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World War III almost happened on this day, 30 years ago

by Magnifico Thu Sep 26th, 2013 at 12:58:09 AM EST

Stanislav Petrov had just settled into the commander's chair for night duty when the Soviet Union's early-warning satellite system reported that all hell was breaking loose.

"Suddenly the screen in front of me turned bright red," said Petrov. "An alarm went off. It was piercing, loud enough to raise a dead man from his grave."

"The computer showed that the Americans had launched a nuclear strike against us."

Minuteman launch

The uneasy quiet inside a secret bunker at Serpukhov-15 was disrupted just past midnight on September 26, 1983 by the warning of an incoming attack. The data from the satellite indicated a missile had been launched by the Americans. In a moment, another launch was detected, and then another. Soon, the system was "roaring".

This was not a drill. According to the data scrolling across the screen, the Soviet Union was under attack by five intercontinental ballistic missiles. "The warning system's computer, weighing the signal against static, concluded that a missile had been launched from a base in the United States."

There was precious few seconds to pause. On the panel in front of the 44-year-old lieutenant colonel of the Soviet Air Defense Forces "was a red pulsating button. One word flashed: 'Start.'"

"For 15 seconds, we were in a state of shock," he said. "We needed to understand, what's next?"

Was this the real thing?


"The computer showed that the Americans had launched a nuclear strike against us," Petrov said.

Petrov's job was to monitor and evaluate the incoming satellite data for signs of an attack. His orders were to report the information to his superiors, which in turn would be reported up the command chain quickly rising to the attention of the general secretary. The Soviet counterattack could be underway within minutes.

"I had a funny feeling in my gut," Petrov said.

A solitary missile launch would not normally go up the chain of command, but with a salvo of five incoming missiles, an automated electronic alert already had gone to the general staff headquarters before Petrov could determine if the attack report was actually legitimate.

All around him "electronic maps and consoles were flashing" in the bunker. The stress was intense. Petrov tried to absorb all the information on the screens while another officer was on the phone shouting at him "to remain calm and do his job."

"The thought crossed my mind that maybe someone had really launched a strike against us. That made it even harder to lift the receiver and say it was just a false alarm."

Despite the evidence the early-warning satellite and computer systems were showing him, Petrov decided this must be a computer error and reported it as such. As a software engineer, who had been developing the algorithms for the early-warning systems since the 1970s, Petrov knew the system had been rushed into service "raw" and had its "flaws".

Все программы я учил и знал их гораздо лучше компьютера. Компьютер никогда не может быть умнее человека, создавшего его. Ведь компьютер решает все математически, а у человека в глубине души еще имеется что-то непредсказуемое. И у меня тоже это непредсказуемое чувство тоже было. Поэтому я и позволил себе не поверить системе, потому что я человек, а не компьютер.
"I learned and knew these programs far better than the computer. A computer can never be smarter than the person who created it. After all, the computer decides everything mathematically, but there's still something unpredictable in the depths of a person's soul. And I had this unpredictable feeling, too. That's why I allowed myself not to believe the system, because I am a person, not a computer."
Petrov was going to disobey procedure and let his intuition overrule the evidence on his screens and report the incident as a glitch rather than as a nuclear attack. "I understood that I was taking a big risk," he said.

"I didn't want to make a mistake. I made a decision, and that was it," Petrov said.

In the end, less than five minutes after the alert began, Petrov decided the launch reports must be false... Petrov's decision was based partly on a guess, he recalled. He had been told many times that a nuclear attack would be massive - an onslaught designed to overwhelm Soviet defenses at a single stroke. But the monitors showed only five missiles. "When people start a war, they don't start it with only five missiles," he remembered thinking at the time. "You can do little damage with just five missiles."

The false alarm was ultimately attributed to the satellite. It had detected the "sun's reflection off the tops of clouds and mistook it for a missile launch." The software was refactored to filter out reports such as this in the future. Instead of getting praised for making the right call, "Petrov's base took part of the blame for not developing the system properly."

In 1983, Cold War tensions between the Soviets and Americans had risen to a level not seen since the Cuban Missile Crisis. A declassified article in the CIA's Studies in Intelligence by Benjamin Fischer explained what was happening in 1983:

In March, President Reagan referred to the Soviet Union as the "focus of evil in the world," as an "evil empire." General Secretary Andropov suggested Reagan was insane and a liar. Then things got nasty.

ReaganThe Soviets were suspicious that Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative, dubbed "Star Wars", was a plan by Americans for a first strike nuclear attack capacity. The United States was set to begin deployment of Pershing II missiles to West Germany by the end of the year.

