Official USAF Twitter Jokes About Nuclear War and Questions Santa's Existence
The stewards of America's deadliest weapons aren't above quoting 1983's "WarGames" and intraservice rivalry.
U.S. military social media accounts can often be painfully boring, posting updates on things such as when certain base gates will be open, closures for extreme weather, upcoming morale and welfare events, and just re-posting official news. At a time when talk of nuclear weapons has come back into vogue, one U.S. Air Force Base decided to make a darkly humorous reference to nuclear war before getting into a major Twitter battle with another one about bombers, deterrence, and the existence of Santa Claus – no really.
On Oct. 11, 2017, the Department of Defense’s official Twitter account posted a link to a collection of information and recent news regarding both nuclear deterrence and ballistic missile defense. This makes perfect since, for more than 10 months at that point, these had been important topics in light of North Korea’s increasingly threatening ballistic missile and nuclear weapon tests especially, but also on account of similar developments in Russia and Iran. Statements from U.S. President Donald Trump and members of his administration have also helped reignite the public debate about various aspets of nuclear arms in both the United States and elsewhere abroad.
Heightened tensions and "fiery rhetoric" have a lot of people on edge. So it’s somewhat notable that two days after the Pentagon’s initial Tweet, the official account for Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota responded with “Hey @DeptofDefense, ‘would you like to play a game?’”
For those who might not know the reference, this was an obvious, if slightly incorrect callback to the 1983 movie WarGames, in which a young computer hacker unwittingly convinces a military super computer that there is an incoming nuclear attack on the United States from the Soviet Union. The teenager thinks the war plans are actually computer games and responds to the system’s prompt of “Shall we play a game?”
What follows is the main character having to go toe-to-toe with the computer to convince it to abort the launch of U.S. Air Force intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM), which would almost certainly touch off a nuclear holocaust. The protagonist eventually forces the machine to learn that when it comes to “global thermonuclear war,” “the only winning move is not to play,” a comment on the very nature of deterrence.
At present, the real Air Force is in the process of developing its first new ICBM in decades, as well as a new long-range nuclear-capable cruise missile. The service is in charge of two full legs of America’s nuclear triad, which includes the land-based missiles, nuclear-armed bombers, and the U.S. Navy’s ballistic missile submarines. In total, the United States has 4,000 nuclear warheads, including both gravity bombs and different types of missiles, plus another 2,000 it's in the process of dismantling, according to a report from The New York Times' editorial board. These are sitting at various bases and depots around the country, which often require transport in special tractor trailers full of James Bond-esque defenses.
Minot Air Force Base itself is home to both the 5th Bomb Wing, with its nuclear-capable B-52H Stratofortess bombers, and the 91st Missile Wing, with its nuclear armed LGM-30G Minuteman III ICBMs. As such the joke comes off at best as darkly humorous. Especially so, since there have been multiple, real world examples of early warning systems giving a potentially devastating false report.
In 1979, a glitch in the computers at the combined U.S.-Canadian North American Aerospace Defense Command's (NORAD) headquarters, the Air Forces Strategic Command, the Pentagon, and the dedicated backup Alternate National Military Command Center all showed that the Soviet Union had launched a nuclear strike. In something out of WarGames, a technician had inserted a disk with a training simulation into the system without warning and set the whole network off. Thankfully, clear heads identified the source of the issue and avoided a nuclear holocaust.
Then, in 1983, the same year WarGames hit theaters, Stanislav Petrov, then a Soviet Air Defense Forces officer, had to make snap assessments not once, but twice, that a space-based early warning system had malfunctioned and that the United States had not actually launched a nuclear attack. Experts widely believe that if Petrov had reported the incoming missiles as an actual attack, the Kremlin would have ordered a world-ending response, and have dubbed him "the man who saved the world."
More recently, in February 2017, U.S. personnel at Spangdahlem Air Base in Germany received an urgent, automated alert about an incoming missile through their work stations. Again, thankfully, it was obvious that something had gone wrong. Unfortunately, these kind of mishaps have been terrifyingly common over the years, often triggering various parts of the United States government's extensive system to make sure it can keep functioning during just such an apocalyptic crisis. In May 2017, The War Zone's own Tyler Rogoway got to have a detailed chat with Garrett Graff, author of Raven Rock: The U.S. Government's Secret Plan To Save Itself While The Rest Of Us Die, about the full extent of these precautions and the potential for accidents.
