One Minute to Midnight

We came across an extraordinary story last week in the Omaha World Herald out of Nebraska (yes McLeod Governance reads widely!).

It is an incredible story about the reliance that we now – and in 1979 – place on automated decisions even when the actions resulting therefrom may have catastrophic events.

As you read the story our challenge to you is to draw analogies (albeit on a lesser scale) to your organisation.

When have you over-relied on the information that a system produces and who has had the courage to over-ride the seemingly infallible?

What was your One Minute to Midnight?


They started the countdown at 30 and stared unblinking at the giant monitors in the Strategic Air Command’s underground bunker, waiting for the world to end.

29 … 28 … 27 …

Capt. Bob Vouk stared at the monitors and tried to tell himself that the Soviet Union wouldn’t attack like this, without provocation or warning or reason. When this countdown hit zero, dozens of nuclear missiles wouldn’t slam into Omaha. His wife and two young children, sound asleep at home, would wake to see another day. Right?

He looked up toward the ceiling and tried to push away the dread settling at the base of his stomach. He couldn’t.

26 … 25 … 24 …

“Here comes our worst-case scenario,” he remembers thinking. “Here goes the whole world. Boom!”

It was Nov. 9, 1979, and Vouk was working the normal graveyard shift as the communications controller inside the SAC underground command post. Buried beneath Bellevue’s Offutt Air Force Base, the SAC bunker served as a nerve center for the United States’ nuclear arsenal.

On normal nights Vouk might talk to his counterparts at the North American Aerospace Defense Command, commonly known as NORAD, in Colorado and Wyoming. He might phone the Pentagon command center. He might even run exercises with bases and missile silos around the country, practicing how they would maintain communication — and how they would react — if the Soviet Union launched a nuclear attack on the United States.

But this ceased to be a normal night about 2 a.m., when the SAC bunker’s missile control officer looked at his screen and glanced at Vouk.

“Do you have an exercise going on?”

“No,” Vouk answered. “Why?”

“Because I have missile launches!”

21 … 20 … 19 …

Within seconds, everyone in the bunker knew the terrifying news: Several hundred nuclear missiles appeared to be hurtling toward major cities and military bases in the United States. The country’s military leaders had only minutes to react and launch a nuclear strike of their own. Residents of large swaths of the United States likely had only minutes to live.

The quiet underground bunker burst into action. Security personnel closed the command post’s 2-foot-thick steel doors, sealing off the underground bunker and effectively locking in the SAC officers.

Col. Billy Batson, a hard-boiled ex-pilot and the ranking officer in the bunker, ordered a coded message sent to bases around the country, a message that ordered bomber and fighter pilots into their planes to prepare for takeoff.

Vouk speed-dialed the airborne command post, then NORAD, then the Pentagon, asking each if its screens showed that Soviet missiles were bearing down on the United States. He got confusing replies, but together they pointed toward an answer: No.

Even as Vouk began to grow suspicious of the evidence appearing on the SAC bunker’s screens, the missile officer kept yelling out new missile numbers as he saw them: 600. Then 1,000. Then 1,500.

“It was spooky, because this is exactly how we had trained,” Vouk said. “This was the worst-case scenario.”

16 … 15 … 14 …

Soon Batson huddled with his senior officers and asked the impossible question: What should we do?

Vouk urged calm, outlining his theory that what appeared to be the beginning of World War III was in fact some sort of computer glitch.

At least one officer vehemently disagreed, pointing out they were bound by procedures to recommend launching a full-scale nuclear strike.

They argued until Batson cut them short. I think it’s a false alarm, he said. We will wait until something actually blows up, and then we will launch a counterattack.

They wouldn’t have to wait long. The first Soviet nuclear missiles were within two minutes of their East Coast targets.

Vouk got on a secure line with a command center at Fort Ritchie, a Maryland military base. Give us a countdown, the officer there asked. And so Vouk counted backward toward zero, half-believing that when he reached zero, everyone at the Maryland base — everyone in Maryland — would be the first victims of World War III. He reached zero. Nothing happened. Maryland was intact.

Vouk gasped for air — he hadn’t realized it, but he had been holding his breath for the past 30 seconds. But there wasn’t time to exhale — not yet.

Offutt Air Force Base and the greater Omaha area were scheduled to be destroyed in mere minutes.

12 … 11 … 10 …

By now it seemed clear that this “attack” was an unexplained error somewhere inside the United States’ missile detection system. Everything is fine in Maryland, Vouk reasoned. Everything will be fine here.

But as the seconds ticked away, he couldn’t help but think of his kids, still too young to understand why Daddy had to go to work late at night and sleep during the day.

He couldn’t look at the missile control officer’s screen, see the curved lines that looked like hundreds of spikes on an umbrella, and ignore the fact that some of those spikes represented strikes seemingly headed right toward his co-workers, his friends and his family in Omaha.

“It’s like we knew in our heads what was happening,” he said, “but there’s a part of your reptilian brain that is still expecting to get stepped on.”

And so they started the countdown. As it reached 10, everyone stopped staring at the technology in front of them, the multimillion-dollar screens meant to track nuclear strikes.

Everyone did something more primitive, more human. They peeled their eyes off the screens. They stared up at the ceiling. They waited.

Five … four …

three …

two …

one …

They stood deep in the underground bunker, inside the 2-foot-thick, blast-proof doors, and they cheered.

“OK!” Batson yelled, pumping his fist. “Now, will somebody figure out what the hell is going on around here?”

Vouk and the other SAC officers wouldn’t know until hours later that a low-level employee at NORAD had popped a training tape into a computer and that the training tape had somehow been accidentally broadcast onto the SAC screens.

They didn’t know that Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Jimmy Carter’s national security adviser, had received the dreaded 3 a.m. phone call from the Pentagon. He had been seconds away from alerting the president and recommending a U.S. nuclear attack on the Soviet Union when he learned of the false alarm.

“Sitting alone in the middle of the night, Brzezinski had not awakened his wife, reckoning that everyone would be dead in half an hour,” recounted Gen. Robert Gates, the former U.S. secretary of defense, in his book about the Cold War.

They didn’t know that the events of Nov. 9, 1979, would become an infamous example of inexplicable user error and a technological glitch nearly overwhelming the entire U.S. nuclear apparatus; that it would illustrate that the seemingly best-laid nuclear launch plans could help lead us into a nuclear war that neither the United States nor the Soviet Union wanted.

They didn’t know that several more high-profile false alarms in 1980 would lead U.S. military leaders to re-examine the entire system and place more emphasis on “human safeguards,” allowing commanders to override or overrule computer data suggesting a seemingly nonsensical nuclear attack. (Critics argue that the U.S. military hasn’t done enough — criticism that intensified in 2007 when the Air Force accidentally flew planes armed with nuclear-tipped cruise missiles across the country.)

They didn’t know — and no one will ever truly know — just how close we came to living a real-life version of “Dr. Strangelove.”

But even as they cheered, Vouk said, they knew that something was very wrong with the way the United States stockpiled, monitored and oversaw its nuclear arsenal.

And they knew that every last one of us was very lucky to be alive.

“I think we came real close,” said Vouk, who left the Air Force in 1980 and worked as a stockbroker before moving to Savannah, Georgia, where he now lives.

“I think if we had the wrong people in that room that night, if we had made the wrong decisions … I think it would have been catastrophic. I think it would have been the end.”

Article source: Inside bunker. SAC crew feared WWIII was on its way.  By Matthew Hansen/World-Herald columnist.  Sunday 8th June 2014.

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