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Could Terrorists Launch America's Nuclear Missiles?

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Minuteman III missile

Air Force technician inspects an LGM-30G Minuteman III missile inside a silo about 60 miles from Grand Forks Air Force Base, in North Dakota.

U.S. Air Force / AFP / Getty Images

The Air Force calls the situation "Launch Facilities Down." On Oct. 23, a Wyoming-based squadron of 50 nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs)—enough firepower to kill some 20 million people—lost computer communications with their human controllers for 45 minutes.

When news of the incident broke, the ensuing political debate focused on what effect the outage might have had on America's readiness to fight a nuclear war. But the more important concern should be that for the better part of an hour, the safeguards that protect against unauthorized launch of America's missiles were compromised. And that elevated the risk of the world being plunged into a nuclear war that none of the nuclear-armed states intended.

Of course, I am describing a remote, worst-case scenario whose plausibility is dismissed by the Pentagon. Still, there's a lot more reason for anxiety over the Wyoming incident than there is over this week's "mystery missile" off California. Nuclear missiles are, after all, worst-case weapons, doomsday bombs. And as we have learned to our dismay over the years, we are seldom as crafty as our adversaries.

From Time
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