If you were a Soviet general during the height of the cold war, then the name “Titan II” likely had you shaking in your boots with fear. At least, that was America’s hope and goal.
Titan II was a guided ballistic missile that carried the largest, single nuclear warhead of any missile of its kind. And that record still holds today.
Inside the missile was a weapon with terrifying destructive capabilities — 650 times more powerful than the atomic bomb dropped on Heroshima.
When it was first built, Titan II was designed for one thing: deterrence.
“The idea behind Titan II was to instill enough fear in the mind of the enemy to cause them to think twice about launching an attack against us,” Chuck Penson, who is the archivist and historian at the Titan Missile Museum in Sahuarita, Arizona, told Derek Muller, the host of the YouTube channel Varitasium.
The Titan Missile Musuem in Texas includes the original site for one of the 54 underground silos across the country where deterrent missiles, like Titan II, were kept throughout the late ’50s and mid ’60s.
In his latest Varitasium episode, Muller takes us inside this underground museum and what would have happened if the US ever did launch a Titan II in a defence attack that almost-certainly would have initiated WW III:
It’s no surprise that on the entry door into the silo where the Titan II missile still stands today there is a sign that reads “CAUTION.”
Though the Titan II missile still stands, it no longer carries its dangerous cargo. One of the most interesting features in the cylo are the sound-proof panels covering the walls. Without these panels to absorb the sound during a launch, the energy from the sound waves would actually shake the missile to pieces before it could life off.
The control center with all of the gadgets, switches, and buttons — including those that would initiate a launch — is located far from the missile. You get to through a series of long underground tunnels.
Another benefit, besides secrecy, to an underground launch sight was that if the enemy successfully detonated a bomb in the US, then they would be shielded from the radiation as long — as their base was not destroyed in the attack.
Once in the control room, Penson takes Muller through the multi-step process of what it would have been like to launch a Titan II missile. The first things that happens is that the speakers in the room sound an alarm that is then followed by a message with a series of random numbers and words.
This message should only have reached them if the president of the US, and only the president, had ordered it.
Everyone in the room copies down the message, compares notes, and if they agree on what they heard, then they go to a red safe — which is locked, of course — containing a series of what Penson calls “authentication cards.”
Each card contains two letters. If one of the cards has the two-letter combination that matches the first two letters in the secret message transmitted through the speakers, then the control room is officially “go” for launch.
After that, you just have one more 6-letter code and two keys separating you from WW III. But the 6-letter code is on a wheel with 17 million possible combinations and the key slots are far-enough apart that you must have two people turning them at exactly the same time.
After you insert the 6-letter code, the commander counts down to the final key turn. The commander and his partner hold the keys down for 5 seconds straight, and then a terrifying green light illuminates the “Ready to Launch” panel.
“For all intensive purposes that should say ‘Welcome to World War III’ because that’s pretty much what it boils down to. When you turn the key you are committed. There is no ‘oops’ switch,” Penson said.
These precautions were taken to prevent a single person from launching a missile. After all, people can get pretty crazy and paranoid during times of war.
Although Titan II was never launched to prevent an attack on US soil (as far as we know), several of these missiles were launched. In fact, some were used to launch American manned missions through NASA’s Gemini program to space.
Check out Muller’s video below or on YouTube:
Business Insider Emails & Alerts
Site highlights each day to your inbox.