20 Mishaps that Might Have Started Accidental Nuclear War
by Alan F. Phillips, M.D.
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Ever since the two adversaries in the Cold War,
U.S.A. and U.S.S.R., realized that their nuclear arsenals were
sufficient to do disastrous damage to both countries at short
notice, the leaders and military commanders have thought about
the possibility of a nuclear war starting without their intention
or as a result of a false alarm. Increasingly elaborate accessories
have been incorporated in nuclear weapons and their delivery systems
to minimize the risk of unauthorized or accidenta launch or detonation.
A most innovative action was the establishment of the "hot
line" between Washington and Moscow in 1963 to reduce the
risk of misunderstanding between the supreme commanders.
Despite all precautions, the possibility of an
inadvertent war due to an unpredicted sequence of events remained
as a deadly threat to both countries and to the world. That is
the reason I am prepared to spen the rest of my life working for
abolition of nuclear weapons.
One way a war could start is a false alarm via
one of the warning systems, followed by an increased level of
nuclear forces readiness while the validity of the information
was being checked. This action would be detected by the other
side, and they would take appropriate action; detection of that
response would tend to confirm the original false alarm; and so
on to disaster. A similar sequence could result from an accidental
nuclear explosion anywhere. The risk of such a sequence developing
would be increased if it happened during a period of increased
On the American side many "false alarms"
and significant accidents have been listed, ranging from trivial
to very serious, during the Cold War. Probably many remain unknown
to the public and to the research community because of individuals'
desire to avoid blame and maintain the good reputation of their
unit or command. No doubt there have been as many mishaps on the
Working with any new system, false alarms are more
likely. The rising moon was misinterpreted as a missile attack
during the early days of long-range radar. A fire at a broken
gas pipeline was believed to be enemy jamming by laser of a satellite's
infrared sensor when those sensors were first deployed.
The risks are illustrated by the following selection
of mishaps. If the people involved had exercised less caution,
or if some unfortunate coincidental event had occurred, escalation
to nuclear war can easily be imagined. Details of some of the
events differ in different sources: where there have been disagreements,
I have chosen to quote those from the carefully researched book
"The Limits of Safety" by Scott D. Sagan. Sagan gives
references to original sources in all instances.
1956, November 5: Suez Crisis coincidence
British and French forces were attacking Egypt at the
Suez Canal. The Soviet Government had suggested to U.S. that they
combine forces to stop this by a joint military action, and had
warned the British and French governments that (non-nuclear) rocket
attacks on London and Paris were being considered. That night
the U.S. military HQ in Europe received messages that:
(i) unidentified aircraft were flying over Turkey and the Turkish
air force was on alert
(ii) 100 Soviet MIG-15's were flying over Syria
(iii) a British Canberra bomber had been shot down over Syria
(iv) the Russian fleet was moving through the Dardanelles. It
is reported that in U.S.A. General Goodpaster himself was concerned
that these events might trigger the NATO operations plan for nuclear
strikes against U.S.S.R.
The 4 reports were all shown afterwards to have
innocent explanations. They were due, respectively, to:
(i) a flight of swans
(ii) a routine air force escort (much smaller than the number
reported) for the president of Syria, who was returning from a
visit to Moscow
(iii) the Canberra bomber was forced down by mechanical problems
(iv) the Russian fleet was engaged in scheduled routine exercises.
1961, November 24: BMEWS communication
On the night of 24 November, 1961, all communication
links went dead between SAC HQ and NORAD, and so cut SAC HQ off
from the three Ballistic Missile Early Warning sites (BMEWS) at
Thule (Greenland), Clear (Alaska), and Filingdales (England).
For General Power at SAC HQ, there were two possible explanations:
either enemy action, or the coincidental failure of all the communication
systems which had redundant and ostensibly independent routes
including commercial telephone circuits. All SAC bases in U.S.A.
were therefore alerted and B-52 nuclear bomber crews started their
engines, with instructions not to take off without further orders.
Radio communication was established with an orbiting B-52 on airborne
alert which was near Thule. It contacted the BMEWS station by
radio and could report that no attack had taken place.
The reason for the "coincidental" failure
was that the redundant routes for telephone and telegraph between
NORAD and SAC HQ all ran through one relay station in Colorado.
At that relay station a motor had overheated and caused interruption
of all the lines.
