World War Three, by mistake

Eric Schlosser writes: On June 3, 1980, at about two-thirty in the morning, computers at the National Military Command Center, beneath the Pentagon, at the headquarters of the North American Air Defense Command (NORAD), deep within Cheyenne Mountain, Colorado, and at Site R, the Pentagon’s alternate command post center hidden inside Raven Rock Mountain, Pennsylvania, issued an urgent warning: the Soviet Union had just launched a nuclear attack on the United States. The Soviets had recently invaded Afghanistan, and the animosity between the two superpowers was greater than at any other time since the Cuban Missile Crisis.

U.S. Air Force ballistic-missile crews removed their launch keys from the safes, bomber crews ran to their planes, fighter planes took off to search the skies, and the Federal Aviation Administration prepared to order every airborne commercial airliner to land.

President Jimmy Carter’s national-security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, was asleep in Washington, D.C., when the phone rang. His military aide, General William Odom, was calling to inform him that two hundred and twenty missiles launched from Soviet submarines were heading toward the United States. Brzezinski told Odom to get confirmation of the attack. A retaliatory strike would have to be ordered quickly; Washington might be destroyed within minutes. Odom called back and offered a correction: twenty-two hundred Soviet missiles had been launched.

Brzezinski decided not to wake up his wife, preferring that she die in her sleep. As he prepared to call Carter and recommend an American counterattack, the phone rang for a third time. Odom apologized — it was a false alarm. An investigation later found that a defective computer chip in a communications device at NORAD headquarters had generated the erroneous warning. The chip cost forty-six cents.

A similar false alarm had occurred the previous year, when someone mistakenly inserted a training tape, featuring a highly realistic simulation of an all-out Soviet attack, into one of NORAD’s computers. During the Cold War, false alarms were also triggered by the moon rising over Norway, the launch of a weather rocket from Norway, a solar storm, sunlight reflecting off high-altitude clouds, and a faulty A.T. & T. telephone switch in Black Forest, Colorado. [Continue reading…]

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3 thoughts on “World War Three, by mistake

  1. hquain

    It’s a daunting task to add anything useful to Schlosser’s detailed reckoning, but I will suggest two further points of concern.

    1. The article concentrates on the US and Russia, a two-agent game which can be analyzed to a fair degree of depth. But the nuclear powers include China, France, the UK, Israel, as well as Pakistan, India, and North Korea. It’s nightmarish to even begin to think about the possible interactions.

    2. The eventual outcome must surely be sensitive to the character of the negotiating strategies of the parties involved. Trump’s method of bluster, bluff, and shifting ad hoc fabrications cannot be conducive to any kind of stability.

  2. Paul Woodward

    The riskiest of the Trump interactions seem likely to be those with North Korea which arguably has a greater capacity for unpredictability that Trump himself.

  3. hquain

    I’d have to agree that at the level where deliberate actions the North Koreans look to be the likeliest to do something deliberately which is hopelessly deluded. But Schlosser’s article reminds us that the system is necessarily prone, for many reasons, to accidents. This can’t be avoided, even by reasonable and sane managers.

    The US/Soviet Union system proved to be remarkably stable, with only a few near-lapses. They are rightly horrifying, since any one of them could have led to planetary levels of destruction. Surely the current multi-actor scenario, with some of the actors at a ragged technical levels, and many crazy, is (or is going to be) far more prone to mishaps. People like to think about the world is terms of agent and causes, but mere happenstance is a certainty, too, and low probability things happen all the time.

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