Just after 2:26 a.m., on June 3, 1980, computer screens at the command post of the Strategic Air Command in Nebraska suddenly indicated that two submarine-launched ballistic missiles were headed toward the United States. Eighteen seconds after the first signals, the displays showed even more launches. The duty commander ordered B-52 and FB-111 bomber pilots to their planes and told them to start their engines.
The duty officers checked with the North American Air Defense Command (NORAD) in Colorado, which mans the satellites and radars that monitor North American airspace. At this moment, the NORAD command said the radars and satellites showed no incoming missiles. Then the Strategic Air Command screens also cleared, showing no threats. The pilots were told to shut down their engines, but remain in their planes.
After a brief period, the Strategic Air Command warning display again lit up, this time showing that intercontinental ballistic missiles had been launched toward the United States. And soon after that, a similar warning appeared on the screens of the Pentagon's National Military Command Center in Washington, D.C. The duty officers in each location suspected the warning was in error. In the Pentagon command center, a threat assessment conference was called, and all locations were then assured that there were no real signs of missile attack. The pilots returned to their barracks. The alert was ended.
But what happened? Three days later, on June 6, 1980, at 3:38 p.m., the same error occurred again. Again, no missiles were seen by satellites and radar, only on the NORAD data link.
It turned out the false alarm had been caused by the failure of a computer chip in one of NORAD's communications devices. The peacetime message was supposed to continuously broadcast the digits 000, indicating there were no attacking missiles. The failed chip began inserting random 2s into the message, so it came out showing that 200 or 2,000 missiles were in flight. The chip was about the size of a dime and cost 46 cents.
This is just one of the harrowing tales of the nuclear age thrust back into the limelight this summer in a new documentary film, Countdown to Zero, which opens in theaters July 23. The 91-minute film, written and directed by Lucy Walker and produced by Lawrence Bender, is intended to startle us out of complacency about nuclear dangers. It is a cauldron of stark, unsettling scenes, ending with an appeal for the Global Zero movement to eliminate all nuclear weapons.
The 1980 incident has long been known, but there is still something surprising about it, perhaps because it so vividly captures the tense, hair-trigger mentality of the Cold War. In the film, the episode is recalled by Bruce Blair, president of the World Security Institute in Washington, who served as a launch officer for Minuteman missiles in the 1970s and is an executive producer of the film. The false alarm, he says, led to "eight minutes of nuclear-launch preparations that were triggered by a malfunctioning computer chip that costs less than a dollar."
Countdown is full of such moments. Atomic bombs fall off airplanes by mistake; desperate men peddle uranium across borders; nuclear-weapons technology is spread by master proliferator A.Q. Khan of Pakistan. Perhaps the most unsettling and still little-understood episode was the launch of a four-stage rocket, Black Brant, from Norway as part of a scientific experiment on the morning of Jan. 25, 1995. The launch triggered confusion in the Kremlin about whether it was an intercontinental ballistic missile attack. The paperwork announcing the planned rocket launch got lost. When radars spotted the rocket and reported up the chain of command, it was considered serious enough to trigger the first-ever use of the nuclear briefcase by Russian President Boris Yeltsin.