Because the situation in Cuba still rested on a knife-edge, Maultsby’s accidental detour carried possibly catastrophic consequences. Worried the U-2 could be a nuclear bomber, the Soviets scrambled several MiG fighter jets and sent them on a course to destroy the intruding aircraft. The Air Force responded by dispatching two F-102 fighters armed with nuclear-tipped missiles to shepherd Maultsby back to Alaska. Any confrontation between the two groups of aircraft could have potentially ended in all-out war, but Maultsby managed to glide his U-2—which had long since run out of fuel—out of Soviet airspace before he could be intercepted. Having averted disaster on two fronts, President John F. Kennedy and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev would find a peaceful resolution to the Cuban Missile Crisis the following day.
2. The B-59 Submarine Incident
The misunderstanding could have resulted in disaster if not for a contingency measure that required all three of the submarine’s senior officers to sign off on a nuclear launch. The Soviet captain was in favor, but Vasili Arkhipov, B-59’s second in command, refused to give his consent. After calming the captain down, Arkhipov coolly convinced his fellow officers to bring B-59 to the surface and request new orders from Moscow. The submarine eventually returned to Russia without incident, but it was over 40 years before a full account of Arkhipov’s life-saving decision finally came to light.
3. The 1979 NORAD Computer Glitch
The panic soon subsided after NORAD consulted its satellite data and realized the nuclear warning was little more than a false alarm. Upon further inspection, they discovered that a technician had accidentally run a training program simulating a Soviet attack on the United States. The incident sent shock waves through the international community—Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev even wrote President Jimmy Carter a letter noting the “tremendous danger” caused by the error—but it was not the last time a computer issue led to a nuclear scare. Computer chip failures would later lead to three more false alarms at NORAD in the following year.
Protocol demanded that Serpukhov-15 report any signs of a missile launch to the Soviet high command, but Petrov had a hunch the warning was an error. He knew the new satellite system was mistake-prone, and he also reasoned that any nuclear strike by the Americans would come in the form of hundreds of missiles, not just five. With only minutes to make a decision, Petrov chose to ignore the blaring warning alarms and reported the launch as a false alarm—a move that may have averted a nuclear holocaust. The incident remained classified until after the Cold War ended, but Petrov later received several humanitarian awards for his extraordinary actions, and was even honored by the United Nations.
For the Soviets, these maneuvers perfectly matched their own predictions for how the Americans would set the table for a nuclear offensive. While they knew a war game was taking place, they were also wary that it could be a ruse to cover up preparations for a real world attack. Unbeknownst to the Americans, the Soviets had soon gone into high alert and readied their nuclear arsenal, with some units in East Germany and Poland even preparing their fighter jets for takeoff. They remained poised for a counterstrike until November 11, when the Able Archer exercise ended without incident. Only later did NATO and the United States realize that their realistic simulation of World War III had very nearly led to the real thing.
Did You Know?
On January 23, 1961, the U.S. Air Force accidentally dropped two atomic bombs on North Carolina. The bizarre incident occurred when an American B-52 went into a tailspin during a routine flight along the east coast, causing a pair of 4-megaton hydrogen bombs to dislodge and fall near the town of Goldsboro. A low-voltage safety switch was all that prevented a disaster. Had the devices been triggered, the blast would have been more than 260 times more powerful than the bomb detonated over Hiroshima.