Citation record for Incident 27
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On the night September 26, 1983, a false report of five American intercontinental ballisic missiles was registered at a Soviet military base. Stanislov Petrov was working the night shift at Serpukhov-15 when a warning of the first missile came through, carrying the highest level of confidence in its reporting. Knowing the technology was new and rushed into use, Petrov phoned his superiors but did not call for a counterstrike. The alerts continued to come in until the system reported five incoming ICBM's from the United States that would strike in approximately 12 minutes. Several factors dissuaded Petrov from calling for a counterstrike: the newness of the technology, the unrealistically high confidence level, the low amount of missiles reported (a real first attack would have been many more), and the fact radar had not picked up any incoming objects. The satellite Oko system had incorrectly identified the light reflecting off high-altitude clouds above North Dakota to be the glare of launched missiles. After 23 minutes of waiting, Petrov felt comfortable confirmed this had been a false positive. The story was first reported publicly in 1998.
An alert of five incoming intercontinental ballistic missiles was properly identified as a false-positive by the Soviet Union operator Stanislov Petrov.
Harm Distribution Basis
AI System Description
Oko satellite imaging meant to collect image input and determine the likelihood of those images containing evidence of missile launch
Sector of Deployment
Public administration and defence
Relevant AI functions
Oko satellites, image recognition
Early warning system
Soviet Union, Oko, United States
Soviet Union, United States
Geospatial Satellite Imagery
On 26 September 1983, the nuclear early-warning system of the Soviet Union reported the launch of multiple USAF Minuteman intercontinental ballistic missiles from bases in the United States. These missile attack warnings were correctly identified as a false alarm by Stanislav Yevgrafovich Petrov, an officer of the Soviet Air Defence Forces. This decision is seen as having prevented a retaliatory nuclear attack based on erroneous data on the United States and its NATO allies, which would have resulted in an immediate and irrevocable escalation of the cold-war stalemate to a full-scale nuclear war. Investigation of the satellite warning system later confirmed that the system had malfunctioned.
Background [ edit ]
The incident occurred at a time of severely strained relations between the United States and the Soviet Union. Responding to the Soviet Union's deployment of fourteen SS-20/RSD-10 theatre nuclear missiles, the NATO Double-Track Decision was taken in December 1979 by the military commander of NATO to deploy 108 Pershing II nuclear missiles in Western Europe with the ability to hit targets in eastern Ukraine, Belarus or Lithuania within 10 minutes and the longer range, but slower BGM-109G Ground Launched Cruise Missile (GLCM) to strike potential targets farther to the east. In mid-February 1981, and continuing until 1983, psychological operations by the United States began. These were designed to test Soviet radar vulnerability and to demonstrate US nuclear capabilities. They included clandestine naval operations, in the Barents, Norwegian, Black, and Baltic seas and near the Greenland-Iceland-United Kingdom (GIUK) gap, as well as flights by American bombers, occasionally several times per week, directly toward Soviet airspace that turned away only at the last moment.
"It really got to them," recalls Dr. William Schneider, [former] undersecretary of state for military assistance and technology, who saw classified "after-action reports" that indicated U.S. flight activity. "They didn't know what it all meant. A squadron would fly straight at Soviet airspace, and other radars would light up and units would go on alert. Then at the last minute the squadron would peel off and return home."
From the accounts of CIA and senior KGB officers, by May 1981, obsessed with historical parallels with 1941 and Reaganite rhetoric, and with no defensive capability against the Pershing IIs, Soviet leaders believed the United States was preparing a secret nuclear attack on the USSR and initiated Operation RYaN. Under this, agents abroad monitored service and technical personnel who would implement a nuclear attack so as to be able either to preempt it or have mutually assured destruction.
On 1 September 1983, the Soviet military shot down a South Korean passenger jet, Korean Air Lines Flight 007, that had strayed into Soviet airspace. All 269 people aboard the aircraft were killed, including U.S. Congressman Larry McDonald and many other Americans. The first Pershing II missiles were reportedly deployed in late November 1983.
Bruce Blair, an expert on Cold War nuclear strategies and former president of the World Security Institute in Washington, D.C., says the American–Soviet relationship at that time
had deteriorated to the point where the Soviet Union as a system—not just the Kremlin, not just Soviet leader Yuri Andropov, not just the KGB—but as a system, was geared to expect an attack and to retaliate very quickly to it. It was on hair-trigger alert. It was very nervous and prone to mistakes and accidents. The false alarm that happened on Petrov's watch could not have come at a more dangerous, intense phase in U.S.–Soviet relations.
In an interview aired on American television, Blair said, "The Russians (Soviets) saw a U.S. government preparing for a first strike, headed by a President Ronald Reagan capable of ordering a first strike." Regarding the incident involving Petrov, he said, "I think that this is the closest our country has come to accidental nuclear war."
Incident [ edit ]
On 26 September 1983, Stanislav Petrov, a lieutenant colonel in the Soviet Air Defense Forces, was the officer on duty at the Serpukhov-15 bunker near Moscow which housed the command center of the Soviet early warning satellites, code-named Oko. Petrov's responsibilities included observing the satellite early warning network and notifying his superiors of any impending nuclear missile attack against the Soviet Union. If notification was received from the early warning systems that inbound missiles had been detected, the Soviet Union's strategy was an immediate and compulsory nuclear counter-attack against the United States (launch on warning), specified in the doctrine of mutual assured destruction.
Shortly after midnight, the bunker's computers reported that one intercontinental ballistic missile was heading toward the Soviet Union from the United States. Petrov considered the detection a computer error
Media playback is unsupported on your device Media caption Stanislav Petrov: ''I knew perfectly well that nobody would be able to correct my mistake if I had made one''
Thirty years ago, on 26 September 1983, the world was saved from potential nuclear disaster.
In the early hours of the morning, the Soviet Union's early-warning systems detected an incoming missile strike from the United States. Computer readouts suggested several missiles had been launched. The protocol for the Soviet military would have been to retaliate with a nuclear attack of its own.
But duty officer Stanislav Petrov - whose job it was to register apparent enemy missile launches - decided not to report them to his superiors, and instead dismissed them as a false alarm.
This was a breach of his instructions, a dereliction of duty. The safe thing to do would have been to pass the responsibility on, to refer up.
