Join 3,520 readers in helping fund MetaFilter (Hide)


The secret in the safe deposit box
January 22, 2009 10:30 AM   Subscribe

The Letter of Last Resort. At this very moment, miles beneath the surface of the ocean, there is a British nuclear submarine carrying powerful ICBMs ... there is a safe attached to a control room floor. Inside that, there is an inner safe. And inside that sits a letter. It is addressed to the submarine commander and it is from the Prime Minister. In that letter, Gordon Brown conveys the most awesome decision of his political career ... and none of us is ever likely to know what he decided.
posted by veedubya (65 comments total) 12 users marked this as a favorite

 
"Dear Penthouse...."
posted by potsmokinghippieoverlord at 10:40 AM on January 22, 2009 [2 favorites]


At this very moment, miles beneath the surface of the ocean, there is a British nuclear submarine carrying powerful ICBMs ... there is a safe attached to a control room floor. Inside that, there is an inner safe. And inside that sits a letter.


...or ...to save on postage...
posted by Andrew Brinton at 10:40 AM on January 22, 2009 [2 favorites]


Commander:

Never gonna give you up
Never gonna let you down
Never gonna run around and desert you
Never gonna make you cry
Never gonna say goodbye
Never gonna tell a lie and hurt you

Yours,
G. Brown
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 10:41 AM on January 22, 2009 [55 favorites]


A letter. In a safe. In a safe. Wrapped in a puzzle. Shrouded in an enigma. Covered in meringue. Baked at 350 for 25 minutes. Dipped in chocolate. Enrobed in fudge. Sealed... with a kiss.
posted by GuyZero at 10:45 AM on January 22, 2009 [9 favorites]


Does the second safe really add any additional security?
posted by aubilenon at 10:49 AM on January 22, 2009 [1 favorite]


9835; 9835; O there is a letter in the safe in a safe in the floor of the sub sitting at the bottom of the sea! O there is a letter in the safe in a safe in a floor of the sub sitting at the bottom of the sea! 9835;
posted by The Whelk at 10:51 AM on January 22, 2009 [8 favorites]


Even with theological implications aside, mutually assured destruction is perhaps the best out of all possible paradoxes to keep in mind on a day to day basis.

I won't be getting out of bed today. Surrender!
posted by carsonb at 10:53 AM on January 22, 2009


I don't think I've ever heard much comment aside from 'oh no, so-and-so get to decide if we destroy the world or not', but said in a very ironic way. Ironic, because nobody believes we're allowed to fire those missles without permission anyway. And that's half of the argument for disarmament right there.

I'm convinced that because of the actual problems with morality and authority inherent in giving orders for mass murder from beyond the grave, at least some of those letters have been blank. If I'm ever Prime Minister, I'm going to put this in the safe.
posted by Sova at 10:54 AM on January 22, 2009 [1 favorite]


"Be sure to drink your Ovaltine."
posted by ericb at 10:54 AM on January 22, 2009 [7 favorites]


Someones going to need to go down there and cross out the words "GEORGE BUSH".
posted by Artw at 11:03 AM on January 22, 2009 [1 favorite]


I'm thinking back to when I took intro to game theory here. All jokes aside isn't there basically no circumstance in which launching the nukes as a retaliatory measure, assuming Britain is already destroyed, would be the best response if we also assume that there is no way anyone other than the Prime Minister will know what the letter entails?
posted by prunes at 11:07 AM on January 22, 2009


"...it's the only way to be sure"
posted by PenDevil at 11:08 AM on January 22, 2009


That was my gut reaction too -- the only purpose of the letter must be to say "don't shoot," at least in certain circumstances. The reason for all of the secrecy is because if "don't shoot" was revealed as the strategy, the deterrent value of the nukes would be lost.

Put differently -- if the message says "kill them all," there would be no reason to keep it secret as it would be completely consistent with the deterrent value of the nukes. The letter must be inconsistent with deterrent value at least in some respect.
posted by Mid at 11:10 AM on January 22, 2009 [8 favorites]


Kill them all.

over >>>

No seriously, don't.
posted by odinsdream at 11:13 AM on January 22, 2009


I am glad it is a letter and not a video. I would hate for the person who decides on Armageddon to have seen the forced smile/wince on Gordon Brown's face before deciding whether to end the world.
posted by srboisvert at 11:14 AM on January 22, 2009


That's a pretty incredible article.

