The close calls: how false alarms triggered fears of nuclear war

Written by Shelley Marshall, program intern, with Alexandra Toma

The CIA’s discovery of the Soviet Union’s covert plan to transport intermediate-range nuclear missiles to Cuba spawned the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis and brought the world to the brink of nuclear war.  U.S. President John F. Kennedy’s skillful diplomatic engagement with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev resulted in the Soviet Union dismantling its missile installations in Cuba.  While most know of the Cuban Missile Crisis, it was neither the first nor the last time that the world narrowly avoided nuclear disaster.

False Alarms Lead to Nuclear Scrambling

During the Cold War, the U.S. and the Soviet Union perceived first-strike capability, or a swift retaliatory launch, to a nuclear attackas an advantage.  Serving as deterrent and defense strategy, the U.S. and Russia have devised nuclear systems to launch Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles within minutes.  These systems were based on the theory of Mutually Assured Destruction.  Some claim this capability has stabilized the relationship between the two superpowers; however, a false alarm could easily start a global nuclear war.

Paul Bracken, Yale University Professor of Political Science and author of The Command and Control of Nuclear Forces, describes the integration of the command and control of nuclear weapons as the pitfalls of the systematic evolution of the American and Soviet warning systems.  He explains, “The result is a tightly coupled system in which a perturbation in one part can be amplified throughout the entire system.” Bracken explores the pervasive theme of nuclear wars sparked by technical accidents referencing events from every decade since the 1950s.

In the 1950s, a flock of Canadian geese activated the Distant Early Warning Line radar system.  The birds were mistakenly interpreted as a Soviet bomber attack.  In the 1960s, meteor showers and lunar radar reflections triggered the new Ballistic Missile Early Warning System radar, indicating to the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) that the Soviet Union had initiated a missile attack.  In 1979, an operator’s mistake resulted in the transmission of an erroneous message that the U.S. was under nuclear attack.  When the information was sent to NORAD fighter bases, ten fighters were immediately scrambled from three different bases in the U.S. and Canada.  The following year, a malfunctioning chip in a minicomputer caused a similar situation. However, this time a hundred B-52 bombers were prepared for takeoff along with the President’s emergency aircraft.  

In January 1995, a four-stage Norwegian-U.S. joint research rocket was launched with the intention of gathering information about the Northern Lights; however, an error put U.S. and Russian diplomacy to the test once again.  In the middle of the night, Russian President Boris Yeltsin was awoken, told that the U.S. had launched a nuclear missile towards Russia, and that he had a mere minutes to decide whether to launch Russia’s own nukes against the U.S.  Luckily, President Yeltsin had the wherewithal – some say gall – to question his military commanders’ recommendations of retaliation, and forestall a nuclear war.

These incidents highlight the dangers of Cold War era high-alert, early-warning systems.  The systems require a leader to make “rapid-fire decisions” that have irrevocable and disastrous consequences.  Furthermore, these decisions are often based on erroneous or misinterpreted information.  Although tensions between the two superpowers have eased, future false alarms undoubtedly will occur.  

Bomb’s Away: All in a Day’s Work

On March 11, 1958, the captain of a U.S. B-47E bomber en route from the state of Georgia to England for routine exercises accidentally released an atomic bomb when he mistakenly used the emergency bomb-release mechanism as a handhold during an aircraft inspection.  The Mark 6 30-kiloton fission bomb landed in Mars Bluff, South Carolina. No one was killed, but six were injured. The bomb took out a girl’s playhouse, completely destroyed a family home, and decimated the surrounding woods.    

At the time, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara disclosed the bomb’s arming mechanism had only skipped one in seven stages of detonation.  Although the bomb broke into several pieces, its plutonium core did not detonate.  A missing piece containing uranium is believed to have lodged deep in the earth.  

While not a common occurrence, this mishap demonstrates the danger that nuclear weapons pose to civilians in non-combat situations and war-free zones.  The threat of nuclear arms has not diminished and their very existence poses a threat to humanity.

That same year, the U.S. lost a four-ton thermonuclear bomb off the shore of Savannah, Georgia, after a mid-air collision between an F-86 fighter and a B-47 armed with a Mark 15 Mod O nuclear bomb.  To safely land the damaged bomber, the pilot was instructed to jettison the nuclear bomb off the coast.  The U.S. military never recovered this undetonated bomb.

The official U.S. government stated that the bomb lacked “the plutonium core necessary to initiate a fission explosion”; however, an official 1966 Congressional document says otherwise.  The amount of enriched uranium in the abandoned MK-15 nuclear bomb makes it essentially a dirty bomb and could fall into the hands of any state or rogue actor looking to join the nuclear community.

Another nuclear mishap happened more recently.  On August 30, 2007, a B-52 bomber unknowingly transported six Advanced Cruise Missiles across several states for over three hours.  The Air Force blunder made national headlines and prompted an Air Force investigation and the firing of a commander.  Then-Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee Ike Shelton (D-MO) referred to the incident as “deeply disturbing.”  Congressman Edward Markey (D-MA), co-chair of the House of Representatives’ Task Force on Non-Proliferation, said that “we have been assured for decades that it was impossible.”

While it was unclear why the warheads had gone undetected, it was made evident once more that even those trained to exercise utmost caution when handling nuclear weapons are susceptible to gaffes.  These errors are possibly deadly and have the potential to throw the world into a state of inconceivable chaos.

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Written by Shelley Marshall, program intern, with Alexandra Toma, executive director, both of whom work at the Connect U.S. Fund. The Connect U.S. Fund is a nongovernmental organization that leads and supports effective, collaborative advocacy in order to push for farsighted American leadership in efforts to create a more just, sustainable, and peaceful world. Toma also serves on the board of the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation.