Misunderstandings and Errors – Cold War close calls

Once the hydrogen bomb had been developed, and despite the rhetoric of military hawks, it is clear that neither side in the Cold War truly believed that a nuclear war between the superpowers was survivable. Especially after the Cuban Missile Crisis, both superpowers realised that ‘old school’ brinkmanship was far too risky when their arsenals contained enough weapons to destroy whole continents, perhaps the whole world.

In 1963 when President Kennedy was briefing the American people about the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, he said that:

“… A war today or tomorrow, if it led to nuclear war, would not be like any war in history.

“A full-scale nuclear exchange, lasting less than 60 minutes, with the weapons now in existence, could wipe out more than 300 million Americans, Europeans, and Russians, as well as untold numbers elsewhere.

“And the survivors, as Chairman Khrushchev warned the Communist Chinese, “the survivors would envy the dead.” For they would inherit a world so devastated by explosions and poison and fire that today we cannot even conceive of its horrors”

Live nuclear missiles don’t carry ‘self-destruct systems’ and can’t be aborted once fired – often it was the actions of just a few people acting in moments of extreme pressure that avoided a nuclear apocalypse.

While each side sought to minimise the risk of a deliberate, direct confrontation, Cold War tensions and suspicions literally left no room for error.

The consequences of a single wrong move or misunderstanding would be horrific… yet mistakes were made, and misunderstandings did happen.

American misunderstandings and errors
As Cold War tensions intensified, there was an unparalleled increase in the reliance on technological systems to remotely detect incoming attacks and coordinate a response, up to and including the automated release of nuclear weapons in the case of so-called ‘dead hand’ systems.

The trouble is that electronic devices can fail or send false signals. In the paranoid Cold War environment, only minutes might have been available to verify the situation and make decisions. A single error could have wrongly triggered the use of nuclear weapons.

For example, on 5th November 1956, during the Suez Crisis (2), the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) was receiving multiple simultaneous reports of actions that could indicate the start of a major Sovet offensive:

  • There were unidentified aircraft flying over Turkey,
  • A British Canberra (WH799) had been shot down during a photo-reconnaissance mission over Syria (somewhat ironically, by a British-supplied Syrian Gloster Meteor F8) (3) and (4),
  • There were Soviet MiG-15 fighters flying over Syria, and
  • The Soviet Black Sea Fleet was engaged in unusual manoeuvres in the Dardanelles (a narrow strait that separates continental Europe from Asia).

NORAD suspected that the combination of these events had the potential to trigger a NATO nuclear strike against the Soviet Union, since the Soviets’ had told the British and French governments that they were “… fully resolved to use force to crush the aggressors and to restore peace in the Middle East”, with a veiled threat to use nuclear weapons against London and Paris if the hostilities continued (5).

Despite the Soviet threats, these reports of an impending Soviet action had in fact been misinterpreted:

  • The MiGs were actually escorting the Syrian president on his return from a visit to Moscow,
  • The unidentified aircraft flying over Turkey were swans,
  • The manoeuvres in the Dardanelles were part of scheduled exercises for the Soviet fleet.

It was all just a coincidence of random events. But with hostilities in progress on the ground, it would have been easy for NATO/NORAD to have jumped to conclusions and make a first-strike against the Soviets (6).

However, not only the Soviets would have been directly affected.

The prevailing US plan for war with the Soviet Union also included attacking targets in China, including every major Chinese city) (7).

The US had no alternative plans to solely attack targets in the Soviet Union at that time.

Or how about 5th October 1960, when radar equipment located in Greenland wrongly interpreted a moonrise over Norway as being a large-scale Soviet missile launch? NORAD was put on high alert but the authenticity of the attack alert was quickly questioned because Nikita Khrushchev was attending a United Nations meeting in New York City at the time. The whole thing was a false alarm caused by a technological failure in the radar equipment (8).

Then there was the loss of communications between the Strategic Air Command (SAC), NORAD and multiple Ballistic Missile Early Warning System sites on 24th November 1961 The communication lines between those facilities were designed to be redundant and capable of operating independently of each other. A communications failure of this scale was interpreted to be either a (highly unlikely) coincidence, or the symptom of a coordinated attack on the United States.

SAC placed their entire combat-ready forces in position for take-off. However, aircraft reconnaissance soon confirmed that an attack was not taking place. It was eventually discovered that communications had been lost due to the failure of a relay station in Colorado, and AT&T not having installed redundant circuits, despite telling the government that they had done so (9).

On 20th February 1971 the US government’s Emergency Broadcast System was activated in error at 9:33am. This system was designed to alert the general population about the threat of an imminent nuclear attack. For the next 40 minutes the US public waited for an announcement from the White House. Thankfully it was just a mistake, but one that nobody was bound to forget, especially in the generations that had been indoctrinated with ‘Duck and Cover’ (10).

This kind of communication error was not limited to the US, of course. In the mid-1980s an internal Royal Observer Corps exercise in the UK announced “Attack Warning Red” on the WB1400 system (11). At 7Gp HQ “… the whole ops room went very quiet and you could sense the tension. Fortunately it was a false alarm. The WB1400 speaker was 3 feet behind my left ear when it went off, that attack warble still gives me the creeps after 30 years, something I’ll never forget” (12). Apparently the announcement of this internal exercise was made by a police officer who had not been briefed, and who omitted to add the ‘exercise exercise exercise’ prefix to his message.

Such errors by staff operating the technology behind Cold War nuclear deterrence were not infrequent and the consequences could have been severe.

On 9th November 1979, a technician mistakenly loaded a training tape into the computer systems at the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD, Colorado). It simulated a large-scale Soviet attack on the United States and was initially mistaken for the real thing (13). The computer screens displayed a massive nuclear attack in progress against US nuclear forces and command posts. NORAD alerted their missile launch control centres and fighter jets were scrambled to intercept enemy bombers. Minutes later the mistake was discovered when data from satellites and early-warning radar systems did not confirm the attack – there were no incoming enemy bombers or missiles.

On 3rd June 1980, less than a year later, there was another false alarm. Once again the fighters were scrambled, the bombers were moved into position and missile launch crews put on standby.

It was quickly discovered that no Soviet missiles had actually been launched. The alert had been caused by a computer chip failing, leading to random numbers of attacking missiles being displayed on a screen (14).

1980 was a busy year. Three months earlier on 15th March a Soviet submarine launched four SLBMs during a training exercise near the Kuril Islands, a volcanic chain which separates the Sea of Okhotsk from the north Pacific Ocean. Indications from early warning sensors were that one of the missiles was headed towards the US. A fast review of the situation concluded that the launch was not a direct threat and US nuclear forces were not activated (15).

Soviet misunderstandings and errors
During the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis the US Navy conducted extensive anti-submarine searches with both surface ships, submarines and maritime patrol aircraft (MPAs). Their aim was to to flush out the Soviet submarines that were heading for US waters. If located, Soviet submarines were to be sent the international code phrase ‘IDKCA’ – Surface or be Destroyed.

On 27th October, the American destroyer USS Beale began dropping non-lethal warning depth-charges on the Soviet submarine B-59. The submarine’s captain mistook these for live explosives and was convinced that they were going to be destroyed. He ordered his crew to arm the submarine’s one nuclear-tipped torpedo and get ready to attack the fleet hunting them. Luckily all three of the submarine’s senior officers had to approve using the nuclear torpedo and Vasili Arkhipov, second in command, refused. Instead he convinced the captain to surface the submarine and request new orders from Russia (16).

World War 3 came close in the early hours of 26th September 1983… the computer systems inside a soviet bunker reported that the US had launched a missile. A minute later there was a second launch warning. Then a third. Then a fourth, and a fifth. The computers were saying that an American nuclear strike was imminent, and the Soviet war plan was to then immediately launch their missiles in retaliation.

That night it was Stanislav Petrov’s job as Duty Officer to monitor any missile strikes and report them immediately to the Soviet military and political leadership. “I had all the data [to suggest there was an ongoing missile attack]. If I had sent my report up the chain of command, nobody would have said a word against it,” he said thirty years later (17).

Petrov knew that other radar operators had not detected the incoming missiles, but the protocol said he had to make a report based on the computer information. He decided that it must have been an error and reported a malfunction instead. Afterwards it was discovered that the glint of sunlight off clouds around Montana had been mistaken for the sign of a missile launch.

Petrov was the only officer in his team who had received a civilian education. “My colleagues were all professional soldiers, they were taught to give and obey orders…” If somebody else had been Duty Officer that night it is likely that an alarm would have been raised about incoming missiles.

From events triggered two years previously, only two months later the US and USSR came even closer to World War 3. Once President Reagan took office in 1981, his increasingly fierce anti-Soviet rhetoric had led Brezhnev and Andropov to declare at a KGB conference in Moscow that the US was preparing for a secret attack against the USSR. They implemented Operation RYaN (Raketno-Yadernoe Napadenie – ‘nuclear missile attack’) as a result (18).

RYaN was a wholly new intelligence gathering initiative designed to look for signs that the US and NATO were making ready to launch their nuclear weapons. It involved staff at Soviet embassies all around the world reporting (sometimes accurate, sometimes not) information about the West’s preparedness under five categories:

  • Political,
  • Military,
  • Intelligence,
  • Civil Defence,
  • Economics.

Reports poured in.

New computer systems were created to process all of the data.

Andropov succeeded Brezhnev and was convinced that the deployment of Pershing II and cruise missiles due later that year were designed for a coup de tête, to destroy the Soviet leadership in a ‘limited nuclear war’.

And then came Able Archer, a US and NATO war-game that was intended to simulate an escalating conflict with the Soviets/Warsaw Pact, up to ‘DEFCON 1’ (defence condition 1) status and the (simulated) launch of strategic nuclear weapons.

