Sunday, November 18, 2007

Those Were the Days, My Friend; We Thought We'd Make Them End

Did Monty Python Know About This?

A recent headline (H/T Sub Report ) brought back memories: British nukes protected by bicycle lock keys - BBC Two:

Britain is the only nuclear weapons state which does not have a fail-safe mechanism to prevent its submarines launching a nuclear attack without the right code being sent, according to tonight's Newsnight on BBC Two. The programme also reveals that until less than ten years ago, the locks on RAF nuclear bombs were opened with a bicycle lock key.

The BBC alleges that British Trident nuclear submarine skippers can still launch their missiles -- without authorization codes ( Permissive Action Links or PALs ) from Whitehall. According to the BBC, the Ministry of Defence claims that safeguards built in by other countries were not relevant to British submarines. Trident commanders can still launch a nuclear attack without any command from Whitehall, if the worst comes to the worst. Why is Britain unique?

According to this, Posted by one Alex G. Nov 16, 2007 10:49:57 AM

... The Vanguard-class boats are a second-strike deterrent, so the patrolling boats need to be able to launch even if Britain (along with the Prime Minister, who has the launch codes) no longer exists. They still (AFAIK) use a dual-key system, so a single insane captain couldn't launch the missiles. It works like this: There's a safe on the boat, containing the trigger device and the Prime Minister's instructions in case of the destruction of Britain. Only the weapons officer and his deputy know the combination to the safe- the captain doesn't, and it's committed to memory not written down. The captain does, however, have a key without which the trigger device doesn't operate. So launching the missiles requires:The weapons officer to open the safe and connect the trigger to a control panel. The captain to turn the key in a different control panel.

Which still leaves two questions for Monty Python's Flying Circus to investigate:

Why bicycle lock keys? My submarine was a cramped, SSN - not a relatively spacious missile boat (SSBN), whose crews were often referred to as coners. Coners had something we never did - exercise bicycles. The 'B' in SSBN probably stands for bicycles with ballistic wheels.
So having bicycles aboard was a handy excuse for American officers to wear bicycle keys around their necks at all times like their British counterparts. This was intended to confuse Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, Hugo Chavez and Ahmadinejad.

Are coners reliable types who can be trusted to do their jobs reliably considering access to nuclear warhead launch controls? To assure their mental faculties remain on even keel, recreational diversions are provided on missile sub decks (photo).
For concerned citizens who have never been submariners: this has been satire. Only coincidentally, does SSBN stand for Submarine stationary bicycle neurosis.



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