The Norwegian rocket incident, also known as the Black Brant scare, occurred on 25 January 1995 when a team of Norwegian and US scientists launched a Black Brant XII four-stage sounding rocket from the Andøya Rocket Range off the northwestern coast of Norway.
The rocket carried scientific equipment to study the aurora borealis over Svalbard, and flew on a high northbound trajectory, which included an air corridor that stretches from Minuteman III nuclear missile silos in North Dakota all the way to Moscow, the capital city of Russia. The rocket eventually reached an altitude of 1,453 kilometres (903 miles), resembling a US Navy submarine-launched Trident missile.
Russian nuclear forces were put on high alert as a result, fearing a high-altitude nuclear attack that could blind Russian radar, and the “nuclear briefcase” (the Cheget) was brought to Russian President Boris Yeltsin, who then had to decide whether to launch a retaliatory nuclear strike against the United States. Russian observers determined that there was no nuclear attack. No retaliation was ordered.
The Norwegian rocket incident was a few minutes of post-Cold War nuclear tension that took place nearly four years after the end of the Cold War. While not as well known an incident as the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962 (nor the Stanislav Petrov Incident of 1983, which was still classified), the 1995 incident is considered to be one of the most severe. The 1995 incident occurred at a time where many Russians, especially in the military, were still very suspicious of the United States and NATO. In contrast, the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962 had a much longer build-up.
As the Black Brant XII rocket gained altitude, it was detected by the Olenegorsk early-warning radar station in Murmansk Oblast. To the radar operators, the rocket appeared similar in speed and flight pattern to a US Navy submarine-launched Trident missile, 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 missile with a radar-blocking electromagnetic pulse (EMP) payload 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 would create a very high-intensity electromagnetic pulse that would confuse radars and incapacitate electronic equipment. After that, according to the scenario, the real attack would start.
After stage separation, the rocket launch appeared on radar similar to Multiple Re-entry vehicles (MRVs); the Russian control centre did not immediately realise that the Norwegian scientific rocket was headed out to sea, rather than toward Russia. Tracking the trajectory took 8 of the 10 minutes allotted to the process of deciding whether to launch a nuclear response to an impending attack; a submarine-launched Trident missile from the Barents Sea would be able to reach mainland Russia in 10 minutes.
This event resulted in a full alert being passed up through the military chain of command all the way to President Boris Yeltsin, who was notified and the “nuclear briefcase” (known in Russia as Cheget) used to authorize nuclear launch was automatically activated. Yeltsin activated his “nuclear keys” for the first time. 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.
Soon thereafter, Russian observers were able to determine that the rocket was heading away from Russian airspace and was not a threat. The rocket fell to earth as planned, near Spitsbergen, 24 minutes after launch.
The Norwegian rocket incident was the first and thus far only known incident where any nuclear-weapons state had its nuclear briefcase activated and prepared for launching an attack.
The Norwegian and US 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.