Nuclear False Warnings & the Risk of Catastrophe
Former Titan II Missile in its silo, Sahuarita, Arizona. Credit: The Titan Missile Museum
By Daryl G. Kimball
WASHINGTON DC, Nov 29 2019 (IPS)
Forty years ago, on Nov. 9, the U.S. Defense Department detected an imminent nuclear attack against the United States through the early-warning system of the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD). U.S. bomber and missile forces went on full alert, and the emergency command post, known as the “doomsday plane,” took to the air.
At 3 a.m., National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski was awakened by a call from his military assistant. He was told that NORAD computers were reporting that 2,200 Soviet missiles had been launched against the United States.
According to Brzezinski, just one minute before he planned to call President Jimmy Carter to recommend an immediate U.S. nuclear retaliatory response, word came through that the NORAD message was a false alarm caused by software simulating a Soviet missile attack that was inexplicably transferred into the live warning system at the command’s headquarters.
The 1979 incident was one of the most dangerous false alarms of the nuclear age, but it was not the first or the last. Within months, three more U.S. system malfunctions set off the U.S. early-warning systems.
The Soviet Union also experienced false alarms. On Sept. 26, 1983, a newly installed early-warning system erroneously signaled that the United States had launched a small salvo of missiles toward the Soviet Union. Lt. Col. Stanislav Petrov, the officer in charge that night, would later report that he defied standard military protocol and refused to pass the alert to Moscow because “when people start a war, they don’t start it with only five missiles.”
On Jan. 25, 1995, a large weather rocket launched off the coast of Norway created the appearance on Russian radars of an initial phase of a U.S. …read more