There aren’t many people who could claim to have saved the world and not be accused of gross exaggeration. Stanislav Petrov is one of the few who could. The former Lieutenant Colonel in the Soviet Air Defense Forces died last May, but word of his passing has only reached the broader world in the past few days. That alone testifies to the kind of man Petrov was. A significant percentage of the world’s population owes their lives to him, but when he passed in May, the news didn’t even make regional headlines, much less national coverage in the United States or Russia.
To understand why Petrov was so critical to the continued existence of mankind, we have to hop in the ExtremeTech DeLorean (sadly, not an actual thing), and revisit 1983. Relations between the United States and the Soviet Union weren’t great, thanks to actions from both countries. The Soviets had deployed new intermediate-range nuclear-tipped missiles, while the US had been testing Soviet radar installations and responses by conducting near flybys without quite straying into Soviet airspace.
We now know key figures in the USSR were convinced these operations were part of a secret nuclear attack the US was preparing to launch. Just weeks before the events in question, the USSR shot down Korean Air Lines Flight 007 when it strayed into Soviet airspace, killing 269 people aboard. That total included a US Congressman, Larry Donald. The Soviets were genuinely afraid the US was about to start a nuclear war, and they were determined not to be wiped out in a sudden first strike that left them without any retaliatory capability.
Enter Petrov. On September 26, 1983, Petrov was stationed at the Serpukhov-15 bunker near Moscow. His job was to observe the early warning network of radar installations and satellites that guarded USSR’s borders. He was to notify his superiors in the even that any missile launch occurred; Soviet doctrine at the time called for an immediate and overwhelming counterlaunch, to prevent the United States from striking and destroying Soviet launch sites before they could respond. The doctrine of MAD — Mutually Assured Destructions — mandated such a move, to make certain that no enemy could launch a unilateral attack and enjoy the fruits of its victory without paying an equally horrific price.
Stanislav Petrov, 2016. Image courtesy of Wikipedia
Just after midnight, the satellite warning system picked up evidence of a launch — a single missile track. Stanislav eyed the result and then dismissed it. The warning system had been known to malfunction in the past, and this was just a single missile track when Petrov knew any full-scale US launch was likely to involve dozens or hundreds of missiles. He dismissed the error, only to have the machines go off again. This time, four missiles had reportedly launched.
Think about that for a moment. “Turn it back off and turn it back on,” is a time-honored diagnostic tool for a reason. Errors that come back again aren’t random errors, in many cases. And while four missiles still aren’t dozens, they aren’t a single launch, either. If Petrov waited for radar confirmation, the missiles would be just minutes away from their targets. The entire Soviet nuclear doctrine furthermore rested on the idea that the computers are infallible and must be obeyed. There was no room in the official Soviet training manual for Petrov to do what he did next. The manual said that his overriding responsibility was to pick up the phone and inform his superiors that a launch had occurred. The computer system was signaling the highest level of probability that a launch had actually taken place.
“The siren howled, but I just sat there for a few seconds, staring at the big, back-lit, red screen with the word ‘launch’ on it,” Petrov told the BBC in 2013. “A minute later the siren went off again. The second missile was launched. Then the third, and the fourth, and the fifth. Computers changed their alerts from ‘launch’ to ‘missile strike’.”
“There was no rule about how long we were allowed to think before we reported a strike,” he continued. “But we knew that every second of procrastination took away valuable time; that the Soviet Union’s military and political leadership needed to be informed without delay.
“All I had to do was to reach for the phone; to raise the direct line to our top commanders – but I couldn’t move,” Petrov had said. “I felt like I was sitting on a hot frying pan.”
So what did Petrov do? He picked up the phone and called in a system malfunction — a malfunction he wasn’t honestly sure existed, even at the time. In the long run, it turned out the error was caused by a rare alignment issue between the satellites in question and the sun’s reflection on high-altitude clouds. The entire incident was hushed up until after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Next week marks the 34th anniversary of the day when the world’s survival all hung on the actions of a single man. While it’s impossible to know if Yuri Andropov would have ordered a launch on Petrov’s report, there’s every chance he would’ve. Multiple prominent Soviet scientists had praised the early warning satellite system as foolproof. Given these developments, we ran a very real risk of reading about these events on fragmented terminal entries several hundred years from now, once radiation levels went down and the Capital Wasteland was able to mount an expedition to Russia to…
Sorry. Got a little Fallout crossed in there.
Jokes aside, September 26, 1983 may have been the closest the world ever came to a no-holds-barred nuclear war. There is little doubt about what the American response to a genuine Soviet launch would have been. Thanks to Stanislav Petrov, it didn’t happen.
Now read: Explaining the unimaginable: How do nuclear bombs work?
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