"For the first time since 1953, a Soviet leader was telling the Soviet people that the world was on the verge of a nuclear holocaust." People on both side of the east-west divide were concerned that conflict would start because of a miscalculation.

Soviet General Secretary Yuri Andropov warned US envoy Averell Harriman that the Reagan administration's provocations were moving the two superpowers toward "the dangerous 'red line'" of nuclear war through "miscalculation" in June of 1983.

The Reagan administration was conducting a "covert political-psychological effort to attack Soviet vulnerabilities and undermine the system," Fischer wrote.

The PSYOP was calculated to play on what the White House perceived as a Soviet image of the President as a "cowboy" and reckless practitioner of nuclear politics. US purpose was not to signal intentions so much as keep the Soviets guessing what might happen next...

The US sent bombers over the North Pole toward Russia or flew squadrons "straight at Soviet airspace" so their "radars would light up and units would go on alert. Then, at the last minute, the squadron would peel off and return home."

Meanwhile, NATO was busy preparing for Able Archer 83, a ten day military exercise in Western Europe in November that would simulate a DEFCON 1 nuclear alert. Stanislav PetrovAccording to declassified back channel discussions, Soviet sources warned that there was "growing paranoia among Soviet officials" and they were "literally obsessed by fear of war."

This fear was leading to deadly mistakes. Just three weeks before the incoming attack alarms were sounding inside the secret bunker south of Moscow where Col. Petrov sat, a Soviet Su-15 interceptor shot down Korean Air Lines Flight 007 killing all 269 passengers and crew aboard, including a sitting member of the U.S. Congress, Rep. Larry McDonald of Georgia.

The situation on that September night was real and it was dangerous. The world could have ended thirty years ago. Thankfully, Petrov trusted his gut rather than what the computers were telling him. Earlier this year, he was awarded the Dresden Preis.

"At first when people started telling me that these TV reports had started calling me a hero, I was surprised. I never thought of myself as one - after all, I was literally just doing my job."

Cross-posted from Daily Kos.

Good to see you, Magnifico.
by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Thu Sep 26th, 2013 at 03:39:49 AM EST
After a long drought, I had a diary that wasn't solely provincial to the U.S.
by Magnifico on Thu Sep 26th, 2013 at 06:06:57 PM EST
[ Parent ]
A man far more deserving of the Nobel Peace Prize than Obama

keep to the Fen Causeway
by Helen (lareinagal at yahoo dot co dot uk) on Thu Sep 26th, 2013 at 10:55:06 AM EST
Probably should be given at the end of a person's political career rather than at the start. Personally, I think Obama should have declined the honor.
by Magnifico on Thu Sep 26th, 2013 at 06:08:17 PM EST
[ Parent ]
One overlooked issue here is what would have happened had  Petrov decided that the warning was based on an actual attack. It's implicit in many popular accounts of that period that the Soviet leadership would have launched a nuclear attack. I seriously doubt a war would have been started based on a hypothetical go-ahead by Petrov's command.

Despite all the bombast and deliberately deceptive and self-serving declarations by the Reagan administration, there were continuous informal encounters between the two nations, not only the Harriman meeting in May. In the conflict between Schultz and the hardliners, Reagan preferred the former for dealing concretely with the Soviets while using hardliner tactics and language in the public arena.

Further the Petrov event happened only weeks after the downing of the KAL flight which the Soviets genuinely perceived as an American reconnaissance mission. They were very much hurting from their own fumbled handling of the incident's aftermath in the following propaganda war launched by Reagan. The entire command chain responsible for the incident were demoted and transferred shortly after. The incident was perceived as a serious flaw in Soviet defences. That Petrov's unit was also reprimanded makes perfect sense in light of Soviet defence vulnerability and plain military logic.

The KAL downing also eclipsed Soviet overtures to the West over the deployment of the Pershing missiles. The Soviets had not only put a moratorium on the deployment of SS-20's but had formally declared that the Soviet Union would never launch a first strike attack. The Soviets certainly lost the propaganda war at the time, yet another vulnerability in their system, despite the fact that the Reagan campaign over the KAL incident was based on knowingly manipulated evidence. But the bottom line in the war of words was not who was insane and a liar but how the two nations could get back to negotiating a new détente. In that optic, any surprise attack was totally off the wall.

Arguing from "what-if" scenarios is difficult. However, despite public ostentation of war-like attitudes, both contendents were aware that nuclear war was a totally irrational option not only for themselves but for their rival.

Petrov did his job well and can be commended for it.

by de Gondi (publiobestia aaaatttthotmaildaughtusual) on Thu Sep 26th, 2013 at 06:59:22 PM EST
It wasn't the only incident where the end of humankind was averted by a Soviet military with a brain and the courage to stand up against group think.

