Here’s the insanely complicated process needed to launch the most powerful nuclear warhead

Jessica Orwig Jul. 29, 2015, 8:19 AM

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A Titan II missile inside the Titan Missile Museum in Arizona.

At the height of the Cold War, America’s underground was rife with dozens of hidden nuclear-missile units.

Some of these systems contained Titan II missiles, which carried the largest single nuclear warhead of any missile of its kind before or since.

Titan II was a guided ballistic missile that was also the largest, most powerful nuclear weapons system ever deployed in the US. And it served one purpose: deterrence.

“The idea behind Titan II was to instill enough fear in the mind of the enemy to cause them to think twice about launching an attack against us,” Chuck Penson, the archivist and historian at the Titan Missile Museum in Sahuarita, Arizona, told Derek Muller, the host of the YouTube channel Varitasium.

In his latest Varitasium episode, Muller takes us inside an underground base where one of these monster Titan II missiles still stands, and he learns about the insanely complicated steps it would have taken to actually launch this terrifying piece of human engineering in the event of an attack.

Inside the missile was a weapon with incredibly destructive potential — 650 times as powerful as the bomb dropped on Hiroshima.

Therefore, it’s no surprise that on the entry door into the silo, where the Titan II missile stands, there is a sign that reads “CAUTION.”


Though the Titan II missile still stands, it no longer carries its dangerous cargo.

Among the more interesting features in the silo are the soundproof panels covering the walls. Without these panels to absorb the sound during a launch, the energy from the sound waves would actually shake the missile to pieces before it could lift off.

The Titan Missile Museum in Arizona, where this empty missile is located, includes the original site for one of the 54 underground silos across the country where deterrent missiles, such as Titan II, were hidden during the late 1950s and mid-’60s.


The control center with all of the gadgets, switches, and buttons — including those that would initiate a launch — is located far from the missile, beyond a series of long underground tunnels.

Another benefit, besides secrecy, to an underground launch site was that if the enemy successfully detonated a bomb in the US, the site’s occupants would be shielded from the radiation as long as their base was not destroyed in the attack.

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Once in the control room, Penson takes Muller through the multistep process of what it would have been like to launch a Titan II missile. First, the speakers in the room sound an alarm that is followed by a message with a series of random numbers and words.

This message should have reached them only if the US president had ordered it.

Everyone in the room copies down the message and compares notes, and if they agree on what they heard, then they go to a red safe — which is locked, of course — containing a series of what Penson calls “authentication cards.”


Each card contains two letters. If one of the cards has the two-letter combination that matches the first two letters in the secret message transmitted through the speakers, then the control room is officially “go” for launch.

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After that, you just have one more six-letter code and two keys separating you from World War III. But the six-letter code is on a wheel with 17 million possible combinations, and the key slots are far enough apart that you must have two people turning them at exactly the same time.

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After you insert the six-letter code, the commander counts down to the final key turn. The commander and his partner hold the keys down for five seconds, and then a terrifying green light illuminates the “Ready to Launch” panel.

“For all intensive purposes that should say, ‘Welcome to World War III,’ because that’s pretty much what it boils down to,” Penson said. “When you turn the key you are committed. There is no ‘oops’ switch.”

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These precautions were taken to prevent a single person from launching a missile. After all, people can get pretty crazy and paranoid during times of war.

Though Titan II was never launched to prevent an attack on US soil, several of these missiles were launched. In fact, some were used to launch American manned missions through NASA’s Gemini program to space.



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