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Published on March 8th, 2019 | by Susi Snyder

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Calling the bombs back?

Boeing is working on a project that would allow intercontinental ballistic missiles to self-destruct once they’ve already been launched.

In July 2018, the Air Force Nuclear Weapon Center awarded Boeing a US$ 15.5 million (€ 13.3 million) contract to develop, qualify and deliver a Flight Termination Receiver (FTR) 2.0. According to Defense Industry Daily, “the FTR external link is an essential piece that allows for the missiles destruction after it has already been launched. The Flight Termination System can take a number of commands via Radio Frequency that range from safing and arming devices to terminating the missiles flight”. Work is expected to be completed by July 2021.[1]

The development of “self-destruct” capabilities in an intercontinental ballistic missile can lead down a dangerous path. It can increase the risk of accidental use by reinforcing what is already a culture of complacency among those that are responsible for launching the missiles. When missileers think there’s an ‘undo’  or a they can ‘call the bomb back’, they might not be quite so diligent. Add this to the reported problems amongst the personnel responsible for firing these missiles, including significant drug use, sleeping on the job[2] and more,[3] and there is a recipe for disaster.

More than once incoming information has indicated a possible missile attack on a nuclear armed country. Numerous nuclear postures are designed to launch a nuclear weapons response, relatively quickly, after receiving information about incoming missiles. It

Building these new capabilities also reinforces the idea that ICBMs will be around indefinitely (despite disarmament commitments under the nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty). The US Air Force is planning to keep the capability to launch ICBMs from air commands, at least until 2075. It issued contracts to Rockwell Collins (now part of United Technologies Corporation) and Lockheed Martin, in October 2017 to “provide a solution to meet the survivable launch platform – airborne fire control requirements for the ground based strategic deterrent weapon system through 2075”.[4]

Like so many of the trends in new nuclear weapons development this is worrying. It potentially undermines the taboo against the launch of nuclear weapons, and increases risks of misunderstanding and counter-strikes. While some may regard this type of development as a way to reduce the reliance on strategic bombers, others are extremely concerned that it elevates risk beyond reason.

Luck and technology will not eliminate nuclear weapon threats, the only way to truly reduce risk of nuclear weapon use is through nuclear weapon elimination, and the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons provides a path forward.


Notes

[1] U.S. Department of Defense, “Daily contracts – FA8214-15-C-0001-P00049”, Website U.S. Department of Defense, 25 July 2018 (dod.defense.gov/News/Contracts/Contract-View/Article/1584490/);

Defense Industry Daily, “Boeing will deliver a new nuclear failsafe | The battlefield needs some management | Spain’s S-80 still having a siesta”, Website Defense Industry Daily (www.defenseindustrydaily.com/boeing-will-deliver-a-new-nuclear-failsafe-the-battlefield-needs-some-management-spains-s-80-still-having-a-siesta-040357/), viewed in January 2019.

[2]  Air Force officers sanctioned after sleeping on job – CNN.com (2008). Available at: http://edition.cnn.com/2008/US/08/29/airforce.sanctions/ (Accessed: 29 January 2019).

[3] Smith, R. J. (2014) ‘Aiming High’, Slate, 14 April. Available at: http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/politics/2014/04/air_force_s_nuclear_missile_corps_is_struggling_millennial_missileers_suffer.html (Accessed: 29 January 2019).

[4] U.S. Department of Defense, “Daily contracts list”, U.S. Department of Defense, 3 October 2017 (dod.defense.gov/News/Contracts/Contract-View/Article/1333296/).

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About the Author

Susi Snyder is the Nuclear Disarmament Programme Manager for PAX in the Netherlands. Mrs. Snyder has coordinated the research, publication and campaigning activities surrounding the annually updated Don’t Bank on the Bomb report since 2013. She has published numerous reports and articles, including Dealing with a ban (2015); The Rotterdam Blast: The immediate humanitarian consequences of a 12 kiloton nuclear explosion (2014); and Withdrawal Issues: What NATO countries say about the future of tactical nuclear weapons in Europe (2011). She is an International Steering Group member of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, and a 2016 Nuclear Free Future Award Laureate. Previously, Mrs. Snyder served as the Secretary General of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom at their Geneva secretariat.



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