By Gordon Thomas
There is no description like it:
“In the first milli-second, a pinprick of purplish-red light expanded to a growing fireball hundreds of feet wide. The temperature at its core was 50,000,000 degrees centigrade. The flash heat started fires a mile away and burned skin two miles distant. Stone columns were rammed straight down into the ground. People were vaporised. Sixty-two thousand other buildings, out of a total of 90,000, were destroyed. All utilities and transportation services were wrecked. One hundred and eighty of the city’s 200 doctors and 1,564 of its 1,780 nurses were dead or dying. Eighty thousand other people were killed instantly.
“Almost all this happened in the time it took me to blink behind the goggles. Below, on the ground, granite was melting and the shockwave had created fireballs and screaming hailstorms. A seething mass of red and purple began to rise into the sky. The column was sucking into its base super-heated air which set fire to everything combustible. Beside me, my co-pilot, Bob Lewis, was saying ‘my God what have we done’.”
The words are those of Colonel Pat Tibbets, the pilot of the aircraft Enola Gay which dropped the first atomic bomb on August 6, 1945.
This week, they are a stark warning as Donald Rumsfeld pushed for mini-nukes to be added to America’s arsenal of nuclear weapons to fight terrorists and “rogue states” like North Korea and Iran.
But Pentagon strategists say it might only take a faulty computer chip to register a missile launch by North Korea and the consequences would be all-out nuclear war.
“The country has still some way to go to perfect its nuclear capability,” said Donald Rumsfeld in Japan this week.
The one mechanism that, until now, prevented a nuclear holocaust was the “hot-line” set up in 1963 between the White House and the Kremlin. It is now in cold storage.
A risk not initially anticipated by the US and Soviet commanders had been that of a false alarm – an early warning system detecting a missile launch that has not occurred.
When it happened several times, and before it was established to be untrue, each side had nervously watched the other’s nuclear readiness and mobilised their forces.
In the early days of the nuclear arms race, a quickly accelerating situation often led Washington or Moscow to considering a pre-emptive strike as the only way to deal with the threat it believed it faced.
In 1961, a mechanical breakdown at a relay station in Colorado that handled communications between NORAD, the American Air Defence Command and SAC HQ, Strategic Air Command, generated panic. Military analysts suddenly found themselves cut off from important US early warning systems. Their judgment was the communications breakdown had been the result of an enemy attack.
All SAC bases and B52 crews with nuclear bombs on board were put on combat standby. Missiles and planes were readied for take-off when a B52 on normal airborne alert duty reported that no Soviet attack had taken place.
The following year, 1962, a nuclear exchange between the superpowers became a real possibility when two operators at an early warning site in the US mistook a satellite in orbit for two Soviet missiles over Georgia.
Only when no explosions occurred had the threat been downgraded to the status of “low credence”.
A widespread power failure led to a further false alarm in 1965 when devices at nuclear command sites went red, indicating that there had been nuclear blasts.
A full alert was issued by the Office of Emergency Planning HQ. Luckily, the US military did not follow suit. On that occasion, a crisis occurred because of technical malfunction.
In 1968, the crash of a B52 bomber with a nuclear payload later led experts to conclude that had its weapon exploded, the blast would have convinced SAC HQ that the Soviets had launched a pre-emptive strike.
Fortunately, the B52 crashed on an ice flow off the American coastline and only its fuel tanks exploded.
During peacetime, the US nuclear arsenal is in a mode known as defence readiness condition – DEFCON 5. When a threat is perceived, its seriousness determines the level of alert which can quickly move to the ultimate posture of DEFCON 1 – maximum war readiness.
On November 9, 1978, a full-scale nuclear missile attack on the US was detected by operators watching display monitors at four major defence sites, including the Pentagon Command Centre.
It was 8.50 am and the state of readiness quickly moved from DEFCON 5 to DEFCON 1.
Planes carrying nuclear weapons were launched as well as the President’s jumbo jet housing his nuclear command centre. No one had used the “hot-line” between Washington and Moscow – and the President was not aboard his plane. Rumours later circulated from within the Pentagon were not only had the President been kept out of the loop, but could not be located.
During a period lasting no longer than six minutes, the world was only the push of a button away from a global disaster. It was averted when NORAD contacted an early warning station PAVE PAWS and learned that there had been no missiles launched by the Soviets.
When the alert began, no one had noticed that a nuclear exercise tape – designed to prepare analysts and radar operators for a real attack – had almost led to Armageddon.
On a normal day in SAC, NORAD and other command centres, computer screens display “000 detected” – no enemy intercontinental and surface launched missiles on their way to the US.
But at 2.25 am on June 3, 1980, the zeros lined against ICBMs and SLBMs suddenly registered “0002”, then “0003”.
Preparations were immediately made for retaliatory strike against pre-selected targets in the Soviet Union.
While the US nuclear missile arsenal was made ready – Minutemen missiles primed in their silos and the US Pacific Command with nuclear crews in their planes – no one seemed to understand that a real Soviet attack would not be in the form of two or three missiles.
When someone finally recognised the absurdity of the situation, a technician found that a faulty computer chip had inserted the numbers 2 and 3 into the line of zeros.
More bizarrely, a similar incident occurred three days later at the same command centre. Again, until the technical glitch was ironed out, US nuclear forces went to DEFCON 3.
Whatever lessons may have been learned during the Cold War – most of the alerts and mishaps were never made public – the problems did not end when the Soviet Union collapsed.
In 1995, Russian early warning radar operators alerted the Kremlin of a missile launch from Spitzbergen in Norway. They estimated that the missile would reach the Russian capital within five minutes.
Russian nuclear forces moved to their version of DEFCON 3 until, someone pointed out that the missile had been part of a scientific experiment.
A general in Moscow – one of 35 countries informed about the launch nine days earlier by the Norwegian government – had forgotten to pass on the relevant information to Russian nuclear early warning sites.
North Korea is new to the “nuclear club” and does have the experience of the mishaps that characterised the Cold War and which may have continued on a similar scale ever since.
And while India and Pakistan have been playing “nuclear turkey”, the rest of the world was told that the agreement of Presidents Bush and Putin to reduce their nuclear arsenal minimised the potential for global conflagration.
This week, R V Ramsana, an Indian nuclear physicist, has also reminded us of a doomsday scenario if Pakistan was to release a 12 kiloton warhead – the same power as the one Tibbets released over Hiroshima – and explode it over Bombay.
“Up to 860,000 will die from a single missile strike. They would mostly be vaporised in one flash. Depending on wind direction and the location of the blast, millions more could be exposed to fatal radiation. Apart from the human casualties, the environmental consequences would be of the utmost gravity. Radiation would rise into the stratosphere to 30,000 feet. It could be carried for 2,000 miles. The impact on the world economy would be far, far greater than in the aftermath of September 11.”
“There’s a lot of potential for this idea of Rumsfeld’s spiralling out of control,” warned David Alberton, a leading nuclear expert, “enough mini-nukes could create the same catastrophe”.
He is not alone in believing that. A nuclear conflagration would, according to M V Ransana’s 57-page study of the likely effects of his envisioned nuclear attack, could cost 12 million lives.
Mr Rumsfeld should read the report. And ponder. It’s high time he did.
Gordon Thomas is a writer on intelligence - his many books include :
Gideon's Spies_The Secret History of Mossad
Robert Maxwell - Israel's Superspy
Seeds of Fire - China and the Story Behind the Attack on America
Last updated 26/11/2003