Thursday, May 22, 2008

Preaching from Ignorance

Johann Hari, from Monday's 'Independent':

More amazingly still, Britain's weapons do not have a secret launch code. They can be fired or detonated by the commander in charge of them simply by opening them up manually and turning some switches and buttons. Every other nuclear power has an authorisation code known only to the country's leader, which has to be read out to the soldiers in charge of the weapon before it can be used. Not us. Whenever the British government has tried to introduce this basic safety procedure, the Navy has got huffy and refused to participate, saying it is "tantamount" to claiming their officers are not "true gentlemen".

Now, I have to be careful here because, unlike Johann, I actually know what I am talking about, so all this is open source material:
  • Johann is not talking about a "secret launch code" - of course these exist (and change, regularly), he is talking about 'Permissive Action Links' - PALs - in American parlance. These don't stop the weapons being launched or dropped - they are part of the warhead interlocks and stop them going bang. And, it must be admitted, some countries have them fitted on their warheads and the UK doesn't.
  • "Every other nuclear power" - just utter bollocks. Israel, India and Pakistan? I doubt it. I don't think the French have them either.
  • "known only to the country's leader" - Nope. The Soviets had them known to the Political Officers (Zampolit) - not just to the President. In the USA, although the President is the "National Command Authority" when alive, the "National Airborne Operations Centre" (formerly known as the "National Airborne Emergency Command Post" - less formally as 'Kneecap' and before that as 'Looking Glass') is available to take over in the event of mass untimely death* of politicians by means various. They have the codes available.
  • Part of the role of the submarine deterrent force, regardless of which country it belongs to is 'retaliatory strike'. This means that if you attack us with Weapons of Mass Destruction, we will rain buckets of instant sunshine down on you, even if you have killed all of the political leadership. As Jonty Powis (more famous for his part in the rescue of the crew of a Russian mini-sub) pithily but inaccurately put it (I believe on television), we listen to the Today programme and, if we don't hear it, we get worried. Without the expense of NAOC and Airforce One (remember the 'Blairforce 1' farce - and the 'Queen's Flight' is not appropriately equipped), you cannot use PALs in that context.
  • Gentlemen? I believe (and was certainly indoctrinated) that Naval Officers are not considered to be gentlemen anyway. Something to do with Queen Victoria and us hanging a load of mutineers after promising them we wouldn't. Hence the carried swords (as opposed to the Royal Marines and the Army who have them on hangers or on a Sam Browne) etc, etc.
  • And the killer: "They can be fired or detonated by the commander in charge of them simply by opening them up manually and turning some switches and buttons." Utter, utter crap. While not actually requiring everybody on the submarine to take an active part, missile launch requires many people to co-operate, has numerous interlocks and specifically requires keys held under '2-man control'. And that is just the rockets. The warheads themselves have additional safety features.
Hari, you are an utter fucking cretin.

* Is this actually possible? Or, walking away from the nuclear option, would 'timely' for our political classes be 'three score years and ten' (i.e. McCain is well up for it), as opposed to piano-wire garrottes, candiru fish and sharpened cockroaches at the hands of a riotous mob of libertarian bloggers? Just musing.

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