For the Soviets, everything they were seeing seemed to confirm that the US and NATO were preparing for war.

There were elements that were not expected from an exercise (19):

  • 19,000 US soldiers airlifted into Europe under radio-silence,
  • the shifting of commands from “Permanent War Headquarters to the Alternate War Headquarters,”
  • the practice of “new nuclear weapons release procedures” – including consultations with cells in Washington and London,
  • numerous “slips of the tongue” in which B-52 sorties were referred to as nuclear “strikes.”

The Soviet Union readied its own nuclear arsenal for a preemptive attack on the US and NATO. The CIA reported that nuclear-capable aircraft in Poland and East Germany were placed “… on high alert status with readying of nuclear strike forces” (20).

Andropov was ill and leading the nation from the Kuntsevo Clinic, 20 miles west of Moscow. On Tuesday 8th November 1983, he “… put the entire Soviet nuclear arsenal with its 11,000 warheads on to maximum combat alert” (see “1983”, Downing).

The weaponry now aimed at the West was apocalyptical. For example, SS-19 ICBMs located in western Russia and the Ukraine each carried six MIRVs (multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles), and each MIRV had a 500-750 kT warhead, equivalent to about 30 – 40 Hiroshima bombs.

Fortunately, by November 11th Able Archer was ending and Soviet nuclear forces could begin to be stood down. With all of the electronics errors and misunderstandings that had preceded Able Archer ‘83, the entire world had a lucky escape from a catastrophe. Whilst not having been played out in public like the Cuban Missile Crisis, Able Archer had a destructive potential many orders of magnitude greater.

The Cold War was fuelled by mistakes and misunderstandings, equipment failures, brinkmanship and excessive military bravado.

In in each case a few people managed to avert ‘the flame deluge’ that Walter M. Miller Jr. had warned of in ‘A Canticle for Leibowitz’ in 1959… such is the folly of princes.


1 – “RADIO AND TELEVISION ADDRESS TO THE AMERICAN PEOPLE ON THE NUCLEAR TEST BAN TREATY, JULY 26, 1963” – John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum – https://www.jfklibrary.org/archives/other-resources/john-f-kennedy-speeches/nuclear-test-ban-treaty-19630726

2 – “Suez Crisis” – https://www.history.com/topics/cold-war/suez-crisis

3 – “The Canberra in the RAF” – Royal Air Force Historical Society – https://www.rafmuseum.org.uk/documents/Research/RAF-Historical-Society-Journals/Journal_43a_Seminar_The_Canberra_in_the_RAF.pdf

4 – “ASN Wikibase Occurrence # 21034” – Aviation Safety Network – https://aviation-safety.net/wikibase/21034

5 – “The Suez Crisis: A Brief Comint History” – United States National Security Agency (1988) – p.23 – https://www.archives.gov/files/declassification/iscap/pdf/2013-117-doc01.pdf

6 – “List of nuclear close calls” – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_nuclear_close_calls

7 – “The Doomsday Machine” – Daniel Ellsberg – chapter 5 – Bloomsbury Publishing, 2017

8 – “List of nuclear close calls” – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_nuclear_close_calls

9 – “Close Calls with Nuclear Weapons” – Union of Concerned Scientists – April 2015 – https://www.ucsusa.org/sites/default/files/attach/2015/04/Close%20Calls%20with%20Nuclear%20Weapons.pdf

10 – “How ‘Duck-and-Cover’ Drills Channeled America’s Cold War Anxiety” – history.com – https://www.history.com/news/duck-cover-drills-cold-war-arms-race

11 – “WB1400 Carrier Reciever ATTACK WARNING RED” – YouTube – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9zz7x7C7l38

12 – Private correspondence with former ROC serviceman – 2020

13 – “A Nuclear False Alarm that Looked Exactly Like the Real Thing” – Union of Concerned Scientists – 2015 – https://blog.ucsusa.org/david-wright/nuclear-false-alarm-950

14 – “The 3 A.M. Phone Call” – The National Security Archive – https://nsarchive2.gwu.edu/nukevault/ebb371/

15 – “Close Calls with Nuclear Weapons” – Union of Concerned Scientists – https://www.ucsusa.org/sites/default/files/attach/2015/01/nuclear%20weapons%20close%20calls.pdf

16 – “5 Cold War Close Calls” – https://www.history.com/news/5-cold-war-close-calls

17 – Stanislav Petrov: The man who may have saved the world” – BBC News 26th September 2013 – https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-24280831

18 – “1983 – The World at the Brink” – Taylor Downing – ‘Operation RYaN’ – Abacus (2019)

19 – “The 1983 War Scare: “The Last Paroxysm” of the Cold War Part II – Part II: ‘Blue’s use of nuclear weapons did not stop Orange’s aggression.’ – Able Archer 83 Declassified”,  National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 427 – PART 2 OF 3 POSTINGS, https://nsarchive2.gwu.edu/NSAEBB/NSAEBB427/

20 – “Able Archer 83” – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Able_Archer_83

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