Yesterday, I posted about the movie Wargames. A large part of the plot revolved around perception vs reality. The officers at NORAD ultimately determine whether or not the missile tracks on their screens were real or not, based on the data that was coming into Cheyenne Mountain. Similar situations have happened in the real world on occasion. The average flight time of an ICBM is roughly 30 minutes. For a SLBM it is far less. 7-10 minutes. In either case, the amount of time available to detect, classify, confirm and respond to a potential enemy missile attack is dangerously short. The proverbial Use Them Or Lose Them decision time frame would be measured in minutes.
Imagine my surprise this morning when I woke up to news stories about a meteorite impacting in Russia with the force of a nuclear bomb. As I’ve gone through the day, I have not been able to set aside the thought that this meteor streaking across the sky might have been mistaken for something more sinister, like a US ICBM. There are reports floating around today claiming that the Russian military was aware of the potential for a meteor strike days ago. That may be the case, or not may not be.
In any event, what if VKO (Russian Aerospace Defense Forces) had misinterpreted the meteor and instead believed it to be a US nuclear missile? If you view some of the videos from Chelyabinsk, the meteors falling appear eerily similar to an inbound missile MIRVing. Or, on the flip side of the coin, what if US DSP and SBIRS satellites had detected the impact and classified it as a NUCFLASH? For all we know at this early point, both instances could be true. We may not find out for months or years how the militaries of the two largest nuclear powers actually responded to the event.
The Russians could very well have thought the meteorite to be a missile. If that had happened, subsequent events may have spiraled dangerously out of control. The Cold War is over. Even though the current US-Russia relationship is cool, we are nowhere near an armed conflict with Russia. Having said that, today’s event should reinforce the truth that a nuclear war could always begin by way of a misinterpretation.