Have you ever imagined what would happen if a war broke into use of nuclear weapons? In fact, many submarine boats are powered by nuclear energy which in turn is involved in defence strategies in many high GDP countries including USA and Russia. But that’s not what we are going to discuss here. We are going to look back to see if there are any near miss events that would have broken into full blown nuclear wars and all-out-nuclear events (all-out means the country is swiped out).
For an incident to be qualified as near miss event, we put forward some basic rules.
1. Would have led to at least one nuclear bomb detonation
2. Would have been an intentional detonation directed by authoritative personnel of the country
3. The device that would have exploded is intentionally designed to do be exploded
Such incident normally involved nuclear-armed countries which would have retaliated with a strike. The damage that might be caused by such event will not be localized to the involving countries. All the countries will feel the damage, including but not limited to nuclear famine, a phenomenon theorized to be caused due to rapid climate change that might be triggered even if a small nuclear war happens.
Despite a reduction in global nuclear tensions and major nuclear arms reductions after the end of the Cold War (in 1991), estimated nuclear warhead stockpiles total roughly 15,000 worldwide, with the United States and Russia holding 90% of the total. We have listed all incidents (featuring drunk presidents) those were publicised, suspecting that many of those which are now held secret might be made available for public when time comes.
During the Suez Crisis, the North American Aerospace Defence Command (NORAD) received multiple reports at the same time, including unidentified aircraft over Turkey, Soviet MiG-15 fighters over Syria, a downed British Canberra medium bomber, and unexpected manoeuvres by the Soviet Black Sea Fleet through the Dardanelles, which appeared to signal a Soviet offensive. Considering previous Soviet threats to use conventional missiles against France and the United Kingdom, U.S. forces believed these events could trigger a NATO nuclear strike against the Soviet Union. In fact, every report of Soviet activity was found to be inaccurate, misconstrued, or overstated. A wedge of swans over Turkey, a fighter escort for Syrian President Shukri al-Quwatli coming from Moscow, a British aircraft knocked down by technical troubles, and scheduled Soviet naval drills all contributed to the perception of a danger.
A moonrise over Norway was misinterpreted by radar equipment in Thule, Greenland, as a large-scale Soviet missile launch. NORAD went into high alert after receiving a tip of the alleged attack. However, the appearance of Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev in New York City as head of the USSR's United Nations mission raised suspicions about the attack's validity.
A B-52 Stratofortress carrying two 3–4-megaton Mark 39 nuclear bombs broke up in mid-air near Goldsboro, North Carolina, on January 24, 1961, dropping its nuclear payload. Walter Scott Tulloch, the pilot in command, ordered the crew to eject at 9,000 feet (2,700 m). Five crew members successfully ejected or bailed from the plane and landed safely, one ejected but did not survive the landing, and two died in the crash.
According to information declassified in 2013, "only a single switch prevented the 24-megaton bomb from detonating and causing widespread fire and destruction." Parker F Jones, the supervisor of the nuclear weapons safety department at Sandia National Laboratories, wrote an expert evaluation on 22 October 1969, reporting that "one simple, dynamo-technology, low voltage switch stood between the United States and a major catastrophe," and that it "seems credible" that a short circuit in the Arm line during the aircraft's mid-air breakup "could" have caused the disaster.
Staff at the Strategic Air Command Headquarters (SAC HQ) lost contact with NORAD and multiple Ballistic Missile Early Warning System sites at the same time. Because these communication lines were designed to be redundant and independent of one another, the failure of communication was interpreted as either a highly unlikely coincidence or a coordinated attack. Before already-overhead aircraft confirmed that there did not appear to be an attack, SAC HQ prepared the entire ready force for take-off. The failure of a single relay station in Colorado was later discovered to be the sole cause of the communications problem.
During the Cuban Missile Crisis, US military planners anticipated that sabotage operations would take place before the Soviet Union launched its first nuclear strike. A guard at the Duluth Sector Direction Centre noticed a figure climbing the security fence around midnight on October 25, 1962. He fired at it, activating the sabotage alarm, which triggered similar alarms at other bases in the area. A faulty alarm system at Volk Field in Wisconsin caused the Klaxon to sound instead, ordering Air Defence Command (ADC) nuclear-armed F-106A interceptors into the air. The pilots had been told there would be no practice alert drills and, according to political scientist Scott D. Sagan, "fully believed that a nuclear war was starting". Before the planes were able to take off, the base commander contacted Duluth and learned of the error. An officer in the command centre drove his car onto the runway, flashing his lights and signalling to the aircraft to stop. The intruder was discovered to be a bear.
According to Sagan, the incident raised the dangerous possibility of an ADC interceptor accidentally shooting down a Strategic Air Command (SAC) bomber. SAC had not given interceptor crews complete information about plans to move bombers to dispersal bases (such as Volk Field) or the classified routes flown by bombers on continuous alert as part of Operation Chrome Dome. Declassified ADC documents later revealed that "the incident resulted in changes in the alert Klaxon system... to prevent a recurrence."