But his decision may have saved the world.
There was no rule about how long we were allowed to think before we reported a strike. But we knew that every second of procrastination took away valuable time Stanislav Petrov
"I had all the data [to suggest there was an ongoing missile attack]. If I had sent my report up the chain of command, nobody would have said a word against it," he told the BBC's Russian Service 30 years after that overnight shift.
Mr Petrov - who retired with the rank of lieutenant colonel and now lives in a small town near Moscow - was part of a well-trained team which served at one of the Soviet Union's early warning bases, not far from Moscow. His training was rigorous, his instructions very clear.
His job was to register any missile strikes and to report them to the Soviet military and political leadership. In the political climate of 1983, a retaliatory strike would have been almost certain.
And yet, when the moment came, he says he almost froze in 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," he says.
The system was telling him that the level of reliability of that alert was "highest". There could be no doubt. America had launched a missile.
"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'," he says.
Mr Petrov smokes cheap Russian cigarettes as he relates the incidents he must have played over countless times in his mind.
"There was no rule about how long we were allowed to think before we reported a strike. 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. I felt like I was sitting on a hot frying pan," he told us.
Image caption Soviet protocol said the military should respond to a nuclear attack with one of its own
Although the nature of the alert seemed to be abundantly clear, Mr Petrov had some doubts.
Alongside IT specialists, like him, Soviet Union had other experts, also watching America's missile forces. A group of satellite radar operators told him they had registered no missiles.
But those people were only a support service. The protocol said, very clearly, that the decision had to be based on computer readouts. And that decision rested with him, the duty officer.
But what made him suspicious was just how strong and clear that alert was.
"There were 28 or 29 security levels. After the target was identified, it had to pass all of those 'checkpoints'. I was not quite sure it was possible, under those circumstances," says the retired officer.
Mr Petrov called the duty officer in the Soviet army's headquarters and reported a system malfunction.
If he was wrong, the first nuclear explosions would have happened minutes later.
"Twenty-three minutes later I realised that nothing had happened. If there had been a real strike, then I would already know about it. It was such a relief," he says with a smile.
'Lucky it was me'
Now, 30 years on, Mr Petrov thinks the odds were 50-50. He admits he was never absolutely sure that the alert was a false one.
He says he was the only officer in his team who had received a civilian education. "My colleagues were all professional soldiers, they were taught to give and obey orders," he told us.
So, he believes, if somebody else had been on shift, the alarm would have been raised.
A few days later Mr Petrov received an official reprimand for what happened that night. Not for what he did, but for mistakes in the logbook.
He kept silent for 10 years. "I thought it was shameful for the Soviet army that our system failed in this way," he says.
But, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the story did get into the press. Mr Petrov received several international awards.
But he does not think of himself as a
Stanislav Petrov, 77, passed away on May 19, 2017. His death in his home in the Moscow suburbs was little noted at the time. Petrov, however, is one of a few humans who can say they literally saved the world. The veteran was a lieutenant colonel of the Soviet Union Air Defense Forces. On Sept. 26, 1983, the Soviets' early-warning nuclear missile detection system was triggered. The system said the United States had fired five ballistic missiles at the Soviet Union. Petrov was the duty officer at the co...
Stanislav Petrov, 'The Man Who Saved The World,' Dies At 77
Enlarge this image toggle caption Pavel Golovkin/AP Pavel Golovkin/AP
Stanislav Petrov was a lieutenant colonel in the Soviet Union's Air Defense Forces, and his job was to monitor his country's satellite system, which was looking for any possible nuclear weapons launches by the United States.
He was on the overnight shift in the early morning hours of Sept. 26, 1983, when the computers sounded an alarm, indicating that the U.S. had launched five nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missiles.
"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.
It was already a moment of extreme tension in the Cold War. On Sept. 1 of that year, the Soviet Union shot down a Korean Air Lines plane that had drifted into Soviet airspace, killing all 269 people on board, including a U.S. congressman. The episode led the U.S. and the Soviets to exchange warnings and threats.
Petrov had to act quickly. U.S. missiles could reach the Soviet Union in just over 20 minutes.
"There was no rule about how long we were allowed to think before we reported a strike," Petrov told the BBC. "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. I felt like I was sitting on a hot frying pan."
Petrov sensed something wasn't adding up.
He had been trained to expect an all-out nuclear assault from the U.S., so it seemed strange that the satellite system was detecting only a few missiles being launched. And the system itself was fairly new. He didn't completely trust it.
Arms control expert Jeffrey Lewis recalled the episode in an interview last December on NPR:
"[Petrov] just had this feeling in his gut that it wasn't right. It was five missiles. It didn't seem like enough. So even though by all of the protocols he had been trained to follow, he should absolutely have reported that up the chain of command and, you know, we should be talking about the great nuclear war of 1983 if any of us survived."
After several nerve-jangling minutes, Petrov didn't send the computer warning to his superiors. He checked to see if there had been a computer malfunction.
He had guessed correctly.
"Twenty-three minutes later I realized that nothing had happened," he said in 2013. "If there had been a real strike, then I would already know about it. It was such a relief."
That episode and the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis are considered to be the closest the U.S. and the Soviets came to a nuclear exchange. And while the Cuban Missile Crisis has been widely examined, Petrov's actions have received much less attention.
Petrov died on May 19, at age 77, in a suburb outside Moscow, according to news reports Monday. He had long since retired and was living alone. News of his death apparently went unrecognized at the time.
Karl Schumacher, a German political activist who had highlighted Petrov's actions in recent years, tried to contact Petrov earlier this month to wish him a happy birthday. Instead, he reached Petrov's son, Dmitri, who said his father had died in May.
Petrov said he received an official reprimand for making mistakes in his logbook on Sept. 26, 1983.
His story was not publicized at the time, but it did emerge after the Soviet Union collapsed. He received a number of international awards during the final years of his life. In 2015, a docudrama about him featuring Kevin Costner was called The Man Who Saved The World.
But he never considered himself a hero.
"That was my job," he said. "But they were lucky it was me on shift that night."
Greg Myre is a national security correspondent. Follow him @gregmyre1.
‘Gut instinct’ told Lt Col Stanislav Petrov that apparent launch of US missiles was actually early warning system malfunction
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This article is more than 1 year old
A Soviet officer whose cool head and quick thinking saved the world from nuclear war has died aged 77.