THE CUBAN MISSILE CRISIS LASTED FOR THE TWO WEEKS
14-28 OCTOBER 1962. MANY DANGEROUS EVENTS TOOK PLACE IN RELATION
TO THE CRISIS, SOME OF THEM BECAUSE OF CHANGES MADE TO ENHANCE
MILITARY READINESS. ELEVEN HAVE BEEN SELECTED:
1962, August 23: B-52 Navigation Error
SAC Chrome Dome airborne alert route included a leg
from the northern tip of Ellesmere Island, SW across the Arctic
Ocean to Barter Island, Alaska. On 23 August,1962, a B-52 nuclear-armed
bomber crew made a navigational error and flew a course 20 deg.
too far north. They approached within 300 miles of Soviet airspace
near Wrangel island, where there was believed to be an interceptor
base with aircraft having an operational radius of 400 miles.
Because of the risk of repetition of such an error,
in this northern area where other checks on navigation are difficult
to obtain, it was decided to fly a less provocative route in future.
However, the necessary orders had not been given by the time of
the Cuban missile crisis in October 1962, so throughout that crisis
the same northern route was being flown 24 hours a day.
August-October 62: U2 flights into Soviet
U2 high altitude reconnaissance flights from Alaska
occasionally strayed unintentionally into Soviet airspace. One
such episode occurred in August 1962. During the Cuban Missile
Crisis in October 1962 the U2 pilots were ordered not to fly within
100 miles of the Soviet airspace.
On the night of 26 October, for a reason irrelevant
to the crisis, a U2 pilot was ordered to fly a new route, over
the north pole, where positional checks on navigation were by
sextant only. That night the aurora prevented good sextant readings
and the plane strayed over the Chukotski Peninsula. Soviet MIG
interceptors took off with orders to shoot down the U2. The pilot
contacted his U.S. command post and was ordered to fly due east
towards Alaska. He ran out of fuel while still over Siberia. In
response to his S.O.S., U.S. F102-A fighters were launched to
escort him on his glide towards Alaska, with orders to prevent
the MIG¹s from entering U.S. airspace. The U.S. interceptor
aircraft were armed with nuclear missiles. These could have been
used by any one of the F102-A pilots at his own discretion.
1962, October 24: Russian satellite explodes
On 24 October a Russian satellite entered its parking
orbit, and shortly afterwards exploded. Sir Bernard Lovell, director
of the Jodrell Bank observatory wrote in 1968: "the explosion
of a Russian spacecraft in orbit during the Cuban Missile Crisis...
led the U.S. to believe that the USSR was launching a massive
ICBM attack." The NORAD Command Post logs of the dates in
question remain classified, possibly to conceal the reaction to
this event. Its occurrence is recorded, and U.S. space tracking
stations were informed on 31 October of debris resulting from
breakup of "62 BETA IOTA".
1962, October 25: Duluth intruder
At around midnight on 25 October, a guard at Duluth
Sector Direction Center saw a figure climbing the security fence.
He shot at it, and activated the "sabotage alarm". This
automatically set off sabotage alarms at all bases in the area.
At Volk Field, Wisconsin, the alarm was wrongly wired, and the
Klaxon sounded which ordered nuclear-armed F-106A interceptors
to take off. The pilots knew there would be no practice alert
drills while DEFCON 3 was in force, and they believed World War
III had started.
Immediate communication with Duluth showed there
was an error. By this time aircraft were starting down the runway.
A car raced from the command center and successfully signalled
the aircraft to stop.
The original intruder was a bear.
1962, October 26: ICBM Test Launch
At Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, there was
a program of routine ICBM test flights. When DEFCON 3 was ordered
all the ICBM's were fitted with nuclear warheads except one Titan
missile that was scheduled for a test launch later that week.
That one was launched for its test, without further orders from
Washington, at 4 a.m. on 26 October.
It must be assumed that Russian observers were
monitoring U.S. missile activities as closely as U.S. observers
were monitoring Russian and Cuban activities. They would have
known of the general changeover to nuclear warheads, but not that
this was only a test launch.
1962, October 26: Unannounced Titan missile
During the Cuba Crisis, some radar warning stations
that were under construction and near completion were brought
into full operation as fast as possible. The planned overlap of
coverage was thus not always available.
A normal test launch of a Titan-II ICBM took place
in the afternoon of 26 October, from Florida towards the S. Pacific.
It caused temporary concern at Moorestown Radar site until its
course could be plotted and showed no predicted impact within
the United States. It was not until after this event that the
potential for a serious false alarm was realized, and orders were
given that radar warning sites must be notified in advance of
test launches, and the countdown be relayed to them.
