On January 25, 1995—20 years ago Sunday—a routine scientific experiment in Norway led Russia to prepare to launch a nuclear attack on the United States.
The story of this event illustrates how coincidence, confusion, and nuclear weapons on hair-trigger alert can be a deadly mix.
Just before dawn on January 25, 1995, a Russian early warning radar detected a rocket launch from the Norwegian Sea, just north of the Arctic Circle. Analysis of the data found something alarming: the rocket appeared to be a U.S. submarine-based nuclear-armed Trident missile. Its trajectory suggested the United States was planning to explode the nuclear warhead in the atmosphere to blind Russia’s early warning radars and hide a large follow-on attack intended to destroy Russian missiles on the ground. This was the kind of scenario the U.S. and Soviet militaries worried about throughout the Cold War.
Russian military leaders alerted President Boris Yeltsin as they struggled to understand what was going on and what they should do. If Russia determined a real attack was underway, plans would call for it to launch a retaliatory nuclear strike against the United States quickly before its land-based missiles could be destroyed by the U.S. attack.
What Russian radars had actually detected was a small scientific sounding rocket launched from an island off the coast of Norway to study the upper atmosphere and the physics behind the Northern Lights. Norway had even sent out a notice of the launch several days in advance, to avoid just this kind of confusion.
So, the question is: How could such an event have fooled the sophisticated Russian warning system to the point that the Russian president was alerted?
First, Norway’s launch notice apparently didn’t reach or wasn’t read by the right people.
Second, surprising coincidences played a key role. Because the Russian radars had low resolution, they could not determine the size of the rocket stages, but instead measured their location and speed. A technical analysis of the Norwegian launch shows that the speed and locations of the third and fourth stages of the sounding rocket, which were the only ones the radar could see, were very similar to the expected speed and locations of the first and second stages of a Trident missile. In addition, the sounding rocket released a nosecone at a similar altitude and speed as would be expected for a Trident missile.
So when a computer in the Russian early warning system matched the radar’s data against its stored database, it concluded it was seeing a U.S. Trident missile.
Adding credibility to this identification was a second coincidence. The rocket’s path looked like one that could carry a warhead to a location that would be well-suited to blinding Russian radars so they could not observe a launch of U.S. land-based missiles. The unlikely combination of these two coincidences set off alarms in Russian military headquarters.
Exacerbating the danger of this situation was the perceived time urgency of launching a response. Both Russia and the United States keep nuclear missiles on hair-trigger alert to allow them to be launched in a matter of minutes after receiving warning of attack. This means leaders have only a few minutes to decide whether or not to launch, leaving very little time to double-check information and sort through the general confusion.
What happens when tensions are high?
Fortunately, tensions between the U.S. and Russia were low in 1995 and Russian military leaders were skeptical that what they were seeing was a nuclear attack. Within about 10 minutes they were able to determine that the launch was not what it had initially appeared to be.
Things could be much more dangerous if tensions between the countries were high. What this and other examples illustrate is that despite the care taken to reduce the chance of errors when it comes to nuclear weapons, unexpected things happen. And all the security systems intended to ensure that nuclear weapons can only be launched by presidential order don’t help if leaders, under extreme time pressure to launch quickly, are fooled by errors in the system, or unexpected coincidences, or misinterpretations of data and issue such a launch order.
Keeping missiles on hair-trigger alert to allow their rapid launch creates the risk that unexpected and confusing warning data, especially during a time of high tensions, will lead to an erroneous launch.
It’s time to take nuclear missiles off hair-trigger alert. High-level U.S. experts agree.
As a first step, President Obama can and should take U.S. land-based missiles off alert. A simple way to do this is to use the safety switch that is in each missile silo to prevent the launch of a missile when maintenance workers are in the silo. By keeping these switches in the “safe” position, the United States can reduce the risks of erroneous, accidental and unauthorized launches.