Publication: Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 15

In a matter-of-fact statement, the chief spokesman for the Strategic Missile Force announced yesterday that Russian early-warning sensors had that day both detected the launch of a Norwegian research ballistic missile and confirmed that the missile’s trajectory posed no threat to Russia. A similar event four years ago nearly triggered a nuclear war (Russian media, January 21).

In January 1995 Norway launched a research rocket from northern Norway in a joint U.S./Norwegian project to study the Northern Lights. As in the recent case, Norway had notified Russia before the launch. In 1995, however, that information was somehow lost in the Russian bureaucracy and apparently never reached the missile force’s command center. When Russian ABM radar detected the rocket, computers identified it as a combat missile, perhaps a Trident nuclear-armed missile launched from an American submarine patrolling in either the Norwegian or Barents Sea. Later reports indicated that President Boris Yeltsin’s “nuclear briefcase” was activated and that he was poised to authorize a retaliatory nuclear strike. The matter was fortunately resolved when the missile splashed into the Arctic Ocean near Spitsbergen, more than 1,000 kilometers from Russia (The Economist, July 13, 1998).

This relatively close call fueled Western concerns about the deteriorating state of Russia’s nuclear command and control system. Yesterday’s statement indicates that some things have improved–such as the lines of communication between the foreign and defense ministries. It would also appear that the early-warning computers can now better distinguish between friend and foe.