A Close Callby Ray Patrick (other posts)
“I think that this is the closest we’ve come to accidental nuclear war.”
Forty years ago today, on 26 September 1983, Lieutenant Colonel Stanislav Petrov of the Soviet Air Defence Forces was the on-duty watch officer in the Serpukhov-15 bunker near Moscow. From this bunker, he and his troops monitored information flowing from a secret space-based missile warning system known as Oko.[note 1]
The Oko constellation was, at that time, composed of thirty[note 2] US-K (Molniya[note 3] orbit) and US-KS (geosynchronous orbit) satellites. These satellites observed the Earth with infrared telescopes, watching for the telltale exhaust plumes of American ICBMs. Detecting these plumes from space would provide nearly-instant warning of an American nuclear attack. As the missiles traveled towards Soviet territory, they would eventually enter the detection volume of ground-based missile warning radars, which would provide a secondary, independent source of attack warning.[note 4]
Spiral of Paranoia
“If the Soviet Union had overreacted, it could have gone very badly. If war had come, Soviet missiles would have destroyed Britain entirely, at least half of Germany and France, and America would have lost maybe 30 percent of its cities and infrastructure.”
Lt Col Petrov was on duty during a particularly nasty season of US-Soviet relations. Just twenty-five days prior, on 1 September 1983, a Soviet Air Force Su-15 shot down Korean Air Lines Flight 007 after the latter mistakenly strayed into Soviet airspace.[note 5] A perfect storm of technical failures, including Soviet radar outages and a broken VOR beacon in Anchorage, conspired to prevent KAL 007 from realizing their mistake and also frustrated identification efforts by the Soviets, who were afraid it might be a USAF RC-135 reconnaissance plane - or something worse. The shootdown, which was condemned by President Reagan as “the Korean Air Lines Massacre,” happened while the Soviet military leadership was convinced that the US was planning a pre-emptive nuclear strike against the USSR.
It’s not difficult to see, in retrospect, why they may have thought so. In 1979, NATO had responded to the Soviet Union’s deployment of fourteen SS-20 road-mobile nuclear missiles with the Double-Track Decision, which eventually saw 572 Pershing II and BGM-109G cruise missiles deployed in Western Europe. These missiles had the capability to reach targets well within Soviet borders, a development that echoed the IRBMs deployed in Cuba by the USSR in 1962. Beginning in the early 1980s, the US had also begun testing Soviet radar vulnerability with air and naval operations in the Barents and Black Sea regions. The USAF flew bomber missions straight towards the USSR, skirting the very edge of Soviet airspace, only leaving once they had allowed themselves to be illuminated by air defense radars. From 29 March to 17 April 1983, the US Navy held FleetEx 83-1: a combined operation with US, Canadian, and Australian maritime forces that saw three carrier strike groups parked within bombing range of the Soviet coast. These were psychological missions - shows of force - with a clear message: “We’re not afraid of you and we will fight you anywhere on Earth.”
Additionally, Ronald Reagan’s famous Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI or, sarcastically, “Star Wars”) proposal had become public knowledge at this point. While US media outlets mocked the proposal, Soviet leadership took it very seriously indeed. They interpreted this move as an attempt by the Americans to make the US invulnerable to nuclear attack - so they would be able to nuke the USSR without fear of reprisal.
Taken together, these developments led to possibly the tensest period of US-Soviet relations since the Cuban Missile Crisis. The Soviet military and political leadership was convinced that an American first strike on the USSR was imminent. Accordingly, Soviet doctrine allowed for immediate nuclear retaliation as soon as indications of a US attack were received - “launch on warning.”
In the early morning hours of 26 September 1983, in the Serpukhov-15 bunker near Moscow, that warning came to Lt Col Petrov.
“Foreigners tend to exaggerate my heroism. [I simply did my duty.] I was in the right place at the right moment.”
