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Fail-deadly is a concept in nuclear military strategy that encourages deterrence by guaranteeing an immediate, automatic, and overwhelming response to an attack. The term fail-deadly was coined as a contrast to fail-safe.


  • Military usage 1
  • In popular culture 2
  • See also 3
  • References 4

Military usage

Fail-deadly operation is an example of second-strike strategy, in that aggressors are discouraged from attempting a first strike attack. Under fail-deadly nuclear deterrence, policies and procedures controlling the retaliatory strike authorize launch even if the existing command and control structure has already been neutralized by a first strike. The deterrent efficacy of such a system clearly depends on other nuclear-armed nations' having foreknowledge of it. The Soviet Union used a fail-deadly system known as Dead Hand (codenamed "Perimeter"); it is not certain if Russia still uses it.

Fail-deadly can refer to specific technology components, or the controls system as a whole. The United Kingdom's fail-deadly policies delegated strike authority to submarine commanders in the event of a loss of command (using a letter of last resort), ensuring that even uncoordinated, nuclear retaliation could be carried out.[1]

An example of the implementation of such a strategy could be: Ballistic missile submarines are ordered to surface at periodic intervals to receive communications indicating that no change has occurred in the defense condition. Should the submarines be unable to receive the proper command and control signals indicating normal, peacetime conditions, their orders would be to launch their nuclear missiles under the assumption that command and control structures had been destroyed in a nuclear attack and that retaliation was therefore necessary. All available means of verification and all due caution would naturally be applied. This approach is obviously exceptionally dangerous for a variety of reasons. The strategy's true value is in deterrence against attack on command, control, communications, and computer (see C4I) networks by any potential adversary.

Fail-deadly is also associated with massive retaliation, a deterrence strategy which ensures that the counterstrike will be conducted on a larger scale than the initial attack.

A dead man's switch can be used as a fail-deadly instrument, for instance a switch which must be constantly held to prevent the triggering of an explosive. This would ensure that a suicide bombing is not prevented by killing the person that has the bomb.

In popular culture

  • A Soviet Union fail-deadly nuclear system features prominently in the 1964 black comedy Dr. Strangelove.
  • In the film WarGames this function proves to be the source of a crisis as a NORAD computer controlling the US nuclear missile arsenal is attempting to do a full scale nuclear attack on its own. The commanding officer suggests that the computer be simply turned off, but is warned that would be interpreted by the subsidiary launch control systems at each missile silo as the destruction of the Cheyenne Mountain Air Force Station and all missiles would automatically launch in retaliation.
  • The 2010 video game Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker features the eponymous "Peace Walker," which is stated to be a fail-deadly nuclear tank.

See also


  1. ^ Scott, Len (2000). Planning Armageddon. Amsterdam: Overseas Publishers Association. p. 301.  
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