July 15, 2024

Almost World War III

The world's nuclear weapons are safeguarded by sophisticated computers and fool proof early warning systems. System with gold standard tech, back-ups, checks and balances, manual oversight. World War III could never start by accident.... right?


The imposing entrance to NORAD, Colorado.

June 3, 1980

The North American Air Defence Command (NORAD) is the heart of the US nuclear weapon system. Based in Colorado, its headquarters are designed to be impervious to any attack; buried 2 km underground, beneath the granite peak of Mount Cheyenne, its command centre is further insulated behind 25 tonne blast doors, and guarded by a small army of elite troops.

It is one of the most secure facilities in the world.

Among a variety of functions, NORAD houses America's military early warning systems. A network of satellites, over-the-horizon radar and sophisticated computers that perform round the clock, global surveillance, and which raise the alarm if America is under attack.

On June 3, 1980, these alarms went off.

William Odom

In 1980, General William Odom was special assistant to National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski.

Odom was a career soldier with extensive experience; a West Point graduate, he had served in both Korea and Vietnam, and was considered one of the military's top strategic minds. At around 2.30 am on June 3, 1980, he was woken by a call that he had both dreaded and half-expected; Russia had launched a preemptive nuclear attack on America.

The computers at NORAD had detected the launch of 200 Soviet missiles, and were tracking them towards their targets in the US. Odom immediately called his boss, in Washington.

Zbigniew Brzezinski

Brzezinski was a Polish born diplomatic and political maverick who had earlier served as an advisor to Lyndon Johnson. An expert on Russia, he was an avowed anti-Communist and a strategic hawk, regularly encouraging President Jimmy Carter to stand up to Moscow.

Now, woken by Odom at three in the morning, he struggled to get to grips with the extraordinary situation.

He first asked Odom to confirm the missiles launch. Odom did this, calling back just a few minutes later with an even more alarming message; NORAD was now reporting the launch of 2 200 Russian missiles! 

The first strikes were expected within a few minutes.

Brzezinski now prepared himself to call the President. He felt he had no choice but to recommend that Carter launch an all out retaliatory response; the policy of 'Mutually Assured Destruction', that had so long kept the two nuclear superpowers in check, had always demanded that they destroy each other in the event of a sneak attack.

Brzezinski did not even bother to wake his wife, sleeping beside him. He later said that he thought everyone would be dead within a few minutes, and it was kinder to let her sleep through it.

But, before Brzezinski picked up the phone, Odom called him again.

Part of a US nuclear launch system, showing the outdated technology.

A diligent and thorough officer, in the short time available to him Odom had managed to investigate the attack further.

None of the other US early warning systems were reporting anything out of the ordinary, and strategic bombers, on patrol close to Russian airspace, detected no missiles on their radar. Odom had concluded that the missile alert at NORAD was a false alarm.

To Odom  great relief, Brzezinski concurred. President Carter would sleep through the night undisturbed. 

A subsequent investigation of the incident concluded that a small technical fault had caused the alarm to be raised; a 46 cent micro processor in one of NORAD's computers had triggeredd a typographical error in some system generated reports. Instead of stating that '000' missiles had been detected, the report showed that '200', and then '2 200', missiles had been detected.

'Minuteman' missiles.

While measures were taken to rectify the flaw, and improve NORAD's automated systems, their reliance on outdated technology was never fully addressed. To this day, America's nuclear systems contain hardware and software that are decades out of date, and difficult to maintain.

Even more alarming, the primary delivery system for America's nuclear weapons, the 'Minuteman' missile, is a cold war relic first designed in the 1950s. Once Minuteman missiles are launched, they cannot be remotely recalled or destroyed. This feature, deliberately introduced to prevent an enemy from sabotaging America's nuclear capability, becomes highly alarming when you consider how close a false nuclear launch came.

Korean Air Lines, flight 007

September 26, 1983

By September 1983, US-Russia relations had reached their lowest ebb since the Cuban missile crisis.

Jimmy Carter had been replaced as President by Ronald Reagan; a much more fervent anti-Communist, and a man determined to do what he could to bring down the Soviet Union. Among a myriad of more aggressive policies, the US Air Force began provocatively probing Russian radar coverage:

'A squadron would fly straight at Soviet air space, and other radars would light up and (Soviet) units would go on alert. Then, at the last minute, we'd peel off and return home. It really got to them.'

-William Schneider, Under-secretary of State, 1980

On September 1, 1983, a Russian fighter plane shot down Korean Air Lines flight 007, a passenger plane that had been en route from Anchorage to Seoul. Initially denying knowledge of the incident, the Russian government would later claim the air line was conducting a covert spy operation for America (a charge the US government has always denied).

The plane had diverted slightly from its original flight plan, and had entered Russian air space near the north coast of Japan. The KAL plane was hit by a Russian air-to-air missile, and all 269 passengers, and flight crew, were killed.

While eventually taking responsibility for the incident, Russia would still claim that America's provocative Air Force missions were partly to blame. The Russian military command was clearly on edge.


While less fortified than NORAD, Russia's central nuclear command was no less secure. Based out of a facility known as 'Serpukhov 15', the top secret base was located in a remote spot north of Moscow, heavily guarded and accessible only by Russia's elite military commanders. 

Similar to the US command post in Colorado, Serpukhov 15 utilised a variety of surveillance and early warning systems, and connected them to a computer network that controlled Russia nuclear's arsenal.

Stanislav Petrov

Stanislav Petrov was a Siberian born radio engineer, the son of a World War II fighter pilot, who became a leading expert in radar technology. Petrov was assigned to Serpukhov 15 in the early 1970s, and put to work perfecting Russia's early warning systems.

Shortly after midnight on September 26, 1983, he was the commanding officer on duty when an alarm sounded; the system had detected the launch of an American nuclear missile, directed at Russia.

Within minutes, the system detected 5 more American missiles in flight.

'I had all the data to suggest there was an ongoing missile attack. If I had sent my report up the chain of command, nobody would have said a word against it. All I had to do was to reach for the phone; to raise the direct line to our top commanders - but I couldn't move. I felt like I was sitting on a hot frying pan.

-Stanislav Petrov

But, much like General Odom three years earlier, Petrov kept his head.

With alarms sounding, and the computer system indicating the first missiles would reach their targets within 12 minutes, Petrov decided to have the missile attack independently verified. He was able to access raw data from Russian satellites monitoring America, and contact a team at a Russian long range radar station; neither showed any evidence of a missile launch.

And so, Petrov decided to simply do nothing. Rather than alert his superiors, and create panic with an unpredictable outcome, he decided the attack was a false alarm. 

Interviewed years later, Petrov recalled that he wasn't sure at the time if this was the correct decision, reckoning the odds at about 50-50.

A few minutes later, when no missiles had arrived, he realised he was right. Only Petrov, and a skeleton crew of technicians at Serpukhov 15, knew how close the world had come to nuclear apocalypse.

A subsequent investigation revealed the cause of the false alarm; a Russian satellite had mis-interpreted sunshine reflecting on high altitude clouds as exhaust plumes from American rockets.

For his quick thinking and calm, rational decision making, Petrov was rewarded by being removed from his position. He was forced into early retirement, and obliged to re-settle in a rural area, far from Moscow.

The Russian authorities were embarrassed at the shortcomings in their network that the incident revealed, and did not want the details leaking to the Americans, or the media.



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