De-alerting

De-alerting and Reducing Operational Status

see also: Ending Launch on Warning/RLOAD page

No Launch on Warning Documents

End Launch on Warning Policy

Questions and Answers About No Launch on Warning

Questions and Answers on “RLOAD” and De-alerting

1. Would the U.S. be able to convince its military that, due to the occasional unreliability of its technology, they should confirm a nuclear attack by waiting for evidence of a nuclear explosion having occurred?

(a) The military definitely do not want an accidental nuclear war. The advantage of RLOAD (Retaliatory Launch Only After Detonation) to them, as to everybody else, is to reduce that risk which they know about as well as anyone. They have gone to immense trouble over the years to minimize the risk of accidental or unauthorized launch, as well as to make their warning systems reliable. They have not managed to eliminate false warnings, and they know it.

2. Wouldn’t the military object to “sitting back and taking it”, before retaliating?

(b) They are going to have to “take it” anyway. The warning has shown that the attack, if real, is on the way. Retaliation does not stop or mitigate the first salvo. I hope and think it probable that at the top they are professional enough to be willing to wait those few minutes, which they know makes no difference to the force of the first attack. Answer (a) above shows their very strong motivation not to launch on false warning. It has saved us a few times already; notably when a Russian officer refused, on a hunch, to send on up the line a warning that he only suspected was false, and it was. Although he may have saved the world, his career was ruined.

3. Would the public understand the need for the U.S. to take a hit to avoid hitting the Russians unnecessarily, and that after apparently being willing to drop a bomb on the Russians for the last 50 years?

(c) The public is not consulted or told about such matters as LoW, nor details of the planned retaliation. It takes a lot of effort by peace activists to find out any of these things. The fact is, though, that if the attack is real they are going to have been hit anyway, long before the retaliation reaches Russia. Half an hour or more. Retaliation does nothing to stop missiles that are already on the way.

“Deterrence” is threatening retaliation so inevitable that the attack is never started. Once an attack has started, deterrence is history – an endeavour that failed. And if we hit the Russians “unnecessarily” (i.e. because of an error in our warning system, not their fault) we get hit back, fatally. Those who have thought about it know that if we drop a bomb on Russia we suffer a devastating nuclear attack from which we do not recover. They do not want that to start by accident; and those who are socially aware have a healthy scepticism for technology. They can easily understand that warnings are not infallible.

The question to ask when an attack is reported to have started, is: “Is it wise to retaliate at all?” The military may not ask that question, but it is a real one. All that retaliation might do for us is to reduce the number of times “the rubble bounces” – or it might increase that number.

However, if we have a campaign and make a big plea to adopt “RLOAD”, it could easily be misrepresented (intentionally or unintentionally) to appear as giving up an advantage in combat. It isn’t that at all, but it might give up a tiny element of deterrence (see answer (i) below). We have to remember that, on the normal assumption that deterrence is what prevents nuclear war, maintaining deterrence is not only for the benefit of one side, but of both, and of the whole world. If either side is tempted to attack, it is a disaster for the whole world. The same with an accidental war. In my view, the gain here is far greater than the loss, because, as shown in (i) there is practically no loss of deterrence to set against the big gain of eliminating the risk of a purely accidental war. Note that nuclear weapons have resulted in occasional collaboration between adversaries: the “hot line” was a cooperative measure to reduce the risk of unintended war.

4. They have the “hot line” to resolve misunderstandings, so why do we still have to give up LoW?

(d) In the situation of a possible false warning, the “hot line” could probably not be used quickly enough. It does not run from one president’s office to the other, but between the Pentagon and the Kremlin, and messages both ways need translation. Also, both sides know that if the other side were really trying to do a surprise attack they would certainly have rehearsed what to say on the “hot line” to keep their enemy confused.

5. Would the military be more readily convinced that they must have the launch confirmed by 2 or 3 independently operated radars or satellites before the “warning” is considered a reality and a response authorised?

(e) The U.S. Strategic Command say they operate like that already, requiring two independent warnings. My “20 Mishaps…” paper includes cases where that practice (whether policy or not) has saved us. But it has been dicey several times.

As to authorization of response, the U.S. military have always officially planned on following the law, and no launch or use of a nuclear weapon is permitted without the President’s authorization. To some extent we believe authority to use nuclear weapons has been conditionally pre-delegated, so they may not always be bound to wait for his or her authorization.

On the Russian side, command of nuclear weapons is said to be very centralized and strictly controlled. However, they have not in recent times had both the radar and the satellite warning systems available all the time because too few satellites are orbiting and some of the radars built by USSR are now in independent States; so they must be relying on only one system for part of the time. They also have a “dead hand” system codenamed ‘Perimetr’, which comprises non-armed rockets that can be launched automatically and fly over Russia broadcasting launch codes and launch orders to the missile silos. This is meant to be activated automatically (after an enabling action by the high command) if Moscow is destroyed and communication by the high command to the nuclear forces is lost. It has been said that the system could be activated inadvertently at a moment of crisis. [The working of Perimetr is better described in our recent paper “Replace LoW Policy”]

6. “The Nuclear Posture Review claims that US strategic nuclear forces are not on ‘hair-trigger’ alert. How does this square with persisting reports that “some 2,000 strategic nuclear warheads on each side are still held at ‘launch-on-warning’ readiness?”

(f) It squares in this way. The Dictionary of Military Terms found at http://www.dtic.mil/doctrine/jel/doddict/ contains some 100,000 definitions. Neither ‘hair-trigger’ nor ‘launch on warning’ is among them. However, ‘Launch under Attack’ is defined there as: “(DOD) Execution by National Command Authorities of Single Integrated Operational Plan forces subsequent to tactical warning of strategic nuclear attack against the United States and prior to first impact. Also called LUA.” This definition is identical with peace activists’ conception of ‘launch on warning’.

