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A Nuclear Error

During the Cold War (and even since), fiction has made some inaccurate assumptions about nuclear weapons and nuclear weapons policy. It made for more exciting drama when writers could pretend that it was easy for some American or Soviet General Ripper type to get control of his country's nukes. However, as the comments below indicate, actual policies changed quite a bit during the Cold War depending on which side one is talking about, so there can be a lot of factual leeway in such situations, especially since many of the facts below have come out only since the 1990s.

Types:
  • Counter-city policies (Fail Safe): When early basic plans involved "throw everything we've got at the commies", later American nuclear policy during the Cold War was to focus on military targets. Population centers like Moscow still would have been bombed, true, but only as leadership targets (and probably with smaller warheads). Industrial targets in cities were last-resort targets. The Soviets did target civilian populations, but not to a massive extent while it was in fact the British who carried over WWII Bomber Command doctrine of area bombing cities due to the smaller number of warheads in stock.
  • A Soviet first strike (Threads and The Day After): the Soviet Union had a "No First Use" policy (= only use nuclear weapons if first attacked with nuclear weapons) in the 1980s. Before then, there were plans for first use, but only in response to an imminent Western attack. WarGames is correct in its usage, as there never was an actual first launch (it was all the military's computer playing a game of Global Thermonuclear War, with the first strike being made by a teenage hacker, unaware he's actually making the US think they're under attack).
    • During the Cold War and post-Cold War analysis of East German, Czech and Polish documents, many people confused the term "pre-emption" with "first strike". Pre-emption is like this: it is considered self-defense to draw and shoot if the other guy starts to draw his gun first.
  • The rogue launch:
    • In general, Soviet Cold War weapons had coded locks, requiring authorisation from the top commanders to be armed. During the Cuban missile crisis however, there were missile carriers capable of independent launch of armed missiles.
    • On the US side, until the 1990s, it would have required at least three people to launch an armed attack from a submarine (and a missile launch from a submarine would be damned near impossible without the full support of the crew). Other launch methods had the coded locksnote . This system, however, only really existed after 1962.
    • In the UK, on the other hand, until 1998 the RAF's nuclear missiles were secured with nothing more than a cylindrical bicycle lock keynote . Royal Navy Trident submarines are still able to launch without a code since a mere ten minute warning meant that if a nuclear war had broken out, it is unlikely that there would be time to issue relevant orders to their submarine captains. Plus, no officer of the Royal Navy would ever consider acting without orders or the proper cirumstances. It just wouldn't be cricket.
    • France faced the same issues, yet they figured they weren't worth the potential risks of starting World War III. They installed the same kind of locks the US and USSR used. They are also less fond of cricket.
  • The nuclear button (Eagle Strike): Neither side in the Cold War had nor has a nuclear launch button, even in their "nuclear footballs". The nuclear footballs contain information about nuclear strategy, and equipment for the leader to communicate with, and authenticate himself to, the military personnel in individual silos (etc) who would actually carry out a launch.
  • Presidential power: The US President cannot launch a nuclear first strike without the cooperation of the Secretary of Defense or any other administrative official that's been appointed/approved by Congress (e.g., CIA director, most of the Presidential Cabinet...). Ordering a retaliatory strike was something a number of people had authority to do. The plane known as "Looking Glass" had authority to do so in the event that the National Command Authority was killed or out of contact. Were DEFCON to reach level 2, both pilot and co-pilot would be required to wear eye-patches in case a nuclear explosion render their exposed eye either momentarily or permanently blind. Nowadays they use goggles that instantaneously turn opaque when exposed to the bright flash of a nuclear detonation and then return to clear to allow the pilots to see clearly. While current policies are classified, it can be assumed that after a major strike on the USA, remaining weapons would be released, with or without higher command. For the Soviets, supposedly, the semi-automatic Perimetr system had three human operators who were able to give the order to launch all remaining warheads in case when on-site seismic detectors detected multiple nuclear explosions on Russian soil and high command is inaccessible. It is unknown if the system is still in use today.
  • Using a missile warhead as a stand-still bomb: Since the Cuban Missile Crisis, virtually all nuclear warheads are designed so that they will only go off after being exposed to certain environmental conditions- as in the large numbers of Gs associated with a missile launch.
    • This can be overstated, however; accelerometers and other arcane safeguards are, effectively, really complicated switches, and can be electrically bypassed.
  • Most films behave as if only the USA and USSR had nukes. In reality, the UK, France, China were also nuclear powers before the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. Later, India and South Africa (probably joint-developed with Israel) produced weapons before the end of the Cold War. In an Open Secret, Israel is widely believed to possess nuclear weapons since the 60's or 70'snote . Several European countries had American bombs stationed there too. South Africa disarmed in 1990, while it is an Open Secret that Pakistan is still making them. Iran and Syria are suspected by some of having nuclear weapons programmes also. Many European countries still have American nuclear gravity bombs stationed there - the Netherlands, Germany and Turkey among others. Their pilots train to use them; in the event of war, the US bombs would be turned over to local NATO forces.
    • In fact, it's widely suspected that the Vela Incident was a joint Israeli/South African nuclear test, as S. Africa was being subjected to multiple embargoes and sanctions due to Apartheid, and Israel was looking for a nation to help them gain nuclear capability because they were being embargoed by some nations in the West.
    • Note that while North Korea's interest in developing nuclear weapons goes back to the 1950s, the country did not test its first nuclear weapon until 2006. As such, North Korea did not have nukes during the Cold War period.
      • And even so, it's by-and-large suspected that every North Korean nuclear weapon tested to date has been a fizzle (nuclear weapons parlance for a dud)
  • Disarming a ICBM Post-Launch: Deployed strategic ballistic missiles do not have any mechanisms for the attacker to remotely disarm or destroy the weapons after launch. For all intents and purposes once the missile has been fired it can only be stopped either by mechanical malfunction or interception. Missiles which are used for testing are modified with a self-destruct mechanism in case something goes wrong, but live warheads are not used for testing the missiles.
    • Gravity bombs on the other hand did have this sort of thing, each was equipped with a scuttle charge in case the bomber had to drop its bombs to make it home. On some models the timer on the scuttle charge was desighned to activate even in an aggressive drop, though considerably after the bomb would have detonated if it wasn't a dud (and the chances of a nuke remaining intact after trying to detonate are slim anyway).

