For 15 Years, America's Secret Nuclear Launch Codes Were "00000000"
Get started on your cybersecurity degree at American Military University.
By Wes O’Donnell
Managing Editor, InMilitary.com and InCyberDefense.com. U.S. Army and U.S. Air Force Veteran. Speaker and Veteran Advocate.
Some say that truth is often stranger than fiction. According to a 2004 memo by Dr. Bruce Blair, a former Minuteman missile launch control officer, the U.S. Strategic Air Command (SAC) once intentionally set the launch codes at all Minuteman nuclear missile silos in the U.S. to a series of eight zeroes.
SAC’s goal was to minimize the time it would take to launch a retaliatory nuclear missile strike against the Soviet Union in the event of World War III breaking out. After all, forcing young Air Force officers to dial in launch codes of eight random numbers would just waste good nukin’ time.
In 1962, President John F. Kennedy signed the National Security Action Memorandum 160, which required that every U.S. nuclear weapon be outfitted with a Permissive Action Link (PAL) to prevent unauthorized access to the weapons. This security measure was of particular concern in countries where the United States had stationed nuclear weapons, since the physical security of the weapons or even the stability of the host country could be in question.
JFK’s Nuclear Weapons PAL System Took Almost 20 Years to Be Activated
Despite Kennedy’s order, it would be nearly two decades before the PAL system was activated. Robert McNamara, JFK’s Secretary of Defense, supervised the installation of the PAL devices on Minuteman silos in the U.S.
However, according to Gizmodo, the Strategic Air Command greatly resented McNamara’s presence. Virtually as soon as McNamara left the Defense Department, the code to launch all 50 missiles was set to 00000000.
It is important to note that, although someone could gain access to a nuclear weapon with the 00000000 code, the process of arming the actual warhead was much more complex.
According to the National Museum of the Air Force, the process involved unlocking an “Emergency War Order” safe and then simultaneously turning two keys whose locks were 12 feet apart. Other parts of the arming process included inputting more launch codes that presumably weren’t eight zeros and the concurrence of another authority — either another launch control facility or an airborne command center — before the launch could proceed.
SAC Was in Direct Violation of Presidential Orders during Cold War
Perhaps most appalling from a security standpoint was not that the PAL codes were set to eight zeros, but that SAC was in direct violation of the orders of the Commander-in-Chief at the height of the Cold War, a time of extreme nuclear tension. The whole point of the PAL system was to prevent anyone from accessing or launching the nuclear weapons without presidential authority.
Despite the problems of implementing the PAL system in the U.S., security for nuclear warheads could have been worse. According to the BBC, the U.K.’s nuclear weapons were secured with bicycle locks as recently as 1997.
There were no pesky eight-digit codes or two-key systems. Instead, Britain’s nukes could be armed simply by inserting a bicycle lock key into the arming switch and turning it 90 degrees.
Today, the U.S. PAL system has been upgraded to the “Code Management System,” which came online in 2004 and achieves both efficiency and security. By now, the access codes have been changed and to something much more complex no doubt. Perhaps Password-123?