russian roulette

navigation, see below for text
frontline online

how close did we come?

ASHTON CARTER

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 circumstances.

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.


bruce blair

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.


general vladimir dvorkin

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.


general eugene habiger

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 communications link.

So it raised no concern in your mind?

No.


home . atomic suitcase bombs . a close call? . a nuclear smuggling scenario . russia's nuclear complex . debating the future . interviews . readings
join the discussion . synopsis . links . press . tapes & transcripts
frontline online . pbs online

web site copyright 1995-2014 WGBH educational foundation

SUPPORT PROVIDED BY

NEXT ON FRONTLINE

Solitary NationApril 22nd

FRONTLINE on

ShopPBS