For this edition of the Deep Dives Research Challenge, I found the historically significant but somewhat forgotten and mysterious date of 22 September 1979, as a motivation to dig into the Vela Incident, or otherwise known as the South Atlantic Flash.
The Vela Incident is named after Project Vela, a satellite program which was created by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), as a way to detect nuclear detonations and monitor compliance with the 1963 Partial Test Ban Treaty on nuclear weapons, in an agreement negotiated between the United States, United Kingdom and The Soviet Union.
The official explanation of what occurred on that day, was that it was an unidentified double flash of light detected by an American Vela Hotel satellite, near the Prince Edward Islands off Antarctica. However, the more common and prevailing theory to this day amongst researchers, is that the flash was of nuclear origin, which originated from a joint South African–Israeli nuclear test.
A short summary of the Vela Incident from Wikipedia:
In 2016, researchers from George Washington University's National Security Archive noted that the debate over the South Atlantic Flash has shifted over the last few years to the side of a man-made weapon test. In 2018, a new study claimed that it is highly likely that it was a nuclear test, conducted by Israel.
While a double-flash signal is characteristic of a nuclear weapons test in the atmosphere, the signal could also have been due to a meteoroid hitting the Vela satellite. All of the previous 41 double flashes detected by the Vela satellites were confirmed to be nuclear explosions. Some information about the event remains classified.
The "double flash" was detected on 22 September 1979, at 00:53 UTC, by the American Vela satellite OPS 6911 (also known as Vela 10 and Vela 5B), which carried various sensors designed specifically to detect nuclear explosions that contravened the Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. In addition to being able to detect gamma rays, X-rays, and neutrons, the satellite also contained two silicon solid-state bhangmeter sensors that could detect the dual light flashes associated with an atmospheric nuclear explosion: the initial brief, intense flash, followed by a second, longer flash.
The satellite reported the characteristic double flash of a small atmospheric nuclear explosion of two to three kilotons, in the Indian Ocean between the Crozet Islands (a very small, sparsely inhabited French possession) and the Prince Edward Islands (which belong to South Africa) at 47°S 40°ECoordinates: 47°S 40°E.
Interestingly, while searching the Wikileaks archives for the term ‘Vela Incident’, there was no real documentation available that specifically related to this incident directly. Using the search term 'Vela Satellite’ however, produced some more promising results, with the discovery of some leaked diplomatic cables from 1979 which sheds light on some interesting information floating around just after the Vela Incident took place.
Whilst not conclusive, these diplomatic cables seem to indicate, that an official narrative was being created in the form of a conclusion before an investigation even took place, as well as denial of prior knowledge of who was involved or may be implicated in the Vela Incident itself.
There was also a deep motivation to obscure and downplay this event by the White House at the time (Carter Administration), due to the fact that Israel is now known to have had a nuclear program at the time, which was covertly funded and assembled with the help of other western nations. In a book written by Avner Cohen entitled ‘Israel and the bomb’, Cohen reveals that “Israel crossed the nuclear weapons threshold on the eve of the 1967 Six Day War, yet it continues to maintain an ambiguous posture with regard to its nuclear capability to this day”. This is very significant in the overall context of the Vela incident.
This incident and the official government funded Ad Hoc Ruina Panel report remains extremely controversial to this day, as there seems to have been a concerted effort to obscure and divert the real facts of what actually occurred and who the players behind the incident may have been, even though in initial reports it was strongly suspected that Israel may have been the most likely driving force of covert nuclear testing. Contrary to popular belief at the time, South Africa and Israel seemed to have a strong working relationship, especially when it came to testing defence and weapons systems, which equally implicates Israel along with South Africa as a strong player behind the incident. In a cache of documents revealed by the guardian, we can see this strong and ‘special’ relationship was in place, even though it was denied publicly for many years previously. You can also see another previously denied example of this relationship, in an article published on foreignpolicy.com titled “Israel’s Most Illicit Affair”.
According to a paper posted by Josh Lange on stanford.edu relating to the final report produced by the Ruina Panel:
From the resulting investigation and findings by the Ruina Panel final report, we are asked to believe in an official theory that eventually dismisses a nuclear double flash event, by way of pushing forward a final and alternative hypothesis that is expressed by the odds of 1 in 100 billion, as the most likely explanation of what took place. Importantly, take note from the earlier quoted Wikipedia section, that on every other recorded occasion of a double flash such as this, they were all confirmed as nuclear explosion events….Interesting, wouldn’t you say? As they say, there’s always a first time for everything. Of course the ad hoc panel itself was only formed after considerable pressure from the ‘international community’.
I highly recommended two excellent articles written by Leonard Weiss for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists where he provides his rationale and expertise on how the overwhelming evidence points to a nuclear explosion event, and not what the Ruina Panel conclusion claimed in its final report. You can find these two articles here and here. You can also find a more detailed scholarly report written by Weiss, for the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University on this subject.
Now, for some government documentation with relation to this subject, we will turn to the National Security Archive information page on the Vela Incident, who have managed to assemble a catalogue of declassified documents and can provide us with more information and sources to help in decoding the events before and after that day…
Whilst it’s true that I have only provided a handful of examples of documents that may seem to fit a particular thesis which advocates for a nuclear explosion taking place, it does seem to be a lot more likely than not from all the information that is publicly available, as well as the scientific and historical data pointing towards this being the case. I think it’s also important to take into account the current geo-political machinations that fit into all of this, as there seems to be a direct correlation between what happened on that day and what is still playing out in today’s geo-political chess board.
In closing, I believe the most damning piece of information against the official story to be the fact that they decided to take the view of discounting ‘circumstantial evidence’ against a nuclear event, yet somehow found the audacity to claim that a 1-100 billion to one chance to have more credibility as a public record thesis and conclusion to the events that took place.