30+ Years of Freedom of Information Action

False Warnings of Soviet Missile Attacks Put U.S. Forces on Alert in 1979-1980

Command post for all NORAD
Published: Mar 16, 2020
Briefing Book #699

Edited by William Burr

Update for Briefing Book #371 originally posted on March 1, 2012

For more information, contact:
202-994-7000 or nsarchiv@gwu.edu

Eight Minutes After Warning Screens Showed 1,400 Soviet ICBMS Approaching North America, on 9 November 1979, NORAD Concluded “Attack Was Underway”

William Odom on 3 June 1980 Pentagon Missile Warning Conference Call: “I Monitored the Call Last Night – Eerie”

After 3 Incidents in May and June, Secretary of Defense Brown Advised President Carter that "I Consider the Situation To Be Very Serious”

Washington D.C., March 16, 2020 - During the Cold War, false alarms of missile attacks were closely held matters although news of them inevitably leaked. Today the National Security Archive revisits the false alerts of the Jimmy Carter administration when on four occasions warning screens showed hundreds and hundreds of Soviet ballistic missiles heading toward North America.

In a reposting and update of a 2012 collection, the Archive includes recently declassified documents with new details about the 1979 and 1980 false warnings. One document, notes by William Odom, the military assistant to National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, raises questions as to whether Odom called the latter in the middle of the night about the possibility that Soviet ICBMs were incoming. Such a phone call was a major element of the 2012 posting, but Odom’s notes on the 3 June 1980 false alarm make the picture murkier. The only certainty is when Odom spoke to Brzezinski that day, he assured him he had kept the White House “in the loop” during the period of the false alarm.

The false alarms of 1979 and 1980 instigated major efforts to ensure that computers did not generate mistaken information that could trigger a nuclear war. In today’s world where more medium size to great powers, such as North Korea and China,either have ICBMs or are testing them the potential for false alarms is growing.

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During the 2008 campaign, presidential hopefuls Hilary Clinton and Barack Obama debated the question: who was best suited to be suddenly awakened at 3 a.m. in the White House to make a tough call in a crisis. The candidates may have meant news of conflict in the Middle East or a terrorist attack in the United States or on a major ally, not an “end of the world”' phone call about a major nuclear strike on the United States. Apparently at least one such phone call occurred during the Cold War, but it did not go to the president. According to the account of former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, the call went to the national security advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski, who was awakened in the very early morning hours to be told that hundreds of missiles were heading toward North America. Just before Brzezinski was about to call President Carter, the missile attack warning turned out to be a false alarm. It was one of those moments in Cold War history when top U.S. officials believed they were facing the ultimate decision.

Gates’ account does not provide a date for the event but the only known false alert that took place in the middle of the night during the Carter years was on 3 June 1980. The cause of the false alarm? The failure of a 46-cent computer chip on a computer at the Cheyenne Mountain operations center of the then-named North American Air Defense Command (NORAD), the joint Canadian-United States command.

Recently declassified documents about false warning incidents during 1979-1980 – supplementing materials first posted on this site in 2012 – are being published today for the first time by the National Security Archive. The erroneous warnings, variously produced by computer tapes of war games and worn out computer chips, led to alert actions by U.S. bomber and missile forces and the emergency airborne command post, actions that could have led to a superpower confrontation, or at least dangerous tensions, if they had gone any further.

When the original version of this posting went online in 2012 the editor assumed that a false alarm of a missile attack on 9 November 1979 had prompted the middle-of-the-night phone call described above, but old and new evidence suggests that the false alert of 3 June 1980 was the only one where a middle-of-the night phone call would have been possible.  The false alert of 9 November 1979 took place in the mid-morning when a war game test tape was mistakenly inserted in a NORAD computer at Cheyenne Mountain.  Although a middle-of-the-nighr phone call does not fit those circumstance, it does fit the false alarm on 3 June 1980, which occurred in the very early morning period after midnight. During the half-hour before defense officials agreed there was an error, radar screens at the Pentagon and the Strategic Air Command (SAC) had shown that 200 submarine-launched ballistic missiles and then 2020 intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) were heading toward North America. Yet, no such data appeared on warning screens at NORAD.

