NORAD - Keeping an eye towards the sky to protect the United States.
NORAD - Keeping an eye towards the sky to protect the United States.
In the early dawn hours of November 9th, 1979, just a month and a half after the inexplicable Vela Incident, crews manning the underground missile silos along the American Great Plains received an urgent alert. Early warning satellites had detected that Soviet nuclear missiles were in flight, soon to rain apocalyptic fire and death upon the United States. This was not a drill (repeat, this was not a drill!). The soldiers manned their stations, and braced themselves for the unthinkable: the possibility of launching their ballistic nuclear missiles in retaliation. There was little time for considering options, as there were apparently hundreds of megatons worth of atomic weapons en route at high speeds. It seemed the world was about to end, courtesy of the world's superpowers.

This alert was not limited to the US intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) force. The entire U.S. air defense interceptor force was put on alert, and at least 10 fighters took off. The National Emergency Airborne Command Post-- the "doomsday plane"-- also took to the sky, although the president was not on board. The United States was falling into its doomsday contingency plan, preparing for the worst.

Fortunately, this nuclear nightmare was only an error in the United States' detection system, not an actual attack. A training tape that simulated the signals of a massive Soviet nuclear first-strike had been mistakenly loaded into a computer the U.S. Strategic Air Command's Cheyenne Mountain control center, nestled deep in the Colorado mountains. This mistake was discovered when U.S. leaders viewed the raw-data from the Defense Support Program's (DSP) early warning satellites. This was part of standard threat assessment protocol used before deciding to launch a massive counter-strike. The DSP satellites were capable of detecting the launches of Soviet missiles almost anywhere on the Earth's surface. None of these satellites reported any launches... and an accidental global nuclear war was narrowly avoided.

Although this was the first reported incident to bring the world to the brink of a nuclear World War, it was certainly not the last. Since the inception of the nuclear missile and early-warning systems, the US and Russia have each had at least two instances of faulty information leading to a near-launch of a nuclear volley.

A Minuteman missile launch.
A Minuteman missile launch.
Less than a year after the training tape incident, U.S. commanders received another warning that the Soviet Union had launched a nuclear strike. On June 3, 1980, launch crews for Minuteman missiles were given preliminary launch warnings, and bomber crews went airborne. This time, however, the displays did not present a recognizable attack pattern or even a consistent number of incoming missiles as they had during the training tape episode. Instead, the displays showed a random number of attacking missiles, changing frequently. The displays would show that 200 had been launched, then zero missiles, and then 2 missiles. Also, the number of attacking missiles displayed at different command posts were not the same. This random display of missiles firing left the crews manning early-warning radars scrambling to find an answer.

Again, data from the DSP satellites and other early-warning systems were reviewed, and it was found that no missiles had been launched. Later investigations revealed that a single computer chip failure had caused random numbers of attacking missiles to be displayed.

Not to be outdone by the capitalist pigs, the Soviet Union established their own error-prone early-warning satellite system. However, the Soviets had chosen a different method to spot these launches. The Soviets chose not to look down on the entire Earth's surface the way the U.S. DSP satellites do. Instead, the Soviet satellites look at the edge of the Earth, reducing the chance that a naturally occurring phenomenon would look like a missile launch. When a missile rises 5 to 10 miles, it appears silhouetted against the black background of space. Also, when the edge of the earth is viewed, light reflected off the top of clouds and snow banks has to travel through much more of the atmosphere, which reduces the chance that this light would set off a false alarm.

To view a recently launched missile against the black background of space, a unique type of orbit is needed for the satellite. To achieve this, the Soviet Union placed their early-warning satellites in a Molnyia orbit. A Molnyia orbit comes very close to the earth as it passes the southern hemisphere, but as it approaches the northern hemisphere and its apogee, it extends to nearly 1/10 the distance to the moon. From this position high above northern Europe, the Soviet Union's Oko ("Eye") early-warning satellites spend much of their time observing the missile fields of the United States. This practice nearly led to nuclear disaster.

A hypothesized Oko Satellite view of the U.S. missile fields at the time of the "Autumn Equinox" incident.
A hypothesized Oko Satellite view of the U.S. missile fields at the time of the "Autumn Equinox" incident.
Shortly after midnight in Moscow on September 26th 1983, the satellite's field of view lined up perfectly with the sun and US missile bases. They were arranged in such a way that the maximum amount of sunlight was reflected off high-altitude clouds towards the early-warning satellite. Lt. Colonel Stanislav Petrov was the officer in charge of "Serpukhov-15", the secret bunker from which the Soviet Union monitored the satellites' signals. In subsequent interviews he described the dilemma he faced when the system suddenly indicated the launch of several missiles from the U.S. continental missile fields.

Disobeying his standing orders, Lt. Col Petrov decided not to sound the alert. Petrov later spoke on the incident, explaining why he did not pass the information on to his superiors: "When people start a war, they don't start it with only five missiles. You can do little damage with just five missiles."

The last such near-disaster that the superpowers are willing to acknowledge occurred on January 25th, 1995. Shortly before sunrise, the Soviet early-warning systems sang out a warning that an American missile was incoming. The missile originated near Norway, suggesting that the Americans were executing the classic Cold War first-strike scenario: surfacing a sub off the coast and lobbing a nuclear missile to be detonated high over the Soviet Union, thereby blinding Russian radar stations. In theory, this action would be shortly followed by an all-out attack.

Unlike the previous alerts, this event wasn't an error in the early-detection system, this missile was confirmed as real. Fearing the worst, the Russian military prepared to launch a full-scale counterattack against the United States. Planes were readied, and missiles sat waiting to launch a nuclear volley on selected targets in the United States at a moment's notice. Tensions were running so high within the Russian leadership that Russian President Boris Yeltsin activated his nuclear briefcase, enabling him to communicate with his top military advisers and review the situation online. This was the first time he had ever done so.

Amidst this uncertainty, as many fingers nervously hovered over death-bringing buttons, word was received from Soviet military observers: the missile, while real, was not en route to Russia. It was a harmless research rocket headed for space. NASA had launched the four-stage rocket in partnership with Norwegian scientists for the purpose of studying the northern lights, and somehow the men at the Soviet radar stations had not received the memo. The rocket was not the first to be launched from the island off the coast of Norway, nevertheless it was indistinguishable from a Trident missile to Russia's low-resolution early-warning radars.

An early warning radar, ready to detect a nuclear nightmare.
An early warning radar, ready to detect a nuclear nightmare.
Nuclear inter-continental ballistic missiles are almost quaint by today's risk-assessment standards; the nuke of the future is more likely to originate in an atomic attaché than a missile silo. But as long as the number of nations with nuclear weapons steadily increases, early-warning systems are an unpleasant necessity. Considering the purpose of these detection systems-- to defend nations from the unthinkable-- it is ironic that they are responsible for bringing the world to the brink of an inappropriate apocalypse on at least a few occasions. Sometimes, it seems, an ounce of prevention is worth a megaton of cure.

Written by Dan Gillis, posted on 22 October 2007. Dan is a contributing editor for DamnInteresting.com.
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