During the middle of the night, November 9, 1979, the Philco computer displays lit up the Cheyenne Mountain combat operations center—issuing an urgent warning that hundreds of nuclear-tipped missiles had been launched and were on their way to the United States. Within seconds, the computer pinpointed the launch sites of these deadly missiles—the Soviet Union. But that wasn’t all. The Philco 2000, suddenly taking on the antagonistic persona of HAL 9000 in Space Odyssey, also identified numerous nukes launched by Russian submarines hiding underwater in the Bering Strait and near the North Pole—terrorizing the U.S. military console operators with threat fans and impact ellipses covering most of North America.
The United States was under massive nuclear attack, and the Cold War had instantly turned red hot.
In accordance with the missile warning protocol, the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) notified Strategic Air Command (SAC) of the attack. In response, SAC put its nuclear-armed bombers on alert—with engines started in preparation for a counterattack—and sent at least 10 fighter aircraft into the air. In addition, Minuteman Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) launch control centers were sent a preliminary warning that the U.S. was under nuclear attack. The Airborne Command Post (ABNCP) was also launched. ABNCP, pronounced “Ab-n-cap” by missile crew members, is launched immediately in situations such as these to allow the President to conduct nuclear war from a safe distance in the sky.
The only problem this time was that President Jimmy Carter was not on board. He had not yet been woken by his national security advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski, who had been notified by NORAD of the Soviet attack and was trying to determine if it was real.
Procedure required the operators to take several steps to validate the threat—to determine whether the Soviets had actually launched an attack. First, the computer software had to match the missile profiles before they could be validated. The profiles were a perfect match. Additional steps were required before the ICBM missile launch crews in Wyoming, Colorado, Nebraska, North Dakota, and Montana would be ordered to turn their keys to begin a counterattack against the Soviet Union. Those steps were in progress at the same time as NORAD’s top brass frantically worked to determine exactly what was happening, and if we should launch our own massive fleet of nuclear weapons in response.
Minutes were all they had, and the seconds were quickly ticking by.
As all this was going on, crews contacted the early warning radar sites, which they did within seconds of the reported mass attack. The radar sites would have detected the missiles first and passed the threat data to Cheyenne Mountain, but the radar crews reported “all quiet.” In other words, they saw nothing—the radars were not picking up the missiles. The DSP early warning satellites, which used infrared sensors to detect the heat radiated by ICBM plumes, were also in an all-quiet status—no missile launches had been detected anywhere on the globe, much less from Soviet territory.
The crew commander immediately reported the findings to the General—it must be a mistake—a software glitch.
The General, with only a few minutes to react, and not completely believing or understanding the information he received at first, did not de-escalate right away. While the U.S.—in conjunction with Canadian forces—was beginning to mobilize its own nuclear arsenal, NORAD leadership turned their attention to the crew and system experts. The operations crew on duty confirmed not a single radar nor DSP satellite reported incoming missiles, and the system experts confirmed that would be an impossible scenario if we were truly under nuclear attack.
Based on these inputs, the General made a decision that changed history. He issued the order to stand down, narrowly averting WWIII.
Post-incident analysis revealed what went wrong: A training scenario had been loaded to the system which had been configured for testing, however, a computer chip malfunction allowed the mass nuclear attack training scenario to breach the operational system. To this day, missile warning units maintain two physically separated systems—one for training, and the other an operational system. There is now no way to accidentally connect the two.
While this close call highlighted the dangers of making life-or-death decisions based on the information we receive from the technologies we have created, it also clearly demonstrated the importance of having smart and highly trained people in the decision-making process. It also pointed out the very real need to have a streamlined chain of command for the nation’s military space operations—one that would provide the Commander-in-Chief, Department of Defense (DoD) generals and admirals with the accurate and timely information they need to make the best decisions possible to ensure the security of the United States of America.
All this and much more came to pass when, in 1982, the Air Force Space Command was created.