We know of at least three false alarms given by the American detection system

Sunday, June 23rd, 2019

The most obvious crisis that the US has faced — and continues to face — Jared Diamond argues (in Upheaval) is nuclear armageddon:

For example, on the first day of the week-long Cuban Missile Crisis, Kennedy announced publicly that any launch of a Soviet missile from Cuba would require “a full retaliatory response [of the U.S.] upon the Soviet Union.” But Soviet submarine captains had the authority to launch a nuclear torpedo without first having to confer with Soviet leadership in Moscow. One such Soviet submarine captain did consider firing a nuclear torpedo at an American destroyer threatening the submarine; only the intervention of other officers on his ship dissuaded him from doing so. Had the Soviet captain carried out his intent, Kennedy might have faced irresistible pressure to retaliate, leading to irresistible pressure on Khrushchev to retaliate further…


Once missiles have been launched, are underway, and have been detected, the American or Russian president has about 10 minutes to decide whether to launch a retaliatory attack before the incoming missiles destroy the land-based missiles of his country. Launched missiles can’t be recalled.


We know of at least three false alarms given by the American detection system. For example, on November 9, 1979 the U.S. army general serving as watch officer for the U.S. system phoned then-Under-Secretary of Defense William Perry in the middle of the night to say, “My warning computer is showing 200 ICBMs in flight from the Soviet Union to the United States.” But the general concluded that the signal was probably a false alarm, Perry did not awaken President Carter, and Carter did not push the button and needlessly kill a hundred million Soviets. It eventually turned out that the signal was indeed a false alarm due to human error: a computer operator had by mistake inserted into the U.S. warning system computer a training tape simulating the launch of 200 Soviet ICBMs.


We also know of at least one false alarm given by the Russian detection system: a single non-military rocket launched in 1995 from an island off Norway towards the North Pole was misidentified by the automatic tracking algorithm of Russian radar as a missile launched from an American submarine.


U.S. policy towards Russia today ignores the lesson that Finland’s leaders drew from the Soviet threat after 1945: that the only way of securing Finland’s safety was to engage in constant frank discussions with the Soviet Union, and to convince the Soviets that Finland could be trusted and posed no threat (Chapter 2).


  1. CVLR says:

    We also know of at least one false alarm given by the Russian detection system

    There’s definitely more than that: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1983_Soviet_nuclear_false_alarm_incident

    On 26 September 1983, the nuclear early-warning system of the Soviet Union reported the launch of multiple USAF Minuteman intercontinental ballistic missiles from bases in the United States. These missile attack warnings were correctly identified as a false alarm by Stanislav Yevgrafovich Petrov, an officer of the Soviet Air Defence Forces. This decision is seen as having prevented a retaliatory nuclear attack based on erroneous data on the United States and its NATO allies, which would have resulted in an immediate and irrevocable escalation of the cold-war stalemate to a full-scale nuclear war. Investigation of the satellite warning system later confirmed that the system had malfunctioned.

    When he said “Russian” was he distinguishing Russian from “Soviet”, or did he just miss this one?

  2. Kirk says:

    I think it can be taken as a given that if there were three American false alarms, then there were likely several dozen Soviet ones–Given the degree of technical “expertise” demonstrated throughout their scientific and engineering complexes.

    One thing about Soviet/Russian engineering–When it goes wrong, it goes wrong. Chernobyl, anyone…?

    There was also that dam failure where the machinery hall got flooded somewhere in Siberia. Acquaintance of mine is a dam engineer up here on the Columbia, worked on various projects and already built dams up and down the river. When he saw the details of that accident, I got a lengthy diatribe out of him about the whole thing. Educational, to say the least–And, highly disturbing, when you realize that the same people who worked at Chernobyl and Sayano-Shushenskaya are the same sort of people with the same work-culture as the ones who built that “Dead Hand” system. There’s supposedly a semi- or fully-autonomous component to that thing, and when you contemplate the implications of it all… Yeah. Good luck sleeping at night, my friends. The lives of everyone on this planet may be in the hands of the same set of people who built Chernobyl and Sayano-Shushenskaya.

    As an aside, if you’re really interested in hydropower, and you think it’s perfectly safe and benign…? Go look that little “accident” up, and educate yourselves. The Russians managed to kill 70 people with a friggin’ dam, and without the dam itself failing. All in the turbine and generator hall… Mind-boggling, TBH. I sincerely hope that the Chinese were more diligent and careful at the Three Gorges project…

  3. Sam J. says:

    I can’t find a link to it but I remember reading that when we first turned on our radar system there was a false alarm from returns from the Moon.

  4. Isegoria says:

    There was a New York Times piece on false alarms last year.

  5. Kirk says:

    Any system designed and operated by humans is going to have “issues” with something. The question is, do you have adequate safeguards in place to prevent those issues from going from “problem” to “catastrophe”.

    Chernobyl did not. Sayano-Shushenskaya did not. The Soviets and then Russians designed and operated those facilities with callous disregard for common sense and safety precautions, cheaping out nearly everywhere. Typical for “socialist” economies. You get the same set of problems under traditional economic systems, but the possibility of getting sued into bankruptcy tends to incentivize people into taking a less casual approach. That dam? If you looked at the engineering on it, and have an appreciation for how we do things here, as my friend the engineer did, you can clearly see place after place where they did things that were completely against sane design principles and then where they were doing incredibly stupid things like running the turbine with an uncorrected vibration issue for not just years, but decades. The miracle is that it lasted as long as it did, not that it failed.

    And, the same engineering schools that produced those idiots are the same ones that produced the people who designed and built the Soviet/Russian strategic nuclear arsenal. My guess is that the first time they go to use the damn things, you’re going to see fizzle after fizzle, and they’ll likely wind up contaminating more of Mother Russia than they do of blowing up Chinese or US strategic nuclear weapons.

    Not, of course, that our own systems are likely any more capable. The trillions of dollars spent on those things since WWII are likely to produce some highly unexpected results, if we ever go to use them.

    Ah, well… It will have the benefit of being amusing, at least.

  6. Adar says:

    “convince the Soviets that Finland could be trusted and posed no threat ”

    Oh, baloney. The Soviet did not need to be convinced. The Finns never posed a threat and the Soviets knew it quite well.

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