A Nuclear False Alarm that Looked Exactly Like the Real Thing

, physicist & co-director, Global Security | November 9, 2015, 9:26 am EDT
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On this day in 1979, operators at the U.S. missile warning center were shocked to see their displays light up with the ultimate horror: a full-scale Soviet  nuclear attack bearing down on the United States. Unlike previous false warnings the operators had experienced, there was no mistaking the signatures of an all-out nuclear attack designed to destroy nuclear command centers, U.S. nuclear-armed bombers, and land-based missiles.

NORAD/USNORTHCOM Alternate Command Center (Source: U.S. Air Force)

NORAD/USNORTHCOM Alternate Command Center (Source: U.S. Air Force)

This did not appear to be a local glitch of some kind, since the warning was showing up at NORAD (North American Aerospace Defense) Headquarters in Colorado, the Strategic Air Command Center, the Pentagon National Military Command Center, and the Alternate National Military Command Center. In response, missile crews were put on heightened alert and nuclear bomber crews were sent to their planes. The U.S. air-defense system was put on alert and at least 10 fighter-interceptor planes were launched. Even President Carter’s airborne command post took off (but without the president).

U.S. officers had practiced responding to just this kind of attack, but never expected to see it actually happen…

***

This incident—like others I have been writing about on their anniversaries—illustrates what can go wrong with nuclear weapons systems, despite safeguards to prevent those things from happening.

So far, the remaining safeguards—and our luck—have been good enough to prevent any of these events from leading to a nuclear exchange. But what these incidents show is that human errors, technical glitches, misunderstandings, and general confusion—which under the wrong conditions could lead to the launch of nuclear missiles—are not as rare as one would think or hope. Eventually they may happen at a time or in a combination that—in the few minutes available to assess the data—leads those in charge to assess that the warning of an incoming attack is real and to launch a retaliatory strike.

Indeed, in talking about the 1979 incident later, senior State Department advisor Marshal Shulman lamented that “false alerts of this kind are not a rare occurrence,” and that there is a “complacency about handling them that disturbs me.”

In this case, it turns out that a technician mistakenly inserted into a NORAD computer a training tape that simulated a large Soviet attack on the United States. Because of the design of the warning system, that information was sent out widely through the U.S. nuclear command network.

Fortunately, tensions between the U.S. and Soviet Union were low at the time, so there was some skepticism about the warning from the beginning. Moreover, communication between the warning center and U.S. radar sites indicated that the radars were not seeing a missile attack. Within months, however, tensions spiked when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, and continued to rise through the first Reagan term. And had communication systems been down or had the radars detected unrelated missile launches, the situation would have been much more serious. As noted in previous posts, unexpected coincidences happen, and spread confusion.

Today, the risk remains that a false alarm could lead to a nuclear launch. U.S. nuclear war plans contain options to launch U.S. nuclear missiles quickly on warning of an incoming attack— “launch-under-attack” as the Pentagon calls it. The Pentagon continues to keep missiles on hair trigger alert to allow those missiles to be launched quickly to carry out those options.

Recognizing the dangers of this policy, President Obama pledged to take missiles off hair-trigger alert as a candidate and early in his presidency.

Why has Obama kept missiles on hair-trigger?

Despite the president’s pledge to take missiles off hair-trigger alert, his 2010 review of U.S. nuclear policy—the Nuclear Posture Review (NPR)—states that the U.S. should maintain the status quo and leave its missiles on alert. This was presumably on the advice of the Pentagon, which the president did not overrule.

Let’s look at this more closely.

Titan II missile (Source: US Air Force)

Titan II missile (Source: US Air Force)

The argument in favor of being able to launch on warning is that a surprise attack from Russia could, in principle, destroy U.S. land-based missiles (ICBMs) in their silos unless they were launched quickly, before the attacking missiles could land. While not stated, this argument assumes that deterring such a Russian attack hinges on whether or not Russia believes the U.S. could quickly launch its ICBMs.

But even if all 450 U.S. ICBMs were destroyed in their silos, that would leave many hundreds of warheads on missiles (SLBMs) on U.S. submarines—which are hidden under the ocean—for retaliation. And once a Russian attack landed on the United States, Russia could have very little doubt the U.S. would respond with those SLBMs.

It seems absurd to imagine that today Russia would feel deterred from attacking if the U.S. could retaliate with 1,500 warheads on ICBMs and SLBMs, but not if the U.S. could retaliate with 1,050 warheads on SLBMs. Keep in mind those SLBM warheads would carry a combined yield about 14,000 times that of the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima.

Cost vs. no benefits: Take dangerous options off the table

But if keeping the option to launch on warning does not increase deterrence, then it is not worth the increased risk of a potentially catastrophic accidental, unauthorized, or mistaken launch that results from keeping weapons on hair-trigger—even if you assess that risk to be small.

The fallback argument you frequently hear is that it is important that all options be available to the president. The decision in the 2010 NPR is therefore portrayed as a decision “not to take options off the table.”

But if the risks outweigh the benefits, as I argue they do, then this is an option I do not want a U.S.—or Russian—president to have. This is an option President Obama should, in fact, take off the table.

Indeed, a key point of arms control—and common sense, I would argue—is to get countries to agree to take off the table options that are dangerous, so that they don’t lead to or exacerbate crises. Eliminating short-range nuclear missiles under the INF Treaty, the U.S.-Soviet Incidents at Sea agreement, and the Chemical Weapons Convention are examples.

No “re-alerting race”

The other argument administration officials frequently make these days is that taking missiles off alert is dangerous since putting them back on alert in a crisis could lead to a “re-alerting race” that could exacerbate the crisis.

But the idea is not just to take missiles off hair-trigger alert—it is to eliminate the options in U.S. war plans to launch on warning of attack, which is why missiles are kept on alert in the first place. Without those options, there would be no re-alerting. With no re-alerting, there would be no re-alerting race.

And, as I argue above, deterrence would continue to be plenty strong without these options.

Complacency

President Obama can still decide to remove these options from U.S. war plans. This simple step would eliminate the threat of mistaken launches due to false warning. It would also be an important step away from outdated—and dangerous—Cold War policies, which would be consistent with the president’s promise in his Prague speech in 2009.

The question is whether he can overcome the complacency that Marshal Shulman complained about 35 years ago.

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  • Ray O’Rourke

    An interesting assent for sure, but what in particular leads you to believe that we know the actual state of readiness anyway? Wouldn’t this information, the true status, be confidential? In fact it could very well be contrary to what we believe it to be. Posturing is an integral part of this entire process, to appear weak would perhaps invite more trouble and put us in an even more precarious situation. How do we even know that the president hasn’t actually upheld his campaign promise, that the missiles aren’t actually on hair-trigger alert and that we’re just saying they are is just an illusion portrayed to make a potential enemy consider otherwise? The point is that we don’t, and that if you knew the actual status you would indeed be prevented from ever admitting so.