Nuclear Close Calls And False
Alarms Did Not End With Cold War
By Bruce Kennedy
CNN Interactive
"For the first time since the dawn of the nuclear age, there are no Russian missiles pointed at any American children tonight."
That reassuring line was used in a speech by U.S. President Bill Clinton during his successful re-election campaign in 1996. But while the end of the Cold War has lessened the threat of nuclear war between Washington and Moscow, it has not halted the possibility of a nuclear incident due to failed equipment or human error.
During the Cold War era, both sides had plans for instant retaliation in the event of nuclear attack. In the United States, those plans were the cornerstone of the policy known as MAD, or mutual assured destruction, and were considered a necessary part of the nuclear deterrent.
The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 has brought a remarkable thaw in relations between Washington and Moscow. But their nuclear firing mechanisms remain little changed since the worst days of the Cold War.
The most striking example of how quickly the nuclear ball can be set into motion took place on January 25, 1995, when Russian early warning radars detected a missile rising from the Norwegian Sea. Russian President Boris Yeltsin was alerted. He was brought his nuclear-command briefcase and placed in contact with his defense minister.
For several tense minutes, Yeltsin and his subordinates waited to see if Russia was coming under a submarine-based nuclear attack -- and if they needed to retaliate.
As it turned out, the missile detected by Russian radar was a Norwegian research rocket, launched on a mission to examine the aurora borealis, or Northern Lights.
An investigation into the matter revealed that Norway had indeed informed Russia about the rocket several weeks before the launch -- but, due to bureaucratic mismanagement, the announcement never reached officials involved with Moscow's early warning systems.
One of the more publicized U.S. false alarms took place in November 1979. A technician at NORAD -- the North American Air Defense Command -- accidentally placed a training tape into the main systems at NORAD's Cheyenne Mountain Complex in Colorado. That mistake made NORAD's early warning system computer think the United States was undergoing a massive Soviet missile attack -- and it responded by alerting NORAD officials.
Within minutes, they realized the error. The incident was one of five missile warning system failures that took place over an eight-month period between 1979 and 1980. It also prompted a government reassessment of NORAD and its operations.
"The danger is if we have such mistakes simultaneously with another crisis," says Fred Ikle, a U.S. under secretary of defense during the Reagan administration and now a defense analyst. "If you have time, you can correct mistakes."
Maj. Perry Nouis of the public affairs office at NORAD and the U.S. Space Command says U.S. military officials must hold a series of three quick meetings to determine any nuclear threat to the United States and Canada and to prepare countermeasures. He says the third meeting -- which would probably bring the United States into a nuclear war -- has never been held.
The possibility of human error or mechanical failure triggering a potentially devastating series of events remains very real. Much of Russia's military infrastructure -- including its early warning radar systems -- has fallen into disrepair. Also, many of the Soviet-era radars are now in non-Russian territory.
A startling example of what one person can do, in spite of checks and balances in the maintenance of nuclear arsenals, is offered by Steven Meyer, a political science professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and an adviser to the CIA during the Bush administration.
In August 1984, according to Meyer, a low-ranking officer at Soviet Pacific fleet headquarters in Vladivostok broadcast a war alert to Soviet forces at sea. For 30 minutes, until it was determined that the alert was false, Soviet ship commanders sent back urgent inquiries about the alert as they prepared for combat. In the meantime, U.S. and Japanese forces also went to a higher alert status.
Given these and other close calls, the concept of taking nuclear weapons systems off their alert status is gaining ground internationally. And, as President Clinton announced, U.S. and Russian missiles are no longer targeted at each other's cities and military sites.
But Bruce Blair, a former Minuteman missile launch officer and now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, says the main nuclear threat in the post-Cold War era is not from deliberate attack by Russia or the United States.
"Both our forces are cocked on hair-triggers," he said. "Both sides can retarget a missile in seconds -- just a few strokes on a keyboard."