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If there’s one thing that history has taught us, it’s that we don’t learn a thing. It would seem plausible that even one occasion that brought the world to the brink of global thermonuclear war would have been enough to make us seriously rethink our nuclear arsenals.
In actual fact, close-call nuclear events seem to have increased our determination to make a nuclear Armageddon inevitable.
What’s stunning are the circumstances and events that have brought us to the brink. It’s easy to assume that a nuclear confrontation would be the result of a reckless rogue nation or the mindless behavior of a corrupt dictator.
Those are possibilities, but the actual events that have slowly come to light are alarming if not terrifying. Here are the facts, dates and incidents that just seem to happen over and over again.
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1. October 5, 1960
The United States implemented a broad line of early warning systems during the 1950’s. They were designed to detect a first strike from The Soviet Union and stretched across the top of North America into Greenland. It was in Thule, Greenland that the early warning system detected a dozen missiles inbound from the Soviet Union, estimated to strike the continental U.S. in 20 minutes.
Panic followed immediately and NORAD (North American Aerospace Defense Command) went to its highest alert and prepared to retaliate. And then someone at NORAD remembered that the Soviet Premier, Nikita Khruschev was in New York at that time.
It seemed implausible that the Soviets would strike while their Premier was in the United States. Further investigation revealed that the “advanced” early warning system had mistaken the rising moon over Norway as the incoming Soviet missiles.
2. November 24, 1961
The Thule early warning system in Greenland was once again at the center of this event. The Strategic Air Command (SAC) had lost contact with the Thule station. They frantically tried to contact NORAD, but communications to both NORAD and the radar station at Thule were both shut down.
The assumption was that sabotage was behind the loss of communication and the entire SAC fleet of nuclear armed B-52’s was ordered to prepare for takeoff.
Fortunately, a pilot on a U.S. bomber was able to make contact with Thule and he confirmed with them that no attack was underway. A later investigation revealed that a single malfunctioning switch shut down all communications between SAC, NORAD and Thule.
3. October 25, 1962
The Cuban Missile Crisis may have created the largest number of near-nuclear events in the shortest period of time. The first occurred shortly after the Cuban crisis had emerged and the U.S. had elevated their alert status to DEFCON 3, which is only 2 steps away from total war.
The event was triggered by a guard at a military base in Duluth, Minnesota. He saw a figure trying to climb the security fence around the perimeter late at night and shot at the intruder while sounding the sabotage alarm. This resulted in air raid alarms to go off at all bases in the area.
Commanders at Volk Field in Wisconsin panicked and in the midst of an alert status at DEFCON 3 ordered nuclear armed F-106A interceptors to prepare for takeoff. Quickly, the event was determined to be a false alarm, but an officer had to literally race a truck down the runway in front of the jets to stop them from taking off.
It was later determined that the intruding “saboteur” in Duluth was a bear trying to climb the fence.
4. October 27, 1962
The second close call of the Cuban Missile crisis occurred in the air. The U.S. had created a blockade around Cuba and was continuing surveillance of the island using U-2 spy planes. On the morning of the 27th a U-2 was shot down by Soviet troops stationed in Cuba, killing the pilot.
It heightened tensions to a fever pitch with a direct attack and an act of war…and then the third close call happened.
5. October 27, 1962
In an effort to make the submarine surface or change course, the Beale dropped practice depth charges assuming the Soviets would recognize them as dummy weapons. They didn’t, and the captain of the B-59, Valentin Savitsky ordered a torpedo attack against the Beale with nuclear tipped torpedoes.
Soviet Navy protocol held that all 3 senior officers on a Soviet submarine plus the captain had to agree to a nuclear attack and one officer, Vasili Arkhipov, disagreed with the captain and the other 2 senior offices and convinced the captain to surface and contact Moscow.
They reversed course once on the surface and the events were not revealed until 30 years later.
6. October 27, 1962
The fourth near-nuclear event of the Cuban Missile Crisis occurred over Siberia. An Air Force U-2 spy plane drifted off course over the Bering Sea and crossed into Soviet airspace. The pilot was confused by the Aurora Borealis and lost track of his location, spending 90 minutes over Siberia.
The Soviet Air Force scrambled 6 MiG fighters to shoot down the errant U-2. After losing one U-2 over Cuba, the Strategic Air Command scrambled a squadron of F-102 Delta Daggers armed with nuclear Falcon air-to-air missiles in response.
Fortunately, the MiGs and the Delta Daggers never encountered each other and the U-2 was safely escorted back to Alaska.
