on his country, he can interpret the ensuing silence as evidence that the worst has happened. The simple philosophy of revenge may then allow him to launch his missiles without compunction – perhaps after a stipulated interval of silence – although that cuts across any notion of fighting a nuclear war in a controlled way. If the silence is inexplicable, the orders presumably require the captain to confirm that nuclear war has occurred. To do so he might go to the surface and try to contact his own authorities using one of half a dozen special radio systems. Failing that, he can sample the air for radioactivity and listen for news broadcasts.
My own nightmare concerns a submarine captain, out of touch with base, who finds hostile ships closing in on him, which not only prevent him from surfacing but may also be about to sink him, missiles and all. What does he do, when the balance of terror becomes, for him, balance of error and he may be tempted to compromise by launching, say, two missiles?
American and Soviet submarine captains may have different orders. John Steinbruner [of the Brookings Institution] suggests that the highly centralised command system of the Soviet Union is less likely than the American’s to allow much freedom of action. He suspects that one reason why most of the Soviet missile-carrying boats remain in harbour most of the time is that the high command prefers them to be there; certainly the idea of a lot of submarine captains steaming around independently, each wielding more power than Ivan the Terrible ever had, is not in keeping with the traditional command systems of the Tsars and the Politburo. Nevertheless, if it is true that the last-resort role of the missile-carrying submarines is similar for both superpowers, I think that when eventually he goes to sea a Soviet captain must have some freedom of action and authority, however circumscribed, to launch his dozen or more nuclear-armed missiles on his own initiative.
Here’s how “Nuclear Nightmares” dramatized the dilemma:
SURVIVOR (Peter Ustinov) in a fallout shelter: I know very little about submarines, but I imagine that their crews are as cramped and isolated as we are here.
I’m thinking in particular of a captain of a Soviet submarine selected for a long-range mission in the Pacific because of his proven loyalty to the Party and also his qualities as a seaman. Now he had lost touch with his base for days.
His second-in-command told him, “Nothing..from the shore transmitter at Khabarovsk, nothing from the emergency aircraft.”.
The Captain addressed the crew, “Perhaps our Mother Russia has been burnt to a cinder already and we’re the only ones left to avenge her. But my orders are specific: I must have proof that nuclear war has broken out before we take any initiative. We should surface, sample the atmosphere and listen for news broadcasts.”
But there were three unidentified ships bearing down on him already. “Three destroyers, Captain, and a possible submarine.”
“If they sink us we shall have the proof we need,” muttered the Captain, “and if I launch my missiles the chances are they’ll sink us anyway.”
“But why should they provoke us in this way, if they have not attacked the Soviet Union?”
“Oh, we provoke one another all the time. In this war of nerves that’s nothing”
“But comrade Captain – Khabarovsk? The emergency aircraft?”
The Captain took his decision. “I will launch two missiles. In this way, if it’s a terrible mistake, the Party Chairman can always say to the American President, ‘That stupid Captain, we’ve punished him. We apologise about Denver and San Diego.’ If it’s not a mistake we shall have done our duty, in part at least.”
“But we would never start a war ourselves,” cried the second-in-command. “Remember what the Admiral said.” (The crew cheered, quietly.) “There are certain circles in Washington eager to destroy us. Are two missiles sufficient?”
“Two missiles”, said the Captain. “Proceed.”
And so he remained poised on a balance of error, not knowing whether he had started the nuclear war or merely stoked fires that were raging already.
A revelation since 1979
It’s hard to judge the quality of that conjecture three decades later because we still don’t know what orders of last resort the Russian or American missile boats have. But the facts about the orders for Britain’s nuclear have become very clear.
Nobody knows what they are, or what they have been, except the Prime Ministers – and they will take the secrets to their graves. And that is how it should be.
For example, when the Vanguard-class boat currently on patrol returns to its Scottish base, the letter from Gordon Brown will be removed unopened from the Captain’s safe and replaced by David Cameron’s.
Over the years there has been speculation about incoming Prime Ministers being briefed about the appalling power of first Polaris and then the Trident missiles, and about possible orders for the captain to open if the UK goes off the air. Launch your missiles? Put yourself under US command? Head for Australia? Decide for yourself?
A touching revelation came when John Major told how, on becoming Prime Minister in 1990, he left Downing Street for his Huntingdon constituency in order the compose the fateful letters for the four captains in a civilian atmosphere. And in May this year a former Cabinet Secretary, Lord Butler, confirmed the drill on BBC Radio. To quote from the BBC website report:
Lord Butler says the letters are “desperately secret”.
“I mean they are clearly really secret because the whole point of a nuclear deterrent is who your enemy doesn’t know what he may incur if he attacks you, and so these are highly secret things, and only one person, who is the initiator of them, knows what the orders are, and that is the Prime Minister.”
He says the reason the decision is so sobering is because it has to be made at a time of peace and immediately when a Prime Minister comes to power.
The Cabinet Secretary briefs on the options, and then he leaves the Prime Minister alone, in his words “to do privately, wrestling with their own beliefs and conscience.”
And they then seal the letters, return them to the Cabinet Secretary, and they are transmitted to the boats.
For two previous posts based on “Nuclear Nightmares” see https://calderup.wordpress.com/2010/05/01/counterforce/ and https://calderup.wordpress.com/2010/08/23/who-blew-up-jerusalem/
Thomas Harding’s news report is available here http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/newstopics/politics/defence/7969017/Russian-subs-stalk-Trident-in-echo-of-Cold-War.html
“Nuclear Nightmares: The Wars That Must Never Happen”: a 90-minute TV documentary programme made by the BBC as a co-production with Palm Productions for transmission by WNET New York and Antenne 2 Paris. Produced and directed by Peter Batty, presented by Peter Ustinov and written by Nigel Calder, it was first broadcast in November 1979. Not to be confused with a 2006 BBC programme about reactor accidents, also called “Nuclear Nightmares”.
Nuclear Nightmares: an investigation into possible wars by Nigel Calder, BBC Publications, Viking, etc., 1979.
Lord Butler quoted at http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/8691377.stm