Close Calls in the Nuclear Age.


The Badger Detonation: a 23 kiloton nuclear explosion fired on April 18, 1953 at the Nevada Test Site, part of Operation Upshot-Knothole.

There’s a formula for fun: Arm two superpowers to the teeth with thousands of nuclear warheads. Make sure they’re deeply hostile and suspicious of each other. Now cut off diplomatic communication, stir in about 50 smaller countries with their own agenda on each side, and - voilà! – cold war in a jiffy!

1. Suez Crisis

On November 5, 1956, during the Suez crisis, the North America Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) received warnings that seemed to indicate that a large-scale Soviet attack was under way: a Soviet fleet was moving from the Black Sea to a more aggressive posture in the Aegean, 100 Soviet MiGs were detected flying over Syria, a British bomber had just been shot down in Syria, and unidentified aircraft were in flight over Turkey, causing the Turkish air force to go on high alert.

All signs pointed to the ominous, except that, not long after, each of the four warnings was found to have a completely innocent explanation. The Soviet fleet was conducting routine exercises, the MiGs were part of a normal escort – whose size had been exaggerated – for the president of Syria, the British bomber had made an emergency landing after mechanical problems, and last, but not least, the unidentified planes over Turkey? Well, they turned out to be a large flock of swans.

2. SAC-NORAD Communication Failure

On November 24, 1961, all communication links between U.S. Strategic Air Command (SAC) and NORAD suddenly went dead, cutting off the SAC from three early warning radar stations in England, Greenland, and Alaska.

The communication breakdown made no sense, though. After all, a widespread, total failure of all communication circuits was considered impossible, because the network included so many redundant systems that it should have been failsafe.

The only alternative explanation was that a full-scale Soviet nuclear first strike had occurred. As a result, all SAC bases were put on alert, and B-52 bomber crews warmed up their engines and moved their planes onto runways, awaiting orders to counterattack the Soviet Union with nuclear weapons. Luckily, those orders were never given. It was discovered that the circuits were not in fact redundant because they all ran through one relay station in Colorado, where a single motor had overheated and caused the entire system to fail.

3. U2 Spy Plane Accidentally Violates Soviet Airspace

U2 spy planes were high-altitude aircraft that took pictures of the Soviet Union with extremely powerful long-distance telephoto lenses. During the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, U2 pilots were ordered not to fly within 100 miles of the Soviet Union to avoid antagonizing the Soviets.

However, on October 26, 1962, a U2 pilot flying over the North Pole made a series of navigational errors because the shifting lights of the aurora borealis prevented him from taking accurate readings with his sextant. As a result, he ended up flying over the Chukotski Peninsula in northern Siberia, causing the Soviets to order a number of MiG interceptors to shoot his plane down immediately.

Instead of letting him be shot down, however, the United States responded quickly by sending out F-102A fighters armed with nuclear missiles to escort the U2 back to American airspace and prevent the MiGs from following it. Unbelievably, the tactic worked. Even more amazing: the decision whether to use their nuclear missiles was left to the American pilots, and could have easily resulted in a nuclear conflict.

4. When Camping, Make Sure to Hide Your Food and Your Nuclear Weapons

On October 25, 1962, again during the Cuban Missile Crisis, a security guard at an air base in Duluth, Minnesota, saw a shadowy figure scaling one of the fences enclosing the base. He shot at the intruder and activated an intruder alarm, automatically setting off intruder alarms at neighboring bases.

However, at the Volk Field air base in Wisconsin, the Klaxon loudspeaker had been wired incorrectly, and instead sounded an alarm ordering F-106A interceptors armed with nuclear missiles to take off. The pilots assumed that a full-scale nuclear conflict with the Soviet Union had begun, and the planes were about to take off when a car from the air traffic control tower raced down the tarmac and signaled the planes to stop. The intruder in Duluth had finally been identified: it was a bear.

5. A Terrifying Crash

On January 21, 1968, fire broke out on a B-52 carrying a nuclear payload near Greenland, forcing the crew to bail out. The unmanned plane then crashed about seven miles from the early warning radar station in Greenland.

The damage done could have been remarkable. The plane exploded as did the explosives surrounding the radioactive core of the nuclear weapons (which require conventional explosives to detonate). Given the state of nuclear weapons technology at the time, this type of unintentional detonation of conventional first-stage explosives could have theoretically triggered the second-stage fission reaction, resulting in a nuclear explosion. Luckily for the world, it didn’t.

The resulting explosion would have not only severed regular communications between the early warning station and NORAD, it would have also triggered an emergency alarm based on radiation readings taken by sensors near the station. The only conclusion at NORAD headquarters, in this grisly hypothetical but very plausible scenario, would have been that the Soviets were launching a preemptive nuclear strike, and the United States would have responded in kind.

6. Comp Fear

On November 9, 1979, four command centers for the U.S. nuclear arsenal received data on their radar screens indicating that the Soviet Union had launched a full-scale nuclear first strike on the United States. Over the next six minutes, planes were launched and nuclear missiles initialized for an immediate retaliatory strike.

The president’s National Emergency Airborne Command Post – an armored jump jet with radiation shielding and advanced communications capabilities, meant to allow the president to remain in contact with the government and armed forces during a nuclear war – was also launched, although curiously without the president aboard. However, the alarm was canceled because no sensors or satellites detected an actual Soviet missile launch. The alarm had been caused by computer software used for training exercises depicting a nightmare scenario Soviet first strike.

