The Nuclear near misses: new report warns of increasing risks

01.05.2014 - Silvia Swinden

This post is also available in: Italian

The Nuclear near misses: new report warns of increasing risks
(Image by Image Wikimedia Commons)

Chatham House’ Royal Institute of International Affairs has produced a new study on the history of near use of nuclear weapons and warns that the risks are on the increase.

“Too Close for Comfort: Cases of Near Nuclear Use and Options for Policy” by Patricia Lewis, Heather Williams, Benoît Pelopidas and Sasan Aghlani, published in April 2014

Since 1962, there have been at least 13 times when nuclear weapons were nearly used. Technical faults in communication raising false alarms, in both the US and Russia were often the cause. In several occasions the only thing that prevented a full scale launch was the action of individuals disregarding protocols.

The risks appear to be rising with the increasing number of countries in possession of nuclear weapons. Russia and the US still have an estimated 1,800 warheads on high alert ready to launch between five and 15 minutes after receiving the launch order, which puts the conflict in Ukraine in a grim light.

“The question today is: are these risks worth it?” said Patricia Lewis, Chatham House research director for international security and one of the report’s authors. “You can imagine a situation in which tensions rise and signals come in and people misinterpret what is going on. Will people always have sound enough minds to take the time to make a reasoned decision?”

The Guardian comments that “The mental state of some of the leaders who had their fingers on the nuclear button has sometimes been a source of worry. Richard Nixon and Boris Yeltsin both raised concerns among their top advisers with their heavy drinking. In May 1981 the newly elected French president, François Mitterand, left the French nuclear launch codes at home in the pocket of his suit.”

“President Jimmy Carter did the same in the 1970s, and the suit as well as the codes were taken to the dry cleaners. The US launch codes went missing again when Ronald Reagan was shot on 30 March 1981. FBI agents had them, along with the injured president’s bloodied trousers.”

“Monday’s report focuses on cases in which nuclear weapons came close to being launched deliberately on the basis of bad or incomplete information. However, there is an additional risk of accidents inherent in the maintenance of stockpiles of more than 17,000 warheads held by Russia, the US and the other seven nuclear-armed states.

“Some of those accidents were described in a book published last year, entitled Command and Control.”

“Author Eric Schlosser gives an account of an incident in September 1980 in Damascus, Arkansas, in which a maintenance engineer dropped a socket wrench into a silo holding a Titan II nuclear missile, igniting its fuel and triggering an explosion which sent the warhead flying. It landed near a road but did not detonate.”

“In an earlier accident in January 1961, a B-52 bomber broke up over North Carolina, dropping its two nuclear bombs over the town of Goldsboro. One of the bombs activated, engaging its trigger mechanism. A single low-voltage switch was all that stood between the eastern US and catastrophe.”

These are some of the incidents from the Royal Institute of International Affairs’ report that highlight the worrying episodes and some near misses

Cuban missile crisis cases, October 1962

The Soviet Union had been notified of the United States’ intent to drop practice depth charges (PDC) as part of its blockade around Cuba, but this information was not relayed to any of the submarine commanders. Unaware that the depth charges that hit B-59 were PDC intended to force the submarine to the surface, Captain Valentin Savitsky ordered a launch of nuclear warheads ‘we’re going to blast them now! We will die, but we will sink them all – we will not disgrace our navy!’… Second Captain Vasili Alexandrovich Arkhipov was able to intervene and convince Savitsky he should await instructions from superiors in Moscow.

1973, Israel, Arab–Israeli war: The first time that Israel considered a ‘nuclear demonstration’ was on the eve of the 1967 war when it assembled two or three nuclear explosive devices.

1979–80, United States, NORAD incidents: exercise tape mistaken for reality and faulty computer chip which triggered a nuclear attack warning, giving the impression that more than 2,000 Soviet missiles were on the way.

Soviet Union, September 1983 Shortly after midnight on 25 September an alert sounded at a Soviet satellite early warning station. The data suggested five intercontinental ballistic missiles were heading towards the country. Lieutenant Colonel Stanislav Yevgrafovich defied protocol by not reporting the incident to his superior, gambling that it was a false alarm. It turned out that sunlight glinting off US territory had confused the satellite.

1995, Russia, Black Brant scare

On 25 January 1995, scientists in Norway launched a Brant XII rocket from the Andøya Rocket Range, intended to study the aurora borealis over the Svalbard region. The rocket was misidentified and Boris Yeltzin was presented with the launch briefcases, in readiness to launch missiles, until it became clear that the rocket was not going to land in Soviet territory.

May–June 1999, India and Pakistan, Kargil crisis

The 1999 Kargil crisis, one of the most dangerous incidents involving the near use of nuclear weapons since the end of the Cold War, needs to be considered in the context of other crises in Indo-Pakistani relations. … the Kargil crisis arose out of a conventional military conflict between India and Pakistan over the disputed territory of Kashmir. In May 1999, Pakistani troops and pro-Pakistani militants were spotted by Indian intelligence in the Kargil region of Kashmir on the Indian side of the Line of Control (LoC). The Indian Air Force bombed Pakistani bases along the LoC in Kargil. The incident soon escalated into a military confrontation involving the threat to use nuclear weapons… The conflict ended thanks to the successful mediation of US President Bill Clinton.

August 2007, United States, Minot

On 30 August 2007, six US nuclear-armed cruise missiles were missing for 36 hours. They were mistakenly placed under the wings of a B-52, and were not guarded according to protocol during a subsequent flight from Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota to Barksdale, Louisiana. Had the plane experienced any problem in flight, the crew would not have known to follow the proper emergency procedures with nuclear weapons on board.

February 2009, France and United Kingdom, HMS Vanguard/FNS Le Triomphant (two submarines carrying nuclear weapons) collision

The list continues with incidents involving also China and North Korea.

It is difficult, in the face of this report, not to conclude that the only way to keep the world safe from a nuclear catastrophe is to completely ban and dismantle all nuclear arsenals. Until then, the unthinkable is just not that improbable.

Categories: International, Peace and Disarmament, Politics
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