Tuesday, January 25, 2011

January 25, 1995

What were you doing on January 25, 1995?

Most of you probably don't remember. I don't, besides that I was in residency.

I bet you have no idea how close you came to dying (it was 2 minutes). Or, if you didn't die, having your life dramatically altered.

A Black Brant is a type of goose. It's also the name of a Canadian rocket routinely used for atmospheric experiments. It's launched with a bunch of instruments (depending on what's being studied) and the instruments are monitored during the flight. They then parachute back to Earth and are recovered for further data.

Black Brants are commonly used by Canada, the U.S., and several other countries for research. And so it was on this day in 1995.

A team of U.S. and Norwegian scientists launched a Black Brant from northwest Norway to study the Aurora Borealis. It contained standard scientific instruments.

But things - almost - went horribly wrong.

Routine notification of scientific and test launches is customary, and this one was no exception. 30 countries were told, including Russia. But due to layers of bureaucracy, the notice wasn't passed along their military chain. After all, the cold war had been over for 4 years.

As the rocket climbed, it was picked up by Russian radar early warning systems. It was on a trajectory that matched a predicted Trident missile launch from U.S. nuclear submarines in the Arctic circle. As it flew it also crossed an air corridor between American ballistic missile silos in North Dakota and Moscow, which resulted in Russian satellites tracking it.

The Russians read it as an American first strike. Both sides had practiced war games where a single high-altitude nuclear explosion from a submarine would be used to blind radar and satellites from the real attack, while the electromagnetic pulse would paralyze their defenses.

The Russian military went to full alert. Their ballistic missile submarines in the Arctic were all ordered to prepare for immediate launch. Silo crews on land were notified. Their targets would be the major cities of North America and western Europe. They knew the American/NATO forces would respond in kind.

The Black Brant used in this case was a 4-stage rocket. As it separated the radar pattern matched that of a ballistic missile with multiple re-entry warheads coming down, further convincing the Russians that an attack was underway.

The nuclear briefcase, with its launching codes, was brought to Russian President Boris Yeltsin. Like the Americans, the Russians use a mandatory 10 minute launch window (the time needed for a submarine-launched missile to reach either country). Yeltsin activated his nuclear keys to launch a counterattack- but waited for final verification.

At 8 minutes into the alert the rocket's course became clearer, and the Russians realized it was not incoming. With 2 minutes left before the mandatory nuclear launch time, Yeltsin deactivated the briefcase and ordered all nuclear forces off alert. The incident wasn't reported at the time.

The Black Brant rocket completed it's planned flight, landing near Spitsbergen and recovered. The scientists involved had no idea what had happened.

Did that story scare you? Then think about this: It's a single incident.

On November 9, 1979 the U.S. military was testing a radar training tape of what an incoming missile strike would look like. Unfortunately, while being tested, the tape was accidentally broadcast on screens at the American nuclear missile headquarters (NORAD).

The long range nuclear bombers in Alaska were ordered to take off to bomb Russia, while the command tried to verify the attack with other radar systems and satellites (which didn't show anything unusual). It took 6 minutes before an anonymous officer discovered the error, and the bombers were recalled.

We've all heard of Yeltsin, but have you ever heard of Stanislav Petrov? He's a retired Soviet military officer, now living in Fryazino, Russia.

In September, 1983 U.S.-Soviet relations were likely at their worst point since the Cuban Missile Crisis. To top it off, the Russians had just installed a new early-warning system.

On September 26, 1983, Petrov was the shift officer in command of the Soviet early-warning radar defenses. The system twice reported an incoming nuclear strike from North America, once with a single missile, a second time with 4.

Petrov, in a remarkably gutsy move, overrode the computer both times. He declared it an error and didn't pass the information to his superiors. His reasoning was based entirely on his gut instinct that the new system couldn't be trusted. As it turned out, he was right.

Petrov himself couldn't launch a strike. But both sides were on such a hair trigger at the time that if he'd passed the information farther up the line, most historians agree that his superiors would have assumed the worst and ordered a retaliatory attack.

You want more? During the Cuban Missile Crisis Vasili Arkhipov was First Officer on a submarine stationed in the Caribbean. His submerged boat was surrounded by American destroyers, who were trying to identify it.

The captain thought war between the U.S. and U.S.S.R. had started, and wanted to launch a nuclear torpedo. To do so required a unanimous opinion of the boat's 3 top officers. The other 2 wanted to launch, and Arkhipov refused. He argued so forcefully against doing so that the captain decided to surface, identify himself, and check with Moscow. The movie "Crimson Tide" was based on his story.

In only one incident was it actually a world leader who averted disaster. In the rest (and there are many others, read here, or over here) it was a few people (even one), considerably lower in the chain.

On this day in 1995 it was only 2 minutes. Just 120 seconds. Less time than it took you to read this.

