Hacker News new | past | comments | ask | show | jobs | submit login
Vela Incident (wikipedia.org)
117 points by antioedipus on Sept 22, 2019 | hide | past | favorite | 58 comments

From the introduction:

> Today, most independent researchers believe that the 1979 [Vela Incident] flash was caused by a nuclear explosion — perhaps an undeclared nuclear test carried out by South Africa and Israel.

Yeah, I think this is the best clue of how the sputh africans tested their nukes.

A weird nuclear policy that one: build and test in secrecy, never tell anyone you have them unless things are really dire, and only then do a public reveal. Explain that one with deterrance theory

That sounds a bit like Israel’s policy — Although officially Israel’s policy is one of deliberate ambiguity, if they have nukes then they are doing exactly what you just said; and if they don’t, then presumably the scientist that they imprisoned for revealing the existence of the nuclear program was a stooge designed to make them look scary without any of the cost and complexity of actually bothering to make any nukes of their own.

He wasn’t a scientist he was a low level technician.

He didn’t even finish high school completely (no diploma), and dropped out of his engineering course at uni.


While he did revealed some information a lot of the technical details he talked about during his early interviews made absolutely no sense.

He was imprisoned on the basis of revealing classified information and taking photographs of a sensitive site.

Whether Israel has actual assembled weapons or not, they are a breakout state they have 2 reactors one at Dimona one at Soreq and even if in the 60’s and 70’s they didn’t had the knowledge to build nukes considering they took in nearly 2M Russian Jews and their family members they probably could’ve gained that capability from that immigration since the late 80’s to early 90’s.

Israel can also potentially posses a nuclear Triad however for Israel nukes are only really useful as a deterrent against a conventional threat as due to their size MAD will not work for them against any of their possible opponents in the region.

MAD also requires that everyone in the equation will be sane and held accountable, if there is an Islamist coup in say Pakistan or if a regional theocratic regime gets nukes it’s not clear how MAD would work even if the geographical and population sizes weren’t that different.

MAD still applies to Israel if they can field a sufficient submarine force to retaliate against a first-strike, unless their opposition can also field enough hunter-killer submarines to perform a full decapitation with surety.

Also worth pointing out, while a theocratic takeover of a state like Pakistan would be infinitely problematic, (probably) particularly for non-proliferation, MAD still applies unless the takeover is a flat-out doomsday cult. Problematic as I may find an Islamist theocracy as a Westerner, they're not insane, but simply of very different cultural belief. Should anyone want to live to see tomorrow, and or allow their offspring to do so then MAD applies.

I'm certain they have the nukes, since South Africa did for a fact. They became the first nuclear power to invite the UN to disassemble all their nuclear weapons. Before the apartheid government handed over power to the Mandela government.

Not so weierd... Develop in secret. Once you have it your enemies knows in any case. And if you can maintain plausible deniability it is much easier to keep developing / much less public scrutiny, especially if you already are operating a highly unpopular apartheid state.

I remember that during the war with Cuba in Angola the South Africans deployed their nuke on the border, the Cubans knew this and as such the South African border was never threatend.

I feel like any level of confusion is potentially a greater risk for all involved. We already have seen situations where there is enough doubt about circumstances that people get close to a catastrophic decision when people do know.

There is a Larry Bond book on that. An entertaining read.

It's just the Art of War. If you don't have a strong program yet, say nothing about it and let your enemies wonder about your capabilities. Just because they may have one undeclared test doesn't necessarily mean they could succeed with a public MAD strategy; they may need many more nukes than they currently have.

If they say they have none, their enemies might think there's a chance they actually have a lot, or at least enough to cause serious damage. And there's the deterrence. If they say they have a lot but don't demonstrate it, their enemies will probably think they're bluffing and will demand proof. I think it only makes sense to go public when it's a gun that can be pointed directly at someone's head, rather than a few of their toes. It's probably the best way to project a strong posture despite not actually having one.

