12 Times We Came Close to Using Nuclear Weapons

Incidents from the Cold War, the Middle East and the Asian subcontinent reveal the world has come close to nuclear detonation than perhaps many realise.

Explainer Updated 1 February 2021 Published 18 July 2016 3 minute READ

October 1962

Soviet Union, Operation Anadyr

The Soviet Union sent four submarines on a secret mission to the Atlantic Ocean codenamed Operation Anadyr. They arrived in the same week as the United States naval blockade of Cuba began. All four were authorized to launch a nuclear attack independently from central command. Meanwhile, the Soviets had been told that the US intended to drop practice depth charges (PDC) as part of its blockade around Cuba but this information was not relayed to any of the submarine commanders. This led to confusion in which one of the nuclear submarine captains thought he was under attack. He was eventually persuaded to await instructions.

October 1962

United States, ‘Black Saturday’

The term ‘Black Saturday’ is commonly used to refer to the shooting down of a US U-2 plane over Cuba at the height of the Cuban missile crisis. However, in a less well-known incident on the same day, a U-2 spy plane was lost over Soviet territory. MiG fighter planes were scrambled to chase the jet down. Eventually the pilot managed to coast clear of Soviet airspace. Nikita Khrushchev would later tell John F. Kennedy that such an incident could have forced the Soviets to take ‘a fateful step’.

October 1962

United Kingdom Bombers Placed on Alert

Throughout the Cuban missile crisis, the UK was pivotal to a NATO strategy that embraced the willingness to use nuclear weapons in response to a Soviet attack. From February 1962, as part of the British peacetime deterrent, each V-force squadron provided one fully armed aircraft and crew at 15 minutes’ readiness to scramble to deliver its weapons on pre-planned targets beyond the Iron Curtain. Throughout the crisis, 59 of the 60 Thor intermediate-range ballistic missiles (IRBM) stationed in Britain were put on full alert with this readiness state of 15 minutes. Moreover, all V-force aircrafts were fully equipped with their nuclear loads and crews were placed on heightened readiness levels.

November 1962

Soviet Union, the Penkovsky False Warning

Soviet intelligence officer, Colonel Oleg Penkovsky, was recruited by British and US intelligence as a double agent. However, Penkovsky was under surveillance and was arrested in October 1962. He had been given a code by which to warn his handlers if a Soviet attack on the US was imminent. He was to call twice, one minute apart, and only blow three short breaths each time. He made the calls to MI6 Head of Station Gervase Cowell, at the UK embassy in Moscow. However, Cowell used his judgement and decided not to inform London and Washington as he should have done. He judged correctly that Penkovsky had been arrested and his codes had been broken and decided not to act.


Israel, Arab–Israeli War

Israel’s official stance of nuclear opacity can be characterized in the statement that it will ‘not be the first to introduce nuclear weapons to the region’ and therefore Israel neither confirms nor denies its possession of nuclear weapons. The first time that Israel considered a ‘nuclear demonstration’ was on the eve of the 1967 war when it assembled two or three nuclear explosive devices. To this day not much is known about that episode. In 200,1 former Brigadier General Itzhak Yaakov (Yatza) was arrested and ultimately tried for revealing state secrets that presumably involved that episode.


United States, NORAD Incidents

On 9 November 1979, a missile warning system was inadvertently fed test scenario data concerning a Soviet nuclear attack. Only the ability of NORAD (the North American Aerospace Defense Command) to access the US Air Force’s Ballistic Missile Early-Warning System radar enabled it to confirm that this alert was false. Yet less than a year later early-warning systems again falsely reported a Soviet nuclear strike.

September 1983

Soviet Union, Serpukhov-15 or the ‘Early-Warning System Incident’ 

On the night of 25 September 1983, Lieutenant Colonel Stanislav Yevgrafovich Petrov saw incoming data reported that the United States had launched five Minuteman intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) at the Soviet Union. What stood out to Petrov as unusual was that the US had launched only five missiles — far fewer than Soviet strategic doctrine believed was likely as part of a first strike. He also had reservations because the system could not identify the missiles’ jet-trails and therefore could not confirm their presence. He ultimately reported the incident as a false alarm.

November 1983

Soviet Union and United States, Able Archer-83

A NATO military exercise, codenamed Able Archer-83, took place in November 1983. It featured a run-through of a NATO attack on the Soviet Union using nuclear weapons and centred on a simulated exercise of command and control. Able Archer included at least four potential indicators or ambiguous signals that could possibly have led to misperception. There are indications that the exercise was taken very seriously as a genuine nuclear threat. Some sources from the Soviet side, however, contend that the leadership never concluded an attack was imminent, although this remains a point of contention.

August 1991

Soviet Union, Failed Coup

An attempted coup in the Soviet Union resulted in President Mikhail Gorbachev losing control of his nuclear briefcase for three days after it was confiscated by Minister of Defence Dmitry Yazov, one of the coup leaders. Procedures meant that if the primary system — belonging to the president — was rendered incommunicado for an extended period, then primary authorization was delegated to one of the remaining two cases. The two other nuclear briefcases were in the possession of leaders of the coup.


Russia, Black Brant Scare

On 25 January 1995, scientists in Norway launched a rocket intended to study the aurora borealis. With a radar signature strikingly similar to that of a Trident II submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM), Russia’s missile warning system, SRPN, quickly identified the rocket as a nuclear-tipped ballistic missile. President Yeltsin was notified within minutes of the launch and presented with one of three briefcases used to relay the authorization of a nuclear launch. Yeltsin deliberated over the phone for several minutes until it was clear that the rocket would land beyond Russian territory. In this case, technology and early-warning systems functioned properly but it was a case of ‘mistaken identity’.

May–June 1999

India and Pakistan, Kargil Crisis

The Kargil crisis arose out of a conventional military conflict between India and Pakistan over the disputed territory of Kashmir. In May 1999, Pakistani troops and pro-Pakistani militants were spotted by Indian intelligence in the Kargil region of Kashmir on the Indian side. of the Line of Control (LoC). The Indian Air Force bombed Pakistani bases along the LoC in Kargil. The incident soon escalated into a military confrontation involving the threat to use nuclear weapons. The conflict ended thanks to the successful mediation of US President Bill Clinton.

December 2001–October 2002

India and Pakistan

India and Pakistan went into a renewed cycle of hostility as a result of the unresolved Kashmir conflict and additional provocations. The crisis peaked in May 2002, however, following an attack by gunmen in Jammu and at this point it took on a nuclear dimension. From the beginning of the conflict India had rejected the first use of nuclear weapons, but President Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan refused to do the same and stated that the ‘possession of nuclear weapons by any state obviously implies they will be used under some circumstances’. The conflict was resolved when US Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage made public a pledge by Musharraf to move against specific terrorist groups and seek negotiations with India.

This article is based on the Chatham House report Too Close for Comfort: Cases of Near Nuclear Use and Options for Policy