The third world war may well be the last in the history of mankind, since it is likely that it will lead to serious climate change on the entire planet. From the huge amount of dust and ash raised by atomic explosions into the atmosphere, the flow of sunlight will be significantly reduced and there will be cooling the so-called nuclear winter.

Such a development of events was considered most likely during the years of the Cold War, when the US and the USSR unleashed an insane arms race, seeking to secure superiority in destructive power. No country will subsequently achieve such a scale of accumulation of deadly “toys”.

In real combat operations, atomic bombs were used only at the end of World War II. August 6 and 9, 1945 American planes dropped two nuclear charges on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Four years later, such a weapon for the first time experienced Soviet Union, which marked the beginning of a nuclear confrontation between the two powers.

When the world was on the brink

There were several misunderstandings. And each of them almost turned into irreparable consequences.

Incident with the Soviet nuclear submarine “B-59” in 1962

1962 was one of the hottest years of the Cold War era. American and Soviet nuclear missiles were placed in close proximity to the borders of the two opposing powers: in Turkey and Cuba, respectively. This meant that it would be impossible to detect and intercept them in a timely manner. The events that followed would be called the Caribbean crisis.

Tension grew in relations between the two countries, it reached its peak at the end of October. Liberty Island was under naval blockade by the US Navy. On the morning of October 27, during a reconnaissance flight over Cuba, Soviet air defenses shot down an American U-2 aircraft. It was possible to prevent retaliatory bombing only thanks to the composure of the then US President John F. Kennedy.

On the same day, American ships discovered the Soviet submarine B-59 with nuclear weapons, which, under the command of Captain Second Rank Valentin Savitsky, was moving towards Cuba.

During the sailing Savitsky did not receive clear instructions from the command why there were atomic charges on board, whether they should be used and if used, then how. But the captain had the right to use them if the boat was attacked.

Nuclear war: the B-59 submarine is heading for Cuba
Submarine “B-59” is heading to Cuba. Photo: US Navy photographer / Wikimedia Commons

The Americans surrounded the Soviet ship and used special depth charges to force the Soviet submariners to surface. The crew lost contact with the command, many officers decided that the boat was about to be sunk, and Savitsky got ready use an atomic torpedo – he considered that the war had already begun.

However, after consulting with his understudy, captain of the second rank Vasily Arkhipov, Savitsky abandoned this idea. The submarine managed to send radio signals to the American ships and aircraft pursuing it, demanding that they stop the provocations. The bombardment has stopped. Thanks to this, Arkhipov is often called the man who prevented a nuclear catastrophe.

Arkhipov in 1961 managed to serve on the long-suffering submarine K-19. A ship with a nuclear engine and weapons repeatedly suffered accidents in which several dozen Soviet sailors died. The victims of the largest incident – a fire in 1972 – were 30 servicemen of the Soviet fleet.

The very next day, an order to shoot down American planes over Cuba was paused. The parties entered into negotiations. In November, Soviet missiles were dismantled from Cuban territory, the US Navy ended the blockade of the island, and a few months later, American weapons of mass destruction left Turkey.

US Air Defense Mistakes in the 1970s and 1980s

A number of potentially dangerous situations have been caused by false alarms of missile strike warning systems. At the turn of the 70s and 80s, automatic systems began to be introduced at American tracking stations, and since that time fixed up to 10 such incidents per day.

They were caused by equipment malfunctions, program failures, lighting and thermal effects: solar or lunar activity, glare on the water.

All this took place in the background deterioration relations between the US and the USSR, which began in 1979.

Thus, on November 9, 1979, US space intelligence received data on the shelling of the United States with nuclear charges from the Soviet side. Satellite observation spoke of the great accuracy of the information received.

About a thousand ballistic missile systems were put on alert, and interceptor aircraft took to the air. 6 minutes later attack signal recognized false. It turned out that the technician had accidentally run a training program to simulate a Soviet nuclear attack on the computer.

Similar episodes happened 3 and 6 June next year. Their cause was a failure in the data processing system, upon which the US Senate subsequently conducted an audit.

Another famous incident occurred in March 1980. Then the Soviet submarine during the exercises launched four missiles in the area of ​​the Kuril Islands. US air defense early warning systems reported that one of them is aimed at American territory. Despite the fact that the information was not confirmed, the following year, high officials of the United States gathered for a conference on the assessment of external threats.

False alarm of the Soviet warning system in 1983

In March 1983, US President Ronald Reagan announced on the creation of the Strategic Defense Initiative. A project that received an unofficial title Star Wars, involved the development of a large-scale air defense system – a laser-missile shield on the ground, in the air and even in space. Later, this not particularly realistic plan was supplemented: it included provisions for new offensive weapons.