And more practically, it lets them develop the program with less chance of other countries (including allies) complaining about it or condemning it, which could potentially slow it down or stop it before it's sufficiently developed.

They were intended to defend against conventional attacks by their neighbors, not deter other nuclear powers. It would still be nice to deter such attacks, but it also works to reveal them after the attack begins, or just use them. I imagine they didn’t think it was worth provoking condemnation from the international community by revealing them.

Revealing that you have a weapon as strong as the nuke is the stupidest thing to do for a military force

Unless your opponent has a retaliatory nuclear capability. Especially one that requires minimal human action:


Surprise attacks with a super-weapon only works if you're the first to have one.

> Unless your opponent has a retaliatory nuclear capability.

Again, that only works if you can "outpoker" your opponent, and if this alone will be sufficient to crush his will to fight back.

I don’t follow, why would it be stupid?

Basic of military tactics, don't let enemy know what have hit them. Or better to rephrase, don't let your enemy to know what you will hit them with, moreover if the weapon you will hit them is that big.

Imagine US actions if in 2003, mushroom clouds would've actually risen over major US cities, out of a sudden. If you remember, Saddam did a last minute bluff, promising "fiery death" to NYC, and Washington, and this silly bluff did make not so few people in DC to turn pale.

Knowing how US politics goes, I would say US would've seriously considered rising a white flag, invariable how weak enemy's conventional forces are, in fear of additional strike.

Depends on if you developed the weapon for strictly offensive use of consider it a part or a deterrent strategy. If the latter, you want people to know. It’s the “I don’t want to hurt you, but if I have to you’re dead” of foreign relations.

Given that Israel would likely come under sanction due to non-proliferation policy, and the further pressure on Iran to develop their own, revealing the capability is problematic to say the least.

No nation's military can afford to use nuclear weapons first because it will absolutely result in country-ending retaliatory strikes. There wouldn't have been an Iraq left for Saddam to rule.

Hoping to keep it secret for some kind of strike like that goes right out the window once you've used it, and you will absolutely never strike hard enough to remove the nuclear capacity of somebody like the USA (that's why nuclear submarines exist).

> you will absolutely never strike hard enough to remove the nuclear capacity of somebody like the USA (that's why nuclear submarines exist).

That's certain, but being hit by a second strike is already much better than a first strike, or, even better, not being hit at all. See, Saddam almost had it with his bluff.

> No nation's military can afford to use nuclear weapons first because it will absolutely result in country-ending retaliatory strikes. There wouldn't have been an Iraq left for Saddam to rule.

See, such naive assumption are exactly what make it more than likely. People are infirm, and all kinds of regime leaders are much better "poker players" than any Western politician out there.

Imagine, you a president of a nation state, or whomever took his place in chain of command. You got news that you biggest city took a hit, possibly hundreds of thousands are dead, than another. You tell you forces to continue to advance, then you hear a loud bang while you sit in your bunker, and there you get a call on your direct line with an offer... to let you live...

I don't see the psychology of warfare being any much different in a nuclear exchange, than in a firefight. You only have one life, and one set of limbs, and with each inch of enemy territory taken you will be asking yourself more and more "isn't that enough?" and you will feel your will almost physically crumbling. Fear of death is a really powerful thing.

When I lived in Canada, I encountered a number of Afghan war veterans. All an every of them who ever been deployed in the field can tell of stories of "unwritten" ceasefire agreements, and exchanges on the radio with Talibans with offers of peaceful withdrawals that never got written into any official report. And this is happening even when Afghan war is a complete turkeyshoot for Nato armies.

> being hit by a second strike is already much better than a first strike, or, even better, not being hit at all.

Your "even better" clause is a dramatic understatement of the difference. This is the crucial point upon which nuclear deterrence strategies are based.

> See, Saddam almost had it with his bluff.

You've said this multiple times but failed to support it in any way

The idea of nuclear weapons is not to hit the opponent by surprise, but to deter them from attacking you in the first place.

