Note: this w/u is 100% factual.
Twenty years ago humanity had one of its closest calls with death, but most people are blissfully ignorant about that. It is time to finally learn the truth. So read this grand story of human spirit, deadly weapons and computer errors.
In 1983 fall Soviet-American relations were dreadful. Six months ago the hostility culminated in Reagan’s infamous Evil Empire speech. Americans were planning to deploy Pershing II nuclear missiles in West Germany, causing great concerns to Moscow, not unlike Washington’s fears during the Cuban crisis. NATO was organizing Able Archer — a large scale military exercise concentrating on using tactical nuclear weapons in Europe. Moscow was also concerned about Washington Strategic Defence Initiative. Soviet leaders perceived the danger of the US aggression, either conventional or even nuclear, as very real and believed that SDI was one of the many indications. They were afraid that planned military exercise was actually a smokescreen for a real attack.
The Americans, who were reluctant to believe that their plans were threatening, did not understand these fears. They did not heed Soviet protests and were ready to proceed, bringing the world to the brink of nuclear conflict in their ignorance.
On September 1, 1983 Soviet Air Forces shot down a Korean passenger plane, killing all 269 passengers on board and further straining the relationships between USSR and the US. Soviet intelligence operatives in the West were warned about possible nuclear war.
At that time, the planned response for the nuclear attack by the US was a full-scale nuclear retaliation. Every missile in the USSR and on nuclear submarines was aimed at a designated target in the US or in Europe. Had the Americans attacked first, Soviet Rocket Forces were to respond with might and vengeance.
Russian missile notification system was based on a large number of ground radars located on the country borders. That meant Soviet Rocket Forces would receive a warning about 15 minutes before missiles would reach the Soviet capital. In order to provide earlier warnings and give Rocket Forces more time to respond, a new satellite system was installed a few years before. The system employed nine Oko satellites in highly elliptical orbits that monitored American missile fields for signs of missile launches. All information from warning and notification systems was transmitted to Dmitry Ustinov, the Defence Minister who had the responsibility to make the final decision and order the retaliation strike.
In a secret bunker somewhere near Moscow officers of the Soviet Rocket Forces constantly monitored the skies of the planet. Signals from different notification systems arrived there to be checked, processed and acted upon. On September 25, 1983 the officer on duty couldn’t make it for some reason and was replaced by another officer, Lieutenant Colonel Stanislav Petrov. 44-year old Stanislav arrived in the bunker, took the command and the shift started normally. Everything was routine, until the quiet flow of the shift was suddenly interrupted.
About forty minutes after midnight, when it was late afternoon in the States, sirens in the bunker howled, warning lights blazed. Cosmos-1382, an Oko satellite, detected a launch of a Minuteman nuclear missile from Malmstrom AirForce Base in Montana, the main American ICBM field. Americans have launched an attack on the Soviet Union. Everyone in the room felt the gravity of the situation. On a large US map on the wall a light turned on showing the location of the missile launch. A “Start” button flashed before Stanislav. He had less than 10 minutes to decide the fate of the world. Military instructions that he remembered all too well said he needs to press it and send a confirmation to the Defence Minister of the USSR. But something didn’t look right. “Who would start a nuclear war with only one missile?” thought Stanislav Petrov. That must have been a reading error, a false positive, a bug somewhere in the notification system. As a software engineer he knew that no system is immune to errors.
Another possibility might have crossed his mind — the American missile could have been launched by mistake, an error, but in the US. In the past computer errors in American systems twice almost launched nuclear missiles. In that case his responsibility still was to notify the Soviet leaders about the attack. But Petrov hesitated, knowing that Soviet response would be to launch a devastating retaliation attack on the United States. Thousands of missiles from launch-pads in Siberia, from nuclear submarines in the Pacific Ocean would slowly raise in flames and start the unstoppable journey to their targets in the United States and in Europe, only to bring death and destruction on the titanic scale twenty minutes later.
Weighting all information he had, Stanislav decided to ignore the alarm. “It’s a system error. Let it be a system error.” he probably thought. He dismissed the alarm as a false warning and waited. If it were a real launch, it would take about 10 minutes before the ground radars on the Soviet borders would confirm or deny the first warning and 20 minutes before American missiles would destroy Moscow and other Russian cities. He prepared to wait and see whether he made the right decision.
But then something different happened. The system showed a second launch, then a third one. Soon it showed that five intercontinental nuclear missiles have been launched from the US and were slowly making their way to Soviet Union. The decision made a few minutes ago could mean that Stanislav just condemned his country to be hit with nuclear attack without striking back. But he still had time to reverse his judgement and inform Ustinov about the attack, forcing a retaliation strike. He didn’t know more than the system was showing. He couldn’t ask anyone for assistance. He was the senior officer on the shift and at that moment he and no one else controlled the fate of the world. His intuition kept telling it was a false positive, an error somewhere in the system. It didn’t look like a beginning of nuclear war at all, just five missiles, less than a thousandth of what was stored in American nuclear arsenal. Stanislav suppressed the desire to act and waited. He maintained that his original judgement was correct — it must have been a false positive.