The lack of a definition of ‘launch on warning’ could explain the fact that US military spokespeople have sometimes told us that the strategic forces are not at ‘launch on warning’, but at ‘launch under attack’ (which is defined). However, correspondence with a retired British Naval Commander has indicated that the term “Launch on Warning” has had a meaning in deterrence theory. It seems to have meant, or to have included in its meaning, the launch of a pre-emptive disarming attack on strategic warning of a nuclear attack believed to be imminent, but not yet launched. Strategic warning would include information from interception of Russian military messages, satellite observation of preparations on the ground, information from spies, and the like.

I have no doubt that the drafter of the NPR statement in Q.#6, expected that the sentence “US strategic nuclear forces are not on ‘hair-trigger’ alert” would be taken by most people as a denial of Launch-on-Warning and of LUA. However, that is not what it says. It says they are not at hair-trigger alert, without defining what that means.

‘Hair-trigger’ is a familiar term in connection with shooting for sport. It would indicate a very much quicker response, on sighting a target, than what would happen in the context of Launch under Attack by the strategic nuclear forces, namely: calling a threat conference, consultation with the President to obtain his order to retaliate, and giving the order to launch rockets perhaps 20-30 minutes after the first warning. So the NPR statement is not a definite lie, and it does not deny Launch-under-Attack nor Launch-on-Warning.

7. If the US was convinced to allow time for the first explosion to be reported before responding, would they not be concerned that the first warhead would be so well directed that it would eliminate key elements of the decision-making apparatus, thus causing chaos? A hit on the White House, for example, could cause extraordinary problems…”

(g) That is the whole reason for LoW. However, switching now to RLOAD would not disable the greater part of the mechanism. As soon as the warning was seen to show a serious possibility of being real the president would be warned and the launch crews alerted. At the final conference (while the perceived attack was still apparently on the way), when the president ordered retaliation it would be “subject to the attack being real”. The order to start the launch process would be given immediately by the general in command. The launch crews would stop before ‘turning the key’. When the first nuclear explosion was reported the launch keys would be turned immediately. If a detonation did not come within a certain short time after the predicted time of arrival of incoming missiles, the preparatory steps would be reversed and the launch crews would revert to peace-time readiness.

Nuclear explosions are detected and reported automatically (at the speed of light) to all command centers. Under RLOAD they would also be reported to the launch crews, and the retaliatory launch would be done (I believe) within a few seconds. It seems to me inconceivable that either side could launch such an attack (at 8,000 kilometers range) as to prevent retaliation. It would have to would disable all the land-based missiles within seconds. The attacking missiles start from silos many kilometers apart and the target silos are similarly spread over a wide area, so the times of flight would not all be the same.

The president would be much less stressed under RLOAD than he would be under the existing LoW policy, because he would know the launch would not be done if there was no attack.

8. Would the decision-making not be required to continue over a period of time? Do they launch one missile, or everything at once?

(h) I believe the “Single Integrated Operational Plan” (SIOP) has a number of choices. Most if not all would be for a considerable list of targets at the first salvo, like missile silos, submarine docks, command posts, communication nodes, or cities. The Chief of Strategic Command would advise the President at the final conference (during flight time of the incoming attack) which SIOP option to order, according to his assessment of the situation.

9. What are the odds that all key people could be airborne in Air Force One within 15 minutes?

(i) It’s been done at least once for an actual (false) warning – all except the president. They couldn’t find him in time but the airborne command plane (which is not Air Force One) took off anyway. Ultimate launch authority is already conditionally pre-delegated to someone who was there. In any case, my answer (f) above shows that getting the decision-maker airborne before the bang is not necessary for retaliation, and (c) shows that actual retaliation is not necessary. All that is necessary to prevent intentional nuclear war is for the Russians to be fairly sure that retaliation will happen if they start it; and vice versa.

10. If the first explosion was air burst, would it not result in an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) which would destroy communications and response capability?

(j) That could possibly be done by a very well-planned first strike with several special bursts engineered to maximise EMP. (It is not “air bursts” that do it so much as bursts far above the palpable atmosphere, several hundred kilometers up.) It is the possible damage to satellites that gives me some concern that this may be a weak point in my position. I am pretty sure such a first strike could not stop the retaliatory missiles being launched. I do not think they all rely on satellites for navigation, but I am not 100% sure of that. However, as in (c) above, no-one gains by the retaliation; the only possible disadvantage from adopting RLOAD is the remote possibility that the other side might think they could do a first strike like this, with maximised EMP, and survive. But to try it they would have to be *sure* that the EMP would be completely successful. Half a dozen retaliatory warheads exploding near their targets (one MIRVed missile) would be a terrible disaster for the attacking country; a complete failure to prevent retaliation would be the end of their country. They know this. They also know that submarines and the missiles they carry are unaffected by EMP. (P.S. One hydrogen bomb exploding over a city would be 100 times as bad as the attack on the World Trade Center, and then there is the radiation from fallout.)

11. I know that the US military is apparently fully hardened against EMP, but are the cars they drive, the traffic lights they must go through to get to the base, etc?

(k) Anticipation of failing transportation might bother the military, who may think they will be fighting for a long time. From the “deterrence” point of view, and the citizens’, there are plenty of people at their battle stations all the time, on both sides, for a very effective nuclear holocaust to be made.

12. It seems peculiar to propose a system that is based on mutual distrust. I would prefer a system based on trust which, over time, serves as a confidence-building measure. Thus I’m very anxious to get on with the examination of means of de-alerting.

(l) I agree entirely. I am not proposing RLOAD as an alternative to other more radical measures to prevent nuclear war, which are certainly needed. The big thing about RLOAD is that it can be done at once, as soon as the decision-makers see the point. Trust is slow to develop where it has been absent for decades, which is part of the reason why RLOAD can be put in effect so much sooner than verified symmetrical de-alerting. The latter does require some degree of trust.

