The myth of the big red button: How the ICBM force maintains positive control, nuclear surety

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Jason Wiese
  • 90th Missile Wing Public Affairs
At this point, it is a cliché for movies, books and other forms of media to feature villains attempting to gain access to the United States' "big red button," the single step in the procedure to launch weapons in America's ICBM arsenal.

Mike Byrd, 90th Missile Wing historian, said he saw one video that showed a former U.S. president accidentally pressing the big red button in a groggy state after waking up. It suggested an ICBM launch was just an accident away from happening.

It was an irrational scare tactic, he said, meant to elicit fear and discredit the nuclear enterprise.

"Everyone has their agenda," he said. "Our business is to preserve peace."

The reality is the procedure to launch an ICBM takes quite a bit more than the push of a button.

"There is no big red button," said Capt. Mark Wullschleger, 90th Operations Support Squadron senior instructor missile combat crew commander. "We have positive control, and nuclear surety."

To have positive control over the Minuteman III ICBM arsenal means to have the capability to launch at the behest of the president of the U.S. - no matter what obstacles might potentially stand in the way of a successful launch, he said. On the flipside, nuclear surety means being able to prevent launches from occurring without the president's orders.

"These are the most powerful weapons in the world," said Capt. Tyler Remkus, 90th Operations Group Standards and Evaluations senior evaluator. "It's important for us to have a reliable system to assure our allies and deter our adversaries."

The Minuteman weapon system was developed in the late '50s and the Minuteman I ICBM began its Air Force in the early '60s. Today's Minuteman weapon system, the Minuteman III, is the product of almost 60 years of continuous enhancement.

"There are a lot of really bright minds that have designed our weapon system with lots of redundancies," Remkus said. "There are lots of safeguards. There are no single points of failure anywhere in the weapon system."

Hollywood tends to get one piece of the nuclear surety puzzle: codes are required in the launch process.

The National Security Agency and U.S. Strategic Command provide the codes needed to enable and launch a Minuteman III to the president and to missileers, said Maj. Christopher Picinni, 90th Operations Support Squadron senior code controller. The NSA uses the most up-to-date, virtually uncrackable encryption methods to protect the data.

The first step is to enable the missile, he said.

"You can think of it like a single-action pistol," Picinni said. "Enabling the missile is like cocking that gun."

It takes more than just the code to get the missile into space, however.

To pull the metaphorical trigger and launch the missile, 20th Air Force missileers awaiting presidential orders in a launch control center must give what is called a launch vote, he said.

Each member of the two-person missile crew performs a procedure known as a key turn, wherein a key and three cooperative launch switches must be turned simultaneously for the launch vote to be sent to the missile, he said. It takes two launch votes from two separate crews to launch.

"One crew can't launch by themselves," he said.

Requiring multiple launch votes contributes to nuclear surety by preventing an LCC from "going rogue" and attempting to launch a missile on their own, Picinni said. On the other hand, the system helps maintain positive control by allowing multiple LCCs to override an LCC that attempts to inhibit an authorized launch.

Another preventative measure, the Personnel Reliability Program, helps root out an insider threat, Remkus said. PRP monitors ensure those with access to nuclear weapons are mentally, physically and personally capable of performing a nuclear mission.

"Checks and balances are in place to identify those individuals involved in activities that could be detrimental to the security of our nation," said Scott Johnston, 90th Missile Wing Personnel Reliability Program manager. "The PRP is a systematic method to ensure only the most reliable individuals have access to nuclear weapons and weapon systems."

Military personnel are simply a subset of the general population, Johnson said. The Air Force does a great job selecting the cream of the crop to perform PRP duties. However, PRP members are human and susceptible to the same temptations as is the rest of society.

The PRP contributes both to positive control and nuclear surety, by weeding out personnel who would be more likely to attempt to launch when not ordered by the president and those who would be less likely to turn keys when ordered.

In most situations, the missile complex, including its LCCs and launch facilities, where the actual missile resides, is entirely self-contained and does not interface with outside computer systems, Remkus said.

"It's off the grid," he said. "Nobody could hack in. That adds a blanket of protection to it as well."

Also, the age of the system means it is inaccessible by most modern computer systems, Picinni said.

"We call it in the codes community, 'protection through antiquity,'" he said.

Even if, somehow, all the missileers in the missile complex at a given time were compromised in some way, the Minuteman III ICBMs can be set to a mode in which they accept radio frequencies from the airborne launch control system aboard an aircraft known as the airborne national command post, which can launch the missiles, Picinni said.

This seems like a lot to remember, but the ICBM force lives and breathes missiles and constantly trains to ensure they know the ins and outs of their trade.

"We have a really robust training program to make sure our people understand the weapon system," said Remkus

Instructors give missileers training rides, or simulated training scenarios in the Missile Procedures Trainer in the 90th OG, as well as classroom instruction, Wullschleger said.

"These training rides include security and emergency procedures, to include fires, emergency war orders, and they take it as a crew," he said.

Monthly MPT training focuses on three concentrations, emergency war orders, weapons system and codes training, he said. Three days of training are dedicated to each concentration.

Crews train constantly, he said. Even while on alert in the LCCs, any down time is spent studying job materials and missile combat crew commanders conduct on-the-job training with their deputy commanders.

"We take this job seriously," he said. "We understand the requirement to be competent with [ICBMs]. That's identified by the stringent training we do each month."

Bottom line, according to Picinni: "When directed by the president, we will ensure a launch occurs. There's not going to be an accidental launch because somebody bumped into a button."