Norwegian rocket incident

Norwegian rocket incident

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The Norwegian rocket incident (or Black Brant scare) refers to a few minutes of post-Cold War
Cold War
The Cold War was the continuing state from roughly 1946 to 1991 of political conflict, military tension, proxy wars, and economic competition between the Communist World—primarily the Soviet Union and its satellite states and allies—and the powers of the Western world, primarily the United States...

 nuclear tension that took place on January 25, 1995, more than four years after the end of the Cold War
Cold War
The Cold War was the continuing state from roughly 1946 to 1991 of political conflict, military tension, proxy wars, and economic competition between the Communist World—primarily the Soviet Union and its satellite states and allies—and the powers of the Western world, primarily the United States...

. The incident started when a team of Norwegian
Norway
Norway , officially the Kingdom of Norway, is a Nordic unitary constitutional monarchy whose territory comprises the western portion of the Scandinavian Peninsula, Jan Mayen, and the Arctic archipelago of Svalbard and Bouvet Island. Norway has a total area of and a population of about 4.9 million...

 and American
United States
The United States of America is a federal constitutional republic comprising fifty states and a federal district...

 scientists launched a Black Brant XII
Black Brant (rocket)
The Black Brant is a Canadian-designed sounding rocket built by Bristol Aerospace in Winnipeg, Manitoba. Over 800 Black Brants of various versions have been launched since they were first produced in 1961, and the type remains one of the most popular sounding rockets ever built...

 four-stage
Multistage rocket
A multistage rocket is a rocket that usestwo or more stages, each of which contains its own engines and propellant. A tandem or serial stage is mounted on top of another stage; a parallel stage is attached alongside another stage. The result is effectively two or more rockets stacked on top of or...

 sounding rocket
Sounding rocket
A sounding rocket, sometimes called a research rocket, is an instrument-carrying rocket designed to take measurements and perform scientific experiments during its sub-orbital flight. The origin of the term comes from nautical vocabulary, where to sound is to throw a weighted line from a ship into...

 from the Andøya Rocket Range
Andøya Rocket Range
Andøya Rocket Range is a rocket launch site and rocket range on Andøya island in Andøy municipality in northern Norway...

 off the northwest coast of Norway. The rocket, which carried equipment to study the aurora borealis
Aurora (astronomy)
An aurora is a natural light display in the sky particularly in the high latitude regions, caused by the collision of energetic charged particles with atoms in the high altitude atmosphere...

 over Svalbard
Svalbard
Svalbard is an archipelago in the Arctic, constituting the northernmost part of Norway. It is located north of mainland Europe, midway between mainland Norway and the North Pole. The group of islands range from 74° to 81° north latitude , and from 10° to 35° east longitude. Spitsbergen is the...

, flew on a high northbound trajectory
Trajectory
A trajectory is the path that a moving object follows through space as a function of time. The object might be a projectile or a satellite, for example. It thus includes the meaning of orbit—the path of a planet, an asteroid or a comet as it travels around a central mass...

, which included an air corridor
Air corridor
An air corridor is a designated region of airspace that an aircraft must remain in during its transit through a given region. Air corridors are typically imposed by military or diplomatic requirements...

 that stretches from the North Dakota Minuteman-III silos all the way to Moscow, eventually reaching an altitude of 1453 kilometres (902.9 mi). Nuclear forces in Russia were put on alert, and the nuclear-command suitcase was brought to President Boris Yeltsin
Boris Yeltsin
Boris Nikolayevich Yeltsin was the first President of the Russian Federation, serving from 1991 to 1999.Originally a supporter of Mikhail Gorbachev, Yeltsin emerged under the perestroika reforms as one of Gorbachev's most powerful political opponents. On 29 May 1990 he was elected the chairman of...

