January 25, 1995

0624UT: A team of American and Norwegian scientists launch a Black Brant XII sounding rocket from the Andøya Space Center in northern Norway. The BB-XII rocket, set to climb almost vertically to 1200 km above the earth, was engineered to collect data on the cleft ion fountain within the Aurora Borealis. By chance, the rocket happens to soar at a similar speed and trajectory as a submarine-launched ballistic missile.


Russia’s early-warning radar in Olenegorsk picks up the launch, once the rocket breaks its radar beams. Measuring speed, trajectory, and plume signature, the radar automatically identifies the rocket as hostile. Immediately, an attack warning goes to the Kremlin. Russia’s Command and Control leaders have only a few minutes to respond.


The pressure of a nuclear alert leaves little time for reflection or critical thinking. The facts are as they seem, and the decision is straightforward: to launch or not launch a retaliatory attack.


The Russian leadership is faced with a decision that could affect the whole world.

Victor Esin, former Chief of Staff of the Russian Strategic Missile Forces and the First Deputy of the Commander Strategic Missile Forces

“When the rocket launch took place, the portable board began displaying the “start” banner, which meant that a launch was detected. The general on duty called me right away on a direct line, and briefed me on the events. I began making myself ready to leave for the Command Center in order to make my assessment of the situation, in order to make the appropriate decisions.”

William Perry, former US Secretary of Defense

“Machines do error. People do error. And they will error again. So, we will have other false alarms in which the President would have perhaps six, or seven, or eight minutes to make a decision that could affect the whole future of civilization. I would rather not put the president in that position and make the whole world subject to that risk.”

Anatoli Diakov, director of the Center for Arms Control, Energy and Environmental Studies at the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology

“False alarms are dangerous. They make the entire automatic control system, on each side, generate signals. Of course, for the specialists who are on duty, it is very stressful to figure out each time if the signals are true or false. They are forced to decide whether to allow the escalation of this signal to a higher level of management, or brake and deem it void.”


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The film is directed by John Trainor, and examines the 1995 False Alert from a modern context.