Wednesday, 13 November 2013

How Britain risked triggering nuclear Armageddon

Readers may remember media interest in operation "Able Archer"

The Guardian reported "Cabinet memos and briefing papers released under the Freedom of 
Information Act reveal that a major war games exercise, Operation Able Archer, conducted in 
November 1983 by the US and its Nato allies was so realistic it made the Russians believe that a nuclear strike on its territory was a real possibility."

It is therefore interesting to note that 20 years before a similar situation occurred in Britain a the height of the Cuban missile crisis when the world was on the brink of nuclear Armageddon.
Scott D Sagan in his book "The Limits of Safety"  describes how  in the early hours  of the 27th of October 1962 the Commander in Chief (Air Marshall Cross)  decided without reference to civilian political authorities  to raise the alert level of the British nuclear forces to " full operational capability" able to launch within fifteen minutes or less against the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact.  It is even suggested that the Prime Minister was unaware of the situation. Senior civilian officials  had warned that such mobilizations had sometimes caused war.

The "Able Archer" exercise suggests that the lessons of 1962 had not been learnt and what reason do we have to believe that they have been learnt today.   Sufficient to say that human factors must be at the heart of nuclear safety both civil and military. 

 It is also worthy of note that the operational aspects of the British nuclear weapons programme are only subject to MOD internal regulation rather than independent regulation by the Health and Safety Executive. So both the public and Parliament have to take on trust that operational aspects of the British nuclear weapon programme are being properly managed and safety standards maintained.  

It is worth remembering  that the MOD is and will continue to be subject to deep and damaging 
cuts; how will these impact on the safety ?

Extract from The Limits of Safety - British Alerting Actions