RLOAD would be a very valuable step that can be done at once, and I think it is what we should be campaigning for now. I am convinced that real de-alerting (with enforced delay) will take a long time to get through all its hoops, and I am scared that accidental nuclear war will put an end to all our endeavours before the objectives are achieved. I am pretty sure that LoW represents more than 90% of our present risk, and that the risk is real.

13. A dream – for Canada to host an international conference to consider preliminary steps toward a nuclear weapons convention. This would presumably include a discussion of de-alerting methods among technical people from the nuclear weapons states and key non-nuclear states.

(m) Yes, keep working on it. But how about RLOAD to protect you a bit while you work?


Questions or comments can be addressed to the authors at:
alan.phillips3@verizon.net,
or starr@isp01.net

Terminology

Note on terminology used in discussing the launch of rocket-mounted nuclear weapons

In connection with “launch on warning” the terms used by different speakers, writers, and sources of information, have varied. At times they have been intentionally or unintentionally ambiguous. Different groups have used one term with various meanings, and few have made a serious attempt to achieve consistency.

In the launch of a nuclear rocket or salvo of rockets, the moment of the first launch relative to perceived actions by the enemy must be in one of three distinct time periods:

(i) Before any enemy missile has been launched;
(ii) During the flight of one or more enemy missiles, and before the detonation of any enemy warhead;
(iii) After the first detonation of an enemy warhead.

This paper (“No Launch on Warning”) concerns itself with period (ii), during which warning systems indicate enemy missiles or warheads in flight. Launch during period (ii) has been referred to in most anti-nuclear writings and speeches, and in discussion, as “Launch on Warning”. It is abbreviated to “L-o-W” in this paper.

The US military use the term “Launch under Attack”, or “LUA” to denote launch during the same time period (ii). Their spokespersons have sometimes denied a policy of ‘launch on warning’ while admitting “LUA”. The word attack may have been chosen in order to imply that enemy warheads have already detonated, or that perception of the attack was in some way more certain than it was in the context of “L-o-W” (which was used at an earlier date). However, “LUA” is defined in the dictionary of military terms at: http://www.dtic.mil/doctrine/jel/doddict/ as “execution by National Command Authorities of Single Integrated Operational Plan Forces subsequent to tactical warning of strategic nuclear attack against the United States and prior to first impact.” This (if you have grasped the jargon) is identical with the peace movement use of the term “Launch on Warning”.

“Launch on Warning” is not defined in the web version of the dictionary of military terms, which contains some 100,000 definitions. However we have been told that L-o-W can have a very scary meaning in deterrence theory. It means, or includes, a launch in period (i), that is before any enemy missile has been launched, but when there is convincing evidence that a nuclear attack by the enemy is imminent. It would be a huge attack, aimed mainly at rocket launch sites and enemy command and communication systems.

A consistent system of terminology for launches could be this:

Launch during period (i): “Launch on Warning”
Launch during period (ii): “Launch under Attack”
Launch during period (iii): “Launch after Detonation”

However, that is not the terminology in use. In practice the term “Launch on Warning” as used by non-military writers usually means a launch during period (ii). “Launch after Detonation” or “No Launch Before Detonation” are new terms we are suggesting here for the posture we advocate to eliminate the danger of a launch due to a false alarm.

A policy or option of launching during period (ii) inevitably carries a risk (perhaps only a very small risk, but always a real one) of the ultimate and most absurd disaster that the human species could inflict on itself – a full-scale nuclear war due solely to a false warning. That is why this paper advocates a change of policy: giving up the option of launch in period (ii) (whether it is called L-o-W or LUA) and waiting those few minutes to “Detonation” before launching retaliation. This change would eliminate the risk of starting a war because of a false warning.

An option of launch during period (i) obviously carries a greater risk of disaster with quite different possibilities for misinterpretation of information received. It is, however, not the subject of this paper.

No Launch on Warning

by Alan F. Phillips, M.D.

(see also Note on Terminology)

This paper argues for abandoning “Launch on Warning” (L-o-W), as a simple and quick method of greatly reducing the risk of nuclear war, pending the permanent elimination of nuclear weapons which has been promised by all the Nuclear Weapon States that have signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Elimination seems likely to take a considerable time, and meanwhile the world is at serious risk from a possible nuclear war, and particularly from a purely accidental war. It is this last risk which could be reduced almost to zero by abandoning L-o-W.

The discussion here is based on the simplifying assumption of a one-against-one antagonism – U.S.A. vs. Russia – with stability based on nuclear deterrence. The assumption is appropriate because L-o-W is only relevant between adversaries with arsenals adequate for them to consider a “disarming first strike”, rather than, say, a surprise attack on cities. Also, the war that it is essential for humanity to prevent at the present time is one between those two countries. Their arsenals are so large that if they should go to war the result would be complete destruction of civilization in the northern hemisphere, nuclear winter, and other sequelae that might combine to exterminate the human species.

Regarding the several other states that have, or may have, nuclear weapons deployed, their arsenals are so much smaller that only the civilizations of the warring states would be destroyed by a nuclear war between them. Collateral damage in other countries could be extensive, but not completely destructive. With their present arsenals, nuclear winter would be threatened only if practically all the weapons were detonated. These states with smaller arsenals are not believed to have the policy of “Launch on Warning”, so that in any case the discussion in this paper does not apply to them.

The concept that stability can be achieved by nuclear deterrence is an assumption that is seriously questioned. However, it is a concept that is assumed in arms control discussions between, and agreements made by, the governments and military establishments of U.S.A. and Russia. Nuclear deterrence is accepted for the present discussion because, without implying its validity, I am arguing for a change of just one feature in the two States’ military posture, for their own safety and the safety of the people of the world. The change is a logical necessity; it is urgently needed, and does not require any change in the assumptions upon which policy is based, whether these are valid or not. It is financially neutral, not requiring substantial extra expense nor yielding significant savings.