Stanislav Petrov was on duty in a secret command centre outside Moscow on 26 September 1983 when a radar screen showed that five Minuteman intercontinental ballistic missiles had been launched by the US towards the Soviet Union.
Red Army protocol would have been to order a retaliatory strike, but Petrov – then a 44-year-old lieutenant colonel – ignored the warning, relying on a “gut instinct” that told him it was a false alert.
“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,” he told the BBC’s Russian Service in 2013. “All I had to do was to reach for the phone; to raise the direct line to our top commanders.”
Editorial: In praise of ... Stanislav Petrov Read more
Instead of triggering a third world war, Petrov called in a malfunction in the early warning system. But even as he did so, he later admitted, he was not entirely sure he was doing the right thing.
“Twenty-three minutes later I realised that nothing had happened. If there had been a real strike, then I would already know about it. It was such a relief,” he said.
It later emerged that the false alarm was the result of a satellite mistaking the reflection of the sun’s rays off the tops of clouds for a missile launch.
“We are wiser than the computers,” Petrov said in a 2010 interview with the German magazine Der Spiegel. “We created them.”
The incident occurred at the height of the cold war, just three weeks after the Soviet army had shot down a Korean passenger jet, killing all 269 people on board.
Ronald Reagan had recently called the Soviet Union the “evil empire,” and Yuri Andropov, the ailing Soviet leader, was convinced the Americans were plotting a surprise nuclear attack.
Petrov was never honoured by the Soviet authorities for his role in saving the world from thermonuclear conflict. He was, however, reprimanded by his authorities for failing to describe the incident correctly in the logbook that night.
His story did not become widely known until 1998, when Gen Yury Votintsev, the retired commander of Soviet missile defence, published his memoirs. In the following years, Petrov achieved worldwide recognition for his actions.
He was honoured by the Association of World Citizens at the UN headquarters in 2006 as “the man who averted a nuclear war”. In 2013, he was awarded the prestigious Dresden peace prize.
He was also the subject of a 2013 documentary film entitled The Man who Saved the World.
The son of a second world war fighter pilot, Petrov was born in Vladivostok on 9 September 1939. He later studied at a Soviet air force college in Kiev.
He died on 19 May in Fryazino, a Moscow suburb, where he lived alone on a state pension, but his death was only reported on Monday. No cause of death has been announced. He is survived by a son and a daughter.
CLOSE The former Soviet military officer credited with preventing a possible nuclear disaster during the Cold War has died at age 77. Time
Stanislav Petrov at his home in Fryazino, Russia, on Aug. 27, 2015. (Photo: Pavel Golovkin, AP)
A Soviet soldier credited with saving the world from nuclear holocaust has died at age 77.
Stanislav Petrov was the duty officer monitoring an early warning system from a bunker outside Moscow on Sept. 26, 1983, when the radar screen suddenly appeared to depict a missile inbound from the United States.
“All my subordinates were confused, so I started shouting orders at them to avoid panic," Petrov told the Russian news agency RT in 2010. "I knew my decision would have a lot of consequences."
The alert siren wailed. A message on the bunker's main screen reported that four more missiles had been launched, he said. Petrov had 15 minutes to determine whether the threat was real and report to his commanders.
“My cozy armchair felt like a red-hot frying pan and my legs went limp," he told RT. "I felt like I couldn't even stand up. That's how nervous I was."
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The incident occurred at a time of high tension between the countries. Less than a month earlier, the Russian military had shot down a Korean Air Lines flight that had deviated from its flight plan and flown over Russian airspace. The Berlin Wall would not come down for six more years.
Petrov, thinking that any U.S. attack should have involved even more missiles to limit the chance of Soviet retaliation, told his Kremlin bosses the alert must have been caused by a malfunction. He persuaded Moscow not to shoot back.
It was later determined that Russian satellites must have mistaken sunlight reflecting off clouds for nuclear missiles.
Petrov's reward? He was chastised for failing to provide proper paperwork, he said.
“My superiors were getting the blame and they did not want to recognize that anyone did any good, but instead chose to spread the blame," Petrov said.
The incident remained classified for 15 years, before a Kremlin colonel publicly discussed the incident. A German magazine picked up the story, and Petrov became a minor media star.
In 2013, Petrov was awarded the Dresden Peace Prize. In 2014, Kevin Costner starred in a drama-documentary The Man Who Saved the World, detailing Petrov's story.
A German activist who helped globalize the news of Petrov's deed called him this month to wish him a happy birthday — and was in informed by Petrov's familly that the nuclear hero had died in May amid little fanfare at his home in a small town near Moscow. It was a fitting end to a man who always had spoken modestly about his role in history.
“At first when people started telling me that these TV reports had started calling me a hero, I was surprised," he told RT in 2010. "I never thought of myself as one. After all, I was literally just doing my job."
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The alarm sounded during one of the tensest periods in the Cold War. Three weeks earlier, the Soviets had shot down a Korean Air Lines commercial flight after it crossed into Soviet airspace, killing all 269 people on board, including a congressman from Georgia. President Ronald Reagan had rejected calls for freezing the arms race, declaring the Soviet Union an “evil empire.” The Soviet leader, Yuri V. Andropov, was obsessed by fears of an American attack.
Colonel Petrov was at a pivotal point in the decision-making chain. His superiors at the warning-system headquarters reported to the general staff of the Soviet military, which would consult with Mr. Andropov on launching a retaliatory attack.
After five nerve-racking minutes — electronic maps and screens were flashing as he held a phone in one hand and an intercom in the other, trying to absorb streams of incoming information — Colonel Petrov decided that the launch reports were probably a false alarm.
As he later explained, it was a gut decision, at best a “50-50” guess, based on his distrust of the early-warning system and the relative paucity of missiles that were launched.
Colonel Petrov died at 77 on May 19 in Fryazino, a Moscow suburb, where he lived alone on a pension. The death was not widely reported at the time. It was confirmed by his son, Dmitri, according to Karl Schumacher, a political activist who, after learning in 1998 of Colonel Petrov’s Cold War role, traveled to Russia to meet him and remained a friend. The cause was hypostatic pneumonia.
