A Near Disaster

The Washington Post, by David Hoffman (extracts)
Wednesday, February 10, 1999

Stanislav Petrov

Stanislav Petrov

MOSCOW — It was just past midnight as Stanislav Petrov settled into the commander’s chair inside the secret bunker at Serpukhov-15, the installation where the Soviet Union monitored its early-warning satellites over the United States.

Then the alarms went off. On the pane was a red pulsating button. One word flashed: “Start.”

It was Sept. 26, 1983, and Petrov was playing a principal role in one of the most harrowing incidents of the nuclear age, a false alarm signalling a U.S. missile attack.

Although virtually unknown to the West at the time, the false alarm at the closed military facility south of Moscow came during one of the most tense periods of the Cold War.

As Petrov described it in an interview, one of the Soviet satellites sent a signal to the bunker that a nuclear missile attack was underway. The warning system’s computer, weighing the signal against static, concluded that a missile had been launched from a base in the United States.

The responsibility fell to Petrov, then a 44-year-old lieutenant colonel, to make a decision: Was it for real?

Petrov was situated at a critical point in the chain of command, overseeing a staff that monitored incoming signals from the satellites. He reported to superiors at warning-system headquarters; they, in turn, reported to the general staff, which would consult with Soviet leader Yuri Andropov on the possibility of launching a retaliatory attack.

Petrov’s role was to evaluate the incoming data. At first, the satellite reported that one missile had been launched — then another, and another. Soon, the system was “roaring,” he recalled — five Minuteman intercontinental ballistic missiles had been launched, it reported.

Despite the electronic evidence, Petrov decided — and advised the others — that the satellite alert was a false alarm, a call that may have averted a nuclear holocaust. But he was relentlessly interrogated afterwards was never rewarded for his decision and today [1999] is a long-forgotten pensioner living in a town outside Moscow. He spoke openly about the incident, although the official account is still considered secret by authorities here.

On the night of the crisis, Petrov had little time to think. When the alarms went off “for 15 seconds, we were in a state of shock. We had to understand, what’s next?”

Usually, Petrov said, one report of a lone rocket launch did not immediately go up the chain to the general staff and the electronic command system there, known as Krokus. But in this case, the reports of a missile salvo were coming so quickly that an alert had already gone to general staff head-quarters automatically, even before he could judge if they were genuine. A determination by the general staff was critical because, at the time, the nuclear “suitcase” that gives a Soviet leader a remote-control role in such decisions was still under development.

In the end, less than five minutes after the alert began, Petrov decided the launch reports must be false. He recalled making the

tense decision under enormous stress – electronic maps and consoles were flashing as he held a phone in one hand and juggled an intercom in the other, trying to take in all the information at once. Another officer at the early-warning facility was shouting into the phone to him to remain calm and do his job.

“I had a funny feeling in my gut,” Petrov said. “I didn’t want to make a mistake. I made a decision, and that was it.”

Petrov’s decision was based partly on a guess, he recalled. He had been told many times that a nuclear attack would be massive — an onslaught designed to overwhelm Soviet defences at a single stroke. But the monitors showed only five missiles. “When people start a war, they don’t start it with only five missiles,” he remembered thinking at the time. “You can do little damage with just five missiles.”

Another factor, he said, was that Soviet ground-based radar installations — which search for missiles rising above the horizon — showed no evidence of an attack. The ground radar units were controlled from a different command centre, and because they cannot see beyond the horizon, they would not spot incoming missiles until some minutes after the satellites had.

He recalled making the tense decision under enormous stress – electronic maps and consoles were flashing as he held a phone in one hand and juggled an intercom in the other, trying to take in all the information at once. Another officer at the early-warning facility was shouting into the phone to him to remain calm and do his job.

 

 

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