By Saqib Mehmood
Jan 18, 2014
In a shocking revelation on January 15, the American Air Force has suspended the security clearance of its 34 officers, responsible for the control of America’s nuclear weapons. The officers were found involved in cheating, which was discovered during investigation of an alleged illegal drug possession scandal involving 11 officers across six bases in United States and England.
According to CBS News, the story exposed the cheatings in monthly proficiency test in which the officers were caught texting each other the knowledge to operate the nuclear missiles. The incident is the largest cheating case in the history, as far as the nuclear weapon security is concerned.
With this eye-opening incident, the security of American nuclear weapons, the largest nuclear force in the World, has become questionable. It has also raised some serious concerns regarding the efficacy of American Personal Reliability Program (PRP), considered to be the most sophisticated security clearance program in the World.
After 9/11, given the nature of evolving threats, nuclear security around the World arose as the most urgent concern in global security domain. The global character of terrorism and extremism increased the perceptions, regarding the possibility or likelihood of unauthorized use of nuclear weapon and radiological terrorism.
Recognizing the gravity of threat, nuclear weapon states and states with nuclear power capability adopted more cautious and stringent approaches to secure their nuclear weapons, nuclear facilitates and nuclear materials.
The most challenging question in the nuclear security domain that nuclear weapon states faced was how to guard the guardians? Generally states managing nuclear weapons have to address three main concerns regarding the security of the nuclear weapons; the external threat of preemptive or preventive strike; physical invasion of state sponsored or individual terrorist groups; and third the insider-outsider collaboration.
However, the third concern is more dangerous, compelling and complex in nature. An insider working in or deployed for the management of nuclear operations could be driven by the economic incentives, opportunity for political gains, or may obsessed with revenge, grudges, jealousness, psychiatric disorder or some cognitive compulsions. In this situation the likelihood of sabotage or leakage of sensitive information to outsiders increases.
This recent incident at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana is more or less related to the above mentioned third concern. Officers were found with restricted medicines, which perhaps they were using for some physical or psychiatric disorders. It is important to note that Malmstorm is one of the three bases
responsible for the United States 420 nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBMs).
The incident has exposed the fragility of American nuclear security culture and has raised many questions regarding the competence of management of nuclear weapons in United States. Since 1950, there have been around 32 nuclear weapon incidents in United States, known as the “broken arrows.” A Broken arrow is defined as the “an unexpected event involving nuclear weapons that result in the accidental launching, firing, detonating, theft or loss of the weapon.” According to the Brookings Institute, to date, eleven (11) nuclear weapons of United States have been lost and never recovered.
Terrorism and extremism has become the major threat to global peace and security after the 9/11. The global character of this menace reflects in its unselective nature—every state and civilization is actively dealing with it—no one can claim exception. The far most lethal manifestation of this menace could be in the form of nuclear terrorism. Sharing the sensitive information using mobile text messages may result in leakage of sensitive information to terrorists looking for the chance to inflict large scale human catastrophe.
Since the nuclear security apparatus is a careful blend of human and machine. The margin of error and uncertainty regarding efficacy of both, however, cannot be guaranteed hundred percent. If Edward Snowden having the level-III security
clearance can breach and dodge the whole US national security apparatus, arguably another Edward Snowden may exist in the forces managing American nuclear arsenal. United States having the largest nuclear force and nuclear deployments around the World should be more vigilant and stringent regarding the security of its nuclear weapons. It needs to improve the physical, technical and legal measures necessary to ensure the tamper proof security of its nuclear weapons.