7. October 28, 1962
The fifth event of the Cuban Missile crisis happened a little before 9:00 AM when radar operators in Moorestown, New Jersey reported to NORAD that soviet nuclear missiles from Cuba were headed towards the United States with the first strike expected at 9:02 outside of Tampa, Florida. As NORAD scrambled for a response the time came and went without detonation.
A later investigation revealed that the Moorestown radar operators were confused because the radar facility was running a test tape of a simulated missile launch from Cuba when a satellite happened to appear on the horizon.
8. May 23, 1967
The U.S. Air Force began preparing for war on May 23, 1967, thinking that the Soviet Union had jammed a set of American surveillance radars. But military space-weather forecasters intervened in time, telling top officials that a powerful sun eruption was to blame.
9. November 9, 1979
It was 3:00 AM and computers at NORAD began to flash warnings of thousands of nuclear missiles being launched from Soviet submarines towards the continental U.S. SAC was alerted, missile crews went on alert and nuclear bombers were taxiing for takeoff.
National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzenski was alerted but chose not to awaken President Jimmy Carter in order to verify the threat. It was a false alarm and it was later determined that a technician had inadvertently inserted a training tape into one of the computers simulating a massive nuclear attack from soviet submarines.
10. September 26, 1983
It’s not just about us. The Russians also had their share of false alarms, and just after midnight on September 26th, 1983 Soviet satellite operators detected the launch of a US Minuteman nuclear missile. Soon after, four more missiles were detected. The Soviet response was to be an all-out retaliatory strike. It didn’t happen.
The bunker commander, Stanislav Petrov decided not to inform his superiors. He couldn’t believe that the U.S. would launch a pre-emptive nuclear strike with only 5 missiles. After 20 minutes, the false alarm was confirmed. A Soviet satellite had mistaken sunlight reflecting off the top of clouds as U.S. missiles.
11. November 7, 1983
A NATO exercise code named Able Archer 83 was held across Western Europe from November 7th to the 11th of 1983. It was referred to as routine but had many components that alarmed the Soviet Union:
- A 170-flight, radio-silent air lift of 19,000 US soldiers to Europe.
- The shifting of commands from “Permanent War Headquarters to the Alternate War Headquarters.”
- The practice of “new nuclear weapons release procedures,” including consultations with cells in Washington and London.
- And the “sensitive, political issue” of numerous “slips of the tongue” in which B-52 sorties were referred to as nuclear “strikes.”
The primary concern in the Soviet Union was that the Able Archer exercise was a cover for launching a real attack. The Soviet Union went on heightened nuclear alert and it continued into 1984 when it became apparent that no attack was imminent.
12. January 25, 1995
The Soviet Union had dissolved and Boris Yeltsin was the first president of the Russian Federation. On January 25th, 1995 a Russian early warning radar station detected the launch of a U.S. Trident missile from what appeared to be a submarine launch off the coast of Norway.
Yeltsin was actually given the launch codes for a retaliatory strike but he believed it was a false alarm. It was. A Norwegian scientific rocket on a mission to study the Aurora Borealis was mistaken for a Trident even though the Kremlin had been warned of the launch.
Unfortunately, no one at the Kremlin thought to notify the radar operators of the launch.
13. January 13, 2018
An early-morning emergency alert mistakenly warning of an incoming ballistic missile attack was dispatched to cellphones across Hawaii, setting off widespread panic in a state that was already on edge because of escalating tensions between the United States and North Korea.
The alert, sent by the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency, was revoked 38 minutes after it was issued, prompting confusion over why it was released — and why it took so long to rescind.
“What happened today was totally unacceptable,” said Gov. David Y. Ige. “Many in our community were deeply affected by this. I am sorry for that pain and confusion that anyone might have experienced.”
Officials said the alert was the result of human error and not the work of hackers or a foreign government. The mistake occurred during a shift-change drill that takes place three times a day at the emergency command post, according to Richard Rapoza, a spokesman for the agency. “Someone clicked the wrong thing on the computer,” he said.
And of Course There’s More
It would be comforting to assume that the past defines lessons learned and that the threat of accidental nuclear war was eliminated. Most people don’t agree. In fact, 70% of Americans are worried about a future nuclear attack. And the incidents go well beyond the dozen we’ve covered.
There are 22 instances when nuclear weapons have almost been accidentally detonated. If that ever occurs even if by accident, it could easily lead any number of people to the wrong conclusion and a catastrophic response.