And MAD theorizing is endlessly fascinating and terrifying.
posted by empath at 11:17 AM on January 22, 2009 [1 favorite]


"Miles beneath"? No missile sub can dive that deep.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 11:19 AM on January 22, 2009


aubilenon: The outer safe contains other stuff besides the "to whom it may concern, to be opened after my death ..." from the PM (which is basically what this letter is). No idea what is actually in there, but I'd guess: secret operational orders, code books, anything else classified TOP SECRET and for the eyes of the commanding officer of a boomer.

(The inner safe is probably overkill, in the circumstances.)

Incidentally, the letters written to Polaris commanders by Wilson, Heath, and Callaghan -- the prime ministers prior to Thatcher who got to write such letters and who are now dead -- were declassified a couple of years ago. They all basically said "if the UK has been nuked, sail to Sydney and place yourself under the command of the Governor General of Australia". Thatcher is still alive. Anyone willing to guess what her orders said?
posted by cstross at 11:25 AM on January 22, 2009 [9 favorites]


This Guardian article suggests that Callaghan authorized retaliation. The options are said to be "Put yourself under the command of the US, if it is still there; go to Australia; retaliate; or use your own judgment." Interesting that 'under no circumstances retaliate' is not listed as an option, perhaps for the game theoretic reasons discussed above.

The last one sounds almost farcical, though:

Dear Submarine Commander,
If you are reading this, the United Kingdom is gone and all that you love with it. You have 16 Trident nuclear missiles. Use your own judgment.
-Cheers, G.B.
posted by jedicus at 11:40 AM on January 22, 2009 [3 favorites]


cstross I'm pretty sure (and the article hints in that direction too) that it was something in the lines of "Blast the bastards", although she may have also taken advantage of the occasion to ask the captain to save a couple of warheads for Paris and Brussels.

I guess that John Major's message would also be "Go to Australia".

Blair's and Brown's? "Ask the Yanks".
posted by Skeptic at 11:43 AM on January 22, 2009 [1 favorite]


"Miles beneath"? No missile sub can dive that deep.

He actually meant leagues. 20,000 leagues under the sea.
posted by Horace Rumpole at 11:44 AM on January 22, 2009


Also, seconding Chocolate Pickle on the 'miles beneath' call out. Most military submarines have a maximum depth of around 250-350 meters (some sources say 800 feet for US subs). The Soviets built a titanium-hulled submarine that could dive to 1300 meters, but even that is well short of a mile.
posted by jedicus at 11:45 AM on January 22, 2009


Anyone willing to guess what her orders said?

Help the remaining military police crack down on British rioters, I expect. Possibly she suggested wiping out Northern Ireland as well.
posted by GuyZero at 11:46 AM on January 22, 2009 [3 favorites]


From my husband, who studies nuclear submarines for a living:

Does the second safe really add any additional security?

Yes it does. The purpose of the second safe is to make sure that no one person can get the letter. You need two keys to get into both safes, and those keys are kept in the possession of two different people.
posted by jb at 11:47 AM on January 22, 2009 [1 favorite]


Also, Australia and not Canada? Man, no fair.
posted by GuyZero at 11:47 AM on January 22, 2009


cstross Anyone willing to guess what her orders said?

"if the UK has been nuked, sail to Sydney and place yourself the Governor General of Australia under the command of the Governor General of Australia your command."
posted by jock@law at 11:47 AM on January 22, 2009 [10 favorites]


cstross: link? I thought they were meant to be destroyed, so I would definitely like to read them.
posted by Sova at 11:52 AM on January 22, 2009


"Make sure Madonna has left our shores -- by any means necessary."
posted by potsmokinghippieoverlord at 11:55 AM on January 22, 2009


They all basically said "if the UK has been nuked, sail to Sydney and place yourself under the command of the Governor General of Australia".