Moments before, the bunker had been buzzing with the low murmer of men and machines performing delicate work. Now the room was blaring with launch warnings. The system was indicating the launch of an ICBM from a base in the United States! The computer had compared the signal against background noise and concluded that it represented a genuine, real-world flying missile. At first, just the one missile registered on the system, then another, and another. Soon, the system was “roaring,” as Petrov later told the Washington Post: five Minuteman III ICBMs had now been launched and were hurtling toward the USSR. Within half an hour, they would rain nuclear destruction on the sleeping Soviets.
But wasn’t it strange that only five missiles had been launched? The prevailing nuclear war doctrine - then, as now - was to go big or go home. If you’re going to start a global war, the only sensible[note 6] course of action is to completely paralyze your enemy and render them unable to hit back. Launching just a handful of weapons would provoke a massive retaliation while causing little damage to your enemy. How could a five-missile salvo be the Americans’ start to a nuclear war?
It couldn’t be. This must be some kind of malfunction. If he reported this as a genuine attack, the USSR would launch real weapons in response to these phantom ones - thereby dooming the world to war.
On the other hand, what if this was another mind game from the Reagan administration? Could they have devised precisely such a gambit in order to paralyze the Soviet decision-makers? If these missiles turned out to be real and he didn’t report up, he - Petrov - would be responsible for leaving his country wide open to a nuclear attack.
Provoke a world-ending war, or sit idly by while your country dies? It all rested on the shoulders of the 44-year-old lieutenant colonel who, moments before, had simply been standing another routine night shift.
“I had two arguments to fall back on. First, missile attacks do not start from just one base. Second, the computer is, by definition, brainless. There are lots of things it can mistake for a missile launch.”
In later years, Lt Col Petrov would recall the enormous stress of those few minutes. Electronic maps and consoles were flashing, alarms were sounding, and troops in the early-warning center were shouting. Petrov held a phone in one hand and the bunker’s intercom in the other, trying to retain mastery of the situation and the troops in his command. Fewer than five minutes after the first indication, Lt Col Petrov decided to report to his superiors that the warning was a false alarm: there were no real missiles.
He was right.
What could have happened instead? Nobody knows for sure. Even if Lt Col Petrov had called in the attack as valid, someone above him in the chain of command could still have decided to wait. On the other hand, they may very well have channeled it straight up to the Paramount Leader, Yuri Andropov. Nearly a billion people could have been killed in less than an hour. Thankfully, we don’t know how it would have turned out, because the man on duty in Serpukhov-15 that night was Stanislav Petrov, a true professional.
From someone in the same line of work on the other side forty years later: You have my respect, Lt Col Petrov. RIP.
- ^ Oko (Old Russian: “eye”) is a Russian (formerly Soviet) satellite system dedicated to missile warning. It is roughly equivalent in role and operation to its American contemporary, the Defense Support Program. Both nations still operate legacy equipment from Oko and DSP, but have also fielded newer systems with increased capabilities.
- ^ That is to say, thirty US-K/US-KS satellites were launched between October 1975 and September 1983 with mixed success. I am uncertain if all were operational by the time of the September 1983 incident.
- ^Molniya (Russian: “Lightning”) is a kind of Russian (formerly Soviet) communications satellite with a distinctive namesake orbit. A Molniya orbit is highly elliptical with an inclination of 63.4 degrees and an orbital period of roughly one-half sidereal day. Whereas geosynchronous satellites have poor or no line-of-sight to high-latitude areas, Molniya satellites dwell almost directly overhead these areas for several hours near apogee. Since much Russian territory lies at these high latitudes, the Russians have used this type of orbit extensively for everything from military communications to satellite television. US-K satellites were placed in Molniya orbits with their right ascensions rotated to place the apogee over North America. The geometry of this situation allowed the satellite to monitor American territory for missile launches while maintaining line-of-sight to its controllers in the Soviet Union via space-based relays.
- ^ The same idea had occurred to the United States, who also operated space-based (infrared) and ground-based (radar) missile warning systems. We still do today; my first job in the Air Force was to command one of those ground-based radars.
- ^ KAL 007 went down with 269 souls aboard, including a sitting US Congressman from Georgia (Larry McDonald).
- ^ Of course, the word “sensible,” in this context, doesn’t quite have its usual meaning.