Before reading this article I would like to ask you the following question; what were you doing on Wednesday January 25th 1995?
I don’t blame you if you don’t remember because I haven’t a clue what I was doing but I can hazard a guess. I was 10 years old and with it being a Wednesday I would no doubt have been getting up from bed at around 7am which would see my mother rushing me off to the bathroom to wash before getting in to my school uniform. At around 8:15am I would start the march to Blaencaerau Junior School where I was in Mrs Lewis’ Year 2 class. Morning prayers at 9:15am. Maths 9:30am – 10:45am followed by a quick break (recess). English 11:00am to 12:15pm followed by lunch and then geography or history lessons in the afternoon. Home by 4pm where I either watched children’s TV or played with friends until about 6pm and with it being a Wednesday that would mean Star Trek: The Next Generation on BBC2. The evening would then be devoted to games, reading or other activities before bed time at around 9pm to 10pm.
Sounds hugely mundane doesn’t it?
That’s what I was doing and it summed up a day like a million others. So when I tell you that while I was having just another innocent day at school the world had been literally three minutes away from nuclear Armageddon it seems unthinkable. That’s quite a bold statement for anyone to make and I am sure that many of you are reading this are thinking that I am exaggerating for dramatic effect. Afterall the Cuban Missile Crisis was the closest we ever came to Nuclear War right?
The Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 was indeed a time of genuine tension when the armed forces of both East and West braced themselves for a nuclear showdown but the fact of the matter is that at no other time in the history of the Cold War were the leaders of both sides so engaged in what was happening. This insured that both Kennedy and Kruschev could control events as best as possible to keep both sides away from hitting the big red button. There were some isolated incidents of independent actions by the men in the field such as the downing of a U-2 spyplane but on the whole the entire crisis was well controlled. What makes January 25th 1995 so frightening is that not only did it take place after the end of the Cold War when the threat of nuclear war was supposed to have diminished but also just how uncontrolled events were up until the very last few seconds when we were pulled back from the brink. And almost nobody outside of a few select people knew it happened.
The incident began as a result of a seemingly innocent scientific experiment. A team of American and Norwegian scientists were planning to conduct research into Aurora Borealis, the northern lights, by launching a rocket carrying sophisticated scientific equipment over Svalbard; an archipelago in the Arctic circle. The scientists were not idiots and realized their research rocket would be detected by Russian radars. They therefore informed the Kremlin authorities in Moscow in advance of the launch, something that had been done many times before without incident.
Unfortunately, the Russian authorities in 1995 were not what their Soviet equivalents were just a few years earlier. While the Soviet Union was steeped in bureaucracy the system at least worked. The 1995 system was appallingly patchy however and this nearly had disastrous consequences because when the Russian military radar controllers started their shift at the Olenegorsk early warning radar station in Murmansk Oblast that morning they had no idea of the launch that was about to take place in Norway.
The operators therefore looked at the blip on their screen in horror. Everything they had trained for sent alarm bells ringing for the object which was flying like a nuclear missile was in a known flight corridor for missiles launched from US bases in North Dakota to strike targets in and around Moscow. The big question was why only one missile if this was an attack? One missile was not enough to start a war surely? Or was it?
One of the scenarios that the East and West played out during their many war games of the Cold War was to use a single nuclear missile to detonate high above an enemy country ahead of the main wave. The Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) from the blast would be so great that it would damage or destroy any communication and radar equipment over a vast area of territory thus inhibiting that country’s ability to respond to the main attack that would be minutes behind it.
The radar operators alerted their chain of command and the situation was deemed so serious that it reached Russian President Boris Yeltsin who was informed of the EMP theory by his senior commanders. It was at this point that the incident surpassed the Cuban Missile Crisis in terms of its seriousness – the Russian President was handed the nuclear briefcase (known in Russia as the Cheget) that controlled all of Russia’s nuclear arsenal.
The Russians worst fears seemed to be confirmed when radar operators saw the “missile” seem to break apart indicating that it was equipped with multiple warheads (MRVs) that would saturate the north eastern sectors of the Russian frontier with EMP. In reality the scientist’s rocket was a multi-stage vehicle and it had just separated a spent rocket motor and fuel tank. Yeltsin ordered Russian submarine commanders to battle readiness and their missiles were made ready to fire but he was not ready to flick the switch yet.
Very little is known about what happened around Yeltsin at this crucial time but for three minutes he would no doubt have his commanders pleading with him to launch before the “MRVs” detonated and blanked out thousands of miles. Yeltsin probably experienced a level of stress unparalleled in history as he tried to grasp the rapidly escalating situation. For three minutes he was one word away from unleashing Armageddon.
Then a rather relieved radar operator at Olenegorsk reported that the “MRVs” were now descending but not on to Russian territory as feared but in to the Arctic Ocean. Finally able to take stock of the situation Yeltsin realised that this was not an attack and ordered his commanders to step down from battle readiness as an investigation was launched that uncovered the truth.
At no other time in history had the leader of a nuclear superpower been handed their nuclear briefcase in a real emergency. This situation shows that while the Cold War may have ended with the fall of the Soviet Union the danger of mistake or misunderstanding means that the threat of nuclear annihilation remains and with increased tension between the West and Moscow over the Ukraine it’s as real now as it ever was.
So – what were you doing on Wednesday January 25th 1995?
In 2006 I finally watched the BBC drama Threads for the first time. Made in 1984 (the year I was born) it portrayed the events leading up to a nuclear attack on the UK and what would happen in the subsequent years to both society and environment. No film has ever scared me as much as this one and everytime I watch it with the pregnant Ruth trying to survive during the nuclear attack I think of my own mother being pregnant with me at the time and how she would have been if that had happened. This made the film all the more personal to me.
One of the most well known scenes in the film is not some special effects ridden moment of nuclear holocaust but is of a woman standing in the street during the first missile attack. This rather posh looking well dressed woman is so terrified at the sight of the mushroom cloud that she loses control of her bladder. This wholly primal reaction emphasizes the extreme terror she experienced in that moment better than anything else could. So with that in mind how would you have felt if what started as any other day suddenly became the long feared nuclear holocaust? Every world leader who has nuclear weapons should be forced to sit down and watch Threads during their inauguration so they can grasp the power they have.
So what were you doing on Wednesday January 25th 1995?