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Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)

False Alarm - 25 January 1995

Command and control problems could lead to incorrect information being transmitted, received, displayed, or complete early-warning system failures. This was demonstrated by the convulsions the Russian command and control system endured on 25 January 1995 when a Norwegian sounding rocket launch activated President Yeltsin's nuclear briefcase. During this major malfunction in their early warning system, for a few minutes the Russians mistakenly thought the scientific sounding rocket was in fact a missile launched from a US submarine headed in their direction.

The Oko early warhing satellite system signaled that a ballistic missile, similar in characteristics to the American Trident II missile, capable of extinguishing all Russian radars at once by means of a high-atmospheric atomic explosion, was recorded in the water off the coast of Norway.

When the General staff picked up this missile being launched on their radars, initially they didnít realize that it was coming from Andoya Island which is located in the Norwegian Sea. Radars canít precisely geolocate a missile in the initial minutes itís launched, and it could have been coming from nearby ballistic missile patrol areas that our Trident Ohio-class submarines patrol. In their doctrine, this is one of the things they feared most in terms of a Western surprise nuclear attack; that a single missile would be launched from this location which has the shortest flighttime to Moscow so that an electromagnetic pulse attack could be done. This is an exoatmospheric nuclear detonation that creates a very powerful radio wave that would fry their electronics, their radars, their command and control so they couldnít retaliate. And then, just behind that, there would be this massive attack.

Radar operators issued an alert that it was an unidentified missile, with an unknown destination. The alert went to a general on duty, who received his information from the radar operator on a special notification terminal, Krokus. The duty general decided to send the alert to the highest levels. One factor might have been fear that even a lone missile would trigger a debilitating electromagnetic pulse explosion to disrupt Russia's command-and-control system, as a prelude to a broader onslaught. At that point, the Russian electronic command-and-control network known as Kazbek, had come into play. Kavkaz is a complex network of cables, radio signals, satellites and relays that is the heart of the Russian command and control.

From there, it caused an alert to go off on each of the three Chegets nuclear `footballs': one with Yeltsin, one with then-Defense Minister Pavel Grachev and a third with the chief of the General Staff, then Mikhail Kolesnikov. The chegets have only one purpose when theyíre activated. Youíre under a surprise nuclear attack: push the button to retaliate. That was basically the Generalís staff implicit advice when it activated the chegets.

For the first time ever, the nuclear command system started the countdown to a launch decision, and President Yeltsin and his nuclear advisors began an emergency teleconference. Yeltsin and the others holding the black suitcases monitored the rocket's flight on their terminals. A signal was sent to the Russian strategic forces to increase their combat readiness, but the crisis then ended. After some eight minutes, perhaps two minutes short of the deadline for a decision to launch a response, the Russians realized their mistake. Russian officials later brushed aside questions about the incident, saying it had been overblown in the West.

It quickly became known that the launch of the Black Brandt 12 missile in Norway did take place. The rocket was designed in the United States and named the Black Brant VII. Its purpose was to lift a payload of instruments into the aurora borealis (northern lights) for scientific study. This launch was not the first of its kind. Norway had fired over 600 scientific rockets since 1962, and had followed fairly standard notification procedures in everycase. The difference in this case was the type of boost vehicle. Black Brant VII employed a multi-stage rocket booster that the Russian early warning system personnel characterized as a possible U.S. Trident II SLBM.

Russian early warning teams activated the communications links to the General Staff. The General Staff in turn sent the warning and activation signals tothe NCA briefcases. Thus the President, Defense Minister, and Chief of the General Staff each had the same information available to the early warning centers. Additionally, the three decision-makers had a telephone conference callcircuit that backed up the information available on their locally available briefcase (KROKUS) displays. There has been no published record of the specific exchanges between the men during the first anxious and probably confusing minutes following the system activation. However, it quickly became apparent after the first few minutes that the rocket's flight path would pass well clear of Russia. None of the decision-makers initiated a nuclear missile launch based upon this "attack warning."

The only problem was that three weeks before the launch, the Norwegians warned the Russian side of the impending launch, as required by international rules (the message No. 1348, which arrived from Oslo to Moscow about three weeks before launch). The Scandinavians confirmed their words in documentary terms, as a result, Russia had to justify itself. There was an apparent failurewithin the Russian government to pass two formal written warnings from the Norwegian government to the Russian Ministry of Defense, which would have notified the early warning personnel of the impending launch. Yeltsin transferred the blame to the military - they say, they did not inform on time, disgracing their president for the whole world.

There were in 1995 no events that would point to a crisis in U.S.-Russian affairs that would provoke a U.S. first strike. The chief of the General Staff, Colonel-General Mikhail Kolesnikov, immediately rushed to the rescue of the sensationalized and too liberally interpreted incident of the Supreme Commander-in-Chief. He reassured the alarmed Russian and international public: "The observation of the missile took over automatically the equipment of our early warning stations about the missile attack. And the technology is completely indifferent to what kind of missile it is - military or civil. However, launching a rocket from a certain area is always a serious event ..."

Kolesnikov confirmed that the Norwegian notification of the launch of the missile in the Russian military department was, however, without mentioning the exact time of the launch. But it is usually not called in such documents - often there are delays. And so only one day is indicated and from what hour the launch is scheduled.

The event showed that in spite of the claims of a degrading Russian nuclear command and control system, the early warning functions properly detected and tracked the missile over time, giving decision-makers the information they needed to decide if a nuclear retaliation was warranted. In this case, it was not.

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Page last modified: 05-01-2022 12:24:01 ZULU