January 25, 1995 (a Wednesday)

A Black Brant XII rocket like this one caused the Norwegian rocket incident.

A Black Brant XII rocket like this one caused the Norwegian rocket incident.

On this date, the so-called Norwegian rocket incident, also known as the Black Brant scare, occurred.

It began when Russia’s early-warning defense radar detected an unexpected missile launch near Norway. Russian military command estimated the missile to be only minutes from impact on Moscow. Moments later, Russian President Boris Yeltsin, his defense minister, and his chief of staff were informed of the missile launch. During its flight, the rocket eventually reached an altitude of 1,453 kilometers (903 mi), resembling a U.S. Navy submarine-launched Trident missile. As a result, Russian nuclear forces were put on high alert, and the nuclear weapons command suitcase was brought to Yeltsin, who then had to decide whether to launch a nuclear barrage against the United States.

Five minutes after the launch detection, Russian command determined that the missile’s impact point would be outside Russia’s borders. Three more minutes passed, and Yeltsin was informed that the launching was likely not part of a surprise nuclear strike by Western nuclear submarines. Tracking the trajectory had taken eight of the ten minutes allotted to the process of deciding whether to launch a nuclear response to an impending attack (Trident submarine missiles from the Barents Sea could reach Russia’s mainland in ten minutes).

These conclusions came two minutes before Yeltsin and his commanders should have ordered a full-scale nuclear attack based on standard launch-on-warning protocols. Later, it was revealed that the missile, launched from Spitzbergen, Norway, was actually carrying instruments for scientific measurements. The rocket fell harmlessly to Earth as planned, near Spitsbergen, 24 minutes after launch. Nine days before, Norway had notified 35 countries, including Russia, of the exact details of the planned launch. The Russian Defense Ministry had received Norway’s announcement but had neglected to inform the on-duty personnel at the early-warning center of the imminent launch. The event raised serious concerns about the quality of the former Soviet Union’s nuclear systems.

The Norwegian rocket incident was a few minutes of nuclear tension that took place nearly four years after the end of the Cold War. In this post-Cold War era, many Russians were very suspicious of the United States and NATO. It was the first and only incident where any nuclear weapons state had its nuclear suitcases activated and prepared for launching an attack. While not as well known an incident as the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962, the 1995 incident is considered by many to be just as, if not much more, severe.

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