One night in 1983, a screen in a Soviet bunker began flashing red: nuclear attack or false alarm? One man had to decide. Colin Freeman tells his story
NB. This piece on Lieutenant Colonel Stanislav Petrov originally ran in 2015, and has been republished following his death at the age of 77
Kevin Costner has done it, as has Robert De Niro and a delegation at the UN. But should you too feel like thanking the Man Who Saved the World in person, beware: it can be a difficult task. First, travel to Moscow, and drive to a grimy village in the southern suburbs, where skinheads and drunks patrol the streets. Then, leaving nothing valuable in your car, head up the urine-stained stairwells of a crumbling,...
Stanislav Petrov, the retired officer of the Soviet Air Defense Forces whose death at the age of 77 was announced this week, did not enjoy discussing the day he averted a nuclear holocaust.
Maybe he was tired of giving interviews about the fateful cameo he played in the history of the Cold War. Or maybe he was just in a bad mood when he took a call from TIME one summer morning in 2015. But whatever the reason, the first mention of his heroism made him spit across the line from his home in a suburb of Moscow. “Chush!” he hissed into the phone in Russian. “Nonsense! I was just doing my job.”
That job was on the Soviet early-warning system codenamed Oko, or Eye, whose function was to detect the launch of an American nuclear attack. Its command center was inside a massive bunker beneath the secret city of Serpukhov-15, just south of Moscow. Having helped design and install the facility, Petrov was at the controls on the night of Sept. 26, 1983, when the sirens inside the bunker began to wail.
It was a tense moment in Cold War History. Over the Sea of Japan, a Soviet jet had mistakenly shot down a civilian airliner only three weeks earlier, killing all 269 people on board, among them a U.S. congressman and 61 other Americans. Six months before that, President Ronald Reagan had announced plans for a European missile defense system, which the Kremlin saw as a major threat to its nuclear arsenal. Yuri Andropov, the KGB chief who had become the leader of the Soviet Union the year before, was known for his paranoia about an American pre-emptive strike taking out his missile silos.
So both sides were on high alert when the Oko system’s satellites spotted the launch of an American ballistic missile, followed in quick succession by four others. “We built the system to rule out the possibility of false alarms,” Petrov told TIME in 2015. “And that day the satellites told us with the highest degree of certainty that these rockets were on the way.”
Stanislav Petrov, a former lieutenant colonel in the Soviet Air Defense Forces, photographed near his home in Moscow, Oct. 24, 2015. Alexander Gronsky for TIME
It was up to Petrov to confirm the incoming attack to the Soviet leaders, who would then launch a retaliatory strike while the U.S. missiles were still in the air. “I thought the chances were 50-50 that the warnings were real,” he recalls. “But I didn’t want to be the one responsible for starting a third world war.” So he told his commanders that the alarm was false. After a six-month investigation, Petrov and his colleagues discovered the reason for the mix-up: Soviet satellites had mistaken the sun’s reflection in some clouds for the start of an American missile salvo.
“Can you imagine? It was as though a child had been playing with a vanity mirror, throwing around the sun’s reflection,” he explained. “And by chance that blinding light landed right in the center of the system’s eye.” This discovery – and the seeming randomness of the events that brought the world so close to catastrophe – would shadow him for the rest of his life.
But on the day he spoke to TIME, he wanted to talk about the present, not the past. Relations between the U.S. and Russia at the time of that interview had grown almost as cold as they were when Petrov held the rank of Lieutenant Colonel in the 1980s. In the final years of his life, he said he saw the world tumbling again toward the type of nuclear standoffs that could kill millions of people in the span of an hour – not by design but by accident. “The slightest false move can lead to colossal consequences,” he told me. “That hasn’t changed.”
Since Petrov offered that warning, things only seem to have gotten worse. Both the U.S. and Russia are rapidly modernizing their nuclear weapons, building smaller, more mobile nukes whose launch could be easier to justify in a time of war. U.S. President Donald Trump has begun trading nuclear threats of “fire and fury” with the world’s newest nuclear power, North Korea. On the week that Petrov’s death became public, Russia began a series of military exercises that were expected to include a simulated nuclear attack.
The lesson he most wanted to get across in our conversation was not about the destructive power of nuclear weapons. It was the inevitability of human error and miscalculation in handling them, especially at a time when politicians begin to threaten war rather than talk about peace. “That’s when things can go terribly wrong,” he said. “One way or another, you still need a person to order a launch of one of these weapons, and a person can always make a mistake.” Thankfully, Petrov did not.
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Media playback is unsupported on your device Media caption Stanislav Petrov: ''I knew perfectly well that nobody would be able to correct my mistake if I had made one''
A former Soviet military officer credited with averting a possible nuclear disaster at the peak of the Cold War has died at the age of 77.
Stanislav Petrov was on duty at a Russian nuclear early warning centre in 1983 when computers wrongly detected incoming missiles from the US.
He took the decision that they were a false alarm and did not report them to his superiors.
His actions, which came to light years later, possibly prevented nuclear war.
Petrov died at his home in Moscow in May but his death has only now been made public.
In an interview with the BBC in 2013, Petrov told how he had received computer readouts in the early hours of the morning of 26 September 1983 suggesting several US missiles had been launched.
"I had all the data [to suggest there was an ongoing missile attack]. If I had sent my report up the chain of command, nobody would have said a word against it," he said.
"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. I felt like I was sitting on a hot frying pan."
Although his training dictated he should contact the Soviet military immediately, Petrov instead called the duty officer at army headquarters and reported a system malfunction.
Image copyright Getty Images Image caption The Soviet Union and the US had huge nuclear arsenals trained on each other during the Cold War
If he had been wrong, the first nuclear blasts would have happened minutes later.
"Twenty-three minutes later I realised that nothing had happened. If there had been a real strike, then I would already know about it. It was such a relief," he recalled.
A later investigation concluded that Soviet satellites had mistakenly identified sunlight reflecting on clouds as the engines of intercontinental ballistic missiles.
Petrov, who retired with the rank of lieutenant colonel, died on 19 May but news of his passing became widely known only this month, thanks to a chance phone call.
German film-maker Karl Schumacher, who first brought Petrov's story to an international audience, telephoned him to wish him a happy birthday on 7 September only to be informed by his son, Dmitry Petrov, that he had passed away.
Mr Schumacher announced the death online and it was eventually picked up by media outlets.
