January 25, 1995 -- The Norwegian Rocket Incident
The Norwegian Rocket Incident: Russia almost launches a nuclear attack after it mistakes Black Brant XII, a Norwegian research rocket, for a US Trident missile.
The Norwegian rocket incident (or Black Brant scare) refers to a few minutes of post-Cold War nuclear tension that took place on January 25, 1995, more than four years after the end of the Cold War. The incident started when a team of Norwegian and American scientists launched a Black Brant XII four-stage sounding rocket from the Andøya Rocket Range off the northwest coast of Norway. The rocket, which carried equipment to study the aurora borealis over Svalbard, flew on a high northbound trajectory, which included an air corridor that stretches from the North Dakota Minuteman-III silos all the way to Moscow, eventually reaching an altitude of 1,453 kilometers (903 mi). Nuclear forces in Russia were put on alert, and the nuclear-command suitcase was brought to President Boris Yeltsin, who then had to decide whether to launch a nuclear barrage against the United States. Notably, there is still no clear and direct confirmation that the trajectory of the rocket was taken by mistake, caused by computer or other technical failure.
This event resulted in a full alert being passed up through the military chain of command all the way to President Boris Yeltsin, who was notified immediately and the "nuclear briefcase" used to authorize nuclear launch was automatically activated. It is reported that President Boris Yeltsin activated his "nuclear keys" for the first time in his tenure. No warning was issued to the Russian populace of any incident; it was reported in the news a week afterward.
As a result of the alert, Russian submarine commanders were ordered to go into a state of combat readiness and prepare for nuclear retaliation.
Russian doctrine reportedly allowed Yeltsin ten minutes from the time of detection to decide on a course of action. Russian observers were quickly able to determine that the rocket was heading away from Russian airspace and was not a threat. Reports differ greatly as to whether or not Yeltsin came close to authorizing an attack, but the general consensus is that Yeltsin was able to conclude that there was no basis for attack, and therefore no danger.
The Norwegian and American scientists had notified thirty countries including Russia and the United States of their intention to launch a high-altitude scientific experiment aboard a rocket.
EUCOM was monitoring the event. The EUCOM Commander at the time, Gen. George Joulwan, was aware of the launch and that Russia had been made aware of the launch as well. However, the information was not passed on to the Russian radar technicians. Following the incident, notification and disclosure protocols were re-evaluated and redesigned both in Russia and the U.S.