Picture this – it actually did happen: 27 October 1962. A U.S. destroyer enforcing the blockade during the Cuban Missile Crisis detects a Soviet submarine and challenges it by deliberately dropping depth charges in the vicinity of the submarine to make it surface. Unbeknownst to the U.S. the submarine is armed with torpedoes that have nuclear warheads on them. If fired on, assuming the Commanding Officer and the next two most senior officers agreed, they would have fired one.
Had Vasiliy Arkhipov not disagreed, this would have instantly started World War 3.
The Cuban Missile Crisis fortunately ended the following day. But most people do not realise the U.S. was going to invade Cuba and that the operation for this would start on 29 October 1962. The Soviets had short range nuclear missileson Cuba pointed at the invasion beaches….
Fast forward to 1983: Cold War tensions are at dangerously high levels. The President of the United States has started a missile defence programme nicknamed “Star Wars”. The President of the U.S.S.R. is a paranoid death bed ridden man convinced America is going to start World War 3. Yuri Andropov had never been to the U.S. and knew nothing about America or Americans. But in these dangerously paranoid days he was convinced Ronald Reagan would give the order.
On 26 1983 Stanislaw Petrov was in his command bunker controlling the U.S.S.R.’s vast intercontinental ballastic missile arsenal when the most terrifying thing happened. The warning alarm for an incoming attack started to howl. He had 30 minutes to determine whether or not W.W.3. was starting and whether he needed to authorize a response. If he had to, there was a chain of command that had to be follow.
But there was something odd about this. Common logic dictated that if a nuclear attack is launched, you launch enough warheads so as to ensure no response is possible. But the satellite responsible for the warning had only picked up five. And ground based radar had detected none at all.
Common sense won the day. Petrov decided nothing was happening and ignored the alert.
On 1 November 1983 the N.A.T.O. alliance started Exercise Able Archer. This was a war on paper that would result in a mock nuclear attack. Unfortunately the U.S.S.R. picked up the transmission of signals regarding the exercise. Over the next ten days the mock war that existed only on paper gradually ratcheted up.
And so did the danger. Convinced war was coming the Soviet military machine began to mobilize. I.C.B.M. launchers began to be removed from their hiding places. Submarines and surface ships began to disperse. Bomber squadrons were put on rapid reaction alert.
And then, suddenly as it started, it ended. The communications went quiet. The officers involved went back to their regular day time roles. It was as if nothing had happened.
Go forward to 2017 and here we are again. Teetering of the abyss of nuclear war. This time on the Korean Peninsula. Dealing with a rogue maniac totally uncowed by America. Just like 1962 and 1983, only one shot fired in anger away from W.W.3.
Will we never learn?