WW3 fears: ‘America’s worst nightmare’ How 250 nukes fooled US defence in shock blunder

The incident came in 1979, as the Cold War appeared to be taking a step in the right direction. But, on November 9, a computer error at the North American Aerospace Defence Command (NORAD) headquarters caused an alarm and full preparation for a large-scale nuclear attack from the USSR. It led to national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski being awoken at 3AM to the news that 250 submarine-launched nuclear missiles were on their way.

It was a false alarm, but Brzezinski was not to know that and any form of retaliation would have been enough to start a real nuclear war thanks to Mutually Assured Destruction.

Lance Geiger, a history researcher and the man behind “The History Guy” on YouTube revealed the sobering details on his channel.

He said: “In May 1961, the US started to excavate underneath a 9,570 foot Colorado Mountain to create the facility known as the Cheyenne Mountain complex.

“It became operational in 1967 for a total cost of $142.2million (£110million) and monitored the airspace of Canada and the United States through a worldwide early warning system for missiles, space systems and foreign aircrafts.

America’s worst nightmare had occurred

Lance Geiger

“The five-acre facility built under 2,000 feet of granite housed 15 three-storey buildings and was built to deflect a 30-megaton nuclear explosion and hosted nearly 2,000 personnel.

“During the Seventies, NORAD’s early warning systems were not fully automated and so in 1972, they began to integrate those systems with what was called the Cheyenne Mountain Complex Improvement Programme 427M.

“It was a programme for a command centre, ballistic missile and space functions developed using new software technology and designed for computers with large processing capacity.”

Mr Geiger, 55, went on to detail the chain of events that followed.

He added: “It was intended to give greater reliability and quicker early warning capability.

“But it was there in the early morning of November 9, 1979, in the world’s most advanced bunker, using the brand new and robust early warning system, that the unthinkable happened.

“Decades of strategy around massive retaliation, Mutually Assured Destruction collapsed as the screens at the NORAD command centre showed indisputably that America’s worst nightmare had occurred. 

“The Soviet Union had launched an all-out nuclear attack on the US, designed to destroy our command functions and our nuclear weapons.

“This was no drill, the Pentagon’s National Military Command Centre and the Alternate National Military Command Centre all showed the same thing – the Soviet’s had launched more than 200 submarine-launched ballistic missiles.”

The US national security advisor was awoken to some sobering news.

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Mr Geiger added: “Following procedure, the launch control centres for America’s 550 Minuteman 3 and 450 Minuteman 2 missiles were given a preliminary warning to prepare for a counter-attack.

“US national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski was woken at 3AM by a call from his military assistant Major General William Odom, who informed him that 250 Soviet ballistic missiles were headed to the US.

“Brzezinski knew that the President’s decision time to order a retaliation was just three to seven minutes and they were still waiting for satellite confirmation.

“A moment later, Odom called again to tell him that the Soviets had now launched 2,200 missiles – an all-out nuclear attack.”

But, Brzezinski somehow kept a cool head and though before ordering a retaliation.

That bought enough time for a third phone call.

Mr Geiger said: “As Brzezinski prepared to call the President, he made a silent decision of his own, he chose not to wake his wife.

“If the world was going to end in half an hour, he would let her go quietly.

“Moments later, Odom called for a third time, data from the early-warning satellites were seeing nothing, it was a false alarm.

“Later it was determined that software simulating a nuclear attack, intended to test the new system, had inexplicably been transferred into the regular warning display.

Unfortunately, the mistake was not the last of its kind, as a computer glitch at NORAD caused three more false alarms a year later.

By May 1981, Soviet fears had reached an all-time high as General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev and KGB chairman Yuri Andropov bluntly announced that the US was preparing a secret nuclear attack on the USSR.

Andropov revealed the KGB would begin Operation RYaN (Nuclear Missile Attack) – the largest, most comprehensive intelligence operation in Soviet history.

Consequently, mass paranoia set in among Soviet leaders regarding the US plans, as memories of Nazi Germany’s surprise invasion of the USSR still haunted them.

These fears were not helped by the actions and rhetoric of newly-elected US President Ronald Reagan.

He announced a new medium-range nuclear missile to be introduced into Europe – Pershing II – which could reach the Soviet Union from West Germany in six minutes.

On March 8, 1983, Reagan brandished the Soviet Union an “evil empire” during a press conference, sparking fury in the Kremlin, who became obsessed Reagan was attempting to smear the communist ideology.

The timing of NATO’s yearly Able Archer exercise could not have come at a worse time for the USSR.

In November, Able Archer 83, an exercise to simulate nuclear war, was carried out by NATO forces.

It smulated a move through all alert phases, from DEFCON 5 to DEFCON 1, which KGB agents wrongly assumed to be a real move into the highest nuclear threat.

The Soviet politburo believed their only chance of surviving a NATO strike was to preempt it, and so readied its nuclear arsenal. 

Days later, on November 11, 1983, Soviet fears were completely ended upon learning the Able Archer exercise had finished thanks to double agent Oleg Gordievsky.

Many historians including Thomas Blanton, Director of the National Security Archive, and Tom Nichols, a professor at the Naval War College, have since argued that Able Archer 83 was one of the times when the world has come closest to nuclear war since the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.

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