Russian officials briefly misinterpreted a Norwegian scientific rocket to be a nuclear attack. It showed the dangers of accidental nuclear war even when the threat of military confrontation between the US and Russia was at an all-time low.
As part of the response, the Russians took the nuclear briefcase, with missile launch codes (in the US this is called the Football, the Russians call it the “cheget”) and opened it for Boris Yeltsin. You can’t get much closer to launching your nuclear arsenal than that.
Fortunately the Soviet-era early warning systems were still fully operational. With only one “missile” tracked, it was unlikely this was a full exchange. We don’t know many of the other details, but it’s likely their other sources did not detect the launch of any ICBMs (which would take longer to reach Russia than this supposed submarine-launched missile), and even the preemptive EMP scenarios would require more than one missile to cover all of Russia. Their tracking systems also likely finalized the trajectory of the sounding rocket and learned it was not heading for Russia. All this together meant they did not issue launch orders.
Since then we can be quite confident everyone who needs to know about these launches knows exactly when and where they will be to prevent another false alarm. At least one like this.
On January 25, 1995, the Black Brant XII blasted off from Andoya Island in northern Norway. Its target altitude of 1,500 kilometers could have theoretically carried it into Russia. “An officer on duty reported detecting a ballistic missile which started from the Norwegian territory,” recalled MAWS General Anatoly Sokolov. “If it had been launched on an optimal trajectory, its range would have been extended to 3,500 kilometers which, in fact, is the distance to Moscow. The thing is, the start of a civilian missile and a nuclear missile, especially at the initial stage of the flight trajectory, look practically the same.”
The radar crew had no choice but to report what could have been an incoming missile to Moscow. According to MAWS expert Nikolay Devyanin, “There was not time to ask their superiors for advice, but they did not want to become scapegoats for another [Matthias] Rust [the German teenager who in 1987 flew past Russian defenses and landed in Red Square]. In this situation the duty officers made the sole possible decision: to work according to plan, as prescribed by instructions, and as has been practiced dozens of times in drill sessions”
Within minutes, President Boris Yeltsin was in possession of the nuclear briefcase, known as the “cheget,” while Russian nuclear forces were placed on high alert. Fortunately, despite the dilapidated state of Russia’s nuclear facilities at the time, early warning satellites still provided 24-hour coverage of any potential American intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). The exact sequence of events remains unknown, but Yeltsin was most likely able to see via the cheget that a full scale nuclear attack was not underway.
The next day, Yeltsin announced to the press that he had activated the cheget. “I have indeed used yesterday for the first time my ‘little black case’ with a button that is always with me,” said Yeltsin. “I immediately contacted the Defense Ministry and all the military commanders that I require and we were following the path of this missile from beginning to end”. It remains the only known incident when a Russian leader activated the nuclear briefcase. In 1996, CIA director R. James Woolsey testified to Congress that the incident had caused “some sort of alert, not a full strategic alert, but, at least, a greater degree of strategic inquisitiveness.”
The Norwegian rocket incident showed the dangers of accidental nuclear war even when the threat of military confrontation between the United States and Russia was at an all-time low. As former Russian General Vladimir Belous noted, “A fateful accident could plunge the world into the chaos of a thermonuclear catastrophe, contrary to political leaders’ wishes.”