1. Definition of L-o-W, and distinction from “Launch Under Attack”

The term “Launch on Warning” is used here in reference to retaliation with rocket-mounted nuclear weapons to a perceived nuclear attack. It is the policy that, when there is a warning (by radar or satellite sensors) of attacking missiles on the way, requires a decision to launch or not to launch retaliatory weapons to be made so promptly that the launch can be done before any incoming warhead has arrived and detonated.

Another term, “Launch under Attack”, has been used less precisely by U.S. Strategic Command and in Congress, possibly sometimes with the intention of causing confusion. It is commonly supposed to mean a prompt launch of retaliation as soon as one or more incoming nuclear weapons have detonated. However, in the late 1970’s it was included in the dictionary of military terms by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, explained as “execution by National Command Authorities of Single Integrated Operational Plan Forces subsequent to tactical warning of strategic nuclear attack against the United States and prior to first impact.” This is identical to “L-o-W”. But at times military spokespeople have said their policy is not L-o-W, but “launch under attack”, implying that there is a difference, and that retaliation would be launched only after impact or detonation.

An alternative distinction has sometimes been implied: that L-o-W means to launch on a warning from one system (radar or satellite) alone, and “launch under attack” means launching retaliation before detonation, but only if the warning is confirmed by a second system. This is too uncertain a distinction to rely on. If communication with one system were temporarily disrupted there would be great pressure to act on an indication from only one. In fact it is believed that, because the Russian satellite fleet is incomplete, there are periods when segments of their periphery are not doubly monitored. Also some of the radar complexes installed under the Soviet system are now in independent States, and there is said to be a corridor along which missiles could approach with no warning early enough for evaluation of the situation before impact.

Both Russia and U.S.A. are believed to have the policy of L-o-W, as defined above, at the present time. If this is true of Russia, they must be relying on warning from only one system for a large fraction of the time. Their satellite fleet is incomplete and there are periods when segments of their periphery are not doubly monitored. Some of the radar complexes installed under the Soviet system are now in independent States. There is said to be a corridor along which missiles could approach giving no warning early enough for evaluation of the situation before impact. We have no way of knowing whether, for that direction of attack, their retaliation would be purely reflex or would wait for impact.

2. History of L-o-W, and the reasons for L-o-W

The avowed function of nuclear ballistic missiles is “deterrence”. Deterrence is in theory achieved when a potential attacker is convinced that an attack will be unavoidably followed by retaliation so devastating that it would be irrational to try it.

When the extreme destructiveness of nuclear weapons was realized, it became clear that a massive first salvo directed at command and weapon locations and at communications could diminish or eliminate a response. Knowledge of that by the enemy would weaken deterrence and invite a “disarming first strike”. To avoid this weakening of deterrence, the possibility was explored of launching retaliation before the first impact and detonation, L-o-W. It was probably put into effect as soon as such a quick launch became possible. The development of solid fuel as rocket propellant (around 1960) was a decisive factor.

During atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons in the early 1950’s the electrical phenomenon called “Electro-Magnetic Pulse” (EMP) was discovered. The Electro-Magnetic Pulse (EMP) is an extremely sharp and energetic electromagnetic impulse that is emitted by electrons traveling at nearly the speed of light from a nuclear explosion. It is maximal when the detonation is at very high altitude and the electrons interact with the earth’s magnetic field above the atmosphere. It disrupts unshielded electrical and electronic equipment over a wide area. Around1960 the U.S. conducted a series of high-altitude nuclear explosions to investigate it, incidentally causing significant disruption of radio communications each time. The purpose was presumably two-fold: to explore the possibility of using the phenomenon to enable a disarming first strike, and to study methods of protecting their own electronic equipment so that deterrence would be maintained even if the enemy was planning to use EMP. The possibility that electrical disruptions might prevent retaliation made a second reason to adopt L-o-W.

As early as 1960 the propriety and morality of adopting L-o-W was being discussed , because of the recognized danger of launching on a false warning and so starting an unintended nuclear war. In that year the Planning Board wrote that it was “essential” to avoid the possibility of launching unrecallable missiles based on a false warning. They stressed the importance of a “reliable bomb alarm system to provide early positive information of actual missile hits.” In 1962, Robert McNamara said that as long as he was Secretary of Defense and Jack Kennedy was President, the U.S. would never launch on warning. But the same year, the Secretary of the Air Force must have been thinking of L-o-W when he informed Kennedy that once the Minuteman missiles had been deployed in the first complex, in their “normal alert status”, all “twenty missiles will be able to be launched in thirty seconds.”

A discussion in 1969 is on record as showing that some who were opposing “Ballistic Missile Defense” favoured L-o-W, but The White House is stated to have opposed it “on the grounds that 50% of warnings from Over-the-Horizon Radar were false”. (The validity of this position seems dubious, because no true warning of a nuclear ballistic missile attack has ever been received. Presumably the other 50% were true observations of test rocket launches.) Lawrence Lynn, of U.S. National Security Council Staff, responded that the new satellite early warning system was estimated to produce only one false alarm per year, which he evidently regarded as acceptable. Georgy Arbatov, a Soviet deterrence specialist who had joined the National Security Council, assured Council members that “neither side would wait if it received warning of an attack but instead … would simply empty its silos by launching a counter-strike at once.” That removes concern about failure of deterrence against a surprise first strike, but underlines the danger from a false warning.

It seems probable that by 1969 L-o-W had been the military policy on both sides, for a number of years, notwithstanding the record that in 1973 Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird expressed the hope that “that kind of strategy would never be adopted by any Administration or by any Congress.” The recollections of former officers and enlisted men of Strategic Air Command (SAC) from the early 1970’s confirm that L-o-W was in effect then.