See Artistic License - Nuclear Physics for errors involving nuclear technology.


Examples

    open/close all folders 

    Anime & Manga 
  • In Future War 198X, the inventor of America's new Missile Defense System is kidnapped by Soviet spies. When the Americans realize that he is being taken back to Russia by submarine, they figure that it would be better to kill their greatest inventor than to let his creations fall into enemy hands. They send out a sea-based nuclear warhead to destroy the boat, thinking that it will be a small enough accident that it can be blamed on an accident aboard. The result is far more enormous than anticipated, setting off the entire horrific war the rest of the movie narrates.

    Comicbooks 
  • The Punisher MAX. "Mother Russia" story has Frank in a firefight in a Russian nuclear missile silo to save a little girl, and later evades capture by launching one of the unarmed missiles away and parachuting out. He only addresses the missile's proximity by saying they won't go off short of another nuke.

    Film 
  • Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb may be the epitome of this trope. General Jack D. Ripper issues an order for his bomb wing to attack their targets inside the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union had developed a device that would immediately trigger a nuclear holocaust in the event of an attack on Soviet soil. Nobody but Ripper could order his wing to return, and the Soviet device would go off it any attempt was made to disable it.
  • Fail Safe - A bomber group is launched with nuclear weapons and receives the 'go-ahead' signal because of a technical failure. Because they are literally following their instructions, which tell them to ignore stand-down orders, the U.S. has to give the Soviets whatever information they can to tell them how to shoot down their own planes but one bomber escapes the defences and heads for Moscow. When the inevitable becomes clear, the President offers a solution to his Soviet counterpart to avoid a nuclear holocaust. Since their largest city is doomed, he will offer up America's largest city in return as an Heroic Sacrifice to save the world. When the bomb goes off over New York City, the pilot who had to drop it commits suicide because his wife and children were in New York.
  • The Bedford Incident. A gung-ho destroyer commander harasses a Soviet sub with the intention of forcing it to the surface. Unfortunately he also rides his crew equally hard, so a keyed-up officer launches an anti-sub missile when he hears the words "Fire One" twice in a row (the captain was actually saying "If he (the sub) fires one, then I'll fire one"). The by-now equally keyed-up Soviet submariners respond with an atomic torpedo before they're destroyed. Downplayed in that tactical nuclear weapons, like atomic torpedoes, tend to lack the technological protections and locks that are used on strategic nuclear weapons, like nuclear missiles.
  • Under Siege
    • Averted in (of all places) a Steven Seagal movie. The U.S.S. Missouri's big guns are about to fire at a submarine carrying stolen nuclear-tipped cruise missiles.
    Jordan Tate: If the sub blows, won't the nukes go?
    Casey Ryback: No. They won't detonate. Just sink with the sub.
    • Played straight when Chief Ryback transmits a self-destruct code to a cruise missile in flight and causes it to blow up.
  • Superman (1978). The United States would never test launch missiles with nuclear warheads (armed or not), for exactly the reason shown in the film: any accident could cause vast destruction. Dummy warheads are always used. Even worse, a newspaper headline before the test mentions that live warheads would be used. So the U.S. military said publicly that they were going to pull this harebrained stunt and no one objected. This of course creates an opportunity by Lex Luthor to murder millions in a way that takes the first Super Hero to stop.
  • The Last War averts several tropes by making the sides the Federation and Alliance, and not pointing fingers at any countries in the nuclear attack at the end.
  • The villain's plan in Mission Impossible Ghost Protocol made and set in 2011, involves seizing control of a single nuclear missile and making it look like a Russian first strike on the U.S. (specifically San Francisco) in order to start a nuclear world war. This might have worked some 30 years earlier in 1981. But in 2011, a single nuclear detonation (on a civilian population center rather than a military target) would likely be assumed an act of terrorism. Even if it appeared to be a genuine Russian attack, a single missile (tracked as it came in) would not provoke immediate all out retaliation because it would be obvious there were no other inbound missiles. The inaccuracy and gross misunderstanding of nuclear politics is made even worse considering the villain is supposed to be an expert on the subject in-universe.

    Literature 
  • 1983: Doomsday is an alternate history where the false alarm in the Serpukhov-15 bunker (see the Real Life section for how things really turned out) was reported to the superiors, resulting in nuclear war.
