Twenty-two years ago today, the world nearly ended.
We owe the fact that it didn't to the level head of one Stanislav Petrov.
Those of you who remember late 1983 might recall that it was a remarkably tense time. The Soviet Union had just shot down a Korean airliner that had flown into Soviet airspace. The US was performing large-scale military exercises within quick reach of the USSR. In the US, President Ronald Reagan talked about the "Evil Empire," while Soviet General Secretary Yuri Andropov ordered the KGB to get ready for an imminent US attack. The two superpowers threatened each other with nuclear missiles in Europe, and shot at each other's proxies in brushfire wars in Central America and Central Asia.
Stanislav Petrov wasn't the regular overnight officer on duty on September 25-26, 1983, at the Serpukhov-15 Ballistic Missile Early Warning System control post. He came in as a substitute to maintain his skills, expecting that -- like every other night since the Oko monitoring satellites had gone into orbit -- it would be a quiet evening.
Forty minutes after midnight, September 26, the computer system registered the launch of a Minuteman missile from the United States. In a 2004 interview for the Moscow News, Petrov described what happened:
"An alarm at the command and control post went off with red lights blinking on the terminal. It was a nasty shock," the lieutenant colonel admits. "Everyone jumped from their seats, looking at me. What could I do? There was an operations procedure that I had written myself. We did what we had to do. We checked the operation of all systems - on 30 levels, one after another. Reports kept coming in: All is correct; the probability factor is two."
"What does that mean?"
"The highest," analyst Petrov smiles...
Then another launch signal; and another. Within a few minutes, the early warning system registered five missiles on the way. Petrov had to decide -- was this a real launch or a false alarm? The Soviet policy at the time was massive response, the launch of all strategic nuclear missiles the moment an attack from the US was spotted. If Petrov followed policy and alerted the Kremlin, a global thermonuclear exchange would almost certainly result.
"You can't possibly analyze things properly within a couple of minutes," Petrov reasons 20 years later. "All you can rely on is your intuition. 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."
Obviously, Petrov made the correct call. The Oko satellite that had sent the alert had been mistaken by the infrared signature of the sun reflected off of high-altitude clouds. In thanks for not following the rules and triggering World War III, Petrov was chastised by his superiors for not filling out the event properly in his log book, and very nearly jailed; in the end, he left the military without the usual honors and commendations. Now 66 years old, he lives in a small town outside of Moscow on a small pension. He's received no ribbons or medals from his country, no statues or plaques. Even the Moscow News agrees that the West remembers him more than the Russians... although few in the West remember him, either.
Those who do consider him a hero. Tonight, drink a toast to Stanislav Petrov. Twenty two years ago today, on a cold Siberian night, he chose not to follow orders, and chose not to end the world.
(Originally found via Metafilter)
Great bit of history. It would have really sucked to have been vaporized in 1983. Petrov deserves more than a toast -- probably his own cocktail -- which I suspect would be a half cup of cold coffee in a styrofoam cup.
--followed by a shot or two of vodka an hour or so later when you realize the crisis has past and the world is still here.
I think it's unlikely he'll ever be recogized as a hero in Russia. There are probably still too many military and government officials currently in power who backed the Oko early warning system who were embarrassed. I also wonder how many other nuclear near misses the Russian and US government still haven't told us about.
За здоровье, Stanislav!
Thank you Stanislav!
It's hard to know what to take away from this story: admiration for basic human decency, or horror that we can construct systems where the world's fate rests in the hands of of a few very rattled soldiers.
Someone needs to get this guy a paypal account :)
Thank you Mr. Petrov. It would certainly have sucked to die as a 1 year old.
I think there is a lesson to be learned here. It seems there are Russians with human feelings.Maybe we can respect that. Thanks Petrov, for your intuitive nature.Here is one Canadian that would like to pin a medal on you for bravery!
Senior American leadership would have responded the same way. After all, hadn't we been assured that there was a "hot line" between Moscow and Washington so such MAD could not happen? Perhaps`Petrov's superiors were angry with him for not alerting Moscow BEFORE doing his final check. There's too many missing "ifs" in this story.