You're thinking tactically, not strategically.

The best nukes are the ones that never need to be used.

What's the use of a nuclear weapon - a weapon strongest of them all, if the enemy know you will never use it? This is where I think, the popular thinking in Western political circles diverges with the cold logic of warfare.

What is the best way to scare your enemy with your commitment to murder him using overwhelming force, than... to start doing so?

The politicians and people reading political science may thing the other way around, war does not work the other way as shown by thousands of years of history.

> What's the use of a nuclear weapon - a weapon strongest of them all, if the enemy know you will never use it?

The only reason to keep nuclear weapons is to keep other from using them. It’s called "mutually assured destruction" — "you nuke me, I nuke you" nobody wants that. I.e. the _reason_ to keep nukes is to never use them.

If only one side has nukes, then mutually assured destruction is not possible, and hence there is no safety against nuclear way.

You are not understanding my logic

... logic doesn’t work like that. There is no «my logic» and «your logic,» if «your logic» differs from actual logic, then your logic is flawed.

It is a deterrent. This isn't complicated.

"never need to be used" is different from "are unwilling to use if attacked"

If it was a test: how comes they didn't publish any official confirmations/specific details when SA got rid of her nukes?

Oh, wow. Didn’t realise that GPS satellites were equipped with Bhangmeters, used to detect flashes caused by nuclear detonations. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bhangmeter

I am South African but only born in ‘82 so was unaware of this incident.

However, I recall an incident of a South African Airways crash in ‘87 [1] which unsubstantiated theories stated were carrying nuclear materials or something.

[1]: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/South_African_Airways_Flight_2...

I was in RSA in the early 80s. There were a lot of RSA ships doing research in the area at the time. As was the custom the issued commemorating envelopes with special postmarks at the time https://www.picclickimg.com/d/l400/pict/323741168155_/Antarc... they were all postmarked "Neutron Research". At the time the rumour was that they were developing "a neutron bomb". This and the red mercury incidentshttps://mg.co.za/article/1995-01-20-sadf-linked-to-red-mercu... left no doubt in my mind that the tests took place.

Red mercury is not a thing. Or rather, it's a very pervasive repeated hoax that plenty of people have fallen for.

Agreed, however the murders were real.

How did South Africa and Israel end up as bedfellows here? From a common love of apartheid? Apart from that, they seemed to be in quite different geopolitical positions.

Perhaps ironically, Israel condemned apartheid South Africa in the UN as part of a motion on the topic in the 60s.

With that said, they had early, good relations as SA recognized Israel very early on, with a Prime Minister in support of Zionism, and this remained so for decades.

[0] - https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Israel–South_Africa_relation...

They both ended up quite politically isolated, and yeah, strange circumstances lead to strange bedfellows.

They were also pursuing nuclear weapons contrary to the wishes of the international community.

Ehm why is this newsworthy? It was repeatedly shown to be nothing..

Can you give pointers to the external information showing where it's repeatedly shown to be nothing? The wikipedia description sound very plausible.

Did we read the same article in wikipedia? It quotes many many sources saying it was not a nuclear test.

The quotes that it was a test were from journalists, and from people who "heard" about it. None from actual scientists who studied it.

Very good question. The article I'm reading says "Today, most independent researchers believe that the 1979 flash was caused by a nuclear explosion" What does yours say?

Read the details that discuss the available evidence. Not just the summary at the top which is not supported by the rest of the article.

It sounds like early on the US government said it was inconclusive in order to not offend South Africa and Israel. But more recently, people have been saying it was a nuclear test.

> A December 2016 report by William Burr and Avner Cohen of George Washington University's National Security Archive and Nuclear Proliferation International History Project noted that the debate over the South Atlantic flash has shifted over the last few years, on the side of a man-made weapon test.[1] The National Security Archive briefing concluded:

>> A Central Intelligence Agency-sponsored panel of well-respected scientists concluded that a mysterious flash detected by a U.S. Vela satellite over the South Atlantic on the night of 22 September 1979 was likely a nuclear test.

