U.S. Nuclear Weapons Cost Study Project
was completed in August 1998 and resulted in the book
Atomic Audit: The Costs and Consequences of U.S. Nuclear Weapons Since 1940 edited by Stephen I. Schwartz. These project pages should be considered historical.
Although the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy took credit for creating the permissive action link (PAL) and claimed that its executive director, James T. Ramey, originated the idea, several people suggested the concept (and later the physical apparatus) of "locking" nuclear weapons to prevent unauthorized use (for further information on PALs, see chapters 1 and 3).1
Fred Iklé, then an analyst with the RAND Corporation, is said to be the intellectual "father" of the PAL by virtue of a paper he wrote in 1957-58 on accidental nuclear war in which he suggested a mechanical lock for weapons. However, there is no evidence to suggest that Iklé or RAND ever promoted this concept or pushed for its implementation. At about the same time, scientists at Livermore, Los Alamos, and Sandia laboratories began investigating methods of controlling the use of nuclear weapons. Concepts were refined and a prototype built at Livermore was demonstrated in the fall of 1960 before a military audience in Washington and in December 1960 for incoming Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara. The military officers were unimpressed and considered the device redundant in light of what they considered adequate nonmechanical controls already in effect. McNamara's response is unknown, but apparently he did not consider it an urgent matter.
During the summer of 1960, Senator Clinton Anderson, chairman of the JCAE, authorized a staff study of security at NATO bases. Ramey traveled to Sandia National Laboratories to hear firsthand about use-control measures. While there, he came across a remote control for the television in his quarters and had a brainstorm: could a similar device be used to control the use of nuclear weapons from a central location? Returning to Washington, Ramey asked Los Alamos scientist and JCAE consultant Harold Agnew to assess the prospects for such a device (unbeknownst to Agnew, work was already well underway at Sandia). Ramey and the JCAE staff also prodded the Air Force to consider use-control technology for its weapons.
In November and December, a special ad hoc JCAE subcommittee on nuclear weapons security in NATO chaired by Representative Chet Holifield traveled to fifteen nuclear installations in eight countries, including Britain, Germany, Italy, and Turkey.2
During their tour, committee members, staff, and consultants (including Ramey and Agnew) were struck by the lax protection at some sites. At one base, they were amazed to find an aircraft on quick reaction alert armed with fully operational U.S. nuclear weapons and under the control of a foreign pilot.3
"The only evidence of U.S. control was a lonely 18-year-old sentry armed with a carbine and standing on the tarmac."4
Alarmed that this was the only thing standing between the pilot and an unauthorized launch, the JCAE came away convinced that a better means of control had to be devised and implemented.5
On February 15, 196, the JCAE sent a summary of its inspection report to President John F. Kennedy, describing "the fictional weapons custody system now in use" at NATO bases in Italy and Turkey and offering recommendations for improving NATO security. For the remainder of the year and through mid-1962, the committee held hearings to monitor the administration's progress in fixing what it viewed as a critical security problem and to examine (and try) various PAL prototypes. In June 1960 Kennedy signed National Security Action Memorandum 160 mandating the use of PALs on U.S. nuclear weapons in Europe. On July 5, 1962, he publicly announced he was requesting $23.3 million ($137 million in 1996 dollars) to supplement the AEC's budget and allow it to manufacture and install PALs on nuclear weapons. By September 1962, five-digit mechanical lock PALs were in place on Nike Hercules and Honest John missiles, atomic demolition munitions, theDavy Crockett
, and W33 andW48
artillery shells. Early PALs were little more than mechanical locks which could have been defeated given enough time and a hacksaw. Later versions were more sophisticated, employing multiple-digit coded switches and allowing only a limited number of tries before disabling the weapon (whereupon it to be returned to the AEC or DOE for refurbishment).
The Air Force and especially the Navy strongly opposed PALs, arguing that they would impede operational effectiveness and thus compromise deterrence. The Air Force eventually acquiesced after determining that PALs would actually increase the flexibility of its operations (by allowing, for example, bombers to be scrambled on alert with the knowledge that their load of nuclear weapons could not be used accidentally). Navy tactical weapons were also slow to acquire PALs, and PALs for submarine-launched ballistic missiles were only installed in 1997.