Vasili Arkhipov - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

On 27 October 1962, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, a group of eleven United States Navy destroyers and the aircraft carrier USS Randolph located the diesel-powered nuclear-armed Soviet Foxtrot-class submarine B-59 near Cuba. Despite being in international waters, the Americans started dropping practice depth charges, explosives intended to force the submarine to come to the surface for identification. There had been no contact from Moscow for a number of days and, although the submarine's crew had earlier been picking up U.S. civilian radio broadcasts, once B-59 began attempting to hide from its U.S. Navy pursuers, it was too deep to monitor any radio traffic, so those on board did not know whether war had broken out.[5] The captain of the submarine, Valentin Grigorievitch Savitsky, believing that a war might already have started, wanted to launch a nuclear torpedo.[6]

Three officers on board the submarine - Savitsky, the political officer Ivan Semonovich Maslennikov, and the second-in-command Arkhipov - were authorized to launch the torpedo if agreeing unanimously in favor of doing so. An argument broke out among the three, in which only Arkhipov was against the launch

Does anyone here know of an act of similar courage and ability to critical thinking on the western side? I don't. I suspect the west is far more successful to produce conformity and the absence of dissident thought.

by Katrin on Fri Sep 27th, 2013 at 04:10:22 AM EST
As I understand it, we would not know about Arkhipov and Petrov if the Soviet empire had not collapsed. So I guess it is a question for future historians.

Sweden's finest (and perhaps only) collaborative, leftist e-newspaper Synapze.se
by A swedish kind of death on Fri Sep 27th, 2013 at 04:19:54 AM EST
[ Parent ]
If only we had something like Wikileaks...

But the shit storm around Snowden would be nothing compared to an equivalent act of whistleblowing about nukular matters.

by ThatBritGuy (thatbritguy (at) googlemail.com) on Fri Sep 27th, 2013 at 04:50:54 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I think it's a reader's job to ask critical questions when reading articles on historical reconstructions regardless the source. It's very important to bring out the hidden or assumed premises- enthymemes as they are technically called.

In this case I suggest for starts the following questions:

  1. Did Foxtrot submarines carry nuclear weapons in 1962?
  2. How many, if any, nuclear weapons could have been on board?
  3. If that category of submarines effectively carried nuclear charges, what were the procedures to arm and deploy those weapons?
4)What was the procedure to launch a nuclear weapon?
5) On what bandwidth did submarines communicate with headquarters?

As we know now, Foxtrots carried atleast one or two nuclear warheads to be mounted on a torpedo by the Seventies. It is questionable in 1962.

In order to arm and launch a nuclear torpedo according to procedure, three codes were needed: one communicated by Central Command, one in the hands of the commanding officer and the last in the hands of another officer. There was no way a nuclear torpedo could have been armed and fired without all three codes.

Despite hardliner allegations to the contrary, the launching of a nuclear device by a submarine could never have been undertaken without central command authorization. It goes for both players in the ball game.

Let's throw in some more question: Since assault submarines have a variety of flexible options, was it not more "logical" to use conventional warheads if at all? Was it not plain that the US Navy's depth charges were merely tactical harassment of the kind that have occured constantly between rival powers? What's the use of launching a nuclear torpedo with a very limited strike range and low tonnage?

By the 1980's at the height of the Cold War there were nearly 200 incidents at sea per year between the two superpowers. Unreported. This alleged incident in 1962 was not uncommon at the time and it strikes as strange that an officer would overreact to provocation.

by de Gondi (publiobestia aaaatttthotmaildaughtusual) on Fri Sep 27th, 2013 at 05:32:56 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I'll have to check this later: If I recall at the time the submarine had to surface in order to launch a nuclear warheaded torpedo. This technical problem was only ironed out later. Sitting ducks.
by de Gondi (publiobestia aaaatttthotmaildaughtusual) on Fri Sep 27th, 2013 at 05:42:40 AM EST
[ Parent ]
And I assume that the codes were real on the Soviet side, there's the story of McNamara insisting that a combination lock be placed on US missiles, and SAC doing that, but setting the codes to 00000000 on all of the missiles till 1977

Any idiot can face a crisis - it's day to day living that wears you out.
by ceebs (ceebs (at) eurotrib (dot) com) on Fri Sep 27th, 2013 at 07:19:07 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I've consulted several sources on the technical aspects of nuclear torpedoes at the time of the Cuban missile crisis (Cold War Submarines by Norman Polmar & K J Moore; Reflections on the Cuban Missile Crisis by Raymond L Garthoff; Russian Strategic Nuclear Forces edited by Pavel Podvig).