Obit Stanislav Petrov, one of the unsung heroes of the Cold War without whose guts and intelligence you wouldn't be reading this, has died at the age of 77, his son has confirmed.
Petrov was a former Lieutenant Colonel in the Soviet Air Defence Forces and was duty commander for the USSR rocket forces on September 26, 1983. His job was to monitor the satellites watching for launches from American ICBM forces. On that day first one, then four more launches were detected.
"An alarm at the command and control post went off with red lights blinking on the terminal. It was a nasty shock," Petrov told Moscow News in 2004.
"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."
You have to remember that, at the time, the world was in a state of paranoia that makes today's shenanigans with North Korea look like very small beer. In the US, Reagan was publicly calling the USSR the "evil empire" and Russia – a nation armed with tens of thousands of nukes and the rocket technology to deliver them – was convinced he was seriously considering nuclear war.
Can North Korean nukes hit US mainland? Maybe. But EMP blast threat is 'highly credible' READ MORE
On the Soviet side, the communist state was so paranoid that earlier that month it had shot down a Korean passenger jet that had accidentally wandered into Soviet airspace, killing all 269 passengers and crew, including a serving US congressman. That tragedy led to Reagan opening up the military GPS system for commercial traffic.
As a result of the Korean incident, Soviet forces were on alert. Petrov was on duty at his station in a bunker outside Moscow running the Oko early warning system of geostationary satellites that had been looking out for the flash of an ICBM launch since the system went live the previous year.
Petrov's job wasn't to push the metaphorical red button, but to warn Soviet high command if it might need to. If an ICBM was launched from a US ground launch site, it would take about 30 minutes to reach the motherland, and it was highly likely that Soviet commanders would trust his launch recommendation.
Has this thing passed QA tests?
But Petrov knew that the Oko system was new and still had bugs to iron out. He also knew that logically the US would never launch just five missiles against the USSR and await retaliation – first strike doctrine was that you threw everything you could at the enemy in hopes of blunting the response.
So Petrov held back from letting his superiors know until he could correlate Oko's data against other sources. As a result it was found that, due to faults in the system, what Oko had been detecting were flashes of sunshine on the tops of heavy clouds.
While initially Petrov was praised for his perspicacity, that didn't last. Before long top brass acted against him, demoting the officer for a paperwork error. He got the message and retired a year later to become a military contractor.
"If I was to be decorated for that incident, someone would have had to take the rap – above all, those who had developed the ballistic missile early warning system, including our renowned academicians who had received billions and billions in funding. So I should be thankful not to have been thrown the book at for that log," he said.
Petrov's story wasn't known until 1997 after a Russian general revealed the incident in his memoirs. Petrov finally got the recognition he deserved, won multiple humanitarian awards, and in 2014 a film was made about his exploits.
But Petrov himself wasn't keen on all the attention. "I'm not a hero," he said. "I was in the right place at the right time."
The right time for all of us. A 1979 US government study [PDF] into the effects of a nuclear exchange estimated that 40 to 60 per cent of the world population would have been dead within 30 days, and the casualty rate could have been 90 per cent in the decade following a war. There would have been no internet, probably no power and – as this hack was living next to a target – no one writing this. ®
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Petrov told his commander that the system was giving false information. He was not at all certain, but he was driven by the fact that Soviet ground radar could not confirm a launch. The radar system picked up incoming missiles only well after any launch, but he knew it to be more reliable than the satellites.
OVER the years, Stanislav Petrov got used to those telephone calls. Typically they would come at night or at the weekend, just as he was unwinding. He would lift the receiver to hear the jaunty strains of “Arise, our mighty country!” in his ear, and know that he had to get dressed, now, and get to the the base. It was a pain. But in the nervy 1970s and 1980s, when an American attack on the Soviet Union might happen at any time, an alert might be a practice, or might be the real thing. Either way, the motherland had to be defended.
“The base” was the secret Serpukhov-15 early-warning facility, near Moscow. He had worked there—since graduation, with top honours, from the Radio-Technical College in Kiev—monitoring surveillance by Oko satellites of the missile launch areas of the United States. Its core was a room of 200 computer operators over which, when he was on duty, he would preside from a glassed-in mezzanine office. On one wall of the computer room, an electronic world map lit up the American launch areas: six of them, with a total of 1,000 missiles aimed at the USSR. Just above his eye level, a wall’s-width screen glowed a dull red. If nothing appeared on it, all was well.
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He worked regular command shifts as well as the alerts, twice a month, just to keep in training. Even his wife Raisa didn’t know what his work was. And, though this was combat duty, not much was doing: by 10pm, after supper and a smoke, they would await the late-night orbit, all quiet.
September 26th 1983 was different. At half past midnight, the red screen flashed “START”. A missile was coming. The siren howled. In the room below, people leapt from their seats. Everyone looked up at him. He had frozen. The message seemed odd: one missile would not mean the all-out attack they were expecting. But how did he know? Scared stiff, he roared at everyone to get back to work. When he managed to pick up the phone, he reported a fault in the system. But then it saw a second missile. A third, a fourth, a fifth: “probability of attack, 100%”. In ten minutes, ground radar could confirm it. But in 12 minutes the missiles, if they were coming, would hit Russia. High command needed 12 minutes to organise their response.
His hands shaking, he called his superiors again. Again he reported a malfunction, not a strike. The officer at the other end was drunk, but somehow passed it on. Mr Petrov then waited for 15 unbearable minutes. And nothing happened. There was indeed a fault in the system: the satellite had been fooled by the sun’s rays reflecting off clouds high over North Dakota, which had two launch areas. Every time he remembered that moment when his call proved right, his lean face would break into a smile of sheer relief.
His coolness had saved the world from nuclear apocalypse. Or so other people said. He knew that, at the time, he had not been cool. His chair had felt red-hot as a frying pan, his legs limp as cotton. Some of his doubts were logical: the newness of the system, and the too-swift passage of the message through the 30 layers of verification he had set up himself. Other doubts were vaguer: a funny gut feeling, and a sense that he knew better than a machine. Even so, his decision to declare a false alarm was a 50-50 guess, no better. Small wonder that, when it was over, he felt as wrung-out as Jesus on Golgotha.