The policy of L-o-W is apparently still in effect both in U.S.A. and Russia, even though the Cold War is regarded as over. This seems inexcusably dangerous.

3. The danger of inadvertent N_war from false warnings or accidental coincidences.

Launch on Warning has kept the world exposed, for at least 30 years, to the danger of a nuclear war caused by nothing but a coincidence of radar, sensor, or computer glitches, and a temporary failure of human alertness to appreciate that an unexpected message of attack from the warning system is false, the enemy having done nothing. There is at most 20 minutes for the human operators and commanders to call and conduct a “threat conference”; and for the chief of SAC is put in touch with the President to advise him, and the President decides whether to order retaliation. The disaster of an accidental nuclear war has not happened yet, in spite of a large number of false warnings of which at least a few have had very dangerous features. This is a credit to the care and alertness of the military in both Russia and U.S.A. It should not be taken as reassurance. A single instance of launch of nuclear weapons on a false warning would result in nuclear war, and the end of civilization, just as surely as a nuclear war started by an actual attack. There would be no chance to review the system to make it safer after one failure of that kind.

The threat conferences require, and so far have achieved, the extraordinary standard of perfect accuracy. They have been called many times. Probably most of them have been routine and it was easy to exclude a real attack. To get some idea of how the laws of chance apply to the situation, suppose we make a very conservative assumption, that just one conference a year had a risk of error as high 1% (and that the rest had a much lower risk). It is simple mathematics to calculate that one 1% risk of disaster per year for 30 years does not result in 30%, but in a 26% probability of one actual disaster in that time. On that assumption, then, we had approximately 3 to 1 odds in favour of surviving the period 1970 – 2000, and we did survive. But so, from the risk of accidental war alone, we had a one in four chance of not surviving, which is not very safe. A single trial of Russian roulette is safer: it gives a one in six chance of death, or 5 to 1 odds on surviving. (This is not an attempt to calculate an actual probability. It is merely an example to illustrate the cumulative effect of any low-probability risk that is taken repeatedly, or accepted continuously, over a period of time.)

During the Cold War, many mishaps within the nuclear retaliation system on the U.S. side are known, including false warnings. There must have also been many such on the Russian side. One has been reported in which an officer decided on his own initiative not to report an apparently grave warning on his computer screen, on the correct belief that it was a false warning. He may have saved the world, but was disgraced for failing to follow his orders; his career was ruined, and he suffered a mental breakdown.

Scott Sagan described a large number of errors and accidents within the U.S. nuclear deterrence system, in a study of rival theories of accident probabilities. He concluded that the risk of nuclear war from accidents had not been excessive. I came to the opposite conclusion from his data. I have collected from that source and others, 20 mishaps that, with less alertness among military officers, or some coincidental problem, might possibly have started a war.

One example of a situation that was difficult to assess correctly at the Command Center, was this: On the night of 24 November, 1961, all communication links between SAC HQ and NORAD went dead, and so cut SAC HQ off from the three Ballistic Missile Early Warning Sites (BMEWS), at Thule (Greenland), Clear (Alaska), and Fylingdales (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 multiple ostensibly independent routes, including commercial telephone circuits. The 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. In the hope of clarifying the situation, radio contact was made with an orbiting B-52 on airborne alert which was near Thule (5,000 kilometers away) at the time. Its crew contacted the BMEWS station and could report that no attack had taken place, so the alert was cancelled. The reason for the “coincidental” failure was that the “independent” routes for telephone and telegraph between NORAD and SAC HQ all ran through one relay station in Colorado (which seems to show a remarkably stupid error in system design). At that relay station a small fire had interrupted all the lines.

That particular false warning was followed by a coincidental mishap that could have been disastrous. It seems there was an error in transmitting the alert code to 380th Bomb Wing at Plattsburg, New York. A former aircraft maintenance technician, who was serving at that B-52 bomber base, recently told me his recollection of the incident (which is vivid) is that the coded order first received by the bomber crews instructed them to take off and proceed directly to their pre-assigned targets, and bomb. The order was down-graded to the code meaning “wait with engines running”, before any plane had taken off. If the corrected code had not been received in time it could have been very difficult to stop the bombers.

The episode just described took place before L-o-W was instituted for the ICBMs that were in service. By 1979 the policy of L-o-W was in effect, and on the morning of 9 November a war games tape was running in a reserve computer when failure of the operational computer automatically switched in the reserve to take its place. The Threat Conference saw the picture of a massive attack in a realistic trajectory from Russian launch sites. On that occasion, preparation to retaliate got as far as launch of the president’s National Emergency Airborne Command Post (though without the president), before the error was discovered.

The most recent example known to the public was on 25 January 1995 when, as described in a report of the Standing Committee for Foreign Affairs and International Trade, “the Russian missile early warning system detected a scientific rocket launched off the coast of Norway. This area is frequented by U.S. submarines, whose ballistic missiles could scatter eight nuclear warheads over Moscow within fifteen minutes. Norway had informed the Russian Foreign Ministry about the upcoming launch, but this information had not been transmitted to the military. Over the next several minutes President Yeltsin was informed of the possible American attack, and, for the first time ever, his ‘nuclear briefcase’ was switched into alert mode for emergency use, allowing him to order a full Russian nuclear response. Tension mounted as the rocket separated into several stages, but the crisis ended after about eight minutes (just a few minutes before the procedural deadline to respond to an impending nuclear attack) when it became clear that the rocket was headed out to sea and would not pose a threat to Russia.”

4. Recommendations to U.S. Government on the need for de-alerting.

Several reports to governments have indicated the importance of abandoning this hair-trigger stance with weapons of such terrible destructive power. The first two steps in the recommendations of the Canberra Commission were: “• Taking nuclear forces off alert • Removal of warheads from delivery vehicles.”

