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The Vela Incident

If you wanted to test a nuclear bomb without anyone finding out, how would you do it? It’s not exactly an easy thing to hide. Maybe you’d take it way out into the middle of the ocean and set it off during a typhoon? That might seem like it could work, but what if a 10-year-old, listed-as-retired satellite picks up the characteristic double flash of your test?

Some believe this is what happened on September 22, 1979, when the United States’ Vela 5B satellite detected what appeared to be a nuclear weapons test near Prince Edward Islands in the remote subantarctic zone of the Indian Ocean.

Nevertheless, the circumstances of the Vela Incident, not to mention the fact that many of the related documents remain classified, have prevented anyone from determining who carried out the test—if one was even carried out at all. While some simply write it off as the result of a natural phenomenon or a technical malfunction, theories abound blaming various nations and accusing the US government of covering up the evidence of the true culprits for political reasons.

The United States launched the Vela satellites starting in 1963 to keep an eye out for nuclear detonations violating the Partial Test Ban Treaty, or PTBT. This treaty, originally formed among the United States, the Soviet Union and the United Kingdom but ultimately signed by 126 countries, banned nuclear weapons tests anywhere but underground.

The treaty had the lofty goal of ultimately banning tests entirely and ridding the world of nuclear weapons… which it clearly didn’t achieve. However, the treaty did slow nuclear proliferation considerably since building a giant bunker to set off a nuclear bomb in is quite expensive.

Furthermore, the PTBT was good for the environment and caused a considerable drop in the amount of radioactive material in the atmosphere, material that often drifted from the country testing their bomb into their neighbor’s territory.

Nevertheless, because a number of countries didn’t even sign the treaty, the “Nuclear Club”—the deceptively cute name for the group of nations possessing nuclear weapons—continued to grow. For example, China never signed the PTBT and tested their first nuclear weapon just a year after its creation.

This is part of the reason the events of the Vela Incident have been so puzzling. In the middle of the night on September 22, 1979, 10 years after its launch, Vela 5B, also known as Vela 10, one of the last Vela satellites to go into operation, recorded the exact double flash it was designed to detect: that presumably of a nuclear explosion. Prior to the Vela incident, it had accurately identified 41 prior nuclear tests with no false positives, mostly by countries not party to the PTBT like China and France.

However, unlike past tests, there was little corroborating evidence this time. The US and NATO had set up a bunch of other methods designed to catch nuclear weapons tests such as SOSUS or the “Sound Surveillance System,” and MILS, the “Missile Impact Location System.” Neither of these seemed to have heard anything on the morning of September 22.

The US Air Force also flew 25 sorties over the area and determined that any fallout would have floated to Australia and New Zealand. Iodine-131, a product of nuclear explosions, was indeed found in some unlucky sheep in southern Australia, but the sheep in New Zealand were clean. An astronomical observatory in Puerto Rico also recorded a strange wave in the ionosphere around the time of the incident, but it was hardly conclusive.

Still, the US Department of Defense and National Security Council had enough evidence that by the end of 1979, they claimed to be quite sure the Vela 5B satellite had recorded a nuclear weapons test, though by whom, they couldn’t say.

Then in early 1980, the US government suddenly began backpedaling. The National Security Council revised its position and said the evidence was inconclusive. Similarly, a panel of scientific experts convened at the request of President Jimmy Carter blamed the flashes recorded by the Vela satellite on “zoo events,” possibly a small meteoroid striking the satellite, and stated that an actual nuclear test was unlikely.

President Carter had asked the Office of Science and Technology Policy to convene said panel, colloquially referred to as the “Ruina Panel” because it was chaired by an MIT professor named Jack Ruina, as a response to the considerable political pressure produced by the Vela Incident. In the late 70s, nuclear proliferation was a major source of public anxiety and something Carter had promised to address.

As a result, many people believe that the Carter Administration and the US government backpedaled on their conclusions of the incident for political reasons and used the Ruina Panel to purposefully cover up a nuclear test that was in violation of the Partial Test Ban Treaty. In fact, the Carter Administration purposefully withheld military intelligence from the panel, allegedly to focus the panel on the simple question of whether it was a nuclear test or not, but according to some, it was really a way to avoid accusing anyone.

This then begs the question: who would the Carter Administration want to protect? And not only the Carter Administration, but every subsequent administration, Republican and Democrat, none of which has reopened the case or revised the Ruina Panel’s position that the Vela Incident was most likely the result of natural phenomena.

When talking about secret nuclear tests in the late 70s, it’s easy to suspect the Soviet Union. Indeed, this was the original theory the US Defense Intelligence Agency ran with and probably why the incident originally gained so much attention initially. However, the Soviet Union already had a massive nuclear arsenal and the means to test it within the limits of the PTBT.

If the Vela satellite did catch a secret nuclear test, it was a small-yield bomb of about 2 to 3 kilotons. For reference, the first nuclear weapon ever deployed, the “Little Boy” atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima by the United States, was over 13 kilotons. The most powerful nuclear bomb ever created, the Tsar Bomba developed in the Soviet Union, was over 50,000 kilotons.

 tsar bomba
Tsar Bomba. BY Croquant is licensed under CC-BY-SA

With this in mind, it seems unlikely that the USSR would try to secretly test such a small bomb so far from home in violation of the treaty, especially when they had the infrastructure to secretly test similar weapons underground. Plus, if the Vela Incident were a result of Soviet tests, the US government would have been more likely, not less, to call them out.