Senator Charles Percy, who happened to be at NORAD headquarters during this event, said the reaction was one of overwhelming panic and terror. Justifiably so.

7. Comp Fear, Part 2

Electronic displays at NORAD, the SAC, and the Pentagon included prominent, highly visible numeric counters showing the number of enemy nuclear missiles detected. They normally displayed four zeros – “0000” – indicating that no nuclear missiles had been launched.

However, on June 3, 1980, at 2:25 in the morning, the counters started randomly substituting the number “2” for “0.” As a result, crews manning bombers carrying nuclear weapons were ordered to begin to warm up their engines, Minuteman missiles were initialized for launch, and airborne command posts were also launched.

It was determined that this first even was a false alarm, but three days later it happened a second time – causing the entire emergency response procedure to start rolling once again. The problem was eventually traced back to a single faulty computer chip combined with faulty wiring.








The article above, from mental_floss' book Forbidden Knowledge: A Wickedly Smart Guide to History's Naughtiest Bits, is published in Neatorama with permission.

Be sure to visit mental_floss' extremely entertaining website and blog!


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Regarding #7 above. There are some important details missing. First of all, there were 3 computer failures that June of 1980, not just two. Everyone cites the first two but somehow, the last one is forgotten. I was a B-52 copilot on nuclear alert for the first and 3rd false "actuals". I remember staying up late and was caught in the shower for that first klaxon.

Everyone is staring at each other in disbelief. No one got the normal forewaring. (You see, the bird had stars in his eyes, so he always leaked the details of the the "exercise" klaxon so that the force timing looked terrific! That way, he improved his chances of being general.) I managed to wipe myself somewhat dry and mustered into my flight suit. I remembered running to my aircraft, the first in the christmass tree parking arrangement. There was so much confusion.

The pilot and I arrived at the aircraft at about the same time and were busy firing up the engines. After getting the electrical system hot, I got the radios online and heard the command post blaring out the encoded text for the crews to copy to the message book.

The Nav arrived choking from the smoke and fumes of the eight start cartridges. His job was to decode the message. The crew chief plugged in and was listening to the interphone traffic.

The Nave told the Pilot, "You're not going to believe this Shit!" It's an actual message! We have to taxi to the hold line and await survival launch authentication.

The Pilot responded, "Recopy the damn message Nav! What have you been smoking anyway?"

A few short moments later, the Nav replied, "Pilot, I am telling you, this is an actual message. Let's get the safe open and get the tickets ready!"

In a harsh voice and thinking he could decode the message correctly, the Pilot shouts, "Nav, bring that damn decode book up here and I'll decypher it!"

Well as fate would have it, the first two characters correctly translated to the ill fated word "ACTUAL". I could make this a really long story and I should probablly write it all down someday. The real problem was what happened next.

Since this was a supposed nuclear survival launch, the message decoded to something like "taxi to the hold short line and await launch authentication." Since this was an "actual" survival launch...the only message we could receive was to launch. There were no other possibilities or options for a different message than to launch. Nothing like, oops boys, we made a mistake so would you please taxi down the runway and back to your parking spots!

The confusion was crazy and scary. As a copilot, I knew the secret winchester HF channel and was listening to all the other SAC bases. We were all asking the same question! "Did you get 'The MESSAGE', you know, the message?" Loring, Minot, KI Sawyer,Grand Forks, and all the rest, we were all asking the "BIG" question.

The launch message never came. There were severl attempts made to recall the aircraft back to parking. Over the years in SAC we crew dogs were always told that one day we would be tested for our loyalty and ability to follow orders. These attempts to recall us to the christmas tree were useless. The bird couldn't trick us into disobeying orders. We were going to wait for the launch order and that was that.

Mean while, the Nav had been monitoring his watch...tic toc, tic toc. Missle flight time from Russia to our southern base was about 27 minutes. Missle flight time to Loring was about 17 minutes. I remember winchester going silent and then someone began counting down, five, four, three, two, one.....then dead silence for what seemed liked an eternity. Then there was this sobbing voice announcing to winchester listeners that Loring was still there. Everyone on our plane cheered! One by one the scenario continued as base after base counted down and then reported that there was no nuclear blast.

I remember crying while listening to those count downs. The tensenses in each voice...the relief that they were still there...and the disbelief that no one launched for survival as was required by the EWO, Emergency War Order.

Time dragged on, and we still would not move; we would not honor the repeated request from the command post to return to parking even after correctly authenting those messages. We could only launch. That was the only option allowed by the first message.

Eventually, the bird connected to our bomber, swore on a stack of bibles that he wasn't under duress, that this wasn't a loyalty test, and that we were to return to parking and the bird would assume all responsiblity for any punitive actions associated with his NOT ACCORDING TO HOYLE request. With six witnesses on board, we voted and agreed to return to parking. It took nearly four hours from the klaxon to find ourselves snuggled safely back in our chocks.

I think it is egg in the eyes of the planners who failed to conceive of the possiblity that there could be a "FALSE ACTUAL". It is more egg in their faces to know that there were those service members out there who elected to ignore the "actual" message, believing it to be a false message. Regardless, computers can and do fail, and planners cannot percieve all outcomes. I am just thankful that I didn't have to drop my bombs those frightful nights in July, 1980!
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"“we were to have First Strike Capability (NATO Doctrine)” This is a real laugh for anyone familiar with Emergency Message Authentication systems in place at that time…."

A laugh? Technology revealed from a country to the people is ATLEAST 20 years behind, so it would be a good, if not great system, so stfu.
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