Doomsday Rendezvous

September 30, 1994|By RONALD FRASER

BURKE, VIRGINIA — Burke, Virginia. -- Ending an 11-year wait for the rush of VIPs that never arrived, tomorrow the Pentagon will flip off the ''vacancy'' signs that still hang outside a string of secret underground bomb shelters located near Washington. Designed to serve as both home and office for government executives during a nuclear war, these telecommuting centers performed well in make-believe war games. But a fatal human flaw in the $8 billion Doomsday Project would have quickly scuttled the scheme had it been launched under real-life circumstances.

Like a special chain of budget hotels, each underground site is equipped with spartan life-support services for up to a thousand ''guests,'' and with sophisticated communications electronics. From these bunkers the attorney general, the secretary of transportation and other cabinet officers were to keep the wheels of government turning. Damage assessments would be studied, orders issued and the president kept informed of how things were going.

As in any regular hotel, however, resident VIPs would depend on scores of behind-the-scenes workers -- cooks, electricians, sanitation engineers and others. With nuclear explosions above ground playing havoc with daily routines, these workers were, at once, the key to success and the Achilles heel of the entire project.

The Doomsday Plan was repeatedly tested under war-like conditions. Tests typically started with a simulated all-out Soviet missile attack, followed by the evacuation of a few selected government officials to their assigned shelter. Support personnel not on duty inside the caves were notified to report pronto. Within minutes double doors, each 15 feet thick, would close, sealing the cave dwellers off from the outside world. Once inside, the VIPs would be literally trapped, dependent on round-the-clock support personnel for everything from electrical power and meals to laundry and medical services.

But unlike hotel guests at any downtown Hilton, these ''guests'' could not check out and go elsewhere if the service failed to measure up. Imagine how uncomfortable your hotel stay might become if, on the day of your arrival, 70 percent of the staff failed to show up for work. That's exactly what these VIPs would have faced if, in fact, the Doomsday Project had been played out ''for real.''

Required to live within minutes' travel distance from their shelters, many workers were recruited from nearby rural towns and were simple folks with strong family ties. These workers were also aware that the enemy knew the location of most Doomsday sites, and that several of the Soviets' 11,000 strategic, nuclear missiles were surely aimed at a shelter located near their homes. Most of all, these workers suspected that some of these Soviet missiles were likely to miss their target, and fall on their home towns instead.

This knowledge placed many support workers in a serious moral bind. On the one hand, out of necessity they and their families lived in a prime war zone. On the other hand, the government expected them to abandon their families once the missiles began to fly, and retire to the relative safety of a shelter. Family members, of course, were not permitted in the shelters.

Is it realistic to expect off-duty workers to leap from the sofa one Sunday evening when the alert arrives, kiss spouse and kids goodbye, and -- off to their bomb-proof haven, knowing full well that they are abandoning their families to a ghastly fate?

War games did not, could not, test the Doomsday Plan under real wartime conditions. Planners were forced to assume that these workers would behave pretty much as they did in one simulated test after another -- that they would indeed drop everything and make a beeline for the cave's entrance.

But there is a big difference between practice and performance. Once these workers sensed that the call to report was not a drill, but a warning that Soviet missiles may have already left their silos, each would, for the very first time, make a split-second decision: to save oneself and abandon loved ones; or to ride out the nuclear storm huddled in the root cellar.

Professional soldiers are indoctrinated to put duty above all else; Doomsday support workers were not. Soldiers reporting to combat units leave their families in relative safety, while placing themselves in danger. Untrained civilian maintenance workers were expected to do just the opposite.

My guess is that the typical maintenance worker, upon sensing that the alert was not a test, would have picked family over personal safety and would have remained at home. The Doomsday Project was doomed from the start, not due to the enemy's weapons, but from within.

Ronald Fraser is a former Coast Guard officer and war planner who spent two training sessions in nuclear-hardened caves in Maryland and Virginia. He is now a doctoral candidate in public administration at George Mason University

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