1962, October 26: Malmstrom Air Force Base
When DEFCON 2 was declared on 24 October, solid-fuel
Minuteman-1 missiles at Malmstrom Air Force Base were being prepared
for full deployment. The work was accelerated to ready the missiles
for operation, without waiting for the normal handover procedures
and safety checks. When one silo and the first missile were ready
on 26 October no armed guards were available to cover transport
from the normal separate storage, so the launch- enabling equipment
and codes were all placed in the silo. It was thus physically
possible for a single operator to launch a fully armed missile
at a SIOP target.
During the remaining period of the Crisis the several
missiles at Malmstrom were repeatedly put on and off alert as
errors and defects were found and corrected. Fortunately no combination
of errors caused or threatened an unauthorized launch, but in
the extreme tension of the period the danger can well be imagined.
October 1962: NATO Readiness
It is recorded in British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan¹s
diary for 22 October that in order to avoid provocation of U.S.S.R.,
he and the NATO Supreme Commander, General Lauris Norstad, agreed
not to put NATO on alert. When the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff
ordered DEFCON 3 Norstad was authorized to use his discretion
in complying. Norstad therefore did not order a NATO alert. However,
several NATO subordinate commanders did order alerts to DEFCON
3 or equivalent levels of readiness at bases in West Germany,
Italy, Turkey, and Britain. This seems to have been largely due
to the action of General Truman Landon, CINC U.S. Air Forces Europe,
who had already started alert procedures on 17 October in anticipation
of a serious crisis over Cuba.
October 1962: British Alerts
When U.S. SAC went to DEFCON 2, on 24 October, Bomber
Command was carrying out an unrelated readiness exercise. On 26
October Air Marshall Cross, C-in-C Bomber Command, decided to
prolong the exercise because of the Cuba crisis, and later increased
the alert status of British Nuclear forces so that they could
launch within 15 minutes.
It seems likely that Soviet intelligence would
perceive these moves as part of a coordinated plan in preparation
for immediate war. They could not be expected to know that neither
the British Minister of Defence nor Prime Minister Macmillan had
It is disturbing to note how little was learned
from these errors in Europe. McGeorge Bundy wrote in Danger and
Survival (New York: Random House 1988) "the risk [of nuclear
war] was small, given the prudence and unchallenged final control
of the two leaders."
1962, October 28: Moorestown false alarm
Just before 9 a.m. on 28 October, the Moorestown, N.J.,
radar operators informed national command post that a nuclear
attack appeared to be under way. A test tape simulating a missile
launch from Cuba was being run, and simultaneously a satellite
came over the horizon. Operators became confused and reported
by voice line to NORAD HQ that impact was expected 18 miles west
of Tampa at 9.02 a.m. The whole of NORAD was alerted, but before
irrevocable action had been taken it was reported that no detonation
had taken place at the predicted time, and Moorestown operators
reported the reason for the false alarm.
During the incident overlapping radars that should
have confirmed or disagreed were not in operation. The radar post
had not received routine information of satellite passage because
the facility carrying out that task had been given other work
for the duration of the Crisis.
1962, October 28: False warning due to
At 5.26 p.m. on 28 October, the Laredo radar warning
site had just become operational. Operators misidentified a satellite
in orbit as two possible missiles over Georgia, and reported by
voice line to NORAD HQ. NORAD was unable to identify that the
warning came from the new station at Laredo and believed it to
be from Moorestown, and therefore more reliable. Moorestown failed
to intervene and contradict the false warning. By the time C-in-C
NORAD had been informed, no impact had been reported and the warning
was "given low credence".
END OF CUBA CRISIS EVENTS
1962 November 2: The Penkovsky False Warning
In the Fall of 1962 Col. Oleg Penkovsky was working
in Russia as a double agent for the (U.S.) CIA. He had been given
a code by which to warn the CIA if he was convinced that a Soviet
attack on the United States was imminent. He was to call twice,
one minute apart, and only blow into the receiver. Further information
was then to be left at a "dead drop" in Moscow.
The prearranged code message was received by the
CIA on 2 November, 1962.
It was not known at CIA that Penkovsky had been
arrested on 22 October. Penkovsky knew he was going to be executed.
It is not known whether he had told KGB the meaning of the code
signal or only how it could be given, nor is it known exactly
why or with what authorization KGB staff used it. When another
CIA agent checked the dead drop he was arrested.
