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22 times the world was on the verge of the third world: the mistakes that almost led to the Apocalypse

The Cold War is long over, but we are still walking under the sword of Damocles of an unprovoked, mistaken nuclear strike - and there are already at least 22 cases when the world stood by a thread from death. with the BBC.

Photo: Shutterstock

It happened in the middle of the night on October 25, 1962. The truck raced along the runway of a military air base in Wisconsin, to which bombers with nuclear bombs were already ready to taxi. The truck driver had only a few seconds to stop them.

A few minutes earlier, a guard at the command post in Duluth, Minnesota, out of the corner of his eye caught the movement of a shadow along the perimeter of the fence: a shadow was trying to climb over the fence.

The guard fired a shot at the intruder and raised the alarm, believing this could be the start of a broader Soviet assault on the United States. At all neighboring airbases, alarms went off loudly.

The situation was developing extremely quickly. At one of the airbases - Wolf Field - someone pressed the wrong button, and instead of the standard security warning, the pilots heard a siren, indicating an alarm to take off.

In tension and haste, they rushed to their vehicles, ready to take off with nuclear weapons on board.

This happened at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis, which the United States calls the Cuban Missile Crisis. Everyone was at their limit. Eleven days ago, a reconnaissance aircraft photographed launchers and missiles in Cuba, which meant that the Soviet Union was preparing to launch a missile strike against targets in the United States.

And the world knew very well already then: it is only necessary to inflict a single blow on one of the countries, as an escalation will begin with unpredictable consequences.

As it turned out, there was no military attack in Duluth. The intruder was a bear. But at Wolf Field AFB they did not know about it yet.

The pilots were told that this time it was not a training flight. And they were completely convinced that the Third World War had begun.

In the end, the base commander realized what had happened. The bombers were intercepted on the runway just as they started their engines - some smart military man drove out to meet them in a truck.

The world could already have died at least 22 times

Now fast forward to today. The nuclear fears of the 1960s are all but forgotten. Atomic havens are the lot of eccentric survivalists and the super-rich, and existential concerns have shifted towards issues like climate change.

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It turns out that it is very easy to forget that there are still about 14 nuclear warheads in the world, the total power of which is enough to destroy about three billion human lives - or even wipe out all life from the face of the earth as a result of a nuclear winter.

We understand that the likelihood that one of the leaders of a nuclear power will deliberately use nuclear weapons is extremely small - after all, they are not insane.

However, for some reason we do not take into account the fact that this can happen by mistake.

Think about it: since nuclear weapons were invented, there have been at least 22 cases when a nuclear war almost started. We were on the brink of disaster due to innocent things like a flock of swans flying by, a rising moon (1960), minor computer problems (1979-1980), and a solar storm (1967).

In 1958, an American bomber accidentally dropped a nuclear bomb into a family's garden in South Carolina - by some miracle, no one died, except for chickens that perished in a crater (10 by 15 m) from a heavy bomb.

Such incidents happened until 2010, when the US Air Force temporarily lost the ability to control 50 nuclear missiles, which meant that it was impossible to detect and stop an automatic launch at that time.

Despite the enormous cost and technological sophistication of modern nuclear weapons (for example, the United States is expected to spend $ 400 billion on it between 2017 and 2026), history shows how easily every precaution invented by man can be destroyed by simple human error. , the intervention of representatives of the fauna or natural phenomena.

Yeltsin was ready to strike back at the United States

On January 25, 1995, Boris Yeltsin, then president of Russia, became the first world leader in history to be struck by a nuclear strike with just one button press. How did it get to the point that his "nuclear suitcase" was activated?

Russian radars detected a missile launch off the coast of Norway, which was similar to the launch of a combat ballistic missile from a nuclear submarine. The rocket went up vertically, and it was impossible to understand where it was going.

The Russian strategic missile forces were brought to full combat readiness. "Nuclear suitcases" were activated by President Yeltsin, Defense Minister Pavel Grachev and Chief of General Staff Mikhail Kolesnikov, a telephone conference call was established between the three, during which it was decided whether to retaliate.

Soon, fortunately, it turned out that the missile was moving away from Russian territory and, therefore, did not pose a threat.

A little later it became clear that this was not a nuclear strike, but the Norwegian-American research rocket Black Brant XII with scientific equipment for studying the aurora borealis.

The Norwegian authorities were amazed that its launch caused such a reaction from the Russian side, since they had warned about it a month in advance.