The fact that he was basically a scientist, with a civilian training, also influenced him. Much as he had longed to be a fighter pilot like his father, a career soldier would probably have passed on the message without thinking. There were safeguards against going to war, or not, on the say-so of one man; other authorities had to be involved. But in such febrile times, one rooster crowing was likely to set off all the others in the village.
As for those military cockerels, they were horribly embarrassed by what he had done. So were all those renowned academicians who had spent billions devising the surveillance system. They did not thank him for showing them up, for it was an old rule in Russia that the subordinate must never be cleverer than the boss. Instead, they rapped him for failing to fill in the operations log that night. Come on, he thought. A few months later he left the army anyway to take a job as a research engineer and to care for Raisa, who had cancer. And so things went for several years. When she died, and money got tight, he mostly lived on potatoes and tea brewed from herbs he picked in the park.
Tea and potatoes
His story stayed secret until 1998. When it came out, he was feted in the West. He toured America, starred in a documentary, was commended at the UN and received the Dresden peace prize. Sometimes he enjoyed the fuss, but bitterness over his treatment at home would surface all the same. He was often tetchy with reporters who made their way to his small, grubby flat on 60th Anniversary of the USSR Street, i
A terrifying message was flashed across phones, televisions and radios this weekend in Hawaii – “BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL”.
Americans rushed for safety after the 8.10am message, as it took 40 minutes for authorities to confirm that this was a false alarm.
[Read more: Lack of safeguards highlighted by Hawaii fake missile alert]
The false incoming ballistic missile emergency alert (Caleb Jones/AP)
Defence agencies including the Pentagon and the US Pacific Command renounced the message, and the North American Aerospace Defence Command (Norad) also said it was trying to verify what happened.
Norad is a US-Canadian joint command that conducts aerospace warning, aerospace control and maritime warning to defend North America.
The mistake occurred due to an error in the user design of the system, reports the BBC, when an employee made the wrong selection from a drop-down computer menu. The employee picked the real, instead of the test option.
This particular false alarm was given a high profile on social media and through reaching the public. We look back at some of the other false alarms caused by technical malfunctions.
November 9, 1979 – the 3am wake up call
(Former US President Jimmy Carter and former USSR leader Leonid Brezhnev)
In the newly released documents from the National Security Archive, they reveal how the testing of overworked computer systems led to the belief that a Soviet attack was under way.
While his wife slumbered blissfully unaware next to him, US national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski received a phone call at 3am saying that 250 Soviet missiles were en route to the United States.
However, when Brzezinkski asked for the information to be checked and found it was a false alarm, he did not make the call to President Jimmy Carter.
The seriousness of the error led to a secret message being sent to President Carter from the USSR party leader Leonid Brezhnev who said reminding him of what “tremendous danger” false warnings are.
“I think you will agree that there should be no errors in such matters. They must be completely excluded – not 99, but all 100 per cent.”
[Read more: Carter national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski dies]
June 1980 - The failure of the 46-cent computer chip
Just six months later, with Cold War tensions still running high, two more false alerts were generated by the American warning system. On June 3 and then June 6 1980, a computer made typographical errors in the routine messages it sent out, revealed a secret fact sheet released by the archives.
Instead of saying '000' missiles had been launched, it said 002 missiles, and then 200, were on their way. The error was put down to “technical problems in the computer system”.
Precautionary measures were taken, but “human safeguards” recognised it as a false alarm as other data contradicted the message. The Pentagon attributed the error to a failed micro-electronic integrated circuit - which cost 46 cents - and "faulty message design".
“The duty officers at the command centers [sic] immediately recognized and within two or three minutes confirmed that the computer-generated data were false.”
Unsurprisingly, following these incidents, Norad was instructed to use a different computer.
September 1983 – Sunlight in Montana creates panic
Lt. Colonel Stanislav Petrov made a huge decision in the early morning of September 26, 1983.
The 44-year-old was on duty at the Soviet military’s early warning facility near Moscow when an alarm went off, signalling the launch of US intercontinental ballistic missiles.
However, Petrov decided that the warning systems telling him that missiles had been launched, were actually wrong.
Petrov told the BBC’s Russian Service that he decided that the five missiles heading towards the USSR were a false alarm, and reported it as a system malfunction.
Known as the “the man who saved the world” he passed away in September 2017.
[Read more: AI cracks ‘unbreakable’ Enigma code in just 13 minutes]
During the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union were highly paranoid and both countries invested in building nuclear weaponry. While neither side wanted an actual war to break out, they prepared just in case. In such a state of paranoia, in 1983, believing that a spy plane had crossed over their airbase, the Soviets shot down a Korean Air commercial flight. All 269 people on board were killed, including a congressman from Georgia, after which President Ronald Reagan declared the Soviet Union an “evil empire.”
But things were just as complicated on the other side. It is difficult to determine a wrongful side in the Cold War and justify the other, as both countries were equally responsible. And both leaders, Yuri V. Andropov and Ronald Reagan, equally paranoid. The unfortunate thing is that paranoia spread like a virus among people, including officials set in position to observe the sky, the sea, and the land for any abnormal behavior, i.e., possible attack from the enemy. And that time almost came in Russia. But Stanislav Petrov saved the day. And his country. And the world, for that matter.
Petrov was a lieutenant colonel in the Soviet air defense force. In 1983, he was working on “Oko,” or Eye, the code-name of the Soviet early-warning system for detecting the launch of nuclear attack by the Americans, in the secret city of Serpukhov-15. The system’s command center was located underneath the city in a massive bunker which Petrov helped design. On the night of September 26, he was the duty officer monitoring the controls when the alarms went off and all the computers in the bunker signaled that five Minuteman intercontinental ballistic missiles had been launched from an American base, and a few seconds later, four more missiles were detected.
Petrov’s duty was to report the incident to his superiors, who would transfer the message to the general staff of the military and they would consult with Yuri Andropov about a counterattack. There were only 25 minutes between the launch and the detonation of the missiles, and Petrov was paralyzed. In a 2013 interview with the BBC, he said: “There was no rule about how long we were allowed to think before we reported a strike.
But we knew that every second of procrastination took away valuable time, which 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. I felt as if I was sitting in a hot frying pan.”