5. A working definition of “de-alerting”, and how it might be done.

“De-alerting” is a term commonly used in suggestions and recommendations that nuclear weapons should be taken off “hair-trigger alert”. A definition that covers the current usage is that physical changes are made so that there is an unavoidable delay between a decision to launch, and the irrevocable step by which the rocket is actually launched. It would be incompatible with L-o-W, and would provide a period in which to review the fateful decision and take counsel.

A wide variety of methods have been suggested to introduce this delay. A very radical one would be to have all warheads removed from all delivery vehicles, and stored at a distance from them. Others include:

• making a heap of earth and rocks on silo lids that requires heavy machinery to remove it;
• removing hydraulic fluid from the machines that raise silo lids;
• inactivating the mechanism that rolls back garage roofs (Russia);
• pinning open a switch in a place that takes time to reach, or within a casing that takes time to open; and
• removing batteries, gyroscopes, or guidance mechanisms from rockets or re-entry vehicles

Some methods would be applicable to some types of warhead, and some to others. For each one a suitable method would have to be chosen and the details adjusted to achieve the required delay.

De-alerting would make sure that nuclear weapons could not be brought into use hastily. It would tend to reduce reliance on them in crisis situations, and thus be a step towards their eventual elimination from national arsenals. De-alerting would also make unauthorized launch of a nuclear weapon far more difficult to do, and would remove entirely the risk of accidental war due to a false warning. It would make more improbable the already unlikely event of a serious dispute between Russia and U.S.A. pushing either of the two into intentionally starting a war, by giving more time for diplomatic exchanges between the hostile governments and for conciliatory efforts by third parties.

However, there seems to be an obstacle that is difficult to overcome. Until elimination of the weapons is complete and assured by treaty, it has to be assumed that governments will go on regarding possession of nuclear weapons as essential deterrence against use of them by their enemy.

The two governments will require approximate equality of arsenals, and the military will insist on close symmetry of the de-alerting delays enforced. That would require rather complex arrangements, because of the differences in warhead types and in delivery vehicles. In the event that one side was actually intending to start a war, they would as rapidly as possible start to reverse the de-alerting process and ready their first salvo to fire. The other side would follow suit immediately, assuming that a verification system was set up so that they knew immediately. During the re-alerting process the weapon system would be vulnerable to attack, so whatever different systems were in use, the enforced delay times would have to be equal.

The governments will also demand intrusive verification to ensure the completeness of the de-alerting measures actually carried out, and that they cannot be secretly reversed. This may require representatives from neutral countries, and perhaps from the adversary, in the vicinity of each one’s launch sites. The military on both sides will then be concerned about maintaining the secrecy of features of their systems. To include verification acceptably for submarine-launched missiles would be extremely difficult.

It would take a prolonged technical study and discussion to set up these two systems — the de-alerting itself and the verification — in a way that would satisfy the two adversaries. When the experts and the military establishments were satisfied (which might prove impossible) a formal written agreement would be needed. This could require an actual treaty which would need ratification by the parliament on each side, and this raises another possibility of disappointing failure after years of work.

The only other way of getting the two governments and military establishments to accept de-alerting, is to persuade them that deterrence with nuclear weapons is no longer necessary. It may be even more difficult to do that.

6. NO L-o-W would be much easier to achieve.

A very simple change can be made which would remove entirely the risk of a launch of nuclear weapons in response to a false alarm. It is to abandon the policy of Launch on Warning. Since a false warning is immediately revealed as such when the predicted time has passed for the first rockets to arrive and no detonation has been detected, simply delaying retaliation until there has been a nuclear detonation guarantees that a war will not be started accidentally from that cause.

Incidents from which a purely accidental war might have been started seem to have outnumbered the actual geopolitical crises when nuclear war was intentionally threatened. Most of these threats, though dangerous, have been regarded as threatening gestures rather than an actual thought of going to war.

Since the Berlin Wall came down, the most serious threat of a nuclear war between Russia and U.S.A. known to the public has been the “Norwegian Rocket event” of January 1995, described above. Without L-o-W, the Russian alert and the anxious few minutes would still have occurred, but there would have been absolutely no danger of nuclear war because the rocket was unarmed and there could not have been a nuclear explosion.

To change from L-o-W to NO L-o-W does not require any change of alert status of the retaliatory system. It only requires a change of standing orders and standard operating procedure, such that no launch may take place until a nuclear detonation is reported.

A possible procedure might be as follows: As soon as a warning is received that the threat conference deems might be real, the order to prepare for launch is given, and arrangements are made to put the Chief of Strategic Command in touch with the President (or the equivalent steps on the Russian side, if it is their warning system that has come into action). As the situation develops over the next few minutes, the President decides whether, in the event of it proving to be a real attack, he will launch immediate retaliation. If he decides to do so, he will give a conditional order to retaliate using the appropriate SIOP option. Perhaps half of the launch code will be sent to the silos at once. The remainder will sent with the order to launch as soon as a detonation is reported to the military command. If the actual launch order is not received at the silos within a predetermined time, the preparatory order is regarded as cancelled and the preparatory steps are reversed without further orders.

Bomb alarms were installed many years ago near all military installations and all big cities in U.S.A., and presumably in Russia, which automatically and instantaneously indicate at the Strategic Command Centers any nuclear explosion and its location. If, and only if, indication of a nuclear explosion was received at the predicted arrival time of the attack, the final order to launch would be sent immediately to the silos. No delay to obtain presidential authorization would be needed at that point. The actual retaliatory launch could probably take place within a minute of the first detonation.

With a procedure like that in place, there would be no possibility of launching nuclear-armed rockets unless an actual attack had taken place. It would probably eliminate 90% of the current risk of nuclear war between U.S.A. and Russia.

A secondary benefit would be the reduced stress on the President during those vital minutes. He would know that he was not in danger of starting a war on a false warning. Under L-o-W, that worry might impair his concentration on the main issues.

