Accidental Nuclear War
by Alan F. Philips, M.D.
Ever since the two adversaries in the Cold War, the U.S.A. an the U.S.S.R., realized that their nuclear arsenals were sufficient to do disastrous damage to both countries at short notice, the leaders and the 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 accidental 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 spend 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 the 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 international tension.
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 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 Soviet Side.
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 satelliteís infrared sensor when those sensors were first deployed.
The risks are illustrated by the following selection of mishap. 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.
The following selections represent 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.
1) November 5, 1956: Suez Crisis Coincidence
(i) unidentified aircraft were flying over Turkey and the Turkish air force
was on alert
It is reported that in the U.S.A. General Goodpaster himself was concerned
that these events might trigger the NATO operations plan for nuclear strikes
against the U.S.S.R.
(i) a flight of swans
2) November 24, 1961: BMEWS Communication Failure
The reason for the "coincidental" failure was 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.
3) August 23, 1962: B-52 Navigation Error
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 the 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
4) August-October, 1962: U2 Flights into Soviet Airspace
On the night of October 26, 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 to Alaska, with orders
to prevent the MIG's 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.
5) October 24, 1962- Cuban Missile Crisis: A Soviet Satellite Explodes
6) October 25, 1962- Cuban Missile Crisis: Intruder in Duluth
Immediate communication with Duluth showed there was an error. By this
time aircraft were starting down the runway. A car raced from command center
and successfully signaled the aircraft to stop. The original intruder was
7) October 26, 1962- Cuban Missile Crisis: ICBM Test Launch
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.
8) October 26, 1962- Cuban Missile Crisis: Unannounced Titan Missile
A normal test launch of a Titan-II ICBM took place in the afternoon of
October 26, from Florida to the South 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.
9) October 26, 1962- Cuban Missile Crisis: Malstrom Air Force Base
During the remaining period of the Crisis the several missiles at Malstrom
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 be well imagined.
10) October, 1962- Cuban Missile Crisis: NATO Readiness
11) October, 1962- Cuban Missile Crisis: British Alerts
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 Defense nor Prime Minister Macmillian had authorized them.
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."
12) October 28, 1962- Cuban Missile Crisis: Moorestown False Alarm
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 reported, but before irrevocable action had taken place 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 radarís 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.
13) October 28, 1962- Cuban Missile Crisis: False Warning Due to Satellite
14) November 2, 1962: The Penkovsky False Warning
The pre-arranged code message was received by the CIA on November 2, 1962.
It was known at the CIA that Penkovsky had been arrested on October 22.
Penkovsky knew he was going to be executed. It is not known whether he had
told the KGB the meaning of the code signal or only how it would be given,
nor is it known exactly why or with what authorization the KGB staff used
it. When another CIA agent checked the dead drop he was arrested.
15) November, 1965: Power Failure and Faulty Bomb Alarms
During the commercial power failure in the 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 weapons
explosions, and the Command Center of the Office of Emergency Planning went
on full alert. Apparently the military did not.
16) January 21, 1968: B-52 Crash near Thule
1. Direct radio communication.
On January 21, 1968, a 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 miles offshore. Its fuel and 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 form accidental detonation of the high explosive trigger. Had there
been a nuclear detonation even at 7 miles distant, and certainty 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 other two 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 flights approved by the President showed no flight near
to Thule. The route had been apparently changed without informing the White
17) October 24-25, 1973: False Alarm During Middle East Crisis
On October 25, while DEFCON 3 was in force, mechanics were repairing one
of the Klaxons at Kinchole 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 the alarm was false and recalled
the crews before any took off.
18) November 9, 1979: Computer Exercise Tape
No attempt was made to use the hot line either to ascertain the Soviet intentions or to tell the Soviets the reasons for 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 that moment.
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 the 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
the future have to be run on a system that could be in military operation.
19) June , 1980: Faulty Computer Chip
At 2:25 a.m. on June 3, 1980, 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 staring their engines, launch of Pacific Command's Airborne Command Post, and readying of Minutemen missiles for launch. It was not difficult to assess that this was a false alarm because the 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 a random fashion. The basic design of the system was faulty, allowing this single failure to cause a deceptive display at several command posts.
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. This particular
one could have hardly brought nuclear retaliation.; but there are still 30,000
nuclear weapons deployed, and two nuclear weapon states could get into a hostile
adversarial status again.
20) January, 1995: Russian False Alarm
The missile was Norwegian, and was launched for scientific measurements. ON January 16, 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.
See article in Scientific American by Bruce G. Blair, Harold A. Feiveson and Frank N. von Hippel at
Comment and Note On Probability
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 mathematical fact that the chance of surviving al 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.
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