The incident on 3 June 1980 was the third false alert since November 1979. The November incident was widely reported and alarmed the Soviet leadership, which lodged a complaint with Washington about the "extreme danger" of false warnings. While Pentagon officials were trying to prevent future incidents, Secretary of Defense Harold Brown warned President Carter that false warnings were virtually inevitable, although he tried to reassure the president that "human safeguards" would prevent them from getting out of control.

Among the disclosures in today’s and the original posting:

  • The “false alarm history” of missile warning systems from 1960 to 1976
  • On 9 November 1979 NORAD missile warning display screens spuriously indicated an attack by 1,400 Soviet ICBMs, information that simultaneously appeared on warning consoles at the Pentagon, Strategic Air Command, and elsewhere.
  • Reports that the mistaken use of a nuclear exercise tape on a NORAD computer had produced a U.S. false warning and alert actions prompted Soviet Communist Party General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev to write secretly to President Carter that the erroneous alert was "fraught with a tremendous danger." Further, "I think you will agree with me that there should be no errors in such matters."
  • Periodic outages in NORAD’s new missile warning computer system during 1979 and 1980 led to two-minute delays in the preparation of warning summaries.
  • After the false alert on 3 June 1980, White House military aide William Odom told Brzezinski, “I monitored the [Pentagon conference] call last night – eerie.” He had kept the White House “in the loop.”
  • False alerts by NORAD computers on 3 and 6 June 1980 triggered actions by SAC and the National Military Command Center (NMCC) to ensure survivability of strategic forces and command-and-control systems. The National Emergency Airborne Command Post (NEACP) at Andrews Air Force Base taxied in position for emergency launch, although it remained in place. Because missile attack warning systems showed nothing unusual, the alert actions were suspended.
  • Causing the incidents in June 1980 was the failure of a 46¢ integrated circuit ("chip") in a NORAD computer, but Secretary of Defense Brown reported to a surprised President Carter that NORAD "has been unable to get the suspected circuit to fail again under tests."
  • In reports to President Carter, Secretary Brown cautioned that "we must be prepared for the possibility that another, unrelated malfunction may someday generate another false alert." Nevertheless, Brown argued that "human safeguards – people reading data produced by warning systems – ensured that there would be "no chance that any irretrievable actions would be taken."

 

Background

For decades, the possibility of a Soviet missile attack preoccupied U.S. presidents and their security advisers. Because nuclear hostilities were more likely to emerge during a political-military confrontation (such as Cuba 1962) the likelihood of a bolt from the blue was remote but Washington nevertheless planned for the worst case. Under any circumstances, U.S. presidents and top military commanders wanted warning systems that could provide them with the earliest possible notice of missile launches by the Soviet Union or other adversaries. By the early 1960s, the Pentagon had the Ballistic Missile Early Warning System (BMEWs) that could provide about 15 minutes of warning time. By the mid-to-late1960s, forward-scatter systems (so-called "Over the Horizon Radar") could detect missile launches within five to seven minutes while the 474N system could give three-to-seven minutes of warning of launches from submarines off the North American coast.[1]

By the end of the 1960s, the United States was getting ready to deploy the Defense Support Program satellites which use infrared technology to detect plumes produced by missile launches. DSP could be used to tell whether missile launches were only tests or whether they signified a real attack by detecting numbers of missile launches and trajectories. This provided 25 to 30 minutes of warning along with information on the trajectory and ultimate targets of the missiles. As long as decision-makers were not confronting the danger of a SLBM launch, the DSP would give them some time to decide how to retaliate.

In 1972, NORAD began to network warning systems into at "interlinked system" operated at its headquarters in Cheyenne Mountain, Colorado.[2] A complex computer-based system always bore the risk of failure, break-downs, or errors. Even before networking emerged, false warnings occurred as early as 1960 when a BMEWs radar in Greenland caught "echoes from the moon," generating a report of a missile attack which was quickly interpreted as false (see documents 1 and 2). During the Cuban Missile Crisis several low-level false warning episodes occurred, some of them involving NORAD, that were virtually unknown for many years.[3] A report declassified at the Carter Library cataloged the more important episodes in the following years [See document 2]. Once the networked systems were in place, the possibility that they could produce false warnings was evident.

