Nuclear close calls

Defensionem Nuclear close calls

Nuclear close calls. As East and West face off to each other once again, the world seems polarised like never before. There are some real differences in point of views between the two blocs on the strategic and geopolitical arena; but those differences are exacerbated and fed by the very people who should seek to find a middle-ground, compromise, communicate, cooperate and de-escalate: Our respective leaders.

For a prospective leader on the election trail or for a leader in power, an enemy is always useful. It enables one to paint oneself as a war lord, a strong charismatic chief. It also comes in handy to have a ready made scapegoat to blame for problems or setbacks or just to distract the good old people at home for the very real problems on the domestic front.

The same enemy-scapegoat combo comes in handy for the generals who see defence budget increase. That in turn makes for happy weapon manufacturers.

As for the media… Well… Half the media say what they are told to say. The other half just wants to sell. And a big bad boy or archenemy sells well and so does fear. The hysteria currently found in newspapers and sometimes on television smells of good old cheap propaganda.

The East West animosity can be found everywhere. But while the Cold War 2.0 is setting in, it has already turned hot on social media. Bloggers, journalists and admins from countess pages and groups share or write a piece and hordes of fanboys from both sides jump at each other’s throat in the comment section.

On one side, the anti Russian feelings whipped up by the media to hysteria levels give way to basic demeaning Russophobic comments verging on xenophobia. On the other hand, the anti-American feelings rise proportionally, too.

In an era where anyone with access to internet is a well educated expert on economics, geopolitics, diplomacy and all things military, it is scary to realise that given half an opportunity, most of those internet experts would declare war on the other side from the comfort of their own living room.

Nuclear explosion Nuclear close calls
Nuclear explosion

It is a melting pot of Old timers, nostalgic of the Cold War and young Millennials who have never lived through that era but somehow seem to wish for the return of such a state.

So here is a little compilation of near misses the Cold War brought us. This is not a full list but more a selection of the biggest nuclear scares our planet went through from the 1960’ to the 1990’s.

Let’s start nice and slow.

On the 5th of October 1960,  Radars in Greenland interpreted a moonrise over Norway as a Soviet missile launch. NORAD was warned straight away and went on high alert. Doubts about the authenticity of the attack began to creep up when the Americans realised that the Soviet leader of the time (Nikita Krushchev) was in New York as head of the USSR’s UN delegation.

Ok. Everyone is all warmed up, now. Let’s crank the heat up a little.

On the first of October 1962,The Soviet submarine B-59 set off for the Caribbean alongside her sister ships. But remember, this was happening at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis… On the 27th of October, B-59 was detected and surrounded by several US Navy destroyers. The destroyers proceeded to drop exercise depth charges in the vicinity of the Soviet sub. Those exercise depth charges barely contained any explosives and they were meant to signal the Soviet subs to surface so they could be positively identified.  The Soviets, however, seem to have never received the message, and to the B-59 captain and his crew, it seemed they were under attack…

Unable to contact Moscow, with batteries running low and the life support system on-board the sub failing as a result, both its captain and political officer guessed war must have broken out between the US and the USSR. Both agreed to load a 10 kiloton nuclear tipped torpedo and ready it to be fired at a US ship. The flotilla commodore opposed the move and convinced its colleagues to surface the ship and await orders from Moscow. The sub surfaced, there was no war, the nuclear tipped torpedo was stowed away.

B-59 Nuclear close calls

Perfect. We are now cruising.

On the 23rd of May 1967, an ongoing solar storm hits its peak, firing off a flare that sent strong radio waves toward earth. 3 US Air Force Early warning radars  situated in Greenland, Alaska and in the UK went blank. This was interpreted as Soviet jamming. And the only reason why the Soviet would want to jam those radars would be to mask a nuclear attack !

Planes loaded with nuclear weapons were instantly readied for launch for a counter strike. At the last minute, solar forecasters managed to get in touch with NORAD and convinced them that the sun was responsible for the radar malfunction, not the Soviets.

Solar storm Nclear close calls
Solar storm


On the 9th of November 1979, a tape containing an operational training scenario was loaded by accident onto an actual “online” NORAD computer. Soon, alarm bells rang and warnings that 250 Soviet ballistic missiles were inbound for the USA erupted. Then the number of missiles in the air increased to 2,200 ! American ICBM crews and nuclear bombers were placed on alert and readied for a retaliatory strike. It took 7 long, tense minutes for the radars to confirm nothing was inbound at all.

ICBM Nuclear close calls

Able Archer, 1983

NATO used to conduct annual command post exercises throughout the Cold War. In 1983, NATO decided to spice things up by including a simulation for a nuclear launch, ferry thousands of troops from the US to Europe, operating in radio silence, only use heavily cyphered means of communication and moving officers from peace time headquarters to alternate command posts…  This exercise was very realistic… Too realistic, maybe…

As a response, The USSR placed its forces in East Germany, Poland and Russia on high alert. Tension rose steadily throughout operation Able Archer 83 with on the one hand the Soviets believing a nuclear attack was being prepared against them and being tempted to strike the West pre-emptively. On the other hand,  the NATO bloc forging ahead with their exercise while at the same time noticing a stronger than usual response from the Soviet side and taking step to keep up with it…  By the time the exercise wrapped up, the world was on the edge of a full nuclear exchange.

Exchange Nuclear close calls

We kept the best one for last. This one happened after the Cold War had ended but was the result of decades of mistrust and the arms race that went hand in hands with the Cold War era.

In the early 1990’s, Russia was a mess. The country was still reeling from the fall of the USSR and its armed forces were a shadow of their former selves and everywhere was chaos and disorganisation.

On the 25th of January 1995, Norway launched a Black Brant rocket from the Andoya firing range. The Rocket was loaded with scientific equipment to study the Aurora Borealis. The Norwegian authorities had warned their Russian counterparts about the launch but the message was never transmitted to the military…

As a result, the rocket appeared on Russian Early warning radar screens as a submarine launched Trident ICBM. In response, Russian nuclear forces were put on high alert. It went as far as Boris Yeltsin actually activating his nuclear briefcase, the first and only time such a device was activated operationally in the history of mankind. The Russian president then hesitated to order the launch of a counter strike. He hesitated just long enough for the radar operators to realise the rocket was  on a path taking it away from the Russian airspace.

Aurora Borealis Nuclear close calls
Aurora Borealis


As you can see, the Cold War could have turned hot at any time between the end of WWII and the mid 1990’s. And it could have turned hot in the blink of a moment, setting off a chain reaction that no one could have prevented. When one reviews the sheer amount of near misses and accidents that happened in that era and measures their potential consequences, it is crazy to think our leaders are taking that path once more.

The example should come from above. Our leadership (Western and Eastern leaders all included) must wake up and apply the brakes before this Cold War 2.0 becomes our new daily reality. But in the absence of example from above to follow, maybe we should start moderating ourselves a bit better. And by “we”, I mean the media, bloggers and admins community.

While we must encourage the exchange of opinions and listen to the other side, we should refrain from writing or posting/sharing war mongering articles, whipping up hatred and sowing fear. Remaining objective without pointing the finger at the “other side” or being overly political is a must. Trolls, keyboard warriors and fanboys must be moderated.

Having hundreds or thousands of fans, followers and readers comes with great responsibility, and maybe said responsibility should be exercised more thoroughly.



Renaud Mayers
Currently working on behalf of the Belgian Ministry of Defence, thanks to my knowledge in WWII and other areas. Working in two WWII era fortresses still belonging to the Army.

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