One of the most common tropes of science fiction is that almost any vessel or vehicle capable of carrying humans will have some manner of self-destruct mechanism installed, ready to blow the whole mess to the kind of reens that smither. Is any of this based in reality? Are there real-world military vessels or aircraft that actually have such systems? And I don’t mean stuff like the timing chain guides on my Volkswagen Tiguan; I mean deliberate self-destruct systems. So let’s dig a little bit into this.
Before we do that, though, you may enjoy seeing this little compilation of self-destruct sequences from the various Star Treks, one of the most prolific users and abusers of such systems:
What I love about these starship destruct systems, especially the older ones, is that to start a process that will result in the deaths of hundreds to thousands of people and absurdly valuable and complex equipment, all you need is a simple three or four-digit code.
And, sometimes, it seems like nobody bothered to reset the destruct code from the default one that comes programmed in from the factory:
Zero-Zero-Destruct-Zero? What the fuck? Jeezis, Kirk, take a long lunch to read the damn manual and at least put your dog’s birthday in there or something.
Okay, back to reality: does anything in reality actually have self-destruct systems?
The answer is: not exactly. But kinda. I’ll explain.
In the sense of an automatic, push-a-button-count-some-numbers-and-everything-goes-boom system, nothing that actually carries humans on it has such a system.
Uncrewed vehicles can, though, specifically missiles, rockets, and drones. When launching rockets, there’s always a Range Safety Officer (RSO). NASA has been using these from pretty much the very beginning; here’s a mention of the early history and the basic job from NASA’s site:
Range safety matters caused considerable disagreement between NASA and the Air Force before the issues were ultimately resolved. The Air Force had exercised responsibility for range safety at the Cape since launching the first rocket back in 1950. The basic concern was to prevent an errant rocket from landing in a populated area. Accordingly, when NASA scheduled a mission, the Air Force wanted details on the flight plan: launch azimuth, trajectory, and impact point. Range safety policies required that the launch vehicle have at least one tracking aid and two digital range safety command receivers on each active stage. The receivers had to be compatible with range instrumentation. If a destruct signal was received from the ground, the receivers would cut off the flow of fuel to the engines and then detonate small explosive charges to rupture the propellant tanks. The propellants would then mix and their explosive force be consumed before vehicle impact.
This butting of heads between NASA and the Air Force over self-destruct mechanisms seems to have been a continual issue, continuing into the Apollo era. In fact, the Air Force’s desire to incorporate a self-destruct system into the crewed Apollo spacecraft seems to have been a huge debate at the time — NASA absolutely did not want such a system on Apollo, since it introduced the possibility of accidental triggering, and, more mundanely, the system would eat up precious weight:
This last matter involved KSC in a lengthy debate which found the Manned Spacecraft Center and the Air Force at odds over the latter’s insistence on including a destruct system in the Apollo spacecraft. The dispute began in March 1962, when Houston requested a waiver - spacecraft engineers did not want the astronauts carrying a destruct package with them to the moon. The Range Safety Office proposed to restrict Apollo flights severely if the spacecraft did not carry a destruct system. Neither side altered its position in the next twelve months. When the NASA centers and the Eastern Test Range discussed Apollo-Saturn V safety requirements in May 1963, Houston again asked to fly the Apollo spacecraft (including the S-IVB stage) without a destruct capability. Engineers cited the possibilities of an errant signal triggering the systems or of an explosion during docking.38 The Air Force stood firmly by the requirements of the range safety manual: “Both engine shutdown and destruct capability are required for each stage of the vehicle.”39
KSC stressed among other things the weight penalty. A 120-pound service module destruct system would require nearly 7,500 more newtons (1,700 pounds) of thrust or a reduction in the weight of the S-IC stage.
Eventually, the Range Safety Committee agreed to let Apollo fly without a destruct system, though I believe the Apollo represents the closest reality ever got to a sci-fi-style auto-destruct system, as it would have been installed on a crew-carrying spacecraft, and would have been a comprehensive destruct system.
Individual elements of crewed spacecraft have had self-destruct systems, like the solid rocket booster (SRBs) and the external tank (ET) on the Space Shuttle, but these were only designed to be deployed once these components separated from the orbiter, which carried the astronauts.
I reached out to Tyler Rogoway, Jalopnik’s former warrior-writer and now running The War Zone, to see if he or any of his many shady contacts in the weapons and warfighting world knew of any such systems in military hardware today.
The answer was mostly no, but there were a few caveats. The Navy often deliberately scuttles or destroys vessels, sometimes by deliberately flooding interior areas with valves like Kingston valves, or by deliberately placing explosives at crucial areas. These aren’t exactly automatic self-destruct devices, just methods used to destroy ships.
There was at least one nuclear submarine, though, that may have had something we would consider a self-destruct system: the USS Parche, a Sturgeon-class submarine that was used for clandestine espionage missions involving wiretapping Soviet communication cables on the sea floor.
This series of missions was known as Ivy Bells and eventually ended with the Soviets discovering the wiretapping devices after a very indebted NSA employee sold the secret to the Russkies for $35,000.
Submarines like the Parche carried 150 pounds of high blast explosives designed to scuttle the sub and destroy its contents if it was in danger of capture by the Soviets.
It’s not really known if these explosives were wired up and ready to go at the push of a button, or if they had to be installed and set manually, but either way, it’s pretty close to a self-destruct system, if not exactly one.
There were also rumors that the famous U-2 spy plane had a self-destruct system, but this wasn’t true. Well, not entirely true. The plane did have a mechanism to destroy the top-secret surveillance camera system, but no way to destroy the entire plane, partially for the very unsentimental reason that it would add too much weight, and with that limit its altitude ceiling.
Another cool thing I never knew about the U-2 and its famous pilot Gary Powers? When he was captured by the Soviets, he spent a lot of his time in captivity making rugs! Look:
Not bad, Gary.
Many modern military aircraft do have a self-destruct button of sorts, but it’s for data, not the aircraft itself. It’s known as a zeroize feature, and it basically does exactly what you’d guess: writes zeroes over all of the sensitive digital data stored in an aircraft’s systems.
It even has an exciting-looking protected switch on many planes, like this one from an F-16, to set it off:
When activated, the Zeroization function will clear out everything according to standards set in documents like FIPS 140-2:
4.7.6 Key Zeroization A cryptographic module shall provide methods to zeroize all plaintext secret and private cryptographic keys and CSPs within the module. Zeroization of encrypted cryptographic keys and CSPs or keys otherwise physically or logically protected within an additional embedded validated module (meeting the requirements of this standard) is not required. Documentation shall specify the key zeroization methods employed by a cryptographic module.
So, if you’re planning on building one of these into your car, be sure to get rid of all of the plaintext and private cryptographic keys, just to be safe.
The takeaway here on self-destruct systems? Don’t expect them in most vehicles you’ll be in, but they sort of have existed in very limited times and places, and our moon-landing astronauts just barely got away with not having to deal with yet another thing in space trying to kill them.