Life on the edge is precarious.

45 comments:

Nurse J said...

so whaddo i think? i think it's kinda early in the morning (and late in my shift) to have the pants scared off of me. i was 16 years old.

Anonymous said...

Given Yeltsin's thirst of alcohol, this makes this even scarier. I am reading the book the White House tape, which has several tales of the former leader of Russia ditching security and going on wild drinking binges.

Kim said...

Yeah, that was a great way to start the day. Thanks a lot. :o

My father was an MP in the Army during the Cuban Missile Crisis. He said that they were gathered up and basically told that nuclear war was imminent. I can't imagine.

Lynda Halliger-Otvos said...

I think we humans need to pull together and help each other get thru this life with dignity, food, shelter, education and health care, clean water and an opportunity to have a family of their own and see it survive to maturity.

Butter instead of bombs and spread Peace.

Anonymous said...

A good time to be Australian, no?

Grumpy, M.D. said...

Perhaps. Certainly, the southern hemisphere would be spared the initial conflagration, but would still be affected by massive radioactive fallout, nuclear winter, and severe disruptions in food, technology, and supplies.

Doris said...

We had to read Alas, Babylon (by Pat Frank) when I was a junior in high school. I lived, then, in Norfolk, Virginia. I remember how frightened I was when I realized any sort of strike on the Naval installations there would toast the region for 50 miles around.

Fortunately, one cannot maintain that level of fear without going insane.

C N Heidelberg said...

Wow.

PS. Dr. Strangelove is my favorite movie ever.

Doctor Blondie said...

I was in primary school. Safely tucked away in the southern hemisphere. I was 8 years old and in third grade. It was summer. It was one of the first days of school and I was getting used to a new class.
Unless, of course, that day was a week end day.

Sandra said...

My father was in the Marine Corps during the Cuban missile crisis, as a radio operator. His jeep (radios back then were so large, they took up the whole back end of a jeep) was loaded on the ship and he had orders in his pocket to deploy to Cuba. Scary.

Don said...

I was in the US Navy between 1984 and 1990

Lots of incidences between US Ships and Soviets that are little remembered.

1995, I was in the US Army Reserve....

Diana said...

My government/economics teacher in high school once told us that there was no way the public could know what all goes on because it would create wide spread fear and panic. These are just a few examples.I don't think we want to know it all. Ignorance truly is bliss.

Anonymous said...

I've lived, Sir, a long time, and the longer I live, the more convincing Proofs I see of this Truth — That God governs in the Affairs of Men.

Wow, is this quote true!

diane the voodoo queen said...

So this may not be the expected reaction, but... this somehow makes me feel better. People like us, who are thinking feeling people, who don't want the world to burn, stepped up and stopped their war mongering leaders from doing the wrong thing. Politicians and leaders can become so disconnected from the real life that it makes me feel better that REAL people saved us from nuclear war.

Just my 2 cents...

Kim said...

I grew up in an area that had an Air Force base. Growing up, we were always told that if there ever was a nuclear war, we might as well go to the base and wait because it would be one of the first places hit and we would all die anyway and there would be nothing we could do about it. That was a fun thing to always have in the back of my mind.

ERP said...

I was a second year Med student suffering through pathology class probably. I was 100% oblivious to anything political at the time. Scary shit Man.

jimbo26 said...

Here in the UK , things WOULD happen , because bureaucracy doesn`t use common sense .

Ric said...

During the Cuban Missile Crisis I was in Junior High School and lived in South Miami, with in sight of the rail line south to Homestead, I had an Uncle who flew fighters out of Homestead AFB and a Nike missile anti-aircraft unit deployed in a open field area by my school, scary time...

Later in life one of my best friends went to the Air Force Academy and spent 20 years as a crew dog in B-52s, I've heard his stories...

Sometimes it's the grace of God, we're still here...

Anonymous said...

I'm 66 now, but several times scrambled my EE Lightning to go Bear hunting over the Faroes. They always gave a nice wave and took a photo of me, probably whilst stopping their stopwatches.

SuFu said...

Just to make everyone feel old, I was 10. I grew up next to the #4 or 5 target in the US for the Russians and if you drive 50 miles in any direction from my old house you would and still can see dozens and dozens of minute-man missle silo plots out in the middle of the plains. It's scary shit thinking about all the power that's just waiting for loon or hacker to unleash.

Grumpy, M.D. said...

How much effort would it take for a terrorist group to launch an unarmed rocket toward either the U.S. or Russia?

Think about that.

The rocket doesn't have to carrying anything. It just has to make either side think it is.

Threehills said...

Fascinating post!

"In Soviet Russia, vodka drinks you"

Old MD Girl said...

Oops?

Old MD Girl said...

Also, your readers are really young. Stop making me feel old, people!!

Packer said...

After the Cuban missle crisis I became a fan of Bobby Kennedy.

