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January 25, 1995: The Norwegian Rocket Incident

Posted January 25, 2007 9:25 AM by Steve Melito

Twelve years ago today, Russian radar technicians detected the launch of a fast-moving object from Norway's Andoya Island in the Barents Sea. Because of the radar's limited resolution, the crew concluded that the object's altitude and speed bore the signature of a multi-stage, submarine-launched U.S. nuclear missile. When the object separated into several sections just as the warheads of a Trident missile would, the technicians notified their superiors, who passed the alert up the chain of command. Within minutes, the on duty general relayed information from Krokus, a special notification terminal, to Kavkaz, the heart of the Russian military's command, control and communications (C3) system. Signals were then sent to three "nuclear footballs", electronic terminals in black suitcases that traveled with Russian President Boris Yeltsin, Defense Minister Pavel Grachev, and Chief of General Staff Mikhail Kolesnikov. According to some accounts, Russian military doctrine left President Yeltsin with less than 5 minutes to determine whether an attack was in progress - and to order a retaliatory nuclear strike.

Ultimately, radar technicians at the Olenegorsk early-warning station notified President Yeltsin that the high-altitude object was headed away from Russia and out to sea. Weeks earlier, Norwegian and American scientists had notified 30 countries, including Russia, of their plan to launch a four-stage sounding rocket off the northwest coast of Norway in order to study the northern lights. Unfortunately, the radar crew at Olenegorsk had never been notified of the planned launch.

Experts disagree over whether the Norwegian rocket incident nearly caused a nuclear exchange between the United States and Russia. Nikolai Devyanin, chief designer of the Cheget nuclear suitcase, claimed that by the time Yeltsin was alerted, the military's command-and-control system "was now operating in combat mode." Russian General Vladimir Dvorkin disagreed, stating that "there was nothing, not even in the very nascent form, in terms of taking any kind of retaliating measures". Some observers claim that Russia's network of military satellites provided Yeltsin with evidence that an American attack was not underway. Others, such as Geoffrey Forden, Pavel Podvig and Theodore A. Postol, wrote in the March 2000 edition of IEEE Spectrum that "the newest generation of Russian satellites, designed to warn against submarine missile attack" were still "inoperable" at the time.

Resource:

https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/russia/closecall/howclose.html

https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/missileers/falsealarms.html

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/inatl/longterm/coldwar/shatter031598a.htm

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Norwegian_rocket_incident

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Guru
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#1

Re: January 25, 1995: The Norwegian Rocket Incident

01/26/2007 5:26 PM

Moose:

It's no doubt that we live in a dangerous world.

However there have been many incidents that are analogous to that one. A single missile, even a MIRV, is not at all likely to be interpreted as a nuclear attack, since it is assumed by all who are responsible for launching a retaliatory attack, that such an event would involve massive numbers of missiles in order to take out the ability to retaliate, or it would be a nonsensical exercise since retaliation would certainly be expected.

I do recall there were several potentially more serious events on our side where it was thought that a massive attack was underway. I believe one was the result of a bungled training exercise. I also seem to remember another one that was due to (I'm foggy on this) either an unexpected satellite re-entry and breakup or a meteor shower.

In any case God only knows how many times and how close we may have come to a bad end, because these things are not exactly trumpeted on the front pages, and very rarely come to light at all, (even rarer in Russia).

Regards,

Greg

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Guru
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#2
In reply to #1

Re: January 25, 1995: The Norwegian Rocket Incident

01/27/2007 10:54 AM

Thanks for the feedback, Greg. In their article in IEEE Spectrum, Geoffrey Forden, Pavel Podvig and Theodore A. Postol consider why a single MIRV might generate a full nuclear alert. They theorize that because the trajectory of the Norwegian rocket intersected the flight path of a multiple-ICBM strike, Russian officials could conclude that "the rocket might have been a multiple-warhead Trident intended to create a pattern of nuclear explosions at high altitudes that would have blinded the radar" network along the Barents Sea. Later in the article, the authors seem to contradict themselves by stating that "Russian leaders almost certainly knew there was no massive launch of U.S. ICBMs because their early-warning satellites were observing those missile fields and could see that no missiles were in flight." Go figure.

I'm not sure we'll ever know the full story of the Norwegian rocket incident. Was Boris Yeltsin anxious to remind the U.S. that Russia is still a power to be reckoned with? Did the Russian military command fail to notify subordinates of a planned launch in order to test the reflexes of Russia's own early-warning system? Did the U.S. want to "probe" Russia's response to see if that radar system had fallen into disarray? Your guess is as good as mine.

Thanks for mentioning the other nuclear false-alarms. I plan to examine episodes such as "the training tape incident" in future articles. Although the Cold War is over, the relationship between military technology and human psychology remains front-and-center in our dangerous world.

Best Regards,

Moose

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Guru
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#3
In reply to #2

Re: January 25, 1995: The Norwegian Rocket Incident

01/27/2007 6:14 PM

Steve,

It is certainly within the realm of possibility that we wanted to "light up" Russia's defensive radar network or in some surreptitious manner gain information about their command communications system.

Remember the device we placed on one of their submerged military communication cables to "tap" it, although the information in that case had to be physically retrieved at intervals. There is so much we don't know about top secret things going on on both sides. Every once in a while somebody spills the beans on one thing or another, but that's rare, and usually on the Russian side since the demise of the Soviet Union.

The extreme cat and mouse games played out in the air and on the seas were pretty hairy at times. Not to mention we lost dozens of aircraft that were actually shot down by the Soviet Union over the Cold War years (and not in a theatre of battle). Only some were publicly reported. Most people only know of the U2.

This link lists (only) the 17 publicly reported ones up to 1992, but one of the links on this page mentions 39 military and 1 civilian aircraft between 1946 and 1991:

http://www.aiipowmia.com/koreacw/cw1.html

Another link deals with 10 of them, and the 77 missing crew members:

http://www.dtic.mil/dpmo/sovietunion/coldwar_working.htm

Greg

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