  • Averted in The Hunt for Red October (though not in the movie for reasons of drama). First it's pointed out that Ramius could have launched his missiles virtually from harbour if he wanted to start World War III, and that several officers are needed to launch the missiles, more even than a US submarine. A Politburo discussion about options for preventing the defection of Ramius, specifically pointed out that without the appropriate signal from an accelerometer, the weapon couldn't detonate. Though the film version does have The Mole attempting to sink the October by way of detonating one of the missiles aboard. It's specifically pointed out that the missiles can't be launched, but the fuel and non-nuclear explosives on just one is more than enough to incinerate the ship. Also, the missile the The Mole is attempting to blow in place had been specifically rigged beforehand with a non-standard detonator package, precisely to enable this contingency plan.
  • While not quite an Accident, but insanity, in the last book of the Genesis of Shannara trilogy, the last man living in a nuclear launch facility is finally driven to the point where he launches the remaining weapons in his base's arsenal. The two key console had been changed to a single man with a code, and all weapons pre-targeted. Of course this was already After the End, with "The Great Wars" having already destroyed the majority of civilization (in fact it was during these wars that the normal safe guards were removed that allowed one person to launch the entire U.S. ICBM stockpile, that's how bad they got), so instead of starting a war like most of the other examples did/almost did this one just finished up the destruction, basically causing so much cataclysmic damage it set a reset switch, allowing the survivors (who were magically shielded), to start over from scratch.
  • "Dormant," a scary, scary SF short story by A.E. van Vogt, describes a robotic nuclear weapon landed on Earth from a long-ago war which is activated by fallout from nuclear bomb tests. On detonation, it thrusts the Earth into the Sun, because it doesn't know it's not the same war and would have had no choice even if it had.
  • In Animorphs #46: The Deception, the villainous admiral's Batman Gambit involves faking a nuclear attack by the Chinese on a United States aircraft carrier, giving him an excuse to have a submarine under his command "retaliate," which would actually involve the Chinese and kickstart World War III. The goal is to weaken the entire world enough for the Yeerks to switch from infiltration to open invasion of Earth.
  • It is claimed that Tom Clancy revealed the details of the "Looking Glass" policy in his novel The Sum of All Fears, but for obvious reasons this has never been officially confirmed (or denied).
  • A nuclear detonation kicks off the action of Patrick Robinson's Nimitz-Class. The President and Joint Chiefs believe it was either an accident or sabotage, both scenarios their nuclear weapons specialist categorically refutes.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Revolution:
    • Regarding what happened in the episode "The Dark Tower":
    • Nuclear weapons are pre-programmed with their mission profiles, and cannot usually be reprogrammed immediately. It seems unlikely in the extreme that American nuclear missiles were targeted on Philadelphia and Atlanta just prior to the blackout (although the possibility exists that the rump US government could blame the strikes on a third party).
    • Nuclear missiles require constant maintenance; nuclear warheads do degrade over time; and land-based nuclear missile silos tend to flood in rainstorms unless continuously pumped out.
    • Nuclear missiles are subject to dual-key control at the silo (assuming the problems with a loss of contact with squadron command have been resolved). Even if a missile was still functional after 15+ years of abandonment, and targeted on the appropriate city, there would be no way to fire it without manually turning the keys.
  • Whoops Apocalypse:
    • In the British comedy series, a series of Pythonesque misadventures leads to an accidental rocket crash being interpreted as a preemptive American strike on Moscow.
    • The film of the same name has the same writers but an almost completely different plot, in which a submarine commander accidentally orders a nuclear strike because a stage hypnotist has implanted the command to say "Fire!" whenever someone snaps their fingers.
  • Woops!:
    • This short-lived comedy series begins on the notion that a couple of kids with a radio-controlled airplane accidentally interfered with US missile control systems, causing global thermonuclear holocaust. Of course, the entire show is built in this sort of hyperbolic farce.
    • Not quite as farfetched as you might think, actually.
  • In one episode of ALF, the titular alien tries to contact the president to voice his concerns about a nuclear disaster. When Willie asked if that's what destroyed Melmac, ALF replies "No, we all plugged our hairdryers in at the same time"