There were six Foxtrot class assault submarines in the crisis area at the time, each carrying one nuclear warhead (and 21 conventional torpedoes). It is not specified whether the torpedoes were the nuclear torpedo T-5 or the ASB-30 warhead which could be fitted onto a conventional torpedo, both deployed at the time. The T-5 had reportedly a 10 kiloton yield. In order to fire a nuclear device, central command authorization was necessary. And effectively the submarine had to surface to fire the nuclear weapon.

The primary aim of the US forces vis-à-vis the Soviet submarines was to individuate them and force them to surface. A week-long pursuit was engaged between the adversaries until all Soviet units were surfaced and identified. Since the two powers were effectively acting out a war game because both parties had no intention of starting hostilities, both actors in the field resorted to ploys that would not have been used in a real-case war. The depth charges used by the Americans were deliberately off target and of low potential, while the cat-and-mouse manoeuvres of the Foxtrots were unduly "noisy" by real war criteria.

Indeed nerves may have been frayed at times and conceivably there was more potential for a dangerous accident. A possible explanation for the Arkhipov- Savistky episode may have been to mount the nuclear torpedo to expedite usage once the Foxtrot surfaced on the off chance authorization came through. The rest is hype, whether from the media or some of the more glamorous actors in the drama.

Both parties had to save face on the stage for domestic and political reasons by taking home a victory. Khrushchev tacitly got the Jupiter missiles removed in Turkey after a while and a confidential pledge that the US would never invade Cuba. The Americans got the Russian missiles out of Cuba. A fair enough exchange.

An amusing note was Kennedy's misgivings on blockade protocol and international procedure. He was worried about what language(s) were to be used and if Russian were necessary, were there any Russian-speaking hands on board American vessels. In order to allay his fears, a direct line was set up between himself and the commander of operations.

I want to reassure Katrin that there were some damned good minds on both sides of the fence.

by de Gondi (publiobestia aaaatttthotmaildaughtusual) on Fri Sep 27th, 2013 at 06:20:57 PM EST
[ Parent ]
When it comes to nuclear weapons I am not so easily reassured. My point wasn't about playing by the rules, though. Not even about playing provocation by the rules. Even if the stories were made more dramatic as they were processed, both Petrov and Arkhipov at some point used their brains independently of groupthink. If all officers on the submarine wanted the same and there was only one dissenter, this dissenter needed a lot of courage not to give in to the majority. We know of several instances where Soviet militaries behaved like that, but we don't know if there was similar independence of mind on the western side, the one which has not yet collapsed. Perhaps we just don't know about behaviour that was there. Or else, the US and their satellites are very successful in suppressing all independent thought in their military, much more successful than the very authoritarian Soviet Union. That's a very scary thought.
by Katrin on Sat Sep 28th, 2013 at 05:03:40 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I'll be glad to furnish several examples during the Cuban crisis that were objectively far more dangerous than the Arkhipov incident and were resolved by the sober intelligence and calm of those involved on both sides. Off hand- I do not have documentation with me right now- I would mention the accidental explosion of a munitions deposit in Cuba that killed numerous Soviet military that could have been construed as an attack, the downing of a U2 over Cuba by two Soviet officers in an extreme act of insubordination, the accidental violation of Soviet airspace by another U2, and the message of an American spy asserting that the Soviets had opted for nuclear war. All of these events happened in a matter of days while tension was at its highest under a 48 hour ultimatum to cease installation of nuclear missiles in Cuba. Any one of those incidents could have triggered a conflict and degenerated into a nuclear exchange. We can not only thank the Kennedys and Krushchev for their calm in the face of numerous conflicting reports but the number of anonymous professionals who just did their job and made snap decisions that added up to keeping the peace. At the bottom both adversaries were committed to negotiations and neither allowed the many grave incidents that occurred to compromise their committments.

As for Arkhipov, I believe that he was the only one who was really following orders in front of an act of insubordination. The Soviets had ordered that no arms were to be put into firing position and American reconnaisance had the capacity to verify this fact on land through overflight missions. It certainly would have been impossible for the Americans to verify that a nuclear torpedo had been put into firing position by insubordinate officers but the order applied to all.(In fact it seems that it happened on another occasion.) The downing of the U2 over Cuba by two Soviet officers was perhaps the most dangerous event of all precisely because the Americans were aware that the SAM batteries were not in firing position. In fact the Joint Chief of Staff lobbied for an immediate invasion in the wake of the downing with State not far behind. It was the two Kennedys in permanent Executive Command that saved the day.

by de Gondi (publiobestia aaaatttthotmaildaughtusual) on Sat Sep 28th, 2013 at 06:24:17 AM EST
[ Parent ]

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