However, Petrov decided to report the alert as a computer malfunction. He told the Washington Post in 1999: “I had a funny feeling in my gut, I didn’t want to make a mistake. I made a decision, and that was it.” Nobody would like even to imagine how the world would have been today if Petrov didn’t act on his intuition, which proved to be correct. Apparently, it was the sun’s reflection off the tops of high-altitude clouds that the satellite mistook for a missile launch. Petrov saved his country from a highly destructive war that would have been fought with nuclear weapons. Hence, he saved the world from that scenario.
The first one to hear about Petrov’s decision to call the alarm a malfunction was Yury Votintsev, then-commander of the Soviet Air Defense’s Missile Defense Units. Votintsev praised Petrov for his “correct actions” and promised him a reward, but instead, Petrov was reprimanded due to improper filing of paperwork–he didn’t describe the incident in the war diary. A year later, in 1984, Petrov retired from the military and started working as a senior engineer at the research institute which created the warning system.
His role in the 1983 Soviet nuclear false alarm incident was mentioned nowhere until 1998, when Colonel General Votintsev, in retirement at the time, mentioned Petrov in his memoirs. It was then that the world recognized Stanislav Petrov as “the man who saved the world from possible nuclear war.”
Read another story from us: The Kyshtym Disaster of 1957: The largest nuclear disaster we’ve never heard of
In 2006, Petrov received an award from the Association of World Citizens, and in 2013 he won the Dresden Peace Prize. In 2014, he was the subject of the documentary-drama The Man Who Saved the World by director Peter Anthony. Petrov died in May 2017, at the age of 77, but his death was not widely reported until September 2017. Besides all the recognition and awards, Petrov believed that all he did that one night in 1983 was simply doing his job.
Meet the man who single-handedly stopped a nuclear war
…And saved 4,590,774,355 lives
Joan Westenberg 🌈 Blocked Unblock Follow Following Mar 23, 2018
One of the most important people to have ever lived passed away last year.
There wasn’t a mass outpouring of grief, the way there was for Stephen Hawking. Folks didn’t write a lot of poetry or draw a lot of heart felt editorial cartoons.
Stanislav Petrov wasn’t really that kind of a hero. But he should have been.
Because he saved an entire fucking planet.
In 1983, while the acting commander of a nuclear early-warning system, Petrov saw that his devices were showing the United States had launched a nuclear missile attack on Russia.
And in the moment where it was his job to pass on that warning so that Russia could launch a retaliatory strike, Petrov decided that the system had produced an error. And he believed that. And he believed the United States was not attacking.
Petrov prevented Russia from launching an erroneous missile strike that would have set off world war 3. He saved the planet from nuclear fucking destruction. He’s a goddamn hero. He put his faith in humanity before his sense of revenge, or his job or anything else, and trusted that he was doing the right thing.
And that’s the key, isn’t it?
In a world where morals are so often required to be flexible, where people give us orders and we have a brief opportunity to refuse them, where want to do something shitty to another human in order to win, when we could stand up and say that we will not be counted with the complicit, how often do we back down?
How often do we take the right path?
I’m not talking about any of us being in Petrov’s position. I’m not talking about any of us having to make a call that would or wouldn’t start a cataclysmic event. But what about when we’re working in a company like Facebook? And the employees there knew that what the company was doing was wrong? Why didn’t they speak out?
What about if someone were sexually harassed at your company. Would you speak out? What would you put on the line?
What would I put on the line? When it came down to it, would I be like Petrov, or would I back the fuck down and do what’s expected, and take the easy route? I like to think I’d rise to the challenge. But I don’t know, because I haven’t really been tested. Not yet.
I want you to remember that name. I want you to remember the name of Stanislav Petrov. I want you to fear that name, for what it says about your own, if you ever find yourself in a situation where you were challenged to stand up, and you didn’t. I want you think about him, and think about his choice, every day of your life.
Because in 1983, there were 4,590,774,355 people on this planet. And Stanislav Petrov saved their lives.
On September 26, 1983, the planet came terrifyingly close to a nuclear holocaust.
The Soviet Union’s missile attack early warning system displayed, in large red letters, the word “LAUNCH”; a computer screen stated to the officer on duty, Soviet Lt. Col. Stanislav Petrov, that it could say with “high reliability” that an American intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) had been launched and was headed toward the Soviet Union. First, it was just one missile, but then another, and another, until the system reported that a total of five Minuteman ICBMs had been launched.
“Petrov had to make a decision: Would he report an incoming American strike?” my colleague Max Fisher explained. “If he did, Soviet nuclear doctrine called for a full nuclear retaliation; there would be no time to double-check the warning system, much less seek negotiations with the US.”
Reporting it would have made a certain degree of sense. The Reagan administration had a far more hardline stance against the Soviets than the Carter, Ford, or Nixon administrations before it. Months earlier President Reagan had announced the Strategic Defense Initiative (mockingly dubbed “Star Wars,” a plan to shoot down ballistic missiles before they reached the US), and his administration was in the process of deploying Pershing II nuclear-armed missiles to West Germany and Great Britain, which were capable of striking the Soviet Union. There were reasons for Petrov to think Reagan’s brinkmanship had escalated to an actual nuclear exchange.
But Petrov did not report the incoming strike. He and others on his staff concluded that what they were seeing was a false alarm. And it was; the system mistook the sun’s reflection off clouds for a missile. Petrov prevented a nuclear war between the Soviets, who had 35,804 nuclear warheads in 1983, and the US, which had 23,305.
A 1979 report by Congress’s Office of Technology Assessment estimated that a full-scale Soviet assault on the US would kill 35 to 77 percent of the US population — or between 82 million and 180 million people in 1983. The inevitable US counterstrike would kill 20 to 40 percent of the Soviet population, or between 54 million and 108 million people. The combined death toll there (between 136 million and 288 million) swamps the death toll of any war, genocide, or other violent catastrophe in human history. Proportional to world population, it would be rivaled only by the An Lushan rebellion in eighth-century China and the Mongol conquests of the 13th century.
And it’s likely hundreds of millions more would have died once the conflict disrupted global temperatures and severely hampered agriculture. International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War put the potential death toll from starvation at about 2 billion.
Petrov, almost single-handedly, prevented those deaths.
