The 1983 Soviet Nuclear False Alarm Incident

One of the most important events in the somewhat recent history of this planet was the 1982 Soviet nuclear false alarm incident. The U.S. and the Soviet Union were in the middle of the Cold War and were constantly on edge. Both sides had equipped themselves with a large amount of nuclear weapons. Specifically, the United States had a large amount of Minuteman Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBM). The main purpose of these is that they did not use liquid rocket fuel and instead were designed to not require much maintenance and be able to launch very quickly. The third generation of these missiles is the only confirmed ICBM that the United States still has in service.

During the Cold War, these missiles were meant to be a deterrent. These missiles were not meant for use in a true attack but as a counter attack if the U.S. were to be attacked by the Soviet Union. The result of such a counter attack might result in a nuclear winter. A nuclear winter would be the overall cooling of the surface of the Earth due to a large amount of nuclear weapons being used on land. Of course the weapons themselves would result in many casualties directly but another major issue would be that some areas of the world would be much cooler. North America would be about 20°C cooler and Eurasia would be about 30°C cooler. This would result in further chaos for many centuries to come for the entire planet.

It should be noted that recently the nuclear winter hypothesis has come to be criticized and some scientists say that humanity would most likely still survive, but the survivors would simply have to live more rural lives and would be behind many years with regards to some technology. Either way, this would affect everyone and that is why it is a good deterrent to prevent the use of these weapons offensively.

Starting in 1983 the United States wanted to test the Soviet Union’s response time and to show strength. This was one of many psychological operations that were taking place. The United States would fly bombers toward Soviet airspace but then turn away at the last minute in order to test the response time of the Soviet Union. This kind of test forced the Soviet Union to respond from time to time such as when it shot down Korean Air Lines Flight 007, killing everyone on board including many Americans.

In that same month a lieutenant colonel in the Soviet Air Defense Forces named Stanislav Petrov received a notification from an early warning satellite detection system called Oko that there was an inbound missile from the United States headed toward the Soviet Union. The necessary response according to the rules was to launch a counter attack. However, Lieutenant Colonel Petrov quickly attributed the attack to a computer error. If it had been a real attack, the United States would have launched many missiles, not just one. Lieutenant Colonel Petrov reportedly made the decision himself. Later, the computer said there were four more missiles being sent toward the Soviet Union but again Lieutenant Colonel Petrov decided to not launch any missiles in response. His theory was confirmed. The false alarms were caused by a rare reflection of sunlight on high-altitude clouds.

If Lieutenant Colonel Petrov had decided to issue a response then the entire planet would be very different today. It would be a lot cooler and there might be a lot less people alive. His decision changed the course of recent history completely and there are many lessons that can be learned from such an event.



false alarm (n) - an alarm that goes off when it is not supposed to
be on edge (idiom) - to be nervous or worried
deterrent (n) – something that makes someone decide not to do something
casualty (n) – a person who is hurt or killed during an accident, war, etc.
hypothesis (n) - an idea or theory that is not proven but that leads to further study or discussion