1983 Nuclear False Alarm

Madeline Bradshaw
November 9, 2017

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2017


Fig. 1: This is an image of the Molniya orbit used by satellites to detect nuclear attack over the north pole. (Source: wikimedia Commons)

Throughout the Cold War, the general public in both the United States and the Soviet Union lived in constant fear of nuclear attack. The existence and development of nuclear weapons during the Arms Race perpetuated anxiety due to the fact that the two countries were on the brink of war. Tense relations between the United States and Russia shaped the narrative of the early 1980s.

A Nuclear False Alarm

In the context of the Cold War, any sign of aggression could have triggered nuclear attacks between the United States and the Soviet Union, both sides ready for war if needed. [1] On September 26, 1983, the Soviet Union's brand new early-warning satellite system detected a nuclear attack from the United States (see Fig. 1). This early-warning satellite system incorrectly determined the launch of multiple intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) from United States bases. Due to existing tense relations between the two countries, this incorrect detection could have triggered nuclear war, and as a result, this event is now referred to as the 1983 nuclear false alarm. [1]

What Happened

Just south of Moscow, the Soviet Union developed a closed military facility that contained multiple early-warning satellites used during the Cold War to combat the United States. [2] Serpukhov-15 contained one of the early-warning satellite systems that detected this false alarm. [2] Soviet officer Stanislav Petrov was on duty at the bunker that contained "Oko," the early-warning satellite system that detected the false alarm, during the incident and announced that the ICBMs detected by the early-warning satellite system were actually a false alarm. [2] While on duty, Petrov spent time observing the early warning satellite network, and if anything were to occur, he was required to notify his superiors. Petrov ultimately determined that the system had malfunctioned and that no nuclear missiles had been launched from the United States.

Scientifically, these early-warning satellites had specific structures that made false alarm even possible to begin with. In order to detect potentially launched missiles from the United States, the Soviet Union utilized the highly elliptical Molniya orbit. [3] While the Oko satellite did detect a nuclear launch, it was ultimately a false alarm because sunlight disrupted and reflected the reading. [3]


Although events like the Bay of Pigs, Cuban Missile Crisis, and the Space Race have typically dominated the narrative of the Cold War in current history textbooks, the 1983 nuclear false alarm similarly holds importance in assessing Cold War tensions. If Petrov would have made a different decision - determining that the United States intentionally planned to attack the Soviet Union - it is likely that the false alarm would have initiated nuclear war. Petrov ultimately prevented nuclear disaster and appeased some tension during already grave times.

© Madeline Bradshaw. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] S. J. Cimbala, The New Nuclear Disorder: Challenges to Deterrence and Strategy, (Routledge, 2015), p. 183.

[2] S. J. Cimbala, The Dead Volcano: The Background and Effects of Nuclear War Complacency, (Praeger, 2002), p. 91.

[3] A. M. Barrett, "False Alarms, True Dangers?" Rand Corporation, PE-191-TSF, 2016, pp. 1-20.