1965, November: Power failure and faulty
Special bomb alarms were installed near military facilities
and near cities in U.S.A. so that the locations of nuclear bursts
would be transmitted before the expected communication failure.
The alarm circuits were set up to display a red signal at command
posts the instant that the flash of a nuclear detonation reached
the sensor and before the blast could put it out of action. Normally
the display would show a green signal, and yellow if the sensor
was not operating or was out of communication for any other reason.
During the commercial power failure in NE United
States in November 1965, displays from all the bomb alarms for
the area should have shown yellow. In fact two of them from different
cities showed red because of circuit errors. The effect was consistent
with the power failure being due to nuclear weapon explosions,
and the Command Center of the Office of Emergency Planning went
on full alert. Apparently the military did not.
1968, January 21: B-52 crash near Thule
Communication between NORAD HQ and the BMEWS station
at Thule had 3
1. Direct radio communication.
2. A "bomb alarm" as described above.
3. Radio communication relayed by a B-52 bomber on airborne alert.
On 21 January, 1968, fire broke out in the B-52
bomber on airborne alert near Thule. The pilot prepared for an
emergency landing at the base. However the situation deteriorated
rapidly, and the crew had to bale out. There had been no time
to communicate with SAC HQ, and the pilotless plane flew over
the Thule base before crashing on the ice 7 miles offshore. Its
fuel and the high explosive component of its nuclear weapons exploded,
but there was no nuclear detonation.
At that time, the "one point safe" condition
of the nuclear weapons could not be guaranteed, and it is believed
that a nuclear explosion could have resulted from accidental detonation
of the high explosive trigger. Had there been a nuclear detonation
even at 7 miles distant, and certainly if much nearer the base,
all three communication methods would have given an indication
consistent with a successful nuclear attack on both the base and
the B-52 bomber. The bomb alarm would have shown red, and the
two other communication paths would have gone dead. It would hardly
have been anticipated that the combination could have been caused
by accident, particularly as the map of the routes for B-52 airborne
alert flights approved by the president showed no flight near
to Thule. The route had apparently been changed without informing
the White House.
October 73: False alarm during Middle East
On 24 October, 1973, when the UN-sponsored ceasefire
intended to end the Arab-Israeli war was in force, further fighting
started between Egyptian and Israeli troops in the Sinai desert.
U.S. intelligence reports and other sources suggested that U.S.S.R.
was planning to intervene to protect the Egyptians. President
Nixon was in the throes of the Watergate episode and not available
for a conference, so Kissinger and other U.S. officials ordered
DEFCON 3. The consequent movements of aircraft and troops were
of course observed by Soviet intelligence. The purpose of the
alert was not to prepare for war, but to warn U.S.S.R. not to
intervene in Sinai. However, if the following accident had not
been promptly corrected then the Soviet command might have made
a more dangerous interpretation.
On 25 October, while DEFCON 3 was in force, mechanics
were repairing one of the Klaxons at Kinchloe Air Force Base,
Michigan, and accidentally activated the whole base alarm system.
B-52 crews rushed to their aircraft and started the engines. The
duty officer recognized that the alarm was false, and recalled
the crews before any took off.
1979 November 9: Computer Exercise Tape
At 8.50 a.m. on 9 November, 1979, duty officers at 4
command centres (NORAD HQ, SAC Command Post, the Pentagon National
Military Command Center, and the Alternate National Military Command
Center) all saw on their displays a pattern showing a large number
of Soviet missiles in a full-scale attack on U.S.A. During the
next 6 minutes emergency preparations for retaliation were made.
A number of Air Force planes were launched, including the president's
National Emergency Airborne Command Post, though without the president!
The president had not been informed, perhaps because he could
not be found.
No attempt was made to use the hot line either
to ascertain the Soviet intentions or to tell the Russians the
reason for the U.S. actions. This seems to me to have been culpable
negligence. The whole purpose of the "Hot Line" was
to prevent exactly the type of disaster that was threatening at
With commendable speed, NORAD was able to contact
PAVE PAWS early warning radar and learn that no missiles had been
reported. Also, the sensors on satellites were functioning that
day and had detected no missiles. In only 6 minutes the threat
assessment conference was terminated.
The reason for the false alarm was an exercise
tape running on the computer system. U.S. Senator Charles Percy
happened to be in NORAD HQ at the time and is reported to have
said there was absolute panic. A question was asked in Congress.
The General Accounting Office conducted an investigation, and
an off-site testing facility was constructed so that test tapes
did not in future have to be run on a system that could possibly
be in military operation.
