TFF PressInfo # 375 Close calls: We were closer to nuclear destruction than we knew (2)

By Gunnar Westberg

The proposition that nuclear weapons can be retained in perpetuity and never used – accidentally or by decision – defies credibility”.

Other serious close calls

In November 1979, a recorded scenario describing a Russian nuclear attack had been entered into the US warning system NORAD. The scenario was perceived as a real full-scale Soviet attack. Nuclear missiles and bombers were readied. After six minutes the mistake became obvious. After this incident new security routines were introduced.

Despite these changed routines, less that one year later the mistake was repeated – this time more persistent and dangerous. Zbigniew Brzezinski, the US national security adviser, was called at three o’clock in the morning by a general on duty. He was informed that 220 Soviet missiles were on their way towards the USA. A moment later a new call came, saying that 2,200 missiles had been launched.

Brzezinski was about to call President Jimmy Carter when the general called for a third time reporting that the alarm had been cancelled.

The mistake was caused by a malfunctioning computer chip. Several similar false alarms have been reported, although they did not reach the national command.

We have no reports from the Soviet Union similar to these computer malfunctions. Maybe the Russians have less trust in their computers, just as Colonel Petrov showed? However, there are many reports on serious accidents in the manufacture and handling of nuclear weapons.

I have received reliable information from senior military officers in the Soviet Union regarding heavy use of alcohol and drugs among the personnel that monitor the warning and control systems, just as in the USA.

The story of the “Norwegian weather rocket” in 1995 is often presented as a particularly dangerous incident. Russians satellites warned of a missile on its way from Norway towards Russia. President Yeltsin was called in the middle of the night; the “nuclear war laptop” was opened; and the president discussed the situation with his staff. The “missile” turned out not to be directed towards Russia.

I see this incident as an indication that when the relations between the nuclear powers are good, then the risk of a misunderstanding is very small. The Russians were not likely to expect an attack at that time.

Indian soldiers fire artillery in northernmost part of Kargil region

Close calls have occurred not only between the two superpowers. India and Pakistan are in a chronic but active conflict regarding Kashmir. At least twice this engagement has threatened to expand into a nuclear war, namely at the Kargil conflict in 1999 and after an attack on the Indian Parliament by Pakistani terrorists in 2001.

Both times, Pakistan readied nuclear weapons for delivery. Pakistan has a doctrine of first use: If Indian military forces transgress over the border to Pakistan, that country intends to use nuclear weapons.

Pakistan does not have a system with a “permissive link”, where a code must be transmitted from the highest authority in order to make a launch of nuclear weapons possible. Military commanders in Pakistan have the technical ability to use nuclear weapons without the approval of the political leaders in the country. India, with much stronger conventional forces, uses the permissive link and has declared a “no first use” principle.

The available extensive reports from both these incidents show that the communication between the political and the military leaders was highly inadequate. Misunderstandings on very important matters occurred to an alarming degree. During both conflicts between India and Pakistan, intervention by US leaders was important in preventing escalation and a nuclear war.Read More »

TFF PressInfo # 374: Close calls: We were closer to nuclear destruction than we knew (1)

By Gunnar Westberg

The proposition that nuclear weapons can be retained in perpetuity and never used – accidentally or by decision – defies credibility”.

This unanimous statement was published by the Canberra Commission in 1996. Among the commission members were internationally known former ministers of defense and of foreign affairs and generals.

The nuclear-weapon states do not intend to abolish their nuclear weapons. They promised to do so when they signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) of 1970.

Furthermore, the International Court in The Hague concluded in its advisory opinion more than 20 years ago that these states were obliged to negotiate and bring to a conclusion such negotiations on complete nuclear disarmament.

The nuclear-weapon states disregard this obligation. On the contrary, they invest enormous sums in the modernization of these weapons of global destruction.
It is difficult today to raise a strong opinion in the nuclear-weapon states for nuclear disarmament. One reason is that the public sees the risk of a nuclear war between these states as so unlikely that it can be disregarded.

It is then important to remind ourselves that we were for decades, during the Cold War, threatened by extinction by nuclear war. We were not aware at that time how close we were.

In this article I will summarize some of the best-known critical situations. Recently published evidence shows that the danger was considerably greater than we knew at the time.

The risk today of a nuclear omnicide – killing all or almost all humans – is probably smaller than during the Cold War, but the risk is even today real and it may be rising. That is the reason I wish us to remind ourselves again: as long as nuclear weapons exist we are in danger of extermination.

Nuclear weapons must be abolished before they abolish us.

Stanislav Petrov: The man who saved the world

1983 was probably the most dangerous year for mankind ever in history. We were twice close to a nuclear war between the Soviet Union and the USA. But we did not know that.

The situation between the USA and the Soviet Union was very dangerous. In his notorious speech in March 1983, President Reagan spoke of the “Axis of Evil” states in a way that seriously upset the Soviet leaders. The speech ended the period of mutual cooperation, which had prevailed since the Cuba Missile Crisis.

In the Soviet Union many political and military leaders were convinced that the USA would launch a nuclear attack. Read More »