On 24 March 2015, Germanwings co-pilot Andreas Lubitz deliberately crashed an airliner, killing himself and all other 149 persons on board. The aviation industry learned an important lesson that applies to nuclear weapons.
When Captain Patrick Sondenheimer left the cockpit, co-pilot Lubitz locked the reinforced door and started a rapid descent. Within minutes, the plane crashed.
A few days before, a psychiatrist had given a written notice to Lubitz saying that he was unfit to fly. His Germanwings employer had not been informed. Over the previous five years Lubitz had consulted 41 physicians and psychiatrists.
A first lesson was learned quickly. A new rule was given that at least two staff persons, including a pilot, must be in the cockpit at all times. As applied to nuclear weapons, at no time should the decision to launch nuclear weapons be left in the hands of a single person. Only counting suicidal crashes with 44 fatalities or more since 1994, the Germanwings tragedy was the sixth one of its kind.1 It had thus taken the aviation industry six fatal suicidal airliner crashes to learn that one can never be absolutely sure about the future behavior of any given person. Indeed, the feared “nuclear enemy” may well be an insider working in your own defense establishment.
Are there nuclear-armed countries where a single person could order a nuclear attack?
An article by Aaron Tovish in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists reported the testimony of a retired missile officer, John Bordne, that his missile crew in Okinawa received an order to launch nuclear-armed cruise missiles on 28 October 1962.2 In Okinawa, three other missile sites nearby also received an order to launch nuclear-armed missiles at the same time. The late Captain William Bassett, commander of the base, became suspicious about the launch order and twice requested confirmation. He was finally told that the launch order was a mistake, so he stopped the launch. The “mistaken” launch order had been issued by a “commanding major” whose name has not been revealed. If Bassett had not intervened, 32 cruise missiles, each carrying a hydrogen bomb, would have been launched toward both the Soviet Union and China. The major was court-martialed, but everyone involved was ordered to keep silent about this incident for 50 years.
The 50 years ran out three years ago. Tovish, the director of the 2020 Vision project of the 6,800 worldwide Mayors for Peace, is calling for the government to publish records of this incident. In The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists3 Bruce Blair also reported that he had knowledge of a mistaken launch order having been sent during the 1967 Middle East war to a nuclear-aircraft crew on an aircraft carrier.
A second lesson from the Germanwings tragedy concerns the limitations of safety. The reinforced cockpit door that can be manually locked on the inside had been introduced as an additional safety measure following the 11 September 2001 terrorist attack. What had been introduced as a safety feature contributed to the Germanwings tragedy. In a complex system a feature added to improve safety can do the opposite. This has been explained by Scott Sagan, a professor at Stanford University in his 1993 book. The Limits of Safety, Organizations, Accidents, and Nuclear Weapons.4
A third lesson from the aviation industry stems from its success in reducing crashes. For the top 39 airlines the probability that your flight will crash with at least one fatality is approximately one chance in ten million.5 The probability of your dying in an airliner crash is about one chance in twenty million because on average about half the people on board now survive a crash. National agencies such as the US National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), the Transportation Safety Board of Canada (TSB) are thorough and transparent in their search for potential causes of airline crashes.
In contrast, in the US a lack of transparency has prevailed through the application of “secret” and “top secret” classification to most matters involving nuclear weapons. We have just been lucky to avoid unintentional nuclear bomb detonations.
Michel Duguay is a professor of engineering at Université Laval.
1 “Suicide by Pilot.” Wikipedia article at en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Suicide_by_pilot
2 Aaron Tovish, The Okinawa missiles of October, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 25 October 2015. thebulletin.org/okinawa-missiles-october8826
3 William Burr and Thomas S. Blanton, (31 October 2002). The submarines of October—U.S. and Soviet Naval Encounters During the Cuban Missile Crisis, National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book. No. 75. Archived from the original on 11 May 2012.
4 Scott Sagan, The Limits of Safety, Organizations, Accidents, and Nuclear Weapons, Princeton University Press, 1993.