Thus began a new, decisive stage in the arms race and the Cold War between the USSR and the USA. The process of “détente” that started in the 1970s – the signing of joint declarations on the limitation of nuclear weapons, the “thaw” of diplomatic relations – was finally curtailed.

The catastrophe in the air near the eastern borders of the USSR added fuel to the fire. September 1, 1983 Soviet aviation knocked down a Korean Air Lines passenger Boeing 747 with 269 passengers on board, including Americans, veered off course due to a navigational error. Air defense systems mistook it for an American reconnaissance aircraft. This tragic event was preceded by several provocations on the Pacific border of the USSR.

In this situation, on September 23, at the command post of the space detection system in the closed military town of Serpukhov-15 entered signal about the launch of intercontinental missiles from the American base.

The operational duty lieutenant colonel Stanislav Petrov checked the incoming threat and confirmed the high probability of a real attack. Further, according to the protocol, it was necessary to raise the alarm, which would most likely lead to a retaliatory strike from the USSR.

However, the officer was alerted by the small number of missiles launched, and he decided to turn to visual observation specialists. They reported that there were no signs of a nuclear strike from the United States. After making sure that a false alarm of the system had occurred, Petrov reported this to his superiors.

For the first time the general public found out about this only eight years later, when the case was declassified.

Stanislav Petrov at the award ceremony in Dresden, 2013
Stanislav Petrov at the award ceremony in Dresden, 2013. Photo: Zthomas / Wikimedia Commons

In 2006, at the UN Headquarters, Stanislav Petrov even received a commemorative statuette from the Association of World Citizens organization with the inscription: “To the person who prevented nuclear war.” Later, he was awarded several more European awards.

Why the nuclear threat has not disappeared

In fact, the number of such incidents measured by the thousands. Moreover, they happened not only through the fault of the USSR and the USA: China, India and Israel could unleash a nuclear war several times.

Such cases also occurred after the end of the Cold War. So, the so-called Norwegian missile incident 1995. At that time, Russian air defense systems mistook a Canadian research missile for an American ballistic missile, and President Boris Yeltsin was even delivered a nuclear briefcase.

October 2010 happened An even more terrible incident: the launch control center of Warren Air Force Base in Wyoming lost contact with 50 high-alert missile systems for almost an hour.

The arms race has shown the futility and danger of building up nuclear potentials. Today, nuclear weapons are used not as a means of aggression, but as a method of maintaining the balance of power in the world. When prospective rivals can destroy each other and in general all life on Earth, wars become useless.

Nuclear war: the number of nuclear weapons in the United States and the USSR / Russia by year
The number of nuclear weapons in the United States and the USSR / Russia by years. Image: Fastfission/Wikimedia Commons

However, despite the fact that the number of nuclear weapons in the world has been declining since the end of the Cold War, the risk of their use remains.

In 1947, the inventors of the first atomic bomb at the University of Chicago made the Doomsday Clock. Their arrows show not the time, but the proximity of mankind to a nuclear catastrophe, which metaphorically correlates with midnight.

And it is in 2020 that the watch turned out to be closest to her. In particular, one of the reasons is the deteriorating situation in the field of nuclear weapons.

Technology has made a big step forward, and if desired, almost any state and even small organizations can create a primitive atomic bomb. The authors came to this conclusion researchordered by the US Congress back in 1977. According to some reports, such work is already underway in Iran and Myanmar.

At the same time, by opinion watchmakers, the current nuclear powers and the UN are not taking sufficient measures to prevent further proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. This increases the risks of local nuclear wars. They are also concerned about the growing threat of cyberattacks and the spread of misinformation.

Nuclear war: protest against the deployment of Pershing-2 missiles in Europe
Protest against the deployment of Pershing-2 missiles in Europe. Bonn, West Germany, 1981. Photo: Rob Bogaerts / Anefo / Nationaal Archief

However, even the weapons that have already been created are quite enough to destroy all life on Earth. By data Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, the total stock of nuclear warheads in 2019 amounted to 13,865 units. At the same time, the United States and Russia have 90% of these warheads.

To cause serious harm to the Earth, according to some calculationsonly about 100 explosions with a capacity of 13-18 kilotons each are enough.

Today, nine countries have their own nuclear weapons: the United States, Russia, Great Britain, France, China, India, Israel, Pakistan and North Korea. The last four were included in this list bypassing Agreements on the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons of 1968, developed by the UN.

Nevertheless, it played a positive role: without an agreement between countries possessing nuclear weapons of mass destruction, could would be between 15 and 25.

So far, only South Africa remains a country that independently developed nuclear weapons and then voluntarily refused From him.

It remains to be hoped that technical problems, human error and evil or insane intentions do not prevail over prudence. It is unlikely that anyone wants to die in a nuclear fire or live in the ashes of the old world.