Back in 1988, the Cold War was not quite as pressing a concern as it had been in years past. Mikhail Gorbachev had already begun his Glasnost initiative to open the nation up both internally and externally, and in the minds of many historians, the gears of progress were already turning toward the fall of the once mighty Soviet Union. One year prior, Gorbachev and Reagan had signed the (now defunct) Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty, which had the aim of eliminating intermediate and shorter-range nuclear missiles from both nation’s arsenals — as these missiles were seen as “first strike” weapons that allowed little to no time for a tactical response.

As a part of this agreement, the Soviets set out to destroy 72 of their claimed stockpiles of some 650 now-banned missiles by launching them from a known and observable facility toward a known and observable impact point. For the U.S., this was an opportunity to gather some valuable intelligence regarding Soviet missile technology, so the Air Force deployed RC-135S Cobra Ball optical and electronic intelligence aircraft to the region to observe. By 1988, Air Force pilot Robert Hopkins was deployed in support of this intelligence gathering operation along with the 24th Strategic Reconnaissance Squadron, 6th Strategic Reconnaissance Wing out of Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska.

USAF Photo

According to Hopkins’ account, he and his crew were flying a standard mission in a sensitive area east of the Kamchatka Peninsula near the Soviet Union when they got word that the Soviets were about to conduct a launch of one of their intermediate range SS-20 Saber missiles. Hopkins and his crew prepared their instruments to record launch and reentry data and turned the aircraft over to a Litton LN-20 stellar-inertial-Doppler system that could orient the aircraft in the best possible angle for data collection.

And that’s when things got crazy. As Hopkins and his crew prepared to get to work, they spotted what may be one of the Soviet Union and modern Russia’s most closely guarded secrets: a weapon intended for nuclear Armageddon.