Just as alarming are the number of nuclear incidents that are still classified or simply not reported. Governments and military agencies are rarely anxious to publicize their mistakes.
What’s so alarming just looking at the 12 incidents we covered are the small and almost pathetic circumstances that have nearly triggered a nuclear response in the past from mistaking the moon to the sun and even a bear for a nuclear threat.
More alarming is that it has usually been the actions of only one individual making the right decision at the right time to prevent a nuclear Armageddon. And these individuals haven’t always been Presidents or Premiers; they were everyday officers, individuals and advisors making the simple decision not to start World War III.
Then again, there are those individuals who decide to put training tapes into computers simulating an attack while neglecting to tell anybody it’s a simulation.
It may be safe to assume that technology has advanced beyond the glaring mistakes of the past. But human nature has shown little advancement. Paranoia runs deep and the global political situation, on-going regional conflicts in Africa and South America, the ongoing war in Ukraine, and the endless saber rattling from North Korea and China are only making matters worse.
Across the world, natural resources are becoming exhausted as population growth makes the eternal fight for territory and dwindling resources a growing threat. And then there’s always the potential for another bear trying to climb a fence. Wars are the inevitable conclusion, but that’s where old school ideas about war begin to fail.
The “Conventional” War Dilemma
A term emerged as nuclear proliferation spread across the world: Mutual Assured Destruction or “MAD.” It was the idea that the specter of nuclear war was so totally destructive that it would be madness to engage in a nuclear exchange.
Unfortunately, madmen seem to be emerging from terrorist cells, to the erratic behavior of Kim Jong-un in North Korea, to say nothing of the desperate gambit of Vladimir Putin in Ukraine. In fact, Putin has already threatened the use of nuclear weapons if NATO directly intervenes in Ukraine or allows Finland or Sweden to become NATO members. And those madmen face a new dilemma.
“MAD” seemed to return the world to a time when war should only be fought and decided with conventional weapons. But as technology has advanced, so has conventional weaponry. The result is that robust economies with technological prowess have been able to develop conventional (non-nuclear) weapons that are vastly superior to what most of the world can produce.
The United States is the best example, and it’s believed by some that no nation on Earth could defeat the United States in a conventional war, although that advantage (while still true) is eroding. And that’s where the conventional war dilemma becomes the new nuclear trigger.
Any country that tries to engage in a conventional war usually faces one of two possibilities: victory or defeat. If the losing country also has nuclear capabilities and is losing or on the verge of defeat, they may turn to their nuclear option as a last desperate and vengeful act in a war they know they can’t win or can only win with the nuclear option.
Complicating matters is the dual use of many conventional weapons allowing them to be used with both conventional and nuclear warheads. Every time North Korea fires another missile into the Sea of Japan, the immediate question is whether it’s a test of a conventional missile or a nuclear attack.
Tactical Nuclear Weapons as a Trigger
Another possibility is that the losing country (or a rogue nation) may determine that the use of tactical nuclear weapons is a reasonable option on a conventional battlefield. Tactical nuclear weapons are designed to be used on a battlefield with less explosive power than a strategic nuclear weapon designed to be aimed at cities, industries and military installations.
The problem with the use of any tactical nuclear weapon (and none have ever been used in warfare to date) is that any use of a nuclear weapon on a battlefield breaks the “nuclear ice.” As any battle continues the size and number of tactical nukes will inevitably grow leading to the imminent use of the larger strategic nukes.
It’s a nuclear snowball effect with one small nuke acting as a snowball running downhill and getting larger and larger as bigger tactical nukes come into play.
Future Cyber Threats as a Trigger
If you look at the number of times a computer was responsible for a false alarm, it stands to reason that those computers may fail us again in the future. Only this time it won’t be because of bad computer chips, training tapes or mistaking the moon for missiles. It will occur because of an intentional cyberattack designed to mislead the computers, potentially leading everyone to the wrong conclusion.
Is There No End?
World Nuclear Forces, January 2022
|Country||Deployed Warheads||Stored Warheads||Total Stockpile||Total Inventory 2022b||Total Inventory 2021b|
|United States||1,744||1,964||3,708||5 428||5,550|
Source: Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI)
And behind those missiles is the constant variable defined by human nature. There are always calls for disarmament and the reduction or removal of the world’s nuclear arsenal, but those actions seem highly unlikely.
In the meantime, global events seem to have created a new environment of high tensions, random threats and growing desperation. Our best hope may be that those brave, solitary individuals who emerged in the past show up again to save us from one of the greatest threats to our existence.
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