If as retired Soviet military expert analyst Steve Schwalbe says, and the Cuban Missile Crisis was not the take-the-world-to-the-brink-total nuclear-annihilation-moment it has always been though to be, then just what have?
As Cheney-area resident Schwalbe pointed out at a recent luncheon presentation to the Rotary Club of Spokane during his “War Scares, program, he detailed over the past half century where the Soviet Union and later Russia, after the fall, and the United States nearly came to nuclear war.
Schwalbe, a former U.S. Air Force colonel and Air Force Academy grad – along with earning multiple masters degrees, plus a PHD – outlined periods of time when the buttons could have been pushed on the respective so-called nuclear football.
The “football” is the euphemistic term used in both countries to describe the briefcase that would be used by the president of the United States, and like officials in Russia, to issue launch codes for missiles.
Who has the authority to release nuclear weapons, Schwalbe asked the lunch guests at the Spokane Club event?
“(In the U.S.) The president, and we can make a good guess the vice president, but after that it gets kind of dicey,” he said. “Secretary of defense, speaker of the house, I don’t know, it’s highly classified.”
It’s much more clear for Russia, Schwalbe said. “I do know,” he told the full house at the Spokane Club. “The general secretary of the politburo has a football – and, by the way the Russians call it a football – the ministry of defense and the commander of strategic forces,” and the list goes on he explained.
And one must ask themselves, “Who are these guys that (could) start nuclear war?” he said. Some got into power because they are corrupt and had a lot of money.
Another factor is the culture. The Russians, over the millennium, have been invaded by everybody so they are very xenophobic, Schwalbe said of the term which refers to a dislike or fear of people from other countries.
“They also have an inferiority complex regarding the West,” he said. So, Schwalbe reasons when everyone else in the world is all riled up the Russians are happy and content the will not have to go to war.
But there have been those occasions where both sides have pushed the envelope. While listing his top-four Schwalbe said it’s just that – a list – that started in the early 1980s under the administration of President Ronald Reagan.
It was a time of unprecedented military buildup as Reagan sought to reverse defense cuts of his predecessor, Jimmy Carter, and the buzzwords of the era were the Star Wars missile defense system and the B-1B bomber, among others.
While the Soviets said they would never be the first to launch a nuclear missile, Schwalbe said the U.S. just “might,” under certain circumstances of course.
When President Reagan talked jokingly to a hot microphone that the bombing of the Soviet Union would begin in 5 minutes. “The Politburo took it seriously, they thought the president was serious” Schwalbe said.
Of course it was a heated time between the two Cold War opponents following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in late 1979 and the shoot-down in 1983 of Korean Air Flight 007, a Boeing 747 thought to be a spy plane, and action that killed 269.
Later that month the Soviets mistakenly thought they really were under attack when the reflection of the sun bounced off one of their launch detection satellites causing a software glitch.
“Thank God Lt. Col. Stan Petrov decided that an attack would not be just five missiles, it would be like 500 missiles,” Schwalbe said. “Otherwise, he could have started a war.”
Another near miss came with the United States’ invasion of Grenada just weeks later in October 1983. Coupled with other military exercises, KGB listening posts in Cuba began to hear terms like DEFCON 1, the ultimate get ready to launch status for U.S. forces.
“They pick this stuff up and say, look, the United States just went to DEFCON 1, they’re about to attack,” Schwalbe said. “That could have been it, but it wasn’t.”
Schwalbe also contends the 1983-1984 timeframe may have also really pushed us to the brink. “What triggered this crisis was the Soviets first deployed SS20 intermediate ballistic missiles in the eastern part of Europe – aimed at Europe while the United States’ answer was deployment of ground-launched cruise missiles and Pershing II intermediate-range missiles.
“The Europeans got very nervous because that’s like the Cuban Missile Crisis in reverse,” Schwalbe explained. “The Politburo, the Soviets are saying ‘Oh, my God these Pershing missiles can hit us in less than 10 minutes.’”
The Soviets did launch a missile pointed our way Schwalbe said. “It didn’t come close to the East Coast of the United States but that was the first and only time a missile was launched in that direction.”
There have been notable other incidents that had little if any headlines associated with them as each time with cooler, more calm minds prevailed.
“Close calls are still possible,” Schwalbe said. “As long as you have strong leadership in Russia the threat is minimized – and we have had strong leadership with (Vladimir) Putin.”
Paul Delaney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.