If Australia has been nuked, sail to Canada and place yourself under the comand of the Governor General of Canada. If Canada is gone too, sail to India and place yourself under the command of the President of India. If India no longer exists, use your own judgement. If that fails, sail to Tahiti and chill out on the beach for a while.
posted by sfenders at 12:08 PM on January 22, 2009 [5 favorites]


Actually, I've developed a special new sonar technology that can decipher that letter through their hull. It sounds like shifting magma.
posted by DU at 12:19 PM on January 22, 2009


ALL THESE COUNTRIES ARE YOURS. EXCEPT CANADA. ATTEMPT NO LANDING THERE.
posted by Smedleyman at 12:24 PM on January 22, 2009 [26 favorites]


US subs can go much deeper than 800 feet. That's just what they allow to be printed.

The same for the "25+ knots" published top speed.

Sandbaggers.
posted by BobFrapples at 12:45 PM on January 22, 2009


Dear Commander,

If you are reading this, the United Kingdom has been wiped out and everything that you love is gone with it. You have 16 Trident nuclear missiles. You also have a service revolver. Do you really want to go down as the guy that wiped out the rest of the human race?

Do you?

Really?

XOXO
G. Brown.
posted by rusty at 12:58 PM on January 22, 2009 [5 favorites]


the person he's designated as his alternate nuclear decision-maker in case of his death

I like to pretend it's the queen.
posted by Stylus Happenstance at 1:05 PM on January 22, 2009


Never gonna give you up

Rickrolling your way into the apocalypse?
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 1:09 PM on January 22, 2009


The Letter of Last Resort is the name of my Culture Rapid Offensive Unit.
posted by SPrintF at 1:10 PM on January 22, 2009 [1 favorite]


Britain is gone. Here is a 1 pound coin. Flip it. Heads, you launch.
Yours,
G. Brown


G-d doesn't play dice, but the PM of Britain does. Still a viable deterrent (50% chance? Not good), but people can sleep at night saying they didn't sign the letter saying "Yes."
posted by JMOZ at 1:46 PM on January 22, 2009 [2 favorites]


Thatcher is still alive. Anyone willing to guess what her orders said?

Nuke Yorkshire, just to be sure.
posted by atrazine at 1:56 PM on January 22, 2009 [3 favorites]


"get that fucker Stross"
posted by Artw at 2:04 PM on January 22, 2009 [1 favorite]


Suspect Brown's orders would involve calling a focus group, and making sure that the crew were unhappy with his decision. If the majority were, then the captain would be instructed to disregard the letter, and go with what the crew wanted.
posted by Infinite Jest at 2:39 PM on January 22, 2009 [1 favorite]


You should really use a [SPOILER] tag before talking about the new season of LOST like this.
posted by Spurious Packets at 2:43 PM on January 22, 2009


Man, no fair

Australian is not part of Norad, so would be far less likely to have been slagged by that stage.
posted by pompomtom at 3:00 PM on January 22, 2009


Maybe they'd read "On The Beach"?
posted by Artw at 3:05 PM on January 22, 2009 [2 favorites]


Reminds me of the Soviet dead hand system that is still supposedly in place.
posted by Derive the Hamiltonian of... at 3:19 PM on January 22, 2009 [1 favorite]


It's Schrödinger's letter!

Perhaps the second safe holds a cat. THERE'S NO WAY TO KNOW.
posted by grapefruitmoon at 3:22 PM on January 22, 2009 [9 favorites]


Until it's opened, it holds both a cat and a letter.

(The letter says "let the cat decide")
posted by pompomtom at 3:49 PM on January 22, 2009 [13 favorites]


Put differently -- if the message says "kill them all," there would be no reason to keep it secret as it would be completely consistent with the deterrent value of the nukes.

And whether the other prisoner's decision is to defect or cooperate, there's no reason for you not to defect.

But just like the Prisoner's Dilemma gets more interesting when you replace "the" decision with repeated play, the security of these messages gets more interesting when there's a series of them. If half of your Prime Ministers say "let them live" and half say "kill them all!" then you still have an incentive to keep the "kill them all!" messages secret, because "half the time you have a 100% chance of retaliation" is much less of a deterrent than "100% of the time you have a 50/50 chance of retaliation".

Do you really want to go down as the guy that wiped out the rest of the human race?

