On This Day: The Black Brandt Rocket Scare

On January 25, 1995 the world almost had a nuclear war.

In 1995, the Cold War was over, ended for all practical purposes with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. The threat of a global nuclear war was much reduced.  The world breathed a collective sigh of relief.  Yet that relief proved to be premature.

Although the Soviet Union was no more, Russia and the US retained considerable mistrust of each other.

It was in this environment that Norway launched a scientific sounding rocket on a high, suborbital path to study the Aurora Borealis over the island of Svalbard.

Although Norway had previously announced the flight to over 30 other countries, including Russia, this information was not passed on to the Russian radar technicians.  When the technicians picked up the rocket on radar, flying in the “corridor” that stretched from Minuteman III missile sites to the Russian Capital of Moscow, their immediate impression was that this was an early stage precursor of a US missile attack on Russia.

The rocket, on radar, looked very like a Trident SLBM.  One possibility was that this initial missile was intended to create an EMP to confuse and blind Russian radars and open the way for a more massive attack to follow.

To add to the confusion, the Black Brandt XII, on stage separation, appeared on radar to resemble the separation of MIRVs (Multiple Independent Reentry Vehicles) from their carrier in a ballistic missile.

For whatever reason, perhaps equipment difficulties, perhaps simple operator error, the Russian technicians did not immediately detect that the rocket was headed out to sea and not toward Russia.  Of the ten minutes they had to determine whether to launch a retaliatory strike (A Trident Missile from submarines in the Barents Sea could reach mainland Russia in ten minutes), eight were spent determining the trajectory.

An alert was passed up the Russian chain of command, all the way to then President Boris Yeltsin.  For the first time ever he activated his “nuclear keys” in preparation for launching a nuclear retaliation.  Submarine commanders were given the order to stand by and prepare to launch.

Before the final button (metaphorical–the process is more complicated) could be pushed, word reached the decision makers that the rocket was headed on a safe trajectory and was not a threat to Russia.  In the end, the alert was rescinded.

This represents the only known time so far that any nuclear power has activated it’s “nuclear briefcase” in preparation for launching an attack.

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