, who then had to decide whether to launch a nuclear barrage against the United States.
Notably, there is still no clear and direct confirmation that the trajectory of the rocket was taken by mistake, caused by computer or other technical failure. One version of events persists: Using the allies' facilities, the US were testing the Russian early time detection systems and response policies, since the status of the Russian defensive-offensive capacities was considered to be at least questionable after the collapse of the USSR.

Detection


As the rocket climbed, it was detected by the Olenegorsk early warning radar
Early warning radar
An early warning radar is any radar system used primarily for the long-range detection of its targets, i.e., allowing defences to be alerted as early as possible before the intruder reaches its target, giving the defences the maximum time in which to operate...

 station in Russia
Russia
Russia or , officially known as both Russia and the Russian Federation , is a country in northern Eurasia. It is a federal semi-presidential republic, comprising 83 federal subjects...

. To the radar operators, the rocket appeared similar in speed and flight pattern to a U.S. submarine-launched Trident missile
Trident missile
The Trident missile is a submarine-launched ballistic missile equipped with multiple independently-targetable reentry vehicles . The Fleet Ballistic Missile is armed with nuclear warheads and is launched from nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines . Trident missiles are carried by fourteen...

, leading the Russian military to initially misinterpret the rocket's trajectory as representing the precursor to a possible attack by missiles from submarines.

EMP rocket scenario


One possibility was that the rocket had been a solitary radar-blocking electromagnetic pulse (EMP) rocket launched from a Trident missile at sea in order to blind Russian radars in the first stage of a surprise attack. In this scenario, gamma rays from a high-altitude nuclear detonation could create an EMP wave that would confuse radars and incapacitate electronic equipment. After that, according to the scenario, the real attack would start.

Post-staging


After stage separation, the rocket launch appeared on radar similar to multiple re-entry vehicles (RVs); the Russian control center did not immediately realize that the Norwegian scientific rocket was headed out to sea, rather than toward Russia. Tracking the trajectory took 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).

Response


This event resulted in a full alert being passed up through the military chain of command all the way to President Boris Yeltsin
Boris Yeltsin
Boris Nikolayevich Yeltsin was the first President of the Russian Federation, serving from 1991 to 1999.Originally a supporter of Mikhail Gorbachev, Yeltsin emerged under the perestroika reforms as one of Gorbachev's most powerful political opponents. On 29 May 1990 he was elected the chairman of...

, who was notified immediately and the "nuclear briefcase
Nuclear briefcase
Nuclear briefcase is a specially outfitted briefcase used to authorize the use of nuclear weapons.-United States:The Nuclear Football is a black briefcase, the contents of which is to be...

" (known in Russia as Cheget
Cheget
Cheget is a "nuclear briefcase" and a part of the automatic system for the pinnacle command and control of Russia's Strategic Nuclear Forces named Kazbek ....

) used to authorize nuclear launch was automatically activated. It is reported that President Boris Yeltsin activated his "nuclear keys" for the first time in his tenure. No warning was issued to the Russian populace of any incident; it was reported in the news a week afterward.

As a result of the alert, Russian submarine commanders were ordered to go into a state of combat readiness and prepare for nuclear retaliation.

Russian doctrine reportedly allowed Yeltsin ten minutes from the time of detection to decide on a course of action. Russian observers were quickly able to determine that the rocket was heading away from Russian airspace and was not a threat. Reports differ greatly as to whether or not Yeltsin came close to authorizing an attack, but the general consensus is that Yeltsin was able to conclude that there was no basis for attack, and therefore no danger. The rocket fell to earth as planned near Spitsbergen
Spitsbergen
Spitsbergen is the largest and only permanently populated island of the Svalbard archipelago in Norway. Constituting the western-most bulk of the archipelago, it borders the Arctic Ocean, the Norwegian Sea and the Greenland Sea...

24 minutes after launch.

Prior notification


The Norwegian and American scientists had notified thirty countries including Russia of their intention to launch a high-altitude scientific experiment aboard a rocket, however the information was not passed on to the radar technicians. Following the incident, notification and disclosure protocols were re-evaluated and redesigned.

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