You couldn't wipe out the human race with collateral damage from the US/Soviet arsenals at their heyday (although the nuclear winter might take out most of the survivors); you couldn't even wipe out civilization with the UK's arsenal. As for the hundreds of millions of people you would kill with that arsenal? The last time missiles were raining on London they were part of an attempt to start a thousand years of totalitarian world government and genocide; there are some hypothetical aggressors who might be worth the cost of stopping. But next time the missiles are more likely to be hijacked or the result of a damned accident, and I wish I was sure that everyone involved in "retaliation" was keeping that firmly in mind.
posted by roystgnr at 4:20 PM on January 22, 2009


Nuke Yorkshire, just to be sure.

But how is a submarine supposed to get into orbit?
posted by Evilspork at 4:26 PM on January 22, 2009 [2 favorites]


Nuke Yorkshire, just to be sure. But how is a submarine supposed to get into orbit?

Oh, by locking, loading and firing one of the onboard ICBMs from your underwater submarine with the payload targeted at Yorkshire, England [54°0′0″N, 1°30′0″W].
posted by ericb at 4:47 PM on January 22, 2009


...But submarines don't have the internets? How would they get to Google Earth to look it up? They'd have to dock with an internet cable...
posted by Artw at 4:48 PM on January 22, 2009


"Mister President, I know you think I've let you down, but we had to have a Plan-R. If we completely centralized the command and control, all a potential aggressor would have to worry about was knocking out maybe half a dozen headquarters and the Capitol, and we'd be out of business. We'd have planes and missiles just sitting there while we were getting clobbered."
posted by The Great Big Mulp at 4:55 PM on January 22, 2009


Submarine Surface and Near-Surface Navigation and UnderWater Communication.
posted by ericb at 4:56 PM on January 22, 2009


Remember, when MAD first came into being the enemy wasn't comprised of people, it was comprised of Communists, and the retaliatory strike wasn't just to kill the enemy's population, it was to kill his political ideals. The missiles weren't simply to make sure there were no Russians left, but to make sure that their political system didn't survive to dominate the planet.
posted by mr_crash_davis mark II: Jazz Odyssey at 5:51 PM on January 22, 2009


(The letter says "let the cat decide")

We're fucking doomed.
posted by Avenger at 7:49 PM on January 22, 2009 [2 favorites]


"MAO!"
posted by Artw at 7:54 PM on January 22, 2009


Isn't it wonderful that some idiots came up with some nonsense over 30 years ago, and even though most of them are dead now, they hold the Damocletian Sword over our heads every single day?

And when you look at the amount of time, money, and human ingenuity we have spent on this, it only gets more depressing.
posted by paisley henosis at 8:00 PM on January 22, 2009


According to the reporters for BBC Radio 4, the safe containing the safe containing the Letter of Last Resort is to be opened only in the event of a nuclear attack on Britain that kills both Prime Minister Gordon Brown and a second, not identified person—the person he's designated as his alternate nuclear decision-maker in case of his death.

Lousy reporter couldn't be arsed to do a little legwork to identify me? I mean, d-oh, if we kept it a secret, any damn fool could claim to be the alternate.
posted by five fresh fish at 8:12 PM on January 22, 2009


This is interesting because it demonstrates pretty clearly that the U.K. never went to the Permissive Action system used on U.S. subs, where it's (theoretically) impossible to launch without orders.

Early U.S. ballistic-missile subs were built so they could fire without any external command, and thus serve as the ultimate deterrent — even total decapitation of the U.S. command structure would not prevent a retaliatory strike — but later on, fears of a rogue submarine commander launching his missiles (whether as a result of malice or some bizarre miscommunication or misunderstanding) made planners decide this was more of a liability than an asset.

Hence the Use Control System. (This is a little different from the "Permissive Action Link" or PAL system, used on land-based weapons, although I have seen all similar systems referred to collectively as PALs.) Under the new systems, U.S. submarines cannot release their weapons under their own authority; a code transmitted by radio as part of the launch orders is required. In theory, even a 100% conspiracy of the submarine's officers and crew would not result in a launch.*

This removes the ability for a submarine to act as an autonomous retaliatory platform in the event of a truly complete surprise decapitation, but apparently that's seen as sufficiently unlikely to be outweighed by the increased control. I do not know for sure, but I suspect, that the U.S. strategy is to delegate launch authority to submarine commanders as part of its highest level of strategic alert, but not at normal times.