 

The Events of 1979-1980

So far, the only available account of a 3 a.m. phone call between Odom and Brzezinski is in a memoir by former Secretary of Defense Robert Gate, as follows:

"As he recounted it to me, Brzezinski was awakened at three in the morning by [military assistant William] Odom, who told him that some 250 Soviet missiles had been launched against the United States. Brzezinski knew that the President's decision time to order retaliation was from three to seven minutes. Thus, he told Odom he would stand by for a further call to confirm Soviet launch and the intended targets before calling the President. Brzezinski was convinced we had to hit back and told Odom to confirm that the Strategic Air Command was launching its planes. When Odom called back, he reported that 2,200 missiles had been launched. It was an all-out attack. One minute before Brzezinski intended to call the President, Odom called a third time to say that other warning systems were not reporting Soviet launches. Sitting alone in the middle of the night, Brzezinski had not awakened his wife, reckoning that everyone would be dead in half an hour. It had been a false alarm. Someone had mistakenly put military exercise tapes into the computer system." [4]

The Gates narrative is fascinating, but may not be entirely reliable, based as it is on Brzezinski’s account, which might have conflated the events of 9 November 1979 and 3 June 1980. The 9 November false alarm, which took place in the morning was settled in 6 minutes, did involve the mistaken use of military exercise tapes. But that was not true of the incident on 3 June, which did take place in the middle of the night and was caused by computer errror. Moreover, as indicated, the number of mistakenly detected Soviet missiles better matches the numbers from the 3 June 1980 incident than the November 1979 false alarm. Adding to the puzzle is that Odom took notes on a phone call with Brzezinski on 3 June but left no record of any conversations with him after midnight.

Gates recounted another false alarm, also as described by Odom who “overheard on his communications net dialogue between the National Military Command Center (NMCC) at the Pentagon and the North American Air Defense Command (NORAD) in which they were describing a missile being tracked from the Soviet Union toward the Oregon coast.” According to Odom, NORAD and the NMCC “debated whether this was really a missile attack long past the time when they should have notified the Secretary of Defense.” In the end, they decided that it was a “false alarm, a computer glitch.” This incident does not track with any of the false alarms described in this posting, all of which involved more than one ICBM. Perhaps it was too small-scale to make the annals of such events, compared with those of November and June 1980, but it is interesting nonetheless.[5]

Whoever spoke with whom on 3 June 1980, the grave implications of the false alarms quickly leaked to the media. For example, The Washington Post and The New York Times printed stories on what happened on the morning of 9 November. According to press reports, based on Pentagon briefings, a NORAD staffer caused the error by mistakenly loading a training/exercise tape into a computer, which simulated an "attack into the live warning system." In fact, as an Aerospace Defense Command history suggests, it was more than a mistake because NORAD technicians were dealing with a complex system with a potential for such errors: on the one hand, they “lacked knowledge” of its totality and were “prone to accept test requirements uncritically,” and on the other hand, they did “not fully understand the possible consequences of their testing activities as they related to the systems operations.” [See Document 13], Indeed, NORAD's Commander-in-chief later acknowledged that the "precise mode” of the failure could not be replicated."[6]

The information from the test tape about a missile attack simultaneously appeared on screens at SAC headquarters and the NMCC, which quickly led to precautionary moves, including alert of NORAD interceptor forces and the premature launch of a dozen interceptors. Moreover, the National Emergency Airborne Command Post (NEACP), which received the missile attack on its computer displays, launched from Andrews Air Force Base.

The 9 November false alert became diplomatically complicated because the Soviet leadership was worried enough to lodge a complaint with Washington. Cold War tensions had already been exacerbated during the previous year and the false alarm could not help. On 14 November, Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev sent a message via Ambassador Anatoly Dobyrnin expressing his concern about the incident which was "fraught with a tremendous danger." What especially concerned Brezhnev were press reports that top U.S. leaders had not been informed at the time about the warning. The Defense Department and Brzezinski took hold of the reply to Brezhnev's message, utilizing language which senior State Department adviser Marshall Shulman saw as "gratuitously snotty" (for example, describing the Soviet message as "inaccurate and unacceptable"). The Soviets were indeed miffed, pointing out later that the U.S. message was not "satisfactory" because it had taken a polemical approach to Moscow's "profound and natural concern."

About seven months later, U.S. warning systems generated three more false alerts. One occurred on 28 May 1980, a minor harbinger of false alerts on 3 and 6 June 1980. According to the Pentagon, what caused the latter malfunctions was a failed 46¢ micro-electronic integrated circuit ("chip") and "faulty message design." A computer at NORAD made what amounted to "typographical errors" in the routine messages it sent to SAC and the NMCC about missile launches. While the message usually said "OOO" ICBMs or SLBMs had been launched, some of the zeroes were erroneously filled in with a 2, e.g. 002 or 200, so the message indicated that 2, then 200 SLBMs were on their way.