    Music 
  • "99 Luftballons". The titular balloons show up as unidentified blips on a radar screen, so one side sends fighter jets to investigate. The other side takes this as an attack and retaliates with the nukes.
  • Trope Namer "London Calling" by The Clash is about a post-apocalyptic London after an accidental nuclear disaster.

    Video Games 
  • The Modern Warfare series plays with this trope, as it's, well, about modern warfare.
    • In the first game, the American armed forces are obliterated by a stand-still nuclear warhead as they storm al-Asad's capital city. But given Modern Warfare's propensity for leaving things ambiguous and open to interpretation, they don't really explain how it goes off or who did it, just that NEST and Seal Team Six start to defuse it, followed by a bright flash of lightnote 
    • At the end, Imran Zakhaev takes over a Loyalist nuclear launch facility and launches nukes at the United States in retaliation for the continued US and British presence in Russia, but again the game doesn't really explain how they were able to crack the coded locks, as the US forces had to badger the Russian Loyalists just to get the auto-destruct codes. Of course, this is also in itself an error, as stated above - there are no "auto-destruct" codes.
    • During Modern Warfare 2, Captain Price disappears inside a Russian submarine, followed by an immediate missile launch. Like in the first game, the player doesn't actually see how he does it, although he might've been operating on British nuclear submarine logic and just beaten up the guy with the bicycle keys. Fortunately he set the missiles to blow up above Washington DC as an EMP to cripple Russian air superiority, as they were bringing all their materiel and troops in by plane.
    • Modern Warfare 3 revolves around rogue Ultranationalist terrorist Vladimir Makarov kidnapping the Russian president and forcing him to give up the Russian nuclear codes so he can destroy Europe, even though the actual Russian Army who he's secretly in league with (maybe—it's not explained much and contradicts what was established in the last game) are trying to conquer it. And that's not even getting to the fact that the Russians would presumably change the launch codes and/or not accept them from a man who they know has been kidnapped.
  • This is one of the main themes of the campaign of Wargame: European Escalation, which visualised WW 3 happening on four different, unrelated occasions. One of those occasions, the ABLE ARCHER 83 escalation, culminates in a French first strike. Another one, while less grave, deals with a US computer error which fires missiles of various kinds over the Soviet border. While the actual nuclear missiles can be self-destructed before impact, the conventional ones cannot, and WW 3 erupts nevertheless.

