American Scientists Advised Guards To Shoot At Nukes If There Was A Security Breach

American Scientists Advised Guards to Shoot at Nukes If There Was a Security Breach

Back in late 2014 the National Security Archive published a historical documentary produced in 2010 that went largely unnoticed. The film explores the history of nuclear weapons safety. And if you haven't seen it yet, it's pretty frightening. Titled Always Never: The Quest For Safety, Control and Survivability, the most terrifying story from the film involves the protection of nuclear weapons in Germany. I've said before that it's amazing anybody survived the Cold War. And this is just one more artefact testifying to that idea.

In 1960, a scientist from Los Alamos advised a US guard to shoot at the nuclear weapons on a West German aircraft if he ever became concerned about accidental or improper use. In fact, his exact words were, "shoot at those things and don't worry about it."

The American nukes were on German planes and ready to be deployed on a moment's notice. But the concern was that there was no real civilian (which is to say US government) oversight about how and when those nukes would be deployed.

From the National Security Archive:

In late 1960, when members of the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy were visiting U.S. nuclear weapons storage sites in Western European NATO countries, they were accompanied by Harold Agnew, a senior staffer with Los Alamos Laboratory. According to Agnew's recollection years later, they stopped at an airbase where he noticed that German fighter-bombers were armed with nuclear weapons and that the German pilots had virtual control over them under nuclear sharing arrangements with the United States. Concerned about the possibility of misguided or accidental nuclear use, Agnew spoke to a young U.S. soldier who had responsibility for guarding the weapons and asked him what he would do if the German pilots came "running out and they're gonna take off and no one has told you that it's all right." The sentry was uncertain, so Agnew advised him to disable the weapons with his gun: "shoot at those things and don't worry about it."

Sounds like one hell of a security protocol. Again, I'm truly amazed anybody survived the Cold War. Let's just hope we survive the New Cold War.


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    Shooting a nuke will not trigger it, just as shooting the keypad doesn't open a locked door in real life.

    It just breaks it.

    Last edited 14/02/16 8:15 am

      Won't detonate a modern nuke. These nukes had no safeties. They used a charge of black powder to shoot one piece of the fissionable material at the other to make a critical mass.

      Shooting at one of these could very well have caused the powder charge to go off, detonating the bomb.

        Are you certain about the black powder thing? Black powder was largely obsolete as an explosive even in WW1.

        Wikipedia says the explosive lens used at Trinity and for Fat Man used "Baratol as the low-VoD explosive and Composition B as the fast, but other combinations can be used." (Yeah, I know, Wikipedia, but...)

        Black powder seems very unlikely given the availability of modern explosives.

        The point of shooting a nuke wouldn't be to set it off, but to disable it by messing up the less robust internal components Getting a proper fission explosion to happen is pretty difficult; it's why the Manhattan Project was so costly.

        Not an expert here - do you have a reference for the black powder thing? I suppose that fouling from black powder wouldn't really matter when you're setting off a nuke...

          Black powder is obsolete as an explosive but not as a gas generator to push a projectile at a target.

    The plutonium or uranium looks like a dull metal slug and is brittle so a bullet just shatters it.
    You don't want to trigger the explosive charge but that may well be better protected or disarmed in some way. Perhaps the explosive has to be inserted to arm the device. It would deteriorate over time and would have to be refreshed.
    I also understand that the radioactivity affects metal over time and nukes have to be maintained, you can't just store them.

      The pre detonator in those days was probably rdx. Which you can light with a match at it just burns like a fire lighter. You can shoot it all you want the worst you really would do is make holes in the casing releasing localised close range radiation of varying waves.

        The detonator? These were nukes from the 1960s for christ sake. The bomb was likely a Mk11, the state of the art for it's time. It was a gun type nuclear weapon. They used gun powder to fire either one hemisphere of plutonium at another or a plug of enriched Uranium at a sphere of enriched uranium with a space for the plug to go. If I saw someone shooting at one of these I'd shoot them and pray.

        Modern implosion bombs could be crashed into a foot thick steel plate at super sonic speeds and it wouldn't detonate. You could set off a hand grenade beside the core and it wouldn't go off.

          from the 1960s, I understood that nukes were modernised and maintained, apparently you can't just leave them somewhere, the radiation makes metal brittle and authorities wanted to ensure they stayed ready. Can't just store nukes in a bunker for 50 years and then use them.
          I dimly recall that Pu is corrosive over time.

            No. Neutron bombardment will cause metal to become brittle. Pu is not a neutron emitter. It's an Alpha source. It emits a Helium nucleus every 24k years.

            The reason you can't store them for 50 years has nothing to do with the fissile material, it's the explosives and detonators have a shelf life and need to be replaced.

            Until the mid 1970s, the best safety feature they had for the big H-Bombs carried by bombers was to have a steel balls in the pit of the bomb. If they got permission to arm the bomb, the bombardier would pull on a wire that would allow the balls to fall out of the pit.

            What the chain did was, if the explosives did trigger in a crash or what ever, the steel would prevent the implosion from forming the correct shape and prevent fission from happening.

            The problem is, and this has happened on more than one occasion, if they got permission to remove the "safety" but then it was revoked, there was no way to put the balls back into the bomb, leaving the plane carrying an armed atomic bomb.

      Actually even if you do set off the explosive, it is almost certain to not result in a nuclear yield. The explosive all around the core needs to me set off in a precise pattern virually simultaneously by multiple detonators. Setting off one detonator or explosive lens first will result in an asymmetrical shockwave which will smash rather than implode the core or "Pit". It will be a bad time for anyone close enough to shoot it, but that is it.

      Coupled with the fact that, as G-man says, the explosive is insensitive, you can shoot at it and you will make holes in it, damage it's structure, or it's arming mechanism, or the pit itself and you are perfectly fine unless something freakish sets it off, and then you might get killed by the explosion but you've saved a lot of people and maybe stopped a nuclear war.

        These were gun type weapons. The only explosive was gunpowder used to push a plug off HEU at the target.

    I Suggest watching the documentary talked about. I happened across it on Utube a couple weeks ago and it is one of the best docos I have ever seen. As the title Always / Never suggests the devices had elaborate systems in place to ensure they could could only come to yield in specific circumstances (Always work when needed but never accidentally) and that shooting them would simply engage some of the built in safety. Obviously it would have been foolish to suggest shooting a weapon to prevent it being used if they thought there was any possibility that it would just guarantee a detonation among friendlies.
    I don't know of a black powder propelled slug weapon. Even the first A bombs used a a high explosive in the gun type designs. These Later weapons were 2 stage thermo devices.

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