During the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Soviet patrol submarine B-59 came dangerously close to launching a nuclear-armed torpedo while being harassed by American naval forces. B-59 was one of several vessels surrounded by American destroyers near Cuba, and it dove to avoid detection, causing it to be unable to communicate with Moscow for several days. The USS Beale began dropping practise depth charges to signal B-59 to surface, but the Soviet submarine's captain and zampolit mistook these for real depth charges. With low batteries affecting the submarine's life support systems and the inability to communicate with Moscow, the commander of B-59 feared that war had already begun and ordered the use of a 10-kiloton nuclear torpedo against the American fleet. The zampolit agreed, but the flotilla's chief of staff (second in command) Vasili Arkhipov refused permission to launch. He persuaded the captain to calm down, come to the surface, and contact Moscow for new orders. Vasili is now considered as a hero who stopped a massive nuclear wipe out event.
On the same day, an American U-2 spy plane was shot down over Cuba, and another U-2 flown by US Air Force Captain Charles Maultsby from Eielson Air Force Base in Alaska strayed 300 miles (480 kilometres) into Soviet airspace. Despite orders to stay at least 100 miles (160 km) away from Soviet airspace, a navigational error caused by the aurora borealis took the U-2 over the Chukotka Peninsula, prompting Soviet MiG interceptors to scramble and pursue the aircraft. The U-2 was then escorted into friendly airspace by American F-102A interceptors armed with GAR-11 Falcon nuclear air-to-air missiles (each with a 0.25 kiloton yield). Individual pilots could arm and launch their missiles. The incident remained secret for many years.
Following a massive power outage in the north-eastern United States, the Office of Emergency Planning's Command Centre went into full alert. Several nuclear bomb detectors near major U.S. cities that were used to distinguish between regular power outages and power outages caused by a nuclear blast malfunctioned due to circuit errors, creating the illusion of a nuclear attack.
A powerful solar flare accompanied by a coronal mass ejection interfered with multiple NORAD radars over the Northern Hemisphere. This interference was initially interpreted as intentional jamming of the radars by the Soviets, thus an act of war. A nuclear bomber counterstrike was nearly launched by the United States.
After the 1969 EC-121 shootdown incident, F-4 Phantom fighter jets at Kunsan Air Base were ordered to load B61 nuclear bombs and began planning and preparations for a nuclear strike against the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (North Korea). After a few hours, the order to stand down was given. The jet never took off. Reportedly, President Richard Nixon was drunk when he gave the order for a nuclear attack against the DPRK. The order to stand down was given on the advice of Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.
During the Yom Kippur War, Israeli officials panicked that the Arab invasion force would overrun Israel after the Syrian Army nearly achieved a breakout in the Golan Heights, and the U.S. government rebuffed Israel's request for an emergency airlift. According to a former CIA official, General Moshe Dayan requested and received authorization from Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir to arm 13 Jericho missiles and 8 F-4 Phantom II fighter jets with nuclear warheads. The missile launchers were located at Sdot Micha Airbase, while the fighter jets were placed on 24-hour notice at Tel Nof Airbase. The missiles were said to be aimed at the Arab military headquarters in Cairo and Damascus. The United States discovered Israel's nuclear deployment after a Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird reconnaissance aircraft spotted the missiles, and it began an airlift the same day. After the U.N. Security Council imposed a ceasefire, conflict resumed when the Israel Defence Force moved to encircle the Egyptian Third Army. According to former U.S. State Department officials, General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev threatened to deploy the Soviet Airborne Forces against Israeli forces, and the U.S. Armed Forces were placed at DEFCON 3. Israel also redeployed its nuclear weapons. While DEFCON 3 was still in effect, mechanics repairing the alarm system at Kincheloe Air Force Base in Michigan accidentally activated it and nearly scrambled the B-52 bombers at the base before the duty officer declared a false alarm. The crisis finally ended when Prime Minister Meir halted all military action. Declassified Israeli documents have not confirmed these allegations directly but have confirmed that Israel was willing to use "drastic means" to win the war.
Computer errors at the NORAD headquarters in Peterson Air Force Base, the Strategic Air Command post in Offutt Air Force Base, the National Military Command Centre in the Pentagon, and the Alternate National Military Command Centre in the Raven Rock Mountain Complex led to alarm and full preparation for a non-existent large-scale Soviet attack. NORAD notified national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski that the Soviet Union had launched 250 ballistic missiles with a trajectory for the United States, stating that a decision to retaliate would need to be made by the president within 3 to 7 minutes. NORAD computers then placed the number of incoming missiles at 2,200. Strategic Air Command was notified, and nuclear bombers prepared for take-off. Within six to seven minutes of the initial response, PAVE PAWS satellite and radar systems were able to confirm that the attack was a false alarm.
