Lessons from the Minot Nuclear Weapons Mishap

Yesterday the United States Air Force released the report of their investigation in to the incident six weeks ago where six missiles with nuclear warheads were flown across the USA by mistake. The report has been summarized by media everywhere, including the Boston Globe (see report at http://www.boston.com/news/nation/washington/articles/2007/10/20/4_colonels_relieved_of_command_over_nuclear_armed_flight/).

From a communications perspective the report itself is maybe not so interesting, but the reaction of most of the people I know is instructive. Pretty much everyone is astonished at how the weapons were safeguarded. What I and many other people imagined is some sort of James-Bond-Movie-Villain like underground lair where to move any warhead you need three generals each with a special key, password and fingerprint.

The reality is much less sophisticated. According to published reports what was supposed to happen was that an air force employee should check each missile before it departs to make sure it doesn’t have a nuclear warhead. They do this by looking through a little window in the side of the missile. In the case of the Minot incident the crewmember responsible for this check looked only at one side of the plane. Someone else should have checked the serial numbers of the missiles but didn’t bother. And there should have been an up to date list of the missiles that were “hot”, but they were using an old hard copy.

What makes this story so instructive is that it demonstrates again how people will imagine good or bad things to fill in any missing information. We did not know the air force process for securing weapons but in the absence of information we imagine something which turns out to be much more sophisticated than the reality. Sometimes this works in your favor, but sometimes it works against you. In other words there are times when a creative silence can be the best policy, but sometimes being more open stops people imagining worse than things really are. The trick, in my opinion, is to find out what people are imagining and correct it if it is worse than the truth. Otherwise it may be better to keep your mouth shut if you can.

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