Although PALs might eventually have been developed and deployed with U.S. nuclear weapons (given increasing security concerns as the stockpile grew from a few hundred weapons between the late 1940s and early 1950s to more than 20,000 weapons by 1962), DOD intransigence could have delayed this for many years, as in the case of the Navy and its SLBMs.6
That they were deployed when they were, and that the issue received sustained congressional and presidential attention is attributable in no small measure to the JCAE's decision to tour NATO bases in 1960 and its persistence in pressing the issue and pointing out the rather wide discrepancy between presumed and actual security measures for U.S. nuclear weapons in Europe.
Jack Raymond, "U.S. to Install Locks on Atom Weapons as Extra Safeguard,"New York Times,
July 6, 1962, p.1;Congressional Record,
87 Cong. 2 sess., vol. 108, pt. 10 (July 10, 1962), pp. 13056-58; Green and Rosenthal,Government of the Atom,
pp. 68-69; Peter Stein and Peter Feaver,Assuring Control of Nuclear Weapons: The Evolution of Permissive Action Links,
Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard University, CSIA Occasional Paper 2 (Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1987), esp. pp. 23-51.[Back]
Letter from Representative Chet Holifield, Joint Committee on Atomic Energy, to President John F. Kennedy, February 15, 1961 (formerly Secret/Restricted Data, National Security Archive). In yet another display of the frequently arbitrary nature of classification and declassification decisions, a copy of this letter declassified by the Department of Energy in 1996 and released to the National Security Archive the following year deleted as sensitive national security information the words "Turkey" and "Italy" in the sentence: "In particular, the problems with the Jupiter missile bases in [deleted]...should be considered." Given that Jupiter missiles were only ever deployed in Turkey and Italy — a well-known unclassified fact — and that all the missiles were withdrawn from service thirty-five years ago, it is difficult to understand the basis for such a deletion. Another copy of this letter located in the JCAE's files at the National Archives (Record Group 128, Box 10, Executive Session, February 20, 1961) and declassified sometime in fiscal 1988 contains no such deletions.[Back]
Quick-reaction alert aircraft (and later, missiles) were deployed at a number of European bases in an effort to ensure that a surprise Soviet attack would not destroy all U.S. and NATO forces before they could be used.[Back]
Stein and Feaver,Assuring Control of Nuclear Weapons,
Interestingly, a trip in 1962 by Secretary McNamara and State Department officials Paul Nitze and Henry Rowen uncovered equally alarming problems. For example, "A road mobile German ?Honest John' unit was visited — a ?battlefield' nuclear delivery system. The warhead was with the unit, accompanied by two US custodians who, Harry Rowen said, looked ?rather lonely.' They kept the secrets of their trade in what seems to be a wooden safe.... A Mace unit was visited. These fixed, ?soft,' air breathing, US-manned 600-1200 mile ground-to-ground missiles are regularly maintained in a condition which permits them to be fired by the crews at 6 minutes' notice. They are aimed at Eastern European airfields. The warheads are kept on the missiles. Harry Rowen felt that these were the most dangerous delivery systems now in Europe, both because they could be fired so readily and because their vulnerability would create great pressure to fire them in a period of tension or limited hostilities. A German strike air squadron was visited. Warheads were, of course, stored aboard those aircraft on alert status. The assumption that the German pilots do not know how to arm these warheads turns out to be fictional; on request, one of the pilots showed the US visitors how this was done." Memorandum (Secret), Henry Owen, State Department, European Office, to Mr. Johnson, October 10, 1962, National Security Archive.[Back]
DOD officials even balked at the original wording for PALs coined by a Sandia scientist: prescribed action link. They apparently felt that the phrase connoted too much in the way of negative control and might be confused with "proscribed," implying a desire to never use the weapons. Permissive action link was the accepted compromise. Stein and Feaver,Assuring Control of Nuclear Weapons,
Copyright © 1998 The Brookings Institution