No one is perfect. Mistakes happen, even when it comes to nuclear weapons. No matter how many fail-safes and back ups are put into place, machines malfunction, animals cause radar confusion, and routine occurrences get mistaken for incoming missile attacks, prompting alarms to ring and urgent decisions to be made.
Need examples? I present you with a list of things that have been mistaken for an incoming nuclear attack (for the full story, give the link a click):
- A satellite exploding: During the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, a Soviet satellite exploded, leading the U.S. to believe the Soviets were launching a huge ICBM attack.
- The sun reflecting off the tops of clouds: In 1983, the Soviet early-warning system was triggered by what appeared to be the launch of five incoming U.S. nuclear missiles. It was actually the reflection of the sun off high-altitude clouds.
- A flock of geese: An early-warning system was activated by a flock of geese in the 1950s. The system interpreted it as a Soviet bomber attack.
- A bear…sort of: In October 1962, a guard at a Duluth air base saw a figure climbing the security fence. The guard shot at the intruder and set off the sabotage alarm, which automatically set off alarms at nearby bases. But the wrong alarm went off at Volk Field. Instead of the sabotage alarm, the Klaxon sounded, signaling a nuclear war and ordering nuclear-armed F-106A interceptors to take off. By the time communication with Duluth highlighted the error, aircraft were starting down the runway. A car racing from the command center successfully signaled the aircraft to stop. Turns out the intruder was a bear.
- A scientific rocket: Russian radar systems mistook a Norwegian-U.S. joint scientific rocket for a submarine-launched nuclear missile heading toward Moscow. This one is a little more understandable, until you hear that the U.S. had notified the Russians about the missile launch ahead of time.
- A training tape: In 1979, a training tape generating indications of a large-scale Soviet nuclear attack had somehow transferred to the actual early-warning network, setting off the alarms.
- A faulty computer chip: A single computer chip failure in 1980 caused random numbers of attacking missiles to be displayed in U.S. command posts. The numbers would jump, showing 2 missiles had been launched, then 200 missiles, then zero missiles. Many officers did not believe there was an incoming missile attack, but a committee was convened to verify.
And that’s just what we’ve uncovered so far – classified documents most likely contain even more instances of false alarms that risk triggering the use of nuclear weapons.
We’ve come close – dangerously close – to a nuclear war. Machines fail, animals get in the way, and, at the end of the day, humans are fallible. Exacerbating the risk of nuclear use is the fact that roughly 1,800 nuclear weapons in the U.S. and Russia are kept on hair-trigger alert, ready to launch at a moment’s notice. Launch on warning strategies give leaders minutes to decide whether to order the launch of nuclear missiles or risk losing them to an incoming nuclear attack. With decision time under such constraints – sometimes as little as 4 minutes – the risk of accidental launch due to false alarm is unnecessarily high.
The U.S. and Russia need to take steps to reduce the risk of nuclear use such as negotiating a bilateral agreement to stand down their nuclear weapons on hair-trigger alert. The decision of whether or not to launch a nuclear weapon should not be confined to mere minutes.
But as long as hair-trigger alert postures continue, that’s the reality we will be stuck with. We’ve been lucky so far, but it only takes one mistake to go unnoticed – one flock of geese, or one faulty computer chip has the potential to trigger a nuclear catastrophe.