People today think that we should get over our Cuban thing, what they forget is that Fidel Castro put a revolver to our heads with all chambers loaded. You never forget someone who does that to you and you never make them your friend.

Kim said...

Ok, Old MD Girl...if you're old, then I'm really old, assuming, that is, that your profile is up to date.

Sting said...

In Europe and America, there's a growing feeling of hysteria
Conditioned to respond to all the threats
In the rhetorical speeches of the Soviets
Mr. Krushchev said we will bury you
I don't subscribe to this point of view
It would be such an ignorant thing to do
If the Russians love their children too


How can I save my little boy from Oppenheimer's deadly toy
There is no monopoly in common sense
On either side of the political fence
We share the same biology
Regardless of ideology
Believe me when I say to you
I hope the Russians love their children too


There is no historical precedent
To put the words in the mouth of the President
There's no such thing as a winnable war
It's a lie we don't believe anymore
Mr. Reagan says we will protect you
I don't subscribe to this point of view
Believe me when I say to you
I hope the Russians love their children too


We share the same biology
Regardless of ideology
What might save us, me, and you
Is if the Russians love their children too

Kim said...

Great song! Wow, that brings back memories from my teenage years. And yes, I just felt compelled to listen to it. If anyone else wants to, here it is! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wHylQRVN2Qs

Cartoon Characters said...

wow. that wasn't too long ago. At least it seems not too long ago... I had just moved back from California up to Canada but I still lived within 80 miles of the border.

One month after that date I was working at Eisenhower in Palm Desert. Little did I know.


Men and their toys.

Anonymous said...

I live in Kentucky. Everything happens 10 years later here than anywhere else. We also have plenty of caves to hide in til the all clear sounds.

guidetomedschool said...

Um...I was probably barely 4 years old...

Anonymous said...

You're scaring me. But I love your military and naval history.

RSDS said...

25 January 1995 was a Wednesday.

WV: lierperi -- does that mean peri is a lier?

me said...

My hubby was also a crew member/instructor on B-52s (he jammed Russian radars)...
And Dad was a fighter pilot...

Kim ~ we joked about the same thing ~ head TOWARDS the base so you don't die a lingering, agonizing death...

Truly scary sheet...

Moose said...

When I was a kid, back when dinosaurs roamed the Earth, we still had those bomb raid drills. You know, the ones where we'd run into the halls, squat down against the walls with our hands over our heads? As if this was going to protect us.

When I was in high school one of the social studies teachers was very passionate about the whole Cold War thing and literally scared the weenies outta me. After some of his lessons I would lie awake at night wondering if we were really going to be bombed into nuclear smithereens.

In grade 11 my social studies teacher was a hippie - he got arrested in a big nuclear power plant protest (while I'm pro nuclear power, not on a frikkin island!) - who had us spend a lot of time on the Korean and Vietnamese "conflicts."

I think I was about 30 before I stopped constantly worrying whether we were all gonna start glowing in the dark any moment now.

Charles CĂ©leste Hutchins said...

Ban the bomb!

Jesus, do we need this kind of precarity?

Anonymous said...

Notice how all these coolheaded dudes were Russian?
Notice also how Russia has kept its head over the terrorist bombing of the biggest airport in Moscow, rather going completely spazzmo the way Americans do?
Americans could learn a lot from Russians.

was1 said...

We just need Matthew Broderick to tell the WOPR to play tic-tac-toe instead of thermo nuclear war. Its just War Games, right?

Anonymous said...

those russians were true heroes. america has it's own. i remember my father going to war with his dixie state based fighter squadron in 1962. he was sure it was going to happen, and excited. i was a kid, and innocent. i am glad to still be here, but agree that castro is an untrustworthy cutthroat bastard, even though we need to normalize ties with cuba.

Anonymous said...

You were a resident in 1995? For some reason I always thought you qualified for Medicare.

Mingle said...

After reading this post...i feel like my frustrations at work are not so important after all...actually it feels almost insignificant...i guess in a way it brightened my day :P

Anonymous said...

This oldie remembers the bomb drills and the missile crisis very well. We lived just outside of DC and mom (among others) thought we would be bombed, so took us out of school for a week while we stayed with relatives in PA. I don't doubt at all that there have been several close calls as described.

The Mother said...

Makes the plot of War Games almost seem posterous.

M@ said...

The real problem with this is that we accept nuclear weapons as a reality, instead of working to change that reality.

To do something proactive, check this out.

Anonymous said...

I grew up on a dairy farm and I was 6 during the Cuban Missile Crisis. I remember the county agent coming to all the farms and instructing us all to cover our cows with Rubber Sheets, to keep the fallout from contaminating the milk. Yeah right! First and only time in my life that I saw my dad cry, as he brought the cows in. I will never, ever, forget the moment and pray it never comes again.

 
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