John Buell

The Blimp and Other Near Misses

In late October, A military blimp that’s part of the military’s Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Netted Sensor System (JLENS) broke free of its tethers in Maryland. It went on a journey of its own, crossing over into Pennsylvania and in the process cut off electricity to 30,000 customers. Though the story received national attention and was even the butt of some hilarity on social media, it soon passed from the national spotlight.

The passing of this subject is a shame because it might have been a relatively inexpensive lesson in the international and domestic dangers posed by our national security state.

As it happens about the same time the JLENS blimp was commencing its self-directed journey, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists published an exposé of a dangerous incident occurring in the heat of the Cuban Missile crisis. This journal has a long history of detailed and careful scholarship on nuclear weaponry. The journal reported on the story of an Air Force airman stationed at a secret missile launch site on Okinawa who claimed “at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis, Air Force crews on Okinawa were ordered to launch 32 missiles, each carrying a large nuclear warhead. Only caution and the common sense and decisive action of the line personnel receiving those orders prevented the launches—and averted the nuclear war that most likely would have ensued.” That the orders, though properly coded, came in an unusually calm way and included targeting of non belligerent states gave the senior officer pause. Even so had he not decisively countermanded an impetuous launch order, nuclear war would have ensued.

At about the same time the Bulletin released the Okinawa story, a blog with the alluring title of The Uneven Evolution of Homo Sapiens posted another equally terrifying near-miss story: “ The newly released Soviet “War Scare” report —- previously classified “TOP SECRET UMBRA GAMMA WNINTEL NOFORN NOCONTRACT ORCON” and published after a 12-year fight by the National Security Archive – reveals that the 1983 War Scare was real. According to the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board (PFIAB), the United States “may have inadvertently placed our relations with the Soviet Union on a hair trigger” during the 1983 NATO nuclear release exercise.

Stories like these are significant because of what we are not told. The Bulletin’s piece clearly acknowledges that it cannot provide full proof for this incident, though the evidence it does provide is meticulous and powerful. What can be said with more certainty is the long period of secrecy surrounding both incidents. Only in 2011, nearly 40 years after the Cuban Missile Crisis, was the airman allowed to tell his story. Other information about this incident may eventually surface through FOIA requests, but this process usually takes many years, again not an unintentional hurdle. I can only conclude that the national security establishment does not want a full discussion of the threat that nuclear weapons still pose not merely in intentional acts of war but through accidents. Providing useful information to the enemy is usually cited as a reason for secrecy, but such a claim seems highly dubious here. That systems can be built both to ensure rapid response and yet avoid false positives is a gamble we should not take, and one that at the very least should be open to full public debate.

Now back to the blimp. The blimp in question was eagerly awaited by the military. Here is one breathless example: ”One still-chilling consequence of post-9/11 America is that we remain all too aware of the fact that we could be attacked at any moment. And so with worst case scenarios in mind, the military is constantly upgrading our defense systems in increasingly creative ways … These house-sized flying spy fortresses can identify threats on the ground that even the most powerful land-based radar would miss. They can spot and track incoming cruise missiles, mine-laying ships, armed drones, or anything incoming from hundreds of miles away in 360-degrees and react in real-time.”

That the vague term “terrorists” is invoked, even though they can inflict far less damage than Russia, suggests a need to find or craft an enemy against which we can define ourselves as the beleaguered good guys. Though the US has many difficulties with Russia it is old hat and hardly carries the same symbolic weight.

Pardon me if I wonder just how crews that somehow could not manage to secure this magic blimp may not someday mistake a flock of geese for a Cruise missile. Lacking luck or extraordinary judgment they may launch nuclear weaponry. Citizens and the media should push as hard as possible for details about this new wonder technology and its unplanned journey.

John Buell lives in Southwest Harbor, Maine and writes on labor and environmental issues. His books include Politics, Religion, and Culture in an Anxious Age”(Palgrave MacMillan, 2011). Email

From The Progressive Populist, December 1, 2015

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