Radio Apocalypse: The BBC Radio Program That Could(n’t) Have Started WWIII

Here’s a question for you: if you’re the commander of a submarine full of nuclear missiles, how can you be sure what not receiving a launch order really means? If could — and probably does — mean that everything is hunky dory on land, and there’s no need to pull the trigger. Or, could radio silence mean that the party already kicked off, and there’s nobody left to give the order to retaliate? What do you do then?

One popular rumor — or “rumour,” given the context — in the UK holds that BBC Radio 4, or the lack thereof, is sort of a “deadman’s switch” for the Royal Navy’s ballistic missile subs. [Lewis (M3HHY)], aka Ringway Manchester on YouTube, addresses this in the video below, and spoiler alert: it’s probably not true.

The theory goes that if all other means of communication fail — an unlikely eventuality given the level of redundancy and the sheer number of sensors a ballistic missile sub has at its disposal — monitoring the airwaves for the BBC Radio 4 Today program should give a sub commander a clear indication of how things are going on the beach, as it were. Today has been running continuously since October 1957 — the same month Sputnik was launched; coincidence? The absence of the show from the airwaves would be a clear indication that things had gone terribly wrong, and that the submarine commander would be free to use his judgment regarding the disposition of the weapons under his control.

On the surface, it sounds like a good plan, but a moment’s thought puts the lie to it. How would a commander distinguish between the end of the world as we know it and a more mundane event, like a storm or a power failure? Or even the failure of some of the boat’s radio gear, or just poor propagation (the specific Radio 4 signal was supposed to emanate from Droitwich on 198 kHz in the longwave band). Kicking off World War III under those circumstances, which is basically the equivalent of a US sub coming to periscope depth to visually assess the Waffle House Index, would probably be considered bad form, at the least.

Still, we’d imagine that monitoring civilian broadcasts is just one of the many tools at a boomer skipper’s disposal, and contributes mightily to the overall situational awareness picture. There are also a lot of other interesting tidbits in the video, especially the “letters of last resort.”

28 thoughts on “Radio Apocalypse: The BBC Radio Program That Could(n’t) Have Started WWIII

  1. “Fail-deadly” (opposed to fail-safe) policies were largely dropped from the playbooks after RAND simulations resulted in more-than-even odds of a launch-in-error, increasing as time passed after the “stand-to” contingency order was given. So it was determined to be a better idea to maintain more positive control measures over the release of nuclear weapons rather than a decentralized command subject to localized random events. This led to SIOP and other similar plans facilitated by novel means of insuring communications in the event of an underway attack(or perceived attack) such as TACAMO and ERCS.

      1. Unlike US or Soviets, Brits are the men of culture. They don’t need high security because they don’t use violence or act batshit insane (happens after drinking bottle of 92% technical spirit). A basic £2 lock to protect against accidental cock-up will do just fine.

          1. No. It’s because the opinion polls show his party is way behind and he’s willing to say almost anything to try to close the gap before there has to be an election around the end of 2024.

        1. We do have our share of the batshit crazies, we’re just smart enough not to give them the key. Let’s not forget mad Jack who entered WW2 armed with a bow and arrow, a broad sword and bagpipes. Though you could also argue he was a man of culture, when commented on by a general about his weaponry he was said to have replied “Any officer who goes into action without his sword is improperly dressed.”

      1. Would there though? The UK is not enormous, it wouldn’t take long from launching ocean borne missiles to detonations in all the big cities mostly around the coast. I guess the locations of the command and control stations are secret but we’re not the best at keeping secrets.

  2. The whole concept is flawed. Such missiles should never be launched. Revenge makes no sense, either. If your country is ‘gone’ then the remaining of humanity is likely to be on the enemy’s side. Sending missiles there will merely erase the remaining humanity from the surface of the planet. In such a silly war, there are no winners. Imagine it’s war and no one goes to it. The only sane decision for a sub is to ignore such silly orders.

    1. In the real world, there will always be someone who would like to harm others but is cautious because they know there’s others out there who can hit back. It’s the same with nukes or fists.

    2. I think you miss the whole point of MAD.

      First, (unless you’re talking USA vs NK or China vs Israel) there is no “shoot first” scenario in which the attacked party is completely incapacitated. Yes, a Russia or China vs USA event could wipe out a considerable percentage of humanity instantly, and yes, the go-forward effects (disease, starvation, atmospheric damage, radiation) present a non-zero possibility of human extinction, but in the immediate aftermath, the attacked party WILL still have some people and assets, somewhere, that they can launch in retaliation.

      Now if you advance the notion that an exchange can have a “winner”, that it’s the one who pulls the trigger first, and that the remnants of the “loser” will suddenly wax nostalgic about the survival of humanity and walk away without a response, then you’ve made the world less safe, because you’re in effect claiming a benefit to being trigger-happy.

      As to the evils of war, no rational person (and certainly no veteran I know) would disagree with you. Now go pick up a history book. Count how many wars have occurred since the one that was supposed “to end them all.” Heck, pick up a newspaper. Humanity is not sane, so your defense strategy must reflect that.

      1. The international policy in Europe in 1914 was MAD as well… that didn’t work out very well. Sure it would be quicker with nukes, but it’s the same policy now, and it makes as much sense as it did in 1914.

    3. Gee thanks so what you are saying is that a first strike on the UK would work just fine and dandy. Hit them first and they will do nothing…
      And of course it couldn’t ever be that a nation launched a small strike to let the UK know they were not kidding and then the UK strikes back with a limited strike to let them know they need to really think about that.
      I doubt that the UK would ever “depend” on one radio station to do a lunch. If involved at all in the chain. If every may to communicate including the BBC would probably trigger a more active state like trying to contact any of the other 5 eyes over satellite or approaching the coast of the UK and seeing what was going on.
      So no they never had a launch on BBC4 going off the air and yes if the UK got destroyed they would launch. After all everyone they ever knew is most probably dead including their families. And if they were not dead then maybe just maybe launching could stop the enemy from killing more of their friends and family. Plus it is their duty.

  3. You go through a series of escalating modes. Missing the final means you don’t launch. EVER. NOT receiving radio 4 then launching is just plain accident waiting to happen for a bazillion reasons.

Leave a Reply

Please be kind and respectful to help make the comments section excellent. (Comment Policy)

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.