There was nothing for him to do, but wait. Now all depended on whether he was right or wrong. Half an hour later there was still no confirmation from ground radars. If these missiles existed, they disappeared without a trace. Everyone in the bunker realised that there was no attack and that they managed to avoid the temptation to start one themselves.
If Petrov confirmed the report of the advance notification system, Soviet leaders were ready to believe it. Soviet Rocket Forces would have launched thousands of nuclear missiles in a deadly attack, to which the United States was sure to retaliate with a comparable force. A nuclear holocaust would have ensued. Tens of thousands of missiles, each with hundreds times more power than in the Hiroshima blast would have burst all over the planet, killing hundreds of millions immediately and levelling whole cities to the ground. Radiation and nuclear winter would have finished those who managed to survive the initial attack, ending the world, as we knew it.
That didn’t happen.
But enormous stress weakened Stanislav. He transferred the command, drank a half litre bottle of vodka and dropped asleep. He slept for 28 hours straight trying to regain the strength he spent during the incident. After that he was taken to the hospital for stress treatment.
When the Cuban missile crisis unfolded in 1962, most participants had it relatively easy. The combined powers of foreign intelligence, air force, navy and army was at the disposal of both leaders — Kennedy and Khrushchev. They also had time to consider possible outcomes, time to consult with their loyal advisors and much less pressure on them. They had only threats to respond to, no missiles were flying to their home cities yet. Stanislav Petrov had it much worse. From all the time in the world he had only a few minutes to decide whether the attack was real. The fate of the world was in his hands alone, nobody was near him to give the words of advice, he could not pass even a small part of the responsibility, all the authority lied with him. And he was under a terrible pressure to make the right decision and make it right on the first try.
Immediately after the incident the military authorities started the investigation. They identified the new satellite system as the likely culprit and soon confirmed this. The system consisted of nine satellites in highly elongated elliptical orbits. They monitored the surface for bright hot flashes — the main signs of a missile launch. Because of elongated orbits, sometimes only one satellite could observe the suspected launch site. Other satellites could not confirm this. It turned out that due to a unique combination of circumstances the system terribly failed and produced not one, but five false positives, signalling an impending US attack. The light from the brightest natural light source on the planet, the Sun, was reflected from high clouds above Malmstrom and fooled the satellite infrared sensors, appearing to them similar to bright plumes of incoming missiles.
To assure that such incident will not happen again, Soviet Rocket Forces deployed an improved satellite notification system that included several satellites on geostationary orbits and guaranteed that any location is always monitored by at least two satellites. This particular risk was removed. But the truth is that most of the Cold War nuclear weapons are still operational, ready for use and capable of incinerating hundreds of millions of people. The biggest risk the humanity voluntarily takes is still enormous nuclear arsenals controlled by the US and Russia, not terrorism or petty dictators.
The world was saved, thanks to the heroic actions of Stanislav Petrov. That day, in the bunker, everyone congratulated him on his cool judgment. But it was not over for him. Initially his superiors wanted to reward him. He could probably expect a promotion and an order. But soon, when satellite problems were discovered, his superiors were blamed for that and punished. Rewarding their subordinate was not considered a good idea. Petrov was questioned about his actions and was blamed for ignoring the instructions and acting on his own. He wasn’t punished, but he was transferred to a less sensitive position and after two years discharged from the Army. He got no praise and no blame, like the whole episode was too insignificant for that. All was forgotten as if the world didn’t stand on the brink of destruction for half an hour on September 25, 1983. There is no monument set up in his honour, no celebrations are held in Kremlin on September 25 each year. One of the biggest heroes of the world still lives consigned to oblivion. His career was ruined by the incident, his health wrecked by the immense stress and subsequent investigation. Today Petrov lives on a meagre military pension of 50 dollars per month in a small flat in a town 40 kilometres from Moscow.
The story of Petrov’s heroic deed was only made public after the 15th anniversary of the event. Russian business magazine Kommersant-Vlast published a story about him. Western media picked it up and for a moment it seemed as if Stanislav Petrov will finally receive the honours he deserves. But after a short while the interest subsided and five more years passed without the proper recognition of his actions.
I have a small favour to ask of you. If you want to downvote, go ahead. But if you want to upvote, please don’t. Instead get to the nearest post office and send him a telegram. Or order a bouquet of flowers online for him. Or send him a photo of your children and thank him that they are still alive. Look outside at the blue sky and thank him that it’s not covered with impenetrable layer of radioactive dust and clouds. Walk outside and thank him that you can do it without a radiation protection suit.
His address is (from Kommersant-Vlast, not exact, but that’s the best I have):
Lt. C. Stanislav Petrov, 2nd floor, 60 let CCCP street, Fryazino, Moscow Region, Russia
In Cyrillic: Станислав Петров, кв. на 2 этаже, ул. 60 лет СССР, Фрязино, Московская область, Россия.
Editor's note: Stanislav Petrov died on May 19th, 2017 at the age of 77.
Kommersant-Vlast, Baltimore Sun, BBC, Daily Mail, other newspapers and magazines.