The Largest Security-Cleared Career Network for Defense and Intelligence Jobs - JOIN NOW

Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)

False Alarm - 27 September 1983

Lt.Col. Stanislav Petrov worked at Serpukhov-15, a Soviet top secret missile attack early-warning station. He was far below on the command chain from General Secretary Yuri Andropov, frail and at an enhanced level of paranoia after President Carter had issued Directive 59 that listed the decapitation of the Kremlin as a key U.S. nuclear war option. It was Petrov’s job to give Soviet leaders the five or six minutes needed to decide whether to participate in one of mankind’s most onerous paradoxes: Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD).

The command post, located in a bunker near Moscow, was monitoring of Soviet tracking satellites at an altitude of 30,000 kilometers above the earth. These satellites continuously monitored in the infrared range, looking for thermal traces from the engines of intercontinental ballistic missiles. Suddenly, an alarm triggered. Second. The third. Finally, the system gave out information that the US launched five missiles in the direction of Moscow.

Shortly after midnight on Sept. 27, 1983, Petrov looked up at a monitor that was lit up with the red letters - “LAUNCH.” A light at one of the American missile bases had lit up. A siren wailed. Within minutes the creaky Soviet computers were signaling five U.S. missiles had launched. In David E. Hoffman’s disturbing book “The Dead Hand: The Untold Story of the Cold War Arms race and its Dangerous Legacy” (Doubleday) this unknown Russian held the fate of the world in his hands. If the alarm was validated, the Soviet leadership and the General staff could launch a retaliation. There were only minutes to decide.

Hoffman writes: Petrov made a decision. He knew the system had glitches in the past; there was no visual sighting of a missile through the telescope; the satellites were in a correct position. There was nothing from the radar stations to verify an incoming missile, although it was probably too early for the radars to see anything. He told the duty officer again: this is a false alarm. The message went up the chain.

Petrov was obliged to report directly to the leadership about the enemy launch, but this could mean the beginning of a nuclear war. American missiles would fly over the North Pole and reach their goal within 35 minutes, so the Kremlin was left less than a quarter of an hour to decide on a return launch. And who would make this decision? Secretary General Yuri Andropov at that time ruled the country from the hospital: his kidneys were failing, and he was tied to the dialysis machine.

Under conditions such as a detection of a single missile the early warning centerduty officer would normally first evaluate the alarm before informing the General Staff. In this case, even though the satellite warning was still being evaluated, the number of missile detections caused the early warning system to notify automatically the General Staff of a missile attack (the Soviet "nuclear briefcase"system, KROKUS, was still being developed at that time).

There could be no mistakes: the system indicated from which bases the missiles started and how many of them are in the air - five. Moreover, in order to improve the reliability of computers were equipped with a special program - by comparing data from satellites, it allowed to determine the degree of reliability of information about the attack. The figure "3" appeared on the screen meant that the reliability is the highest. This is exactly what confused Lieutenant-Colonel Stanislav Petrov, who at that time was in the position of an operational duty warning system. Estimating the data from satellites, he drew attention - in such conditions, the system technically could not give the highest degree of reliability, spacecraft simply were not able to do it.

"I did not really want to be the initiator of a third world war," Petrov said after many years. - Based on the intuition and experience of my work, I came to the conclusion that this is false information. About what he said. " The report of the officer immediately flew up the authorities. As a result, it was decided to wait for confirmation from the second echelon of the system. If, within 15 minutes, ground-based radar systems monitor the rockets, then there can be no doubt that America started the war. However, the radars did not find anything.

Petrov did not lose his composure and made his own decision. The duty officer decided that the attack signal was in fact false. Headvised the General Staff ofthat fact, and the alert was canceled. The dutyofficer listed two reasons for his conclusion. The first was the information that theattack consisted of five missiles. This was inconsistent with his training that aU.S. nuclear missile attack would be massive and overwhelming. Second, theduty officer was able to compare his data with that from other radar installationslooking in the same sectors as the satellite. In this case the radar sites showedno evidence of missile attack. Petrov phoned his superiors and reported that the alarm was false, and it soon became clear that he was right.

On the fact of state of emergency, a special state commission was organized. Two months later, it was possible to establish: an erroneous operation of the system was caused by a unique combination of circumstances. Soviet satellites, which were in space at high altitudes, determined the launch of missiles on the infrared radiation of their engines. And on that day, both the satellite and the area where the US ICBM was based turned out to be located in such a way that the system reflected the sunlight as a sign of the launch of the rocket. Somewhere over North Dakota, the sunlight reflected from the clouds led to the illumination of satellite sensors, and the computer regarded it as launching rockets. It is known about all this only in 1993.

Petrov's role in averting all-out nuclear war received prominence only in 1998, when Col Gen Yury Votintsev, the retired commander of Soviet missile defence, mentioned him in his memoirs.

In 2006 Petrov went to New York to receive an award from the Association of World Citizens - a statuette in the form of a hand holding the globe with an engraved inscription: "To a man who prevented a nuclear war". In 2013 he won the Dresden peace prize, and the laudatory speech (Claus Kleber) noted: "Petrov acted considerately and responsibly. Stanislav Petrov trusted his own judgement as a human being. He decided to order false alarm and thus prevented the nuclear killing machine from starting in the first place. If Stanislav Petrov had passed his impression on to the boardroom, this impression would have had arrived to an aged suspicious old man. The secretary general who had been shaped by Russias experiences with surprise attacks, lastly the German surprise attack on Russia in June 1941. Then, Juri Andropov would have had to decide. The world was in safer hands with Stanislav Petrov."

On 22 September 2015, the Permanent Mission of Ecuador and the NGO UNFOLD Zero, in cooperation with UNODA and the NGO-Committee for Disarmament in Geneva organized a screening of the film, “The Man who saved the World,” in commemoration of International Day for the Total Elimination of Nuclear Weapons. Petrov died May 19, 2017.

Join the mailing list

One Billion Americans: The Case for Thinking Bigger - by Matthew Yglesias

Page last modified: 02-06-2018 18:19:07 ZULU