June 80: Faulty Computer Chip
The warning displays at the Command Centers mentioned
in the last episode included windows that normally showed
0000 ICBMs detected 0000 SLBMs detected
At 2.25 a.m. on 3 June, 1979, these displays started
showing various numbers of missiles detected, represented by 2's
in place of one or more 0's. Preparations for retaliation were
instituted, including nuclear bomber crews starting their engines,
launch of Pacific Command's Airborne Command Post, and readying
of Minuteman missiles for launch. It was not difficult to assess
that this was a false alarm because the patterns of numbers displayed
were not rational.
While the cause of that false alarm was still being
investigated 3 days later, the same thing happened and again preparations
were made for retaliation.
The cause was a single faulty chip that was failing
in random fashion. The basic design of the system was faulty,
allowing this single failure to cause a deceptive display at several
This selection represents only a fraction of the
false alarms that have been reported on the American side. Many
probably remain unreported, or are hidden in records that remain
classified. There are likely to have been as many on the Soviet
side which are even more difficult to access.
The extreme boredom and isolation of missile launch
crews on duty must contribute to occasional bizarre behaviour.
An example is reported by Lloyd J.Dumas in Bulletin of the Atomic
Scientists vol.36, #9, p.15 (1980) quoting Air Force Magazine
of 17 Nov.71. As a practical joke, a silo crew recorded a launch
message and played it when their relief came on duty. The new
crew heard with consternation what appeared to be a valid launch
message. They would not of course have been able to effect an
actual launch under normal conditions, without proper confirmation
from outside the silo.
COMMENT AND NOTE ON PROBABILITY
The probability of actual progression to nuclear
war on any one of the occasions listed may have been small, due
to planned "failsafe" features in the warning and launch
systems, and to responsible action by those in the chain of command
when the failsafe features had failed. However, the accumulation
of small probabilities of disaster from a long sequence of risks
adds up to serious danger.
There is no way of telling what the actual level
of risk was in these mishaps but if the chance of disaster in
every one of the 20 incidents had been only 1 in 100, it is a
mathematical fact that the chance of surviving all 20 would have
been 82%, i.e. about the same as the chance of surviving a single
pull of the trigger at Russian roulette played \ with a 6-shooter.
With a similar series of mishaps on the Soviet side: another pull
of the trigger. If the risk in some of the events had been as
high as 1 in 10, then the chance of surviving just seven such
events would have been less than 50:50.
The following incident is added to illustrate that
even now, when the Cold War has been over for 8 years, errors
can still cause concern. Some have said this incident brought
the world very close to an accidental nuclear war. That is debatable,
but there are still 30,000 nuclear weapons deployed, so grave
danger would exist if two nuclear weapons states should get into
a hostile adversarial status again.
January 95: Norwegian Meteorological Missile
On 25 January, 1995, the Russian early warning radars
detected an unexpected missile launch near Spitzbergen. The estimated
flight time to Moscow was 5 minutes. The Russian President, the
Defence Minister and the Chief of Staff were informed. The early
warning and the control and command systems switched to combat
mode. Within 5 minutes, the radars determined that the missile's
impact point would be outside the Russian borders.
The missile was carrying instruments for scientific
measurements. On 16 January Norway had notified 35 countries including
Russia that the launch was planned. Information had apparently
reached the Russian Defense Ministry, but failed to reach the
on-duty personnel of the early warning system.
Sagan, Scott D.: The Limits of Safety (Princeton,
University Press, 1993).
Peace Research Reviews, vol.IX, 4, 5 (1984); vol.X, 3,4(1986)
ON.: Peace Research Institute, Dundas).
Calder, Nigel: Nuclear Nightmares (London: British Broadcasting
Britten, Stewart: The Invisible Event (London: Menard Press, 1983)
BMEWS Ballistic Missile Early Warning Site
CIA Central Intelligence Agency
CINC Commander in Chief
DEFCON Defense Readiness Condition
(DEFCON 5 is the peacetime state;
DEFCON 1 is maximum war readiness)
ICBM Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (land based)
KGB Komitet Gosudarstvennoi Bezopaznosti
(Soviet Secret Police and Intelligence)
NORAD North American Air Defense Command
PAVE PAWS Precision Acquisition of Vehicle Entry Phased-Array
SAC Strategic Air Command
SIOP Single Integrated Operational Plan
SLBM Submarine Launched Ballistic Missile