This is the Trigger that Could Launch a Nuclear War

The firing key that is used to actually fire a missile is red. Image by Dan Sagalyn. Aboard the USS Pennsylvania, 2015.

Weapons Officer Lt. A.J. Walker, left, aboard the USS Pennsylvania. Image by Dan Sagalyn, 2015.

Rarely have Americans seen the inner workings of the Navy submarines that sail the world under the sea, loaded with the most deadly weapons in existence: nuclear arms.

But PBS NewsHour, in partnership with the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, was given a rare look at the Navy’s plan to replace the current generation of nuclear-armed warships.

While reporting aboard the USS Pennsylvania, an Ohio-class submarine armed with up to 24 Trident D-5 nuclear missiles, we witnessed an abbreviated battle drill simulating the launch of one of those missiles.

It’s a precise and efficient operation, and if exercised successfully, could initiate nuclear war.

A detail of the operation that caught our eye was a black joystick-looking device held by Weapons Officer Lt. A .J. Walker. This is the instrument that could ultimately launch the nuclear weapon.

In practice, it’s a key part of the process. In reality, Pennsylvania’s Commander John Cage says he hopes it’s never used.

“Nobody on the boat wants [a launch] to happen, but it’s important that we train for it, because if tasked, we are going to execute that mission.”