During the Cold War, troops might have panicked
by MATTHEW GAULT
On Feb. 14, 2017, a curious desktop notification blinked into the bottom right corners of computer screens across the U.S. Air Force base in Spangdahlem, Germany. The notification system is typically reserved for weather alerts.
The curious Airmen who clicked on the notice got something different than a warning about an incoming storm. A bright red message filled the screen with the words “MISSILE INBOUND. SEEK SHELTER IMMEDIATELY!”
A green banner ran across the top telling viewers this was a level 3 INFOCON — information operations condition — alert, meaning officials had identified a probable risk. “Severity: High” the message declared near the top of the screen.
But this wasn’t an attack on a U.S. installation abroad. A single individual had screwed up and accidentally sent the message.
Thirty years ago, this kind of thing may have caused a minor international incident. These days, it’s fodder for social media hilarity.
“One of the command post controllers was building a template for this specific thing that was posted and he inadvertently sent it to everybody,” Air Force spokesman Maj. Bryon McGarry told Stars and Stripes.
An unidentified airman from Spangdahlem’s 52nd Fighter Wing was working on the warning message and clicked the wrong button. He meant to send it to just one person, but ended up sending to everyone on the base.
Honestly, it’s a mistake we’ve all made. Who hasn’t accidentally hit “reply-all” when they meant to hit “reply”?
Eight minutes after the false alarm went out, a calming blue message went to everyone’s screens. The follow up told everyone that the first message warning of an imminent threat had been an accident.
That didn’t stop rowdy troops from snapping pics or screenshots of the original message and uploading them to Facebook and other social media sites. The above picture is one of those shots.
The individual who posted it noted the emoji was added after the fact. Commenters piled on and the incident became a minor news blurb for a few days.
“It probably could have been handled with relatively mild embarrassment at a lower level, but here we are,” McGarry lamented to Stars and Stripes. He’s right and I’m not sure anyone understands how remarkable this event really was as a whole.
The incident underscores just how much the world has changed since the end of the Cold War. As late as the 1980s, an accidental emergency alert about an incoming missile at a base in what was then West Germany could have set off an apocalyptic series of events.
This isn’t hyperbole. In 1983, in the months before NATO launched its annual Able Archer war game across Western Europe, Moscow came close to blowing up the whole damn world.
Just after midnight on Sept. 26, 1983, the Soviet Union’s Oko ballistic missile early warning system sprung to life. According to the computers, a nuclear-tipped ICBM was headed from the United States toward Russia.
Soviet Lt. Col. Stanislav Petrov was manning the station that night and he did something remarkable — he dismissed the warning as a false alarm. He smartly reasoned that if America was really starting a war and throwing the first nuke, there would be a hell of a lot more than one missile in the air.
He also knew Oko had been malfunctioning. Turns out the sun had hit some clouds and confused the satellites in charge of watching for incoming rockets.
Petrov’s diligence and skepticism saved the world. But dozens of similar incidents litter the history of the Cold War.
In 1979, the shared American-Canadian North American Aerospace Defense Command triggered an alarm and told troops to prepare for a large scale Soviet missile attack. America’s soldiers went on high alert.
Missile silos hummed in preparation and pilots boarded bombers loaded with nuclear weapons. Minutes later, satellite data failed to corroborate NORAD’s warning.
It turns out a technician had put a high alert training tape into a computer. The whole thing was a simulation the U.S. military mistook for an actual attack.
Thankfully, after failing to see the supposed missiles on any other systems, America’s leaders decided against nuclear retaliation.
In 1980, the Soviet Union launched missiles from four submarines off the coast of the Kuril Islands in the Pacific Ocean. America’s early warning system picked up the launch and made it seem as if one of the missiles was flying towards the United States.
It wasn’t and once again, cooler heads prevailed.
These kinds of things happened constantly during the Cold War. It happened so often that it’s a real miracle no one ever launched a paranoid retaliatory attack.
Rational decisions always seemed to prevent a nuclear holocaust. Perhaps leaders simply balked at the guaranteed death of millions.
The February 2017 incident is proof these kinds of things still happen, but that our reactions to them has changed dramatically. Only a few decades ago, such an incident would have sent jets scrambling into the air, put troops on high alert and more.
More than a quarter century after the fall of the Soviet Union, it has become fodder for bored service members on social media. Of course, some might point to this as evidence the collapse of U.S. military readiness.
Instead, why don’t we greet it as confirmation that — despite rhetoric to the contrary — we live in a safer and less paranoid world today.