    Real Life 
  • So far as anyone knows, there has never been an accidental nuclear detonation. But there have been serious errors, usually resulting from midair collisions, where nuclear weapons have been lost temporarily. Others have occurred where the non-nuclear components of the bomb detonated due to accidents, but as they must detonate in a precise sequence with extremely tight time tolerances, the only result was spreading radioactive material around. The closest we ever got was probably when a bomber was destroyed in a refueling accident, releasing all four bombs in its payload (with the non-nuclear explosives aboard two detonating, spreading contamination to a significant area. More details here.)
  • And worse? The world may have been closer to World War III than even during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
    • In 1983, war tensions were high between NATO and the Warsaw Pact. For a few years, the USSR under Brezhnev and Andropov were terrified that a United States first strike was imminent, and had instuted the RYaN (from the Russian meaning something like "Nuclear Rocket Attack") program to find any hints of warlike intentions. note  In the summer of '83, the Able Archer '83 exercises (a NATO communications exercise meant to simulate the first week of World War III, culminating on the last day with a rehearsal of an expected nuclear exchange) were held, this coinciding with the controversial arrival of Pershing nuclear missiles note . The Russians were monitoring in real time and were becoming increasingly alarmed at the exercise. The coinciding of the two events sent Soviet suspicions through the roof. And, the Soviet early-warning satellite system was fundamentally flawed. The system registered five ICBMs from three separate launches headed towards Russia.note  Stanislav Petrov, the officer in charge of the station, realized quickly that the United States would not launch a first strike with just five missiles - had they actually intended to initiate war they'd have launched everything, in an attempt to cut the head off their enemy before it could retaliate significantly. Suspecting an equipment error, he shut down the first two alarms, and explained to his superiors that he was ignoring the third, citing the fact that only five missiles had been launched. Had he instead given credence to the alarms, the Soviet Union would most likely have launched a "counter"-strike, which the USA would have correctly seen as a first strike. An actual counter-strike would have followed, and we wouldn't be reading TV Tropes right now. And, to top it all off, Petrov wasn't supposed to be the man on duty that day. He had taken the shift for another operator who was sick. Needless to say, Petrov - the man who very literally saved humanity - was promptly relieved of duty pending an official inquiry. (For what it's worth, they decided he'd acted properly and he was reinstated.)
    • Even after the Petrov incident, there were still tensions. Two weeks before the Able Archer exercise began, a Marine base in Beirut was hit by a suicide bomber, killing over 200 US Marines. All US bases around the world were put on alert after that, stoking Soviet paranoia. Then, Able Archer '83 entered its crescendo phase — the simulation of Soviet chemical attacks on Western Europe, and NATO commanders making the decision to launch retaliatory strikes on Eastern Europe. These messages were picked up by Soviet wiretaps, and sent Andropov and the Kremlin into a frothing panic. Soviet and Warsaw Pact troops were sent to their wartime mobilization positions, and nuclear bombers were put in the air as a precaution. It was only tamped down once a Soviet agent named TOPAZ, who had access to Cosmic Top Secret documents at NATO sent off an urgent message to the East German HVA, who passed it to the KGB, stating baldly that NATO had no concrete intentions of attacking, and that the exercise was as it appeared — just an exercise.
    • Don't forget about Korean Air Lines Flight 007. A civilian 747 strayed off course and flew into Soviet airspace, where it was mistaken for a spy plane. It was then shot down with all souls lost. Reagan coined the phrase "evil empire" referring to the Soviet Union after this incident, and banned Aeroflot (the Soviet national airline) from landing in the States. Long story short, 1983 was a bad year in international relations.
      • A good deal of that "bad year" thing is undoubtedly because (according to his memoirs) Reagan didn't know the Soviets genuinely feared an American first strike. It was not until the reports of the Soviet reaction to Able Archer 83 made their way back to him six months later that he began to properly understand how they regarded the US and how close it had been.
    • Even the end of the Cold War didn't stop these close calls - a rocket carrying scientific equipment for studying the aurora borealis was launched from Norway in January 1995, but its trajectory took it over Moscow and its flightpath was the same as a Minuteman ICBM launched from North Dakota. The scientists had notified Russia (and about thirty others) about the launched, but no one told the personnel at the radar installation that detected it. End result: full alert was issued all the way up to President Boris Yeltsin, and the nuclear briefcase used to authorize nuclear attack was activated (the only time in history thus far this has happened).


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