It is worth noting that the change to NO L-o-W can start with a unilateral decision. Neither side wants an accidental war. They know that if either side mistakenly launches nuclear weapons both countries are going to be destroyed: it makes no difference who started it. If one side changes to NO L-o-W the risk of a purely accidental war from a false warning is approximately halved, immediately. It does not depend on the other side knowing that the change has been made.

7. Any loss of deterrence is minimal.

There can be few grounds for objection, by the military or by the governments, to this very necessary safety measure. One objection has to be taken seriously: that “NO L-o-W” might impair deterrence and tempt the enemy to try a “disarming first strike”. There are good reasons why this objection should not be allowed to prevent the change.

• First, for a first strike to be a rational option, the attacking side would have to be sure that the first salvo could effectively disarm the enemy within one minute of the first detonation. Their degree of alertness has not been reduced, and retaliation for a real attack would still be launched within a minute, as explained above. Synchronisation of detonation times on widely separated launch sites and command posts could not be assured to that accuracy, even if the many other uncertainties could be overcome.

The other possible method to prevent retaliation would be a first salvo engineered to maximize EMP and disable enemy electronics instantly. It is hardly credible that the attacking side could feel sure that their EMP would disrupt communication and launch mechanisms sufficiently, since they know that military electronics will have been shielded. Furthermore, they will know that submarine-launched missiles will not be disabled, because the sea-water shields the submarines and their contents.

• Second, the side planning an attack would have to be sure that their adversary had in fact changed to and remained under a policy of NO L-o-W. They cannot be sure without verification. A verification agreement is therefore not only unnecessary but actually undesirable.

• Lastly, the original reason for L-o-W does not now apply. During the Cold War it was assumed by both sides that the other would make a pre-emptive first strike in the event that it believed war to be inevitable, or would contemplate an unprovoked attack if that were possible without unacceptable damage to itself. At the present time it seems most unlikely that either U.S.A. or Russia is contemplating an attempt to destroy the other by a nuclear war. Nor are there any disagreements on the horizon that are likely to make war “inevitable”.

If the situation should change so that either side believed a first strike against it to be once again a real threat, then the NO L-o-W policy can be changed back instantly to L-o-W by an executive order, and the small changes that were made in operating procedure could be overridden. In the ordinary course of events there would be no reason to change back: NO L-o-W on either side is an advantage to both, simply because it halves the risk of a purely accidental nuclear war.

If, despite these arguments, the military establishment on either side is not convinced, the head of state must balance the elimination of the very definite risk of accidental war due to a false warning, against a hypothetical possibility of weakened deterrence. The results of a nuclear war would be the same, whether started by accident or by intention.

8. Conclusion.

Compared with real de-alerting that introduces a time delay, the change to NO L-o-W is quick and simple. It does not need symmetry, verification, agreement, nor even trust, between the adversaries. If adopted unilaterally by one, it is of immediate benefit to both. It does not impair deterrence. Unilateral operation of NO L-o-W by one country for a time might well be sufficient for the other to understand the benefit and to realize that the change did not in fact invite a first strike.

Putting NO L-o-W into effect requires only an executive order, followed by a change in Standing Orders to the effect that no rocket is launched until a nuclear explosion is reported to Strategic Command. There is no reduction in alert status. There would be minor changes in the launch sequence to suit whatever safeguards would be made to ensure that no launch could occur while the crews in the silos were waiting for the final order, and that they would be ready for instant launch if that order came through.

All the world’s people would be safer for the change. Therefore all governments have a duty to their people to urge the U.S. and Russian governments to make it at once. NGOs should consider making this their primary objective until it is achieved. Thereafter, they will continue to urge the Nuclear Weapon States to fulfil their undertaking to eliminate nuclear weapons from their arsenals.

Acronyms

BMEWS
Ballistic Missile Early Warning System
EMP
ElectroMagnetic Pulse
HQ
Headquarters
ICBM
Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile
L-o-W
Launch on Warning
NGO
Non-Governmental Organization
NORAD
North American Aerospace Defense Command
SAC
Strategic Air Command (later changed to “Strategic Command”)
SIOP
Single Integrated Operational Plan
SLBM
Submarine-Launched Ballistic Missile
USSR
Union of Soviet Socialist Republics

20 Mishaps That Might Have Started a Nuclear War

20 Mishaps That Might Have Started Accidental Nuclear War
by Alan F. Phillips, M.D.

Ever since the two adversaries in the Cold War, the U.S.A. and 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 to maintain the good reputation of their unit or command. No doubt there have been as many mishaps on the Soviet side. One has been reported in which a Russian officer, on 23 September 1983, decided on his own initiative not to report an apparently grave warning on his computer screen, in the correct belief that it was a false warning. He may have saved the world, but was disgraced for failing to follow his orders; his career was ruined, and he suffered a mental breakdown.

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 selections 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.

These examples represent only a fraction of the false alarms that have been reported on the American side. Many on both sides probably remain unreported, or are hidden in records that remain classified.

1956, Nov.5: Suez Crisis coincidence.

British and French Forces were attacking Egypt at the Suez Canal. The Soviet Government had suggested to the 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 NORAD HQ 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 Soviet fleet was moving through the Dardanelles. 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.

The four 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 Soviet fleet was engaged in scheduled routine exercises.

1961, Nov.24: BMEWS communication failure.

On the night of 24 November 1961, all communication links went dead between SAC HQ and NORAD. The communication loss cut off SAC HQ from the three Ballistic Missile Early Warning Sites (BMEWS) at Thule (Greenland,) Clear (Alaska,) and Fylingdales (England,). There were two possible explanations facing SAC HQ: 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 the United States were therefore alerted, and B-52 bomber crews started their engines, with instructions not to to take off without further orders. Radio communication was established with an orbiting B-52 on airborne alert, near Thule. It contacted the BMEWS stations 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.