Other suspects include India and Pakistan, however both seem improbable given the known state of their nuclear weapons programs at the time. Another intriguing suspect is France, who conspicuously refused to sign the Partial Test Ban Treaty. Plus, France owns a number of islands in the southern Indian Ocean near the blast location.

However, by far the most compelling theory and the one which has gained the most widespread acceptance to date, is that the Vela Incident was a secret nuclear weapons test carried out jointly between Israel and South Africa.

It’s widely believed that Israel has a large arsenal of nuclear weapons which they started building right after World War II, but the nation’s government has never admitted to this and there is no definitive proof.

South Africa, meanwhile, began their nuclear weapons research in the 1960s but did not actually successfully build a nuclear bomb until November 1979, two months after the Vela Incident. You may be thinking that means they couldn’t have possibly been involved in the test, but it’s actually quite the opposite.

In 1977, the UN introduced an arms embargo against South Africa, who was then led by their infamous apartheid regime. This was a problem because South Africa was fighting an ongoing border war at the time against the Namibian independence movement, which was backed by bordering African nations Zambia and Angola as well as communist powers like the Soviet Union, China and Cuba. All alone in the world, South Africa desperately needed friends and weapons.

Israel was the perfect country to approach. Israel and Egypt had signed the Camp David Accords just a year prior, and tensions between Israel and the many surrounding Arab nations remained high. Heavily outnumbered, both countries stood to benefit from powerful nuclear weapons to deter their enemies. So the theory goes, by working together, South Africa could benefit from nuclear technology that Israel already had, and in return, South Africa could provide Israel with the yellow-cake uranium necessary to manufacture nuclear weapons.

This theory is doubly plausible because it fits perfectly with the claim that the Carter Administration covered it up. For someone who was planning to run on a re-election campaign of nuclear disarmament, the fact that nuclear proliferation was happening under his watch would have been awkward, to say the least.

More importantly, the Camp David Accords between Israel and Egypt were arguably Carter’s greatest achievement. However, the peace he’d brokered in the Middle East would have been completely undone had it gotten out that Israel had nuclear weapons and was testing them in violation of the Partial Test Ban Treaty, which they’d signed.

In fact, among the intelligence data that the Carter Administration withheld from the Ruina Panel was evidence that Israel and South Africa were cooperating on the development of nuclear weapons, as well as South African naval maneuvers in the area at the time of the test.

Since the Ruina Panel, new intelligence and data have come to light, including declassified internal documents from the US government that cast doubt on the official US-government position that the Vela Incident was probably not a nuclear test. For example, a briefing from the National Security Archive stated that a panel convened by the CIA concluded it was indeed such a test.

A document has even surfaced where the vice director of the Defense Intelligence Agency at the time of the incident, Jack Varona, claims that the US investigation was a “white wash, due to political considerations.” The document cites data from the Naval Research laboratory that recorded sound waves in the ocean consistent with a nuclear test on the morning of September 22, 1979.

In fact, the new evidence has been compelling enough that in 2016, Dr. Avner Cohen, a researcher with the National Security Archive and Nuclear Proliferation International History Project, a research project carried out by historians at George Washington University, stated that, “40 years later, there is a scientific and historical consensus that it was a nuclear test and that it had to be Israeli.”

Nevertheless, regardless of whatever “consensus” there may be among civilian researchers and retired officials, the US government has never revised the position of the Ruina Panel, that the double flash recorded by the Vela satellite was of unknown origin, most likely the result of a natural phenomenon.

Could this merely be a continued cover for an illegal test carried out by the Israeli government, one of the United States’ closest allies, or did the Vela satellite simply capture a benign natural event like a meteoroid strike? Unfortunately, unless the US government declassifies the rest of the data and documents related to the incident and following investigations, we may never know for sure.

Sources:

“A double-flash from the past and Israel’s nuclear arsenal.” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. https://thebulletin.org/2018/08/a-double-flash-from-the-past-and-israels-nuclear-arsenal/

“Revealed: how Israel offered to sell South Africa nuclear weapons.” The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2010/may/23/israel-south-africa-nuclear-weapons

“The 1979 South Atlantic Flash: The Case for an Israeli Nuclear Test.” Center for International Security and Cooperation, Stanford University. http://www.npolicy.org/article_file/The_1979_South_Atlantic_Flash__The_Case_for_an_Israeli_Nuclear_Test.pdf

“The Vela Incident: South Atlantic Mystery Flash in September 1979 Raised Questions about Nuclear Test.” National Security Archive. https://nsarchive.gwu.edu/briefing-book/nuclear-vault/2016-12-06/vela-incident-south-atlantic-mystery-flash-september-1979-raised-questions-about-nuclear-test

“U.S. Covered Up an Israeli Nuclear Test in 1979, Foreign Policy Says.” Haaretz. https://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/u-s-covered-up-an-israeli-nuclear-test-in-1979-foreign-policy-says-1.7873517

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