Congress quickly learned of the incident because Senator Charles H. Percy was present at the NORAD headquarters during the panic. A General Accounting Office investigation found that a training scenario was inadvertently loaded into an operational computer in the Cheyenne Mountain Complex. Commenting on the incident, U.S. State Department adviser Marshall Shulman stated that "false alerts of this kind are not a rare occurrence. There is a complacency about handling them that disturbs me. "Soviet General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev composed a letter to U.S. President Jimmy Carter that the false alarm was "fraught with a tremendous danger" and "I think you will agree with me that there should be no errors in such matters. “In the months following the incident there were three more false alarms at NORAD, two of them caused by faulty computer chips. One of them forced the National Emergency Airborne Command Post to taxi into position at Andrews Air Force Base.
A Soviet submarine near the Kuril Islands launched four missiles as part of a training exercise. Of these four, American early warning sensors suggested one to be aimed towards the United States. In response, the United States convened officials for a threat assessment conference, at which point it was determined to not be a threat and the situation was resolved.
Several weeks after the downing of Korean Air Lines Flight 007 over Soviet airspace, a satellite early-warning system near Moscow reported the launch of one American Minuteman ICBM. Soon after, it reported that five missiles had been launched. Convinced that a real American offensive would involve many more missiles, Lieutenant Colonel Stanislav Petrov of the Air Defence Forces refused to acknowledge the threat as legitimate and continued to convince his superiors that it was a false alarm until this could be confirmed by ground radar. It was subsequently determined that the false alarms were caused by a rare alignment of sunlight on high-altitude clouds and the satellites' Molniya orbits, an error later corrected by cross-referencing a geostationary satellite.
Able Archer 83 was a command post exercise carried out by NATO military forces and political leaders between 7 and 11 November 1983. The exercise simulated a Soviet conventional attack on European NATO forces 3 days before the start of the exercise (D-3), transitioning to a large-scale chemical war (D-1) and on day 1 (D+1) of the exercise, NATO forces sought political guidance on the use of nuclear weapons to stem the Soviet advance which was approved by political leaders. NATO then began simulating preparations for a transition to nuclear war.
These simulations included 170 radio-silent flights to air lift 19,000 US troops to Europe, regularly shifting military commands to avoid nuclear attack, the use of new nuclear weapon release procedures, the use of nuclear Command, Control, and Communications (C3) networks for passing nuclear orders, the moving of NATO forces in Europe through each of the alert phases from DEFCON 5 to DEFCON 1, and the participation of political leaders like Margaret Thatcher, Helmut Kohl, and Ronald Reagan.
The issue was worsened by leaders referring to B-52 sorties as "nuclear strikes", by the increased use of encrypted diplomatic channels between the US and UK, and by the nuclear attack false alarm in September.
In response, Soviet nuclear capable aircraft were fuelled and armed ready to launch on the runway, and ICBMs were brought up to alert. Soviet leaders believed the exercise was a ruse to cover NATO preparations for a nuclear first strike and frantically sent a telegram to its residencies seeking information on NATO preparations for an attack. The exercise closely aligned with Soviet timeline estimations that a NATO first strike would take 7 to 10 days to execute from the political decision being made.
Soviet forces stood down after 11 November when the exercise ended, and NATO was not aware of the complete Soviet response until British intelligence asset Oleg Gordievsky passed on the information.
During the Persian Gulf War, Ba'athist Iraq launched Scud missiles at Saudi Arabia and Israel and possessed a large cache of weapons of mass destruction. This, along with Saddam Hussein's previous threat to "burn half of Israel" with chemical weapons, led to fears that Saddam Hussein would order the use of the chemical weapons against the U.S.-led coalition or against Israel. Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir and Israeli Air Force Commander-in-Chief Avihu Ben-Nun both warned that an Iraqi chemical attack would trigger "massive retaliation," implying that Israel would retaliate with nuclear weapons. At the same time U.S. Secretary of Defence Dick Cheney, General Norman Schwarzkopf Jr., and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher all emphasized that the use of WMD's against Coalition forces would lead to a nuclear attack on Iraq. U.S. Secretary of State James Baker directly warned his counterpart Tariq Aziz that the United States had "the means to exact vengeance" in the event of an Iraqi resort to WMDs. After the war, the Defence Intelligence Agency credited these threats with deterring Iraq from launching chemical attacks on Coalition forces. Nevertheless, Saddam did have a contingency plan to launch WMD-armed warheads at Tel Aviv if he became cut off from the Iraqi Armed Forces leadership or if the Iraqi government was about to collapse, which almost certainly would have triggered a retaliatory nuclear response from Israel. Saddam ultimately never deemed this option necessary because he never felt as if his government was about to collapse.
Russian President Boris Yeltsin became the first world leader to activate a nuclear briefcase after Russian radar systems detected the launch of what was later determined to be a Norwegian Black Brant XII research rocket being used to study the Northern Lights. Russian ballistic missile submarines were put on alert in preparation for a possible retaliatory strike. When it became clear the rocket did not pose a threat to Russia and was not part of a larger attack, the alarm was cancelled. Russia was in fact one of several countries earlier informed of the launch; however, the information had not reached the Russian radar operators.