 Once the warning message arrived, some of the commands took precautionary measures. At SAC, commanders ordered bomber pilots and crews to their stations and to start the engines of bombers and fuel tankers. The Pacific Command's airborne command post ("Blue Eagle") was launched as part of a routine contingency plan.[7] NEACP taxied in position at Andrews Air Force Base, but it was not launched as in November. No NORAD interceptors were launched so something had been learned from the November episode.

That missile warning sensors (DSP, BMEWs, etc.) showed nothing amiss made it possible for military commanders to call off further action. After the 3 June incident, NORAD ran its computers the next three days to isolate the cause of the error. Nevertheless, the "mistake was reproduced" in the mid-afternoon of 6 June with similar results, another false alert. In the circumstances, SAC took defensive measures. [8]

When Harold Brown explained to President Carter what had happened and what was being done to fix the system, he cautioned that "we must be prepared for the possibility that another, unrelated malfunction may someday generate another false alert." This meant that "we must continue to place our confidence in the human element of our missile attack warning system." Brown, however, did not address a problem raised by journalists who asked Pentagon officials, if another false alert occurred, whether a "chain reaction" could be triggered when "duty officers in the Soviet Union read data on the American alert coming into their warning systems." An unnamed U.S. defense official would give no assurances that a "chain reaction" would not occur, noting that "I hope they have as secure a system as we do, that they have the safeguards we do."

How good the safeguards actually are remains an open question, While Secretary of Defense Brown acknowledged the "possibility" of future false alerts, he insisted on the importance of human safeguards in preventing catastrophes. Stanford University professor Scott Sagan's argument about "organizational failure" is critical of that optimism on several counts. For example, under some circumstances false alerts could have had more perilous outcomes, e.g. if Soviet missile tests had occurred at the same time or if there were serious political tensions with Moscow, defense officials might have been jumpier and launched bomber aircraft or worse. Further, false warnings were symptomatic of "more serious problems with the way portions of the command system had been designed." Yet, defense officials have been reluctant to acknowledge organizational failings, instead blaming mistakes on 46¢ chips or individuals inserting the wrong tape. Treating the events of 1979 and 1980 as "normal accidents" in complex systems, Sagan observes that defense officials are reluctant to learn from mistakes and have persuaded themselves that the system is "foolproof." [9]

Bruce Blair also sees systemic problems. Once a "launch-under--attack" strategic nuclear option became embedded in war planning policy during the late 1970s, he sees the weakening of the safeguards that had been in place, e.g., confirmation that a Soviet nuclear attack was in progress or had already occurred. One of the arguments for taking Minuteman ICBMs off their current high alert status (making virtually instantaneous launch possible) has been that a false warning, combined with an advanced state of readiness, raises the risk of accidental nuclear war. The risk of false alerts/accidental war is one of the considerations that has led defense experts to counsel the removal of ICBMs from U.S. nuclear forces, but the Trump administration seeks to do the opposite, by building a new ICBM as part of its program to expand nuclear forces.[10]

The Soviet nuclear command and control system that developed during the 1980s provides an interesting contrast with the U.S.'s. While the United States emphasized "human safeguards" as a firewall, the "Perimeter" nuclear warning-nuclear strike system may have minimized them. In large part, it was a response to Soviet concern that a U.S. decapitating strike, aimed at the political leadership and central control systems, could cripple retaliatory capabilities. Reminiscent of the "doomsday machine" in Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, Perimeter could launch a semi-automatic nuclear strike under specified conditions, for example, no contact with political or military leaders, atomic bombs detonating, etc. If such conditions were fulfilled, a few military personnel deep in an underground bunker could launch emergency command and control rockets which in turn would transmit launch orders to ICBMs in their silos. According to David Hoffman's Pulitzer-prize winning The Dead Hand, when Bruce Blair learned about Perimeter, he was "uneasy that it put launch orders in the hands of a few, with so much automation." Nevertheless, Perimeter remains operational and has been upgraded.[11] 

