“A number of emergencies, communication errors and computer glitches have very nearly precipitated nuclear war.”
ON MORE THAN one occasion over the past 50 years, the world’s super powers have nearly ended all life on this planet. Besides the well-studied Cuban Missile Crisis, there have been a number of lesser known emergencies, communication errors and computer glitches that have very nearly precipitated nuclear war: either small regional exchanges or full on global armageddon. Here are a few of the scarier of these incidents:
A buggy hard drive deep in the bowels of NORAD headquarters nearly spoofed the United States into launching a full nuclear retaliatory strike on what turned out to be an entirely bogus Soviet sneak attack. Just before 9 a.m. local time, on Nov. 9, 1979, computer displays at the Cheyenne, Colorado Mountain Complex, as well as the Pentagon, Strategic Air Command and the National Military Command Center, began displaying what appeared to be hundreds of ICBMs lifting off from silos across the Soviet Union and heading towards targets in the continental United States. Eyewitnesses to the incident described personnel at NORAD as being in a state of “absolute panic” as the phoney attack unfolded. To make matters worse, commanders were unable to determine the president’s whereabouts throughout the emergency.  Within minutes, SAC aircraft were launched and even the National Airborne Command Center was sent aloft (although without the nation’s commander-in-chief aboard). At the same time, silos across the United States began preparations to release their missiles, while orders were issued to ballistic missile subs worldwide to come to launch depth. The fracas lasted for a full six minutes and was only averted when NATO spy satellites revealed that Soviet airspace was entirely devoid telltale missile exhaust signatures that would be generated from a massive launch. Long range radar installations in Greenland, Great Britain and Alaska were also unable to detect any missiles in the air further suggesting that the suspected attack was more likely a computer glitch. American forces were gradually recalled. In the weeks following the crisis, Congress grilled Pentagon brass not only about the computer error, but as to why the military was unable to reach the president for the duration of the emergency. Legislators also demanded to know why no one had attempted to use the famous “hot line” to Moscow. A similar computer glitch threw American missile command into frenzy again eight months later as computer terminals throughout NORAD once again reported a number of inbound Soviet ICBMs. On this occasion, the missile counts on military computers fluctuated wildly, suggesting an error. It was still enough to prompt America to briefly increase readiness.
Go Ahead, Make My Day!
Ten years earlier, it was the Soviets premier’s finger that was on the button. According to a 2010 article in the British newspaper, The Daily Mail, this close call was precipitated by a rapidly escalating border clash between China and the U.S.S.R. in October of 1969. As the shooting match along the Sino-Soviet frontier worsened, the Kremlin contemplated a series of nuclear strikes against a full gamut of targets inside the People’s Republic. In order to avert a panic in Washington at the prospect of Russian missiles in the air, Soviet diplomats informed the White House of Moscow’s intention to strike China. The U.S. responded with a stern warning: Use nukes on China, the Nixon Administration threatened, and America would attack 130 cities in the Soviet Union. The Russian leader Leonid Brezhnev blinked and instead opted for a diplomatic solution to its showdown with China. For more about this crisis, click here.
Nuclear Showdown on the Sub-Continent
American diplomatic intervention would again avert disaster, although in this case it would be a regional nuclear confrontation involving long-time foes India and Pakistan. According to a landmark New Yorker article from 1993 by Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist Seymour Hersh, a massive build up of Indian troops along border of the disputed Kashmir region in 1990 precipitated the crisis. Pakistani, caught off guard by the suddenness with which the Indian army had appeared on its frontier, prepared to launch a nuclear strike on the enemy capital. The article, entitled “On the Nuclear Edge,” describes how American intelligence watched in real-time via spy satellites as the Pakistani military transported what looked like atom bombs from a suspected nuclear weapons facility to a nearby airport. Washington looked on with growing alarm as the highways connecting the two sites were ominously closed to all traffic and the airport was locked down as Pakistani technicians began fitting the mysterious payloads onto a squadron of F-16 fighter bombers. The White House hit the panic button and sent then National Security Adviser Robert Gates to warn the Pakistan to step back from the brink, while urging India to stay its forces on the border (if they both knew what was good for them.) Both Islamabad and Delhi relented in the face of American pressure both sides stood down. Gates admitted in the article that the crisis came perilously close to touching off a war. “Pakistan and India seemed to be caught in a cycle that they couldn’t break out of,” Gates says in the New Yorker piece. “I was convinced that if a war started, it would be nuclear.” Others were even more stark in their assessment. “It was the most dangerous nuclear situation we have ever faced since I’ve been in the U.S. government,” one official told Hersh. “It may be as close as we’ve come to a nuclear exchange. It was far more frightening than the Cuban Missile Crisis.” The full text of the famous article is available here.
The Black Brant Scare
More recently, a joint U.S. Norwegian research project to study the aurora borealis or “northern lights” almost led to World War Three in 1995. On Jan. 25 of that year, a team of civilian scientists launched the Black Brant XII four-stage sounding rocket from the Andøya Launch Range off the Norwegian coast. On its way into orbit, the projectile was picked up by Russian air defences, which mistook it for a U.S. submarine launched Trident missile heading towards their airspace. Moscow put its nuclear forces on a war footing and sought orders from President Boris Yeltsin to launch a retaliatory strike on the United States. Within minutes, Russian radar operators reported that the missile had splashed down off Spitsbergen and the alert was cancelled. The incident remains the only known instance in which a presidential nuclear launch briefcase, or ‘football’ as it’s known in the U.S., has been activated.
Furtherance: The Plan That Went Too Far
And finally, just recently, the National Security Archive of the United States released details of a top secret American plan to launch an all-out nuclear attack on both the Soviet Union and China in the event of any attack on American soil. The plan, which was ominously codenamed Furtherance, called for a strike on both of the communist powers, even if only one of them initiated an attack, and even if that attack was limited and non-nuclear in nature. Details of the strategy were made public in late 2012 as part of a release of an October, 1968 Oval Office meeting between President Lyndon Johnson and his national security team. The minutes show how the administration concluded that Furtherance, which had been on the books for years at that point, needed some serious rethinking. The members of the group unanimously agreed that any American response to an attack should be proportional in scope and only target the state that initiated it. To read details about Furtherance or to review the 1968 meeting notes themselves, click here.
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