> The newly released research and subsequent report was largely based upon recently declassified documents in files at the National Archives of Gerard C. Smith, a former Ambassador and special envoy on nuclear nonproliferation during Jimmy Carter's presidency.[1][60][5] Smith had once said: "I was never able to break free from the thought that the event was a joint operation between Israel and South Africa." The documents cited a June 1980 U.S. State Department report where Defense Intelligence Agency Vice Director Jack Varona had said the ensuing U.S. investigation was a "white wash, due to political considerations" based on "flimsy evidence". He added that the "weight of the evidence pointed towards a nuclear event" and cited hydroacoustic data analyzed by the Naval Research Laboratory. The data, he suggested, involved "signals ... unique to nuclear shots in a maritime environment" and emanating from the area of "shallow waters between Prince Edward and Marion Islands, south-east of South Africa".[1][5][60]

> In 2018, a new study made the case for the double flash being a nuclear test.[6][7][61][62]

Probably showed up today because it happened exactly 40 years ago.

This is a fresh, possibly more substantiated article: https://foreignpolicy.com/2019/09/22/blast-from-the-past-vel...

The interesting fact is that there is very little speak of any other nation carrying out a nuclear test. It boiled down to Israel and South Africa, or a sensor glitch/weather fenomena. Kind of fun that the two nations vere the prime suspects although officially "nothing happened".

Also that the 'glitch' happened to occur in very close proximity to two uninhabited* subantarctic islands controlled by South Africa - and that sheep in Western Australia showed higher levels of iodine 131.

*Permanently uninhabited, but there's a research base there.

I spent a year on that island in 2010/2011. There has never been a time where there weren't research personnel at the station since the 50s. It's very hard to believe a nuclear test would be carried out without concern for the safety of the overwintering team or without anybody noticing.

A two to three kiloton nuclear explosion approximately 100 miles east of the island would not be noticeable. The prevailing winds blow east, but the nearest islands are another 400 miles away.

Interesting. Would you pick up anything with a geiger counter on the island?

Prince Edward island is only 12 miles or so from Marion and visible from the base so it certainly did not happen in the waters between them.

The coordinates of the blast are given as 47°S 40°E, while Prince Edward is at about 38°E. Google maps shows the distance as about 100 miles. Tan(2degrees) x 100 x 5280 gives about 18,400 feet below the horizon at Prince Edward for the elevation of the blast. So any radiation from the blast itself would travel through a lot of shielding water and rock. Possibly the decay of fallout aloft could be detected, but that would only be for gamma radiation at that distance through air. And not many fission products would make it to 18,000 feet from a small bomb.

> It's very hard to believe a nuclear test would be carried out without concern for the safety of the overwintering team or without anybody noticing.

Atomic tests have routinely been carried out with scientific observers nearby, I mean, it's sorta the point of doing one. And as for people noticing, I would imagine apartheid South Africa had their own equivalent of an Official Secrets Act.

The team members were Meteorologists and Biologists, not nuclear observers. You can find the team and their names here. http://blogs.sun.ac.za/antarcticlegacy/reference-materials/m...

I don't disbelieve you, but again - Official Secrets Act. I doubt any of the wintering over scientists had a strong urge to end up on Robben Island for telling someone about the time that they were asked to take a short holiday and not ask too many questions.

Also, the fact that the overwintering teams are all listed as ending their time there in September strongly correlates to the date of the Vela Incident. So entirely plausible to send the winter team home a few days early and delay the the summer team.

No the schedule is March to April, with one month of takeover. Only the first few teams had different schedules. More plausible is that the blast was too far away and small to be observed from the island.

Ah my bad.

40 yr anniversary

Guidelines | FAQ | Lists | API | Security | Legal | Apply to YC | Contact