|Vasili Arkhipov and Stanislav Petrov without whose courage and quick thinking our world might be long gone.|
Today we remember the atomic bomb dropped on the Japanese city of Nagasaki in 1945. With Japan continuing to resist the US forces in the Pacific after the earlier bombing of Hiroshima, the Allies concluded that a second atomic attack was required to force a surrender, which duly took place on 15 August.
By 1949, both the West and the Soviet bloc had acquired nuclear weapons and the Cold War had begun in earnest. Over the years that followed, massive nuclear arsenals were built up on both sides with the capacity to destroy the earth several times over. Initially, these were to be carried on bomber planes, as at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but as time went by intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) capable of thousands of miles of flight became the preferred delivery method. These were held in underground silos, on submarines and on mobile truck launchers. The doctrine of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) held that because both sides could destroy each other, nuclear weapons would never be used. In this way, an awful "peace" could be established - except as noted in an earlier blog, the actual result was a long series of devastatingly violent and bloody proxy wars.
Yet quite aside from the appalling "Balance of Terror" and dreadful waste of resources required by MAD, the doctrine itself did not remain static. By the early 1980s, under the Reagan Presidency, American political leaders such as Henry Kissinger were openly talking about the feasibility of "limited" nuclear war where smaller nuclear devices could be deployed for use on European battlefields but somehow contained from developing into global conflagration. Similarly, some publically postulated more than a little enthusiatically about a first strike on the Soviet Union, which would involve firing US missiles at the sites of Soviet ones, "knocking out" the Russians before they could respond.
Into this mix came increasingly sophisticated computerisation. Both sides relied on not always particularly reliable early warning systems to detect attacks by each other. With the short time and high stakes involved, Command and Control required almost instantaneous human decisions on how to respond to data, decisions that could determine the very survival of life on Earth.
The possible consequences were powerfully depicted in 1980s popular culture in films like Wargames and the song 99 Balloons, but were officially dismissed as the biased ramblings of peace activists or the sensationalist fiction of pulp novelists. Yet the supposed fiction could not have been much closer to the truth.
On 26 September 1983, Sergei Petrov was on duty as a Lieutenant-Colonel in the Soviet Defence Forces at a bunker near Moscow. His role was to identify any alerts on the Early Warning System, decide if they were real and report them to his superiors, who would have barely more than three or four minutes to decide whether to respond with a counter-attack. Following the Soviets' shooting down of a South Korean passenger jet that had entered their airspace a couple of weeks earlier, leading to the deaths of scores of American passengers, tension was high between Andropov's Soviet Government and the Reagan White House.
Just after midnight, the system identified a single US Minuteman nuclear missile being fired at the Soviet Union. Petrov concluded that this was a computer error, judging that an American first strike would be likely to involve large numbers of missiles. Shortly after, however, the system identified a further four Minutemen being launched against the Soviets. Again, Petrov concluded, correctly, that this was a further false alarm. The cause of the computer error was later identified as sunlight hitting high altitude clouds. Given the split second decision-making required and the international situation, had he made a different call, most commentators, including one of his superior officers, have subsequently judged that Andropov would almost certainly have called for a full counter-strike, plunging the world into the nuclear abyss because of a glitch in the computer system.
|Stanislav Petrov interviewed recently|
The 1983 incident was not the only one of this nature - in 1962, when American ships began to drop depth charges on a Soviet submarine in international waters during the Cuban Missile crisis, the Political Officer and the Captain, out of contact with Moscow for several days, feared war had begun and wanted to launch a nuclear torpedo at their attackers. The Deputy Captain, Vasili Arkhipov, voted against doing so and as Soviet military regulations required unanimous agreement between the three of them, the strike did not proceed. Instead, with oxygen getting low, they surfaced among the American ships and headed home.
There have been other accidental occurrences, such as American bombers crashing and almost detonating their nuclear payload, while the NATO Able Archer military manoeuvres in November 1983, just weeks after the Petrov incident, were so realistic that the Soviet Politburo put Warsaw Pact forces on high alert, fearing an imminent invasion. In 1979, the American NORAD early warning system registered a full Soviet strike on the USA as being underway. A US senator present at NORAD at the time described scenes of total panic as operatives prepared a counter-strike, fortunately realising at the very last moment that what they were seeing was actually an accidental repeat of a test scenario run by their own side.
The last known incident was as late as 1995, when by then Russian as opposed to Soviet radar systems mistook a Norwegian/US rocket test as a possible attack. Perhaps most terrifyingly of all, the semi-inebriated President Boris Yeltsin was handed the codes required to decide on a nuclear attack on the West. Fortunately, the trajectory of the missile was soon seen to be heading away from Russian airspace.
So just as the fingers on the trigger of our survival have been those of a few men, we would have been long gone now was it not for the prompt thinking and courage of two Soviet officers. At other times, it seems we have been fortunate that computer errors became evident just in time to stop people who were automatically rushing to follow predetermined instructions to wipe us from existence and irradiate our planet for aeons to come.
Meantime, as we remember the dead of 1945, let's also remember Vasili Arkhipov and Stanislav Petrov, the men who saved the world. For now.
|A Nagasaki child|
|Humans melted together at Hiroshima|