It should be emphasized, however, that it does not matter at all whether the nuclear strike is delivered by mistake or deliberately. The point is that it cannot be canceled, missiles that have already been launched cannot be deployed, and a deactivation signal cannot be sent to them.

“If the president responds to a false alarm, he will mistakenly start a nuclear war,” says William Perry, who served as head of the Defense Department in President Bill Clinton’s administration and as deputy head of the Department of Defense for President Carter.

“Then nothing can be done. The missiles cannot be ordered to return, they cannot be destroyed in the air. ”

Why has the world been in danger so many times? And how to avoid this in the future?

What Happens During a Nuclear Missile Attack

All potential mistakes are based on early warning systems developed during the Cold War.

Rather than waiting for the missiles launched to hit the target (this would be concrete evidence that the strike has been struck), such a system is designed to detect enemy launches early, allowing a retaliatory strike before the weapon for that strike can be destroyed.

For such a system to work, information is needed.

Many Americans are unaware of this, but the United States currently has a network of satellites that silently and continuously monitor what is happening on the planet, including four - from an altitude of 35 km above the Earth.

They are in geosynchronous orbit - the time of their revolution around the Earth is equal to the period of revolution of the Earth around its axis, so that the satellites for an earthly observer do not change their position in the sky, they hang motionless. This allows them to constantly “gaze” at the same part of the planet's surface.

So they are able to detect any missile launch - potentially with a nuclear warhead.

But what these satellites can't do is track the trajectory of the rocket. To do this, the United States has hundreds of radar stations that determine the position and speed of a launched rocket, calculating its trajectory from these data.

When there is sufficient evidence that an attack has taken place, the President of the United States is informed about it. “So, about five to ten minutes after the missiles are launched, the president will know about it,” Perry says.

And then he will have to decide whether to strike back.

“The system is quite complex, and it is in service all the time,” notes Perry. "However, here we are talking about an event that can happen with a low probability, but the consequences of which will be extremely serious." Indeed, it is enough for this to happen once.

How President Carter Woke

There are two types of error that lead to false alarms - technical and human (or, if we're particularly unlucky, both).

A classic example of the former is what happened in 1980, when Perry was in the administration of President Jimmy Carter.

“It was a real shock,” Perry recalls. It all started with a phone call at 3 am. An officer on duty at US Air Defense Headquarters informed him that surveillance computers detected 200 missiles flying directly from the Soviet Union towards the United States.

By that time, it was already clear that this was not a real attack - somehow the computers were wrong.

“It turned out that before they called me, they had already contacted the White House. They called the president. His national security adviser answered the call, ”says Perry.

Fortunately, he did not immediately wake the president, hesitating for a few minutes. During these minutes, information came in that the alarm was false.

However, if such a pause had not been made, if President Carter had been immediately awakened, the world today could be very different.

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“If the president picked up the phone himself, he would have only five minutes to decide whether to retaliate or not. And this is in the middle of the night, when there is no one to even consult with, ”- describes the situation Perry.

After that incident, he never again mistook a nuclear strike as a theoretical problem - it was a real and ominously real possibility. “I would say it almost happened,” he emphasizes.

In that case, the source of the problem was a faulty chip in the national early warning system computer. It cost less than a dollar to replace it.

The most dangerous element is people. Especially presidents

A year earlier, Perry had witnessed a technician inadvertently uploading a training record to a computer and accidentally transmitting extremely realistic details of a fictional rocket launch to the main alert centers.

Which brings us to the problem of the participation of bipedal primates, with brains with a lot of flaws, in the use of weapons that have the potential to raze the world's capitals.

And it's not even a matter of irresponsible technical workers. The main characters we should be concerned about are those with the power to authorize a nuclear strike. World leaders.

“The President of the United States has full authority to use nuclear weapons, and only he has such a right. The sole right, ”says Perry.

This has been the case since the days of Harry Truman's presidency. During the Cold War, the decision to use nuclear weapons was entrusted to the military command. But Truman believed that nuclear weapons are an instrument of politics, and therefore should be under the control of a politician.

Like all of his predecessors as president of the United States, Donald Trump is accompanied everywhere by an assistant with a suitcase (it looks like a ball for playing American football), in which there is a plastic card with the presidential codes for activating the nuclear forces of the United States.

Wherever he is, Trump always has the ability to launch a nuclear strike. All he needs to do for this is to say conventional words, and the so-called mutually assured destruction, when both the attacker and the retaliator destroy each other, will be accomplished within minutes.

