5 Incidents That Almost Started an Accidental Nuclear War

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Many Americans are familiar with the bare details of the Cuban Missile Crisis in late 1962, when the U.S. and the Soviet Union narrowly averted a nuclear confrontation. The incident is widely hailed as the closest the two superpowers ever came to nuclear war. But since the end of the Cold War, a number of other near-nuclear incidents have come to light, revealing that we came much closer to a nuclear launch than the public realized. In each case, a simple human error or mechanical snafu could have resulted in World War III. Scary stuff, to be sure. It’s even scarier to think of how many thousands of nuclear warheads remain in service today.


5. The Okinawa Incident: Launch of 32 Missiles Averted

A Mace B cruise missile.

A Mace B cruise missile.

The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists website recently reported a fascinating tale of a near missile launch in 1962. U.S. Air Force airman John Bordne recalled how, while assigned to a secret nuclear launch site on the island of Okinawa, an erroneous coded message nearly caused them to launch 32 nuclear Mace B cruise missiles. The message seemed irregular to the commander on duty — although the site was at DEFCON 2 due to the Cuban Missile Crisis, no order to elevate to DEFCON 1 had been received. Had the enemy jammed the transmission? At one point, a commander dispatched security guards to a launch site with orders to shoot an officer if he continued the launch cycle. Finally, a stand-down order was issued without a shot fired or missile launched.

While Bordne’s account is not confirmed, there is certainly circumstantial evidence to support his tale, and he appears to be a credible source. A respected national watchdog group, the National Security Archives, has filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the USAF requesting records relating to that incident.


4. Radar Mistakes Moonrise for a Missile Launch

A Ballistic Missile Early Warning Site in the early 1960s.

A Ballistic Missile Early Warning Site in the early 1960s.

One of the most bizarre near-nuclear incidents occurred on Oct. 5, 1960. Seems a new computer system at a Ballistic Missile Early Warning System site based in Thule, Greenland, mistook the rising Moon as a hostile ICBM launch by the Soviet Union. The system rated the radar return as a Soviet missile launch, “with a certainty of 99.9 percent.” The story has entered into Cold War legend, although research into the source of the tale through the years reveals that NORAD controllers quickly caught the glitch. The sources cited in a 1987 paper on the subject cite articles in The New York Times and Reader’s Digest published around the time of the incident.


3. NORAD Loses Contact With Strategic Air Command

SAC bombers carrying nuclear bombs were prepared for launch during a 1961 incident.

SAC bombers carrying nuclear bombs were prepared for launch during a 1961 incident.

It’s a scene straight out of a Hollywood thriller: A U.S. military installation finds communications suddenly down at the height of political tensions. Is it the prelude to a nuclear strike? A loss of communications between NORAD and the U.S. Air Force’s Strategic Air Command on Nov. 24, 1961 almost resulted in a first-strike launch. Though temporary loss of communications with one early-warning station occasionally occurred, losing contact with three was thought to be impossible due to redundancy in the system. SAC bombers were prepped for launch, the only nuclear leg of the land-sea-air triad that can be recalled if needed. Thankfully, the attack was called off, and an investigation discovered that the system wasn’t so redundant after all: a single motor failure in a relay station in Colorado caused the loss of communications with all three stations.


2. Russian Soldier Prevents Nuclear War, ‘Saves the World’

The 2014 film, The Man Who Saved the World, recounts the story of Russian soldier who helped prevent a nuclear war with the United States.

The 2014 film, The Man Who Saved the World, recounts the story of a Russian soldier who helped prevent a nuclear war with the United States. (Copyrighted image, used under Fair Use standards.)

Near launches also occurred on the other side as well. Declassified documents in the post-Cold War era tell the story of how war was averted in 1983 due to the cool-headed thinking of a Soviet officer. The date was Sept. 28, 1983, just three weeks after a Soviet interceptor shot down a commercial airliner, Korean Airlines Flight 007. Tensions were high between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, which feared President Ronald Reagan would order a preemptive first-strike launch. Lt. Col. Stanislav Petrov was the officer on duty when a Russian satellite registered first one, then four more incoming U.S. missiles. Petrov’s standing orders: push a button if the satellite detected a U.S. launch. That would initiate an immediate Soviet retaliation.

But Petrov did not follow orders. He immediately suspected a glitch in the system, and quickly shared that thought with his superiors. As the minutes passed, and nothing happened, disaster was averted. Intuition also influenced Petrov’s decision; he later stated that he expected if the U.S. were to strike, it would be on a massive scale, not with a mere handful of missiles. A later investigation determined the error resulted from sunlight reflecting off high-altitude clouds, which fooled the Russian satellite’s sensors. Years later, when Petrov was honored with a humanitarian award, he said every time he went on duty, he had this thought on his mind: “I imagined if I’d assume the responsibility for unleashing the third World War — and I said, no, I wouldn’t.” This harrowing incident inspired the award-winning 2014 feature/documentary film, The Man Who Saved the World.


1. Military Thinks Nuclear Strike on Training Tape is Real

An ICBM Minuteman crew on alert. Credit: USAF/Master Sgt. Lance Cheung

An ICBM Minuteman crew on alert. Credit: USAF/Master Sgt. Lance Cheung

Thinking of how balky early PCs were, it’s amazing these primitive computer systems were used in the decision process for unleashing nuclear armageddon. Human error also played an occasional role in creating potential havoc, as a 1979 incident highlights. On the morning of Nov. 9, 1979, Cheyenne Mountain and the National Military Command Center received a message that the Soviet Union had launched a massive nuclear strike against the United States. Officials convened an emergency meeting to assess the threat, and U.S. ICBM forces were put on alert. Fighter interceptors were launched, awaiting inbound Soviet bombers. Most alarmingly, National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, who had been advised of the situation, was reportedly almost ready to call President Jimmy Carter and advise a nuclear response.

Then, officials checked information gathered from orbiting satellites, which showed no confirmation of inbound missiles. The culprit? A training tape depicting a Soviet launch had been mistakenly inserted into the early-warning program. Similar systematic teething incidents occurred in the 1980s, although ironically, many of those now outdated early systems are still in use today.


One More: Could a Nuclear War Happen Today?

The U.S. is upgrading its stockpile of old B-61 nuclear bombs.

The U.S. is upgrading its stockpile of old B-61 nuclear bombs.

Nine states retain nuclear warheads, including 7,200 for the United States and 7,500 for Russia. That’s 93% of nukes worldwide. The former Soviet states relinquished their nuclear arsenals, although the safeguards for Russian warheads are far below Western standards. States such as Israel and North Korea are known to possess small nuclear arsenals of their own. Probably the most alarming modern scenario, however, is the fact that India and Pakistan — two nations that have gone to war in the past — both have nuclear capabilities. Is a possible “Cold War redux” in the offing on the Indian subcontinent?

Another interesting, but little-known fact: The United States is spending millions of dollars to upgrade its aging B-61 nuclear bomb stockpile. These old-style “gravity bombs” are actually preferred in tactical situations, as they can be adjusted for varying yields. Given the political ramifications of the use of nuclear weapons — even small ones — the outlook many senior military leaders have that it’s “just another bomb” is a bit disconcerting.

If you liked this story, you might like:

5 Ways a Nuclear Attack Could Still Ruin Your Day

10 Notable Accidents Involving U.S. Nuclear Weapons

Written by

David Dickinson is a backyard astronomer, science educator and retired military veteran. He lives in Hudson, Fla., with his wife, Myscha, and their dog, Maggie. He blogs about astronomy, science and science fiction at www.astroguyz.com.