July 31, 2014

The Indian-American finger on US nuclear button

In the chronicles of Indian diaspora, Indian-Americans rank right up there, winning accolades for helming Fortune 100 companies, heading elite institutions, and raking in top dollar.

But in what is possibly a first, it has emerged that an Indian-American finger is on the US nuclear launch button, illustrating Washington's vote of confidence in the country's diversity. This, despite an ultranationalist fringe that believes "whiteness is still a proxy for being American," as one writer put it. In other words, you are American only if you are white, as one US lawmaker mistakenly suggested in a recent Congressional hearing, where he assumed Indian-American officials Nisha Biswal and Arun Kumar were Indian bureaucrats from New Delhi, ostensibly because of their brown skin.

Lt. Raj Bansal of the US Air Force's 90th Missile Wing is as brown as they come. He is one of the last men standing by ten Minuteman III nuclear missiles and the US President's order to launch them. Burrowed in an underground bunker in a flat, unmarked terrain between Cheyenne, Wyoming, and Lincoln, Nebraska, he and his partner Capt. Joseph Shannon are among the nuclear launch frontiersmen who do 24-hour shifts waiting for that dreaded moment, should it ever come to that, when they will punch in the codes to Armageddon.Lt. Bansal's story emerged when the US Air Force allowed the media a rare glimpse of how America's nuclear arsenal operates following a scandal in which personnel in charge of US nuclear weapons were found cheating — much like how school students cheat in exams — to meet the grades required to display their knowledge of launch codes and other information about the weapons they were handling. Nine officers were fired for cheating and dozens were reprimanded.

Evidently, Lt Bansal was not among them because National Public Radio described his routine on the nuke watch, rather sketchily because much of the drill is still classified. The nuclear complex it described includes a command center with a pool table, a workout room and television, where support staff, including a cook and heavily armed security force, live.
But controls to the missiles themselves are buried 60 feet underground in a room called "the capsule." Protected by an enormous, 2-foot-thick blast door made of 8 tons of solid steel, it said the room is hollowed out like an egg shell, and in the middle, suspended on shock absorbers, hangs the launch control center, a room within a room. It's long and narrow, with a bed at one end and a toilet at the other. In between, two chairs face computer displays.

It is here that Bansal and Shannon, who NPR described as the "final link in a system stretching from the president of the United States to these missiles," work on 24-hour shifts. The missiles themselves are displayed in a grid on the computer console; each missile is just a tiny rectangle on the screen. "It makes the enormousness of the job seem small and abstract. And maybe the people asked to do this need it that way; to let them get on with the day-to-day of keeping the weapons ready," the NPR correspondent observed.

Will they ever get a coded message from the President ordering them to unleash their weapons? Bansal was asked.

"I think it's something everybody thinks about when they get the job," Bansal replied. "I mean you're basically eating most of your meals when you're on alert next to the keys and switches that would cause that act."
The Minuteman III missile systems of the kind Lt Raj Bansal is primed to launch on his nuclear watch is a land-based ICBM (Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile) with a range of nearly 6000 miles. The US has 450 of these, each carrying three thermonuclear warheads with a yield in the range of 300 to 500 kilotons. In other words, each warhead is 15 to 25 times more powerful than the atomic bomb dropped over Hiroshima, and can eviscerate even larger cities. Together, the three warheads on Minuteman III will be 100 times as powerful as the one that leveled Nagasaki.

Deployed in 1970, the Minuteman III is also the first MIRV— capable missile — Multiple Independently-targetable Re-entry Vehicle. Which means each of its warheads can be directed at different targets or cities even though they are on the same missile — in other words, more bang for the buck or more destruction with a single launch while also making it difficult for anti-ballistic missile systems to intercept them.

According to the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) the Minuteman III missiles are dispersed in hardened silos to protect against attack and connected to an underground launch control center through a system of hardened cables. Launch crews, consisting of two officers, perform around-the-clock alert in the launch control center. A variety of communication systems provide the National Command Authorities with highly reliable, virtually instantaneous direct contact with each launch crew.

India's nuclear posture is so opaque that few people have an idea where the weapons are located or deployed, much less who are the personnel manning them and what the command and control structure looks like.
- Timesofindia

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