[NOTE: Long after I wrote this, a reader informed me that he was a technician at Plattsburgh Air Force Base at the time. The order reached that Base as an “Alpha” alert, the highest level, at which nuclear-armed bombers were to fly direct to their targets and bomb, without waiting at the failsafe point for further orders. Before any bomber could take off the correction arrived making it a third-level “Cocoa” alert, at which the bombers stayed on the runway with engines running and waited for further orders. If even one bomber had taken off, it might have been very difficult to recall it or stop it.]

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, Aug.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 degrees too far towards the 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 the future. However, the necessary orders had not been given by the time of the Cuban missile crisis in October, so throughout that crisis the same northern route was being flown 24 hours a day.

Aug.-Oct.1962: U2 flights into Soviet airspace.

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 on October of 1962, the U2 pilots were ordered not to fly within 100 miles of 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 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.

1962, Oct.24: Russian satellite explodes.

On 24 October a Soviet satellite entered its own parking orbit, and shortly afterward 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 reaction to the event. Its occurrence is recorded, and U.S. space tracking stations were informed on 31 October of debris resulting from the breakup of “62 BETA IOTA.”

1962, Oct.25: Duluth intruder.

At around midnight on 25 October, a guard at the 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 command centre and successfully signalled the aircraft to stop.

The original intruder was a bear.

1962, Oct.26: ICBM Test Launch.

At Vandenburg 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 the 26th.

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, Oct.26: Unannounced Titan missile launch.

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 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.

1962, Oct.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 be well imagined.

October 1962: NATO Readiness.

It is recorded that early in the crisis, in order to avoid provocation of the U.S.S.R., British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan and 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, and Norstad 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 United Kingdom. This seems to have been largely due to the action of General Truman Landon, CINC U.S. Air Forces Europe, who had on his own initiative started alert procedures on 17 October in anticipation of a serious crisis over Cuba.

October 1962: British Alerts.

When the U.S. SAC went to DEFCON 2, on 24 October, the British Bomber Command was carrying out an unrelated readiness exercise. On 26 October, Air Marshall Cross, CINC of 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 in 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 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.”

1962, Oct.28: Moorestown false alarm.

Just before 9 a.m. on 28 October the Moorestown, New Jersey, radar operators informed the national command post that a nuclear attack was 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 been available to confirm or disagree, 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, Oct.28: False warning due to satellite sighting.

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 the CINC, NORAD had been informed, no impact had been reported and the warning was “given low credence.”

END OF CUBA CRISIS EVENTS

1962, Nov.2: The Penkovsky False Warning.

In the fall of 1962, Colonel Oleg Penkovsky was working in Russia as a double agent for the 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 pre-arranged code message was received by the CIA on 2 November 1962. It was not known at the 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 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.

1965, November: Power failure and faulty bomb alarms.

Special bomb alarms were installed near military facilities and near cities in the 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 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.

1968, Jan.21: B-52 crash near Thule.

Communication between NORAD HQ and the BMEWS station at Thule had 3 elements: 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, 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 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 one happened 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 House.

1973, Oct.24-25: False alarm during Middle East crisis.

On 24 October 1973, when the U.N. sponsored cease fire 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 the 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 the U.S.S.R. not to intervene in the 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 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.

1979, Nov.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 the 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.

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.

1980, June 3-6: 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 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 starting 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.

Boredom

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.

Launch on Warning

There are still thousands of nuclear weapons deployed. At the time of writing (December 2001) Russia and the U.S.A. still have the policy of “Launch on Warning”: that is to say, they plan to launch a salvo of nuclear-armed rockets if the warning systems show that a missile attack appears to be on the way. The retaliatory salvo would be launched before any of the incoming missiles arrived, so it could be launched as a result of a false warning. Thus a nuclear war could start for no military or political reason whatever.

The following event could have caused the final disaster if, for example, the rocket guidance system or the radar tracking had malfunctioned:

1995, Jan.25: Norwegian Rocket Incident.

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 Defence Minister and the Chief of Staff were informed. The early warning and the control and command systems switched to combat mode. President Yeltsin was handed the “nuclear suitcase” ready to give the launch signal.

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 Defence Ministry, but failed to reach the on-duty personnel of the early warning system. (See article in Scientific American, November 1997, by Bruce G. Blair, Harold A. Feiveson and Frank N. von Hippel.)

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 “fail-safe” 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 add 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 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. [Note that there is no attempt here to calculate an actual probability. This is merely an example to illustrate the cumulative effect of any low-probability risk that is taken repeatedly, or accepted continuously, over a period of time.]

Acronyms:

BMEWS: Ballistic Missile Early Warning Site
CIA: Central Intelligence Agency
CINC: Commander in Chief
DEFCON: Defence Readiness Condition (DEFCON 5 is the peacetime state; DEFCON 1 is a maximum war readiness).
HQ: Headquarters
ICBM: Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (land based)
KGB: Komitet Gosudarstvennoi Bezopaznosti (Soviet Secret Police and Intelligence)
NORAD: North American Aerospace Defense Command
PAVE PAWS: Precision Acquisition of Vehicle Entry Phased-Array Warning System
SAC: Strategic Air Command
SIOP: Single Integrated Operational Plan
SLBM: Submarine Launched Ballistic Missile

Principal Sources:

Britten, Stewart: The Invisible Event, (London: Menard Press, 1983).
Calder, Nigel: Nuclear Nightmares, (London: British Broadcasting Corporation, 1979)
Peace Research Reviews, vol. ix: 4, 5 (1984);
vol. x: 3, 4 (1986) (Dundas, ON.: Peace Research Institute, Dundas).
Sagan, Scott D.: The Limits of Safety, (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, (1993).

Alan F. Phillips M.D., 11 January, 1997; revised April, 2002.