Warning system failures continued after 1980, but they did not trigger alert actions. The U.S., however, was not the only site of false alerts during and after the Cold War. False alarms in the former Soviet Union (1983, Petrov) and the Russian Federation (1995, Norwegian Black Brant) continue to stimulate discussion. The failure of Hawaii’s civil defense system in 2018 caused more panic than any of the incidents of the Carter years. More ominous are the incidents or reports of “ambiguous ballistic missile threats” during the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations that rose to the point where the president was notified at the time (which never happened during the Cold War!). Apparently, Chinese missile tests have instigated worrisome false alarms in Russia.[12]

More needs to be learned about the problem of false warnings during and after the Cold War and pending declassification requests, such as for White House Situation Room Logs, and appeals may shed further light on this issue. Zbigniew Brzezinski’s papers at the Library of Congress, not yet accessible to this writer, may also expand our understanding of the events of 1979 and 1980.

 

READ THE DOCUMENTS

 

NOTES

[1]. The following draws on the Institute for Defense Analyses' History of Strategic Command Control and Warning, 1945-1972 (excerpts in document 1) and Jeffrey Richelson, America's Space Sentinels: DSP Satellites and National Security (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1999

[2]. Joseph T. Jockel, Canada and NORAD: 1957-2007: A History (Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, Program, 2007), 95. This book and Jockel's earlier, No Boundaries Upstairs: Canada, the United States, and the Origins of North American Air Defence, 1945-1958 (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1987) are valuable studies on the origins and development of NORAD. A comparable U.S. study on NORAD history remains to be prepared, although Christopher Bright's Continental Air Defense in the Eisenhower Era: Nuclear Antiaircraft Arms and the Cold War (New York: Palgrave Macmillan) is helpful on nuclear issues in NORAD's early years.

[3]. Scott Sagan, The Limits of Safety: Organizations, Accidents, and Nuclear Weapons (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993). 99-100 and 126-133.

[4]. Robert M. Gates. From the Shadows: The Ultimate Insider's Story of Five Presidents and How they Won the Cold War (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996),114.

[5]. Gates. From the Shadows. 114.

[6]. See also Sagan, Limits of Safety, 228-229, 238.

[7]. Ibid., 232, 244-246. See also Report of Senator Gary Hart and Senator Barry Goldwater to the Committee on the Armed Services United States Senate, Recent False Alerts from the Nation's Missile Attack Warning System (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1980), 5-6, and Government Accounting Office, MASAD 81-30, "NORAD's Missile Warning System: What Went Wrong?"

[8]. Report of Senator Gary Hart and Senator Barry Goldwater, Recent False Alerts, 7.

[9]. Sagan, 225-249 passim.

[10]. Bruce Blair, The Logic of Accidental Nuclear War (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution, 1993), 193; Kingston Reif, “Congress OKs Trump Nuclear Priorities,” Arms Control Today, January-February 2020.

[11]. David E. Hoffman, The Dead Hand: The Untold Story of the Cold War Arms Race and Its Dangerous Legacy (New York: Doubleday, 2009): 152-154, 422-423. For a recent account, see Michael Peck, “Russia's ‘Dead Hand’ Nuclear Doomsday Weapon is Back,” The National Interest, 12 December 2018.

[12]. David E. Hoffman, "Cold War Doctrines Refuse to Die," The Washington Post, 15 March 1998; Bruce G. Blair, “Loose Cannons: The President and US Nuclear Posture,” The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 76 (2020). On Chinese missile tests: communication from Bruce Blair, 20 February 2020. Pavel Podvig raises questions about the Petrov and the Norwegian Black Brant episodes in “Does Russia Have a Launch on Warning Posture? The Soviet Union Didn’t.” That the Soviet Union and then Russia developed a launch-on-warning posture is argued by Bruce Blair in The Logic of Accidental Nuclear War (Washington, D.C., Brookings Institution, 1993) and declared by James Cartwright and Vladimir Dvorkin, “How to Avert a Nuclear War,” The New York Times, 19 April 2015.

[13]. Sagan, Limits of Safety, 240-241.

[14]. Jimmy Carter, White House Diary (New York: Farrer Strauss and Giroux, 2010), 434.

[15]. Sagan, Limits of Safety, 239.

[16]. For example, the Washington Post published a story by George C. Wilson, "Computer Errs, Warns of Soviet Attack on U.S.," on 6 June 1980.

[17]. Sagan, Limits of Safety, 244.