As many organizations and experts point out, concentrating such power in one hand is a big risk.

“This happened to presidents more than once - someone drank, someone took strong medications. Someone might be under severe stress. This has all happened in the past, ”Perry stresses.

And the more you think about it, the more disturbing opportunities open up before you.

If it is, say, night, then the president is sleeping? He will have a few minutes to make the most difficult decision in his life, and absolutely no time to somehow recover, let alone have a cup of coffee. It is unlikely that a president in this state will be able to function most effectively.

In August 1974, when President Richard Nixon was in the midst of the Watergate scandal and on the verge of retirement, he suffered from clinical depression. They say that he was on the verge of nervous exhaustion, drank drunkenly and behaved strangely - for example, a Secret Service agent once saw him eating dog food.

They say that Nixon was generally prone to fits of anger, drank and sat on pills, but this time it was much more serious. And with all this, he still had the sole right to launch a nuclear strike.

(Drug or alcohol intoxication, by the way, is also a problem for military personnel guarding the US nuclear arsenal. In 2016, several flight crews at a missile base admitted to using drugs, including cocaine and LSD. Four were found guilty by the court.)

How to prevent a disaster

Perry recently co-authored with Tom Collin of the Plowshares Fund, The Button: The New Nuclear Arms Race and Presidential Power from Truman to Trump ("The Button. A New Nuclear Arms Race and Presidential Power - from Truman to Trump") ... It describes the insecurity of current nuclear safeguards and suggests a number of possible solutions.

First, they call for the abolition of that very sole right of the president, so that the decision on the use of weapons of mass destruction is made democratically - this would reduce the likelihood that such a decision will be made under the influence of any mental disorders.

In the United States, this could be a vote in Congress. “It would slow down the decision-making process for a nuclear strike,” says Perry.

It is generally accepted that a retaliatory nuclear strike must be delivered as soon as possible, while there is still a possibility of carrying it out. But even if many cities and ground-based nuclear missile systems in the United States are destroyed, the surviving government will still be able to authorize the launch of nuclear missiles from submarines.

“The only retaliation that is justified is when you know for sure that you have been attacked. We must never respond to an alarm that could be false, ”Collina emphasizes.

And the only way to know for sure that the threat is real is to wait for enemy missiles to land on your territory.

Such a slowdown in response would allow countries to maintain the benefits of MCD deterrents, but at the same time with a significantly lower chance of mistakenly starting a nuclear war because, say, a bear decided to infiltrate your airbase.

Second, Perry and Collin make a compelling case for the nuclear powers to commit themselves to using nuclear weapons only in response - and never first.

“China is an interesting example, they already have a 'never first' policy, says Collina. "And there is reason to believe them, since in China nuclear warheads are kept separate from missiles."

The latter means that if China decides to deliver warheads to delivery systems before launch, at least one of the satellites should notice it.

It is noteworthy that the United States and Russia do not have such a policy - they reserve the right to launch a nuclear strike even in response to the use of conventional weapons in hostilities.

The Obama administration considered adopting the “never first” concept, but the decision was never made.

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And finally, the authors of the book “Button. With a new nuclear arms race and presidential power from Truman to Trump, ”countries would be better off completely abandoning land-based ICBMs because they can be destroyed by a nuclear attack from an enemy. These are the weapons that are deployed in the first place and in haste in response to a possible but not yet confirmed attack.

Another option is to give nuclear missiles the ability to cancel a launch if the provocation turned out to be a false alarm.

“It's interesting that when missiles are tested, there is such an opportunity,” says Collina. “If they go off course, they self-destruct. But this cannot be done with combat missiles because of fears that the enemy will somehow be able to establish remote control and disable them. "

Modern computer technologies have stepped very far, but at the same time, the capabilities of attackers have expanded - the threat from hackers, viruses and bots capable of infiltrating defense systems and starting a nuclear war is growing.

“We believe the chances of a false positive increase as the threat of cyberattacks grows,” says Collina.

For example, a system can be misled into thinking that a nuclear missile is approaching. Then the president of the country has no choice but to give the order to retaliate.

The broader issue, of course, is that states want their nuclear weapons to be easy to use and quick to respond at the push of a button. And this inevitably makes it difficult to control.

Although the Cold War is long over, Collina points out that we are still walking on the sword of Damocles in an unprovoked attack - when in reality we live in a completely different world.

And, ironically, the biggest threat comes from the very launch sites that are designed to protect us, many experts point out.

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