And especially with heightened tensions over North Korea’s threats to conduct an unprecedented atmospheric nuclear test, the Tweet from Minot seems in some ways both flippant and the kind of lighthearted candor one might hope from American military personnel who literally have the ability to end the world as we know it. There is a well-known motto among the service’s missileers already that “death wears bunny slippers,” a nod to the oddly casual nature of ICBM launch crews as they maintain their alert posture 24-hours a day, ready to respond at a moment’s notice.
But whoever’s behind the Minot’s Twitter account didn’t stop there. On Oct. 24, 2017, the base decided to engage in a bit of sibling rivalry with the team at Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri, home to the 509th Bomb Wing and its stealthy B-2 Spirit bombers.
Seizing on a post from the main U.S. Air Force Twitter account marking U.S. President Richard Nixon’s decision to halt the bombing of North Vietnam briefly in 1972, Minot pointed out that it had been in the bomber business longer than Whiteman. What followed was an almost absurdist play of memes and juvenile insults from two central pillars of America’s nuclear deterrent apparatus, which eventually prompted the service’s central Twitter account to try and chide both parties into line, acting like a grumpy parent.
Whiteman’s Twitter account responded by pointing out the age and lack of stealthy features on the B-52, which first entered service in 1955. The aircraft is getting long in the teeth, with the Air Force looking into new and substantial upgrades, including replacing the bomber’s eight dated engines, which have become a logistical nightmare.
Minot countered by noting that the B-2 reached initial operational capability in 1997 and that the Air Force is in the process of developing a new stealth bomber, the B-21 Raider. That’s when the Air Force’s main Twitter account stepped in to say that if the two base accounts didn’t knock it off, “No television for a week!”
“Fine,” Whiteman’s social media Tweet posted, along with an animated picture of a child looking nonplussed. “Ain’t got time for T.V. anyway. #Training #Deterrence.”
The “threat” didn’t change matters much and the roasting continued through Oct. 25, 2017. Like small children on the playground confronted by an adult, the two accounts blamed each other in meme-filled posts for “starting it.”
At one point, Minot bragged that the B-52H can carry more bombs than the B-2, to which Whiteman responded by highlighting the Spirit’s mission to carry the 30,000 pound GBU-57/B Massive Ordnance Penetrator (MOP), saying it was about “quality not quantity” and throwing in another animated picture of James Franco from the movie The Interview – which involves a U.S. government plot to assassinate North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un – with the phrase “They hate us cause they ain’t us.”
At one point the two squabbling Twitter accounts agreed that the KC-135R tankers from the 22nd Aerial Refueling Wing at McConnell Air Force Base were an integral part of the bomber mission and that without them neither the B-52 nor the B-2 would be able to get anywhere near the target area. The 22nd is specifically assigned the role of supporting bombers during a nuclear mission.
Minot and Whiteman declined to point out that the KC-135 is even older than the B-52. The Air Force has been steadily upgradinge those aircraft with new glass cockpits to help keep them flying for the foreseeable future as it continues to struggle with getting the new KC-46A tanker into service.
Near the end of the day on Oct. 25, 2017, whoever runs the main Air Force Twitter account had clearly decided it was time to go figuratively thermonuclear and try and end banter. “We didn’t want to do this, but if you 2 can’t get along we must,” the post began.
“Santa will bring you nothing this year,” it continued, before doing something that only a truly terrible parent would do. “Because he isn’t real!”
Whiteman’s account appeared stunned, sending along another meme of Homer Simpson disappearing into a hedge. Minot’s challenged the assertion in response, noting that NORAD famously tracks him every year on Christmas Eve – which is an entirely separate story that started with a misprinted phone number in a 1955 Sears ad that offered children a chance to call Santa, but instead connected them to the American component of the air defense command.
The Washington Examiner quickly ran a story saying that the air Force had “confirmed’ that Santa wasn’t real, putting the service’s Twitter account into something closer to more conventional damage control.
“Santa is real,” it Tweeted out. “Bluffing to get @Whiteman_AFB @TeamMinot in line.”
Air Force Times subsequently ran its own story with the very accurate headline “Air Force says Santa isn't real, regrets it immediately.”
The Santa debacle seemed to end the whole episode, whether the Air Force’s Twitter account was ever really serious about wanting to curtail it or not. Minot has since deleted most of its Tweets, but Whiteman’s posts are still up. It’s why we’ve chosen to use screen shots throughout this story, in order to best preserve a record of this oddly intense debate.
When it comes to global thermonuclear war, the only way to win might be to not play at all, but it doesn’t appear to prevent the stewards of America’s nuclear arsenal and those who keep the watch from gently ribbing each other in the meantime.
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