It's interesting that British submarines (again, apparently) have not gone down this route, and submarine commanders have at all times the capability of launching, should they really want to. I wonder if this is a reflection of a different strategic posture — being closer to the USSR, they would have less warning of impending doom, and thus less time to transmit the authorization codes? — or simply a pragmatic decision due to the lower number of submarines on patrol at a time, compared to the U.S. Navy?

* In practice, I think this smells a bit like DRM, and I suspect that given enough time and resources, any system no matter how good its implementation could be bypassed.
posted by Kadin2048 at 8:46 PM on January 22, 2009


ericb:

Hudson: Let's just bug out and call it even, OK? What are we talking about this for?
Ripley: I say we take off and nuke the entire site from orbit. It's the only way to be sure.
Hudson: F*in' A...
Burke: Ho-ho-hold on, hold on one second. This installation has a substantial dollar value attached to it.
Ripley: They can *bill* me.

cough cough
posted by zap rowsdower at 8:46 PM on January 22, 2009


This is interesting but hardly new; the existence of the letter was revealed in Peter Hennessy's The Secret State, with some well-informed speculation about what the letter might say. (Most of the details in the Slate article seem to be lifted from Hennessy without acknowledgement.)

Kadin2048: I think it is mostly to do with the fact that, as you say, Britain is closer to Russia and would have less warning of an impending nuclear attack. Again this is covered by Hennessy, who shows that Whitehall's nuclear strategists in the 1950s and 1960s were very worried by the possibility that they might have only a few minutes warning of an attack, barely enough time to alert the air force bases in Lincolnshire and get the planes airborne before the bombs started dropping. The whole of Britain's nuclear strategy had to be constructed around this possibility.

Another interesting fact, also revealed by Hennessy, is that in the last resort, in order to decide whether to open the sealed letter, the submarine commander is instructed to tune into BBC Radio 4. If the Today programme is no longer on the air, he can safely assume that British civilisation no longer exists.
posted by verstegan at 11:35 PM on January 22, 2009 [2 favorites]


Another interesting fact, also revealed by Hennessy, is that in the last resort, in order to decide whether to open the sealed letter, the submarine commander is instructed to tune into BBC Radio 4. If the Today programme is no longer on the air, he can safely assume that British civilisation no longer exists.

Another reason not to fuck with the license fee.
posted by vbfg at 3:39 AM on January 23, 2009 [4 favorites]


Submarine Commander,

Eliminate the Germans. The last two world wars were their fault, so this one probably is, too.

Yours,

Gordon Brown
posted by SteveTheRed at 5:10 AM on January 23, 2009


US subs can go much deeper than 800 feet. That's just what they allow to be printed.

Have you ever talked to a submariner? I realize the point of the game is that no one is supposed to have any idea of where you really are, but you're lucky if you can get them to admit that a submarine can sometimes be found in or near the ocean.

Also, can you imagine a scenario where the UK has been seriously nuked without four or five other nuclear powers getting in on the act before the submarine captain can get the outer safe door open. It would make more sense to have a note giving the rendezvous coordinates for the submarine full of women and the location of England's secret undersea 500 year supply of SPAM.

Some 10 mm rounds and a handful of bottle caps would be nice too.

Yes, it's another damn Fallout 3 reference.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 5:57 AM on January 23, 2009


"...[the UK,] being closer to the USSR, ... would have less warning of impending doom..."

Shurely you guys are closer. I mean, some of you can see Putin coming into your airspace.
posted by Cantdosleepy at 6:58 AM on January 23, 2009 [2 favorites]


I don't think that MAD has completely disappeared. An article in SciAm has suggested that MAD is likely to be a major deterrent for an India-Pakistan firefight, although the risk is that either country would have even less time to detect false positives.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 9:05 AM on January 23, 2009


« Older Yarn Bombing....  |  Oh those vaunted "first 100 da... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments