In January 1995, the Norwegians launched an American rocket which was picked
up on Russian radar as a Trident submarine launch. At what point did you
become aware that it had happened?
Well, we were aware very shortly of the circumstances of that launch, and what
the Russians said about the actions they had taken. In my own judgment, that
was not as dangerous a situation as many have inferred. I think fundamentally
Russia knows that we're not going to attack them with nuclear weapons, that no
crisis of the kind that could develop in the cold war, like the Cuban Missile
Crisis, is likely to develop between the United States and Russia in today's
So I would counsel people who are worried about nuclear weapons not to worry
that the Russians are going to think we're attacking them. They should worry
that some Russian somewhere is going to be too hungry, too poor, too angry at
his government, too frustrated at the continuing turmoil there, and is going to
take a nuclear weapon, or take some fissile material, and sell it or use it in
some illicit fashion. That's the new danger. And that's the danger we really
need to worry about.
Was there a realistic possibility that, with discussions, they could have
concluded that it was an American or a Western missile and there was a genuine
threat? Was retaliation ever in the cards?
Well, the problem today is that Russia relies very heavily on the quick launch
of its forces, so there's very little time to...ensure that the information
is totally reliable. So under the circumstances, I think it's fair to say that
there was a risk. How large is hard to say, but there was definitely a risk of
a mistaken launch triggered by the Norwegian scientific rocket. If the event
had occurred in a different context, that risk would have gone up. It could
have been very high, in the right situation, or, I should say, the wrong
situation. How are you to know how close one comes to a catastrophic human
mistake, under the circumstances of such enormous pressure? I believe that
there's an inherent risk in the operation of these nuclear arsenals, with
thousands of warheads poised on missiles, ready for firing at a moment's notice
and governed by a doctrine or a strategy of quick launch, of launch-on-warning.
That has to be an inherent danger in the sense that no human being could really
make a reliable, good decision, under the pressure of time that is allowed
under this procedure....
Do you see the Norwegian case as an isolated case or did it indicate
something on a much wider scale?
Almost all false alarms in the history of the US nuclear warning network, and
probably the Russian, as well, have been idiosyncratic. They have been unique
in some respect. I recall two major false alarms on the US side, one in `79 and
one in 1980. One was caused by the inadvertent insertion of a tape that
simulated an all out attack against the United States, that was inserted by
crews in the early warning system, who were just testing out the system. And
that information was transmitted to the combat system, and looked like a real
attack. In the second incident, in 1980, a 23-cent computer chip failed and
generated information that looked like a large Soviet attack against the United
States. These events are somewhat unique, they're not going to re-occur in
exactly the same way that they did the first time around....Every false alarm
in US history that I have studied indicates that it was unique in every case,
and not to be replicated in the future. But I'm not sure that there's much
comfort to be drawn from that, because there is a history of false alarms on
both sides, and they will recur, and the only question really is how often, and
what's the context, and what's the nature of the false alarm, and in every
case, it will be a unique situation.
What is not unique, what is generally true about the Russian situation, is that
their early warning and command systems have fallen on hard times, and they are
deteriorating in physical respects. There are holes in the radar and satellite
constellations. Russia has almost no ability to monitor the oceans from space,
so they rely heavily on ground radars, and the ground radars are not being
maintained properly. The crews that operate them are not as proficient as they
once were, their morale is not as high. In every sense of the word, the Russian
early warning and command system is suffering. And that's a trend that is
almost certain to produce more false alarms in the future.
In 1995, the Norwegians launched a rocket which was mistaken for an incoming
American nuclear missile by the Strategic Rocket Forces. How did that happen?
Has there been an investigation by your institute or within the government,
that you're aware of, of what happened in that situation?
There has been no investigation of this issue and we don't see why there should
be. The launch of the missile was detected and that information was passed on
to the President....But there was nothing, not even in the very nascent
form, in terms of taking any kind of retaliating measures....To make a
decision to make a retaliatory, a massive retaliatory strike, is very hard
decision; even if you possess the complete information and true information
concerning the fact that your country has been hit. It's totally impossible to
make a decision based on information about one missile.
Our information was that it came within two minutes of the President having
to make a decision in that particular instance. Does this not give you some
cause for concern?
No, that is all in the land of fantasy. I will say it again. No president, no
matter what President it is, will ever make a decision about launch-on-warning
based on information about one rocket or missile or even...two or three
missiles. So, I think that all concerns in that regard are just wasted time.
And I don't think that there is sufficient grounds for Americans to be
concerned or worried about our control system. I think you should be more
concerned with the falling birth rates in Russia, than a decreasing control
system. Because that does not lead to the improvement of our economic state and
also to the improvement of the military might and security. The United States
does need a strong, big power that is economically strong....I have deep
respect for the Americans and for the United States and I think that gives me
some kind of a moral right to say that sometimes, you overly concentrate or
overly focus on some problems that do not really have any ground. Russia is not
[a] country. Russia is [a] continent, and without Russia, to provide global
strategic stability [would be] impossible. And Russia could potentially become
a very powerful center of stability in its half of the world. We don't have any
ideological contradictions and we don't have any major economic claims against
each other, so I think that we should become the centers of a stability in our
respective continents and we should jointly provide for global stability, and I
hope that eventually that will happen.
In 1995, there was a Norwegian rocket launch. The Russian forces supposedly
were put on alert and went down to two minutes before they determined it was
not an American missile. Is that your understanding of the facts?
No. Not at all. Let me just kind of put it perspective for you. The Norwegians
were going to launch this rocket. They were very sensitive about making sure
that the Russians knew about it. Any country today that launches a missile puts
out what they call a Notice to Airmen--it's through an international aviation
organization--so that airplanes don't go flying over where this missile's going
to be launched. So the Norwegians did that....In addition to that one channel
of communication, the Norwegians went through the diplomatic channels to let
the Russians know that this was going to happen. So you had two channels of
information supposedly going up through the system. Somehow, neither one of
those channels got up to their national command center....
And the best explanation, and the one that I have absolutely no reason to
doubt, is this. Somehow in the bureaucracy, the word about this launch of the
Norwegian missile did not reach to the military channels. The missile was
launched. The missile was launched from what looked like [to] the Russians
where one of our ballistic missile submarines would launch a missile. The
general officer on duty saw the indications, went to his checklist. The
checklist said, if you have this kind of indication, you let the following
people know, including the President and his briefcase.
Once that process was initiated, and within tens of seconds after that process
was initiated, before any status change was made to any nuclear force, they
determined that this was not a threat to Russia. So no Russian military system
was placed on an increased status of alert. And because they'd already
initiated the procedures to contact the President, they went through and said,
"There is nothing to worry about. We have just had an indication of a launch
from Norway, and it is no threat to Russia...." All they did was activate a
So it raised no concern in your mind?