Preventing the deaths of hundreds of millions, if not billions, of people was a costly decision for Petrov. If he had been wrong, and he somehow survived the American nuclear strike, he likely would’ve been executed for treason. Even though he was right, he was, according to the Washington Post’s David Hoffman, “relentlessly interrogated afterward [and] never rewarded for his decision.”
After the Cold War, Petrov would receive a number of commendations for saving the world. He was honored at the United Nations, received the Dresden Peace Prize, and was profiled in the documentary The Man Who Saved the World. “I was just at the right place at the right time,” he told the filmmakers. He died in May 2017, at the age of 77. Two new books about the Petrov incident and other nuclear close calls in 1983 (related to the NATO exercise Able Archer) came out just this year: Taylor Downing’s 1983 and Marc Ambinder’s The Brink.
And for Petrov Day, 2018, the Future of Life Institute gave a $50,000 prize to Petrov’s daughter, Elena.Her brother, Petrov’s son Dmitry, missed the ceremony because of visa delays. “That a guy can’t get a visa to visit the city his dad saved from nuclear annihilation is emblematic of how frosty US-Russian relations have gotten, which increases the risk of accidental nuclear war,” Max Tegmark, an MIT professor and cofounder of the Future of Life Institute, commented in a statement.
Petrov isn’t the only man who’s prevented nuclear war
Petrov was not the only Russian official who’s saved the world. On October 27, 1962, Vasili Arkhipov, a Soviet navy officer, was in a nuclear submarine near Cuba when US naval forces started dropping depth charges (a kind of explosive targeting submarines) on him. Two senior officers on the submarine thought that a nuclear war could’ve already begun and wanted to launch a nuclear torpedo at a US vessel. But all three senior officers had to agree for the missile to fire, and Arkhipov dissented, preventing a nuclear exchange and potentially preventing the end of the world.
Even more recently, on January 25, 1995, Russian early warning radars suggested that an American first strike was incom
Legend has it that on September 26, 1983, in a nuclear command and control center outside of Moscow, Lt. Col. Stanislav Petrov detected five US nuclear warheads headed right for him but stood down from calling for a massive Soviet retaliation, thereby saving the world from nuclear annihilation at the height of the Cold War.
The blips on Petrov's radar turned out to be a false alarm, something he supposedly instinctively knew so well he disobeyed protocol and backed off.
But like all legends, even semi-recent nuclear ones, the story may have outgrown the truth, thanks in part to shadowy and opaque Soviet and Russian nuclear launch procedures.
Pavel Podvig, director of the Russian Nuclear Forces Project and one of the world's top experts on Russia's nukes, told Business Insider that Petrov did a brave thing, but it's entirely unclear if he really prevented a nuclear war.
According to Podvig, Petrov worked in the space-based segment of Russia's early warning system for nuclear attacks, one of several layers in Russia's nuclear chain of command.
"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 BBC's Russian Service before his death in September, 2017. "All I had to do was to reach for the phone; to raise the direct line to our top commanders."
"Twenty-three minutes later I realized that nothing had happened. If there had been a real strike, then I would already know about it. It was such a relief," he said.
But according to Podvig, even if Petrov rang his commanders, Soviet bombs still probably wouldn't have flown.
"The Soviet procedure for this kind of thing was not to launch on warning," Podvig told Business Insider. "The procedure was to basically wait and see."
"The worst-case scenario, if this thing would not have been recognized as a false alarm, the alert would have went up the chain and triggered some action," said Podvig. "That action would have been sending a preliminary command to the nuclear forces so they would be ready to act, but not act yet."
Because the stakes of nuclear war are so tremendously high, and a false alarm can never be totally ruled out until a nuclear detonation takes place, even Soviets at the height of Cold War paranoia would have known to wait and see, Podvig explained.
Plus, Petrov's radar only showed five incoming nuclear missiles. In 1983, the US had more than 20,000 nuclear weapons at hand. Across the Soviet Union, hundreds of nuclear missile sites would each need a direct hit from the US to disable a response.
Sending just five missiles at Moscow would be just enough to level the city and get most of the US killed in response in basically a nonsensical attack.
"Nobody attacks anyone with five missiles," Podvig said.
"When people say 'Oh, it was just one man, everything was about to fly and he just made this assessment and everything stopped,' that's not what happened," he added.
"He did the kind of thing he did and that was the right thing for him to do. He definitely deserves credit for doing that. But we don't know what would have happened."
As the US and Russia again enter nuclear tensions and a possible arms race, it's important to remember that humanity, common sense, and a will to see the world live on inhabits servicemembers on both sides, rather than just the odd Soviet officer finding himself in the right place at the right time.
If things had gone just slightly differently on a tense night in 1983, today would be the 35th anniversary of the start of of World War III, for whoever was left alive to observe such an occasion. 6:00 Eastern Time on September 25, 2018 marks the moment when one man's decision saved the world from nuclear war.
At just after midnight in Moscow, on September 26, 1983, a siren's wail split the air in the Serpukhov-5 nuclear early-warning facility, a secret bunker just south of Moscow. The red screen across the room from Lt. Colonel Stanislav Petrov's glass-walled office, usually blank, flashed a single ominous word: START. The computer system responsible for processing data from the Soviet Union's Oko launch-detection satellites warned that the United States had just launched a single intercontinental ballistic missile at the Soviet Union. It would strike in 12 minutes.
Petrov picked up the phone in one shaking hand and called his superiors in the Soviet Air Defense Forces. False alarm, he told them. It didn't make sense for the U.S. to have launched a single missile; the reading had to be a bug in the new early warning computer system, which Petrov the software engineer didn't yet completely trust. He had just set the phone back on its cradle when the system flashed a second warning, then three more. Five nuclear missiles were, according to the satellites and their computer system, flying on high ballistic arcs toward the Soviet Union. The computer system calculated the probability of attack at 100%.
"I had a funny feeling in my gut," Petrov later told a reporter from the Washington Post. If the launch was real, every second would count. Petrov's duty was to pass the warning up the chain of command, providing information to the people with the authority to launch a return salvo before the U.S. missiles could destroy the Soviet Union's ability to strike back.
But he hesitated. He knew the computer system had been pushed into service too quickly for proper testing, and he didn't consider it reliable. Ground radar, which should have picked up the incoming missiles as soon as they crossed the horizon, remained silent and empty a few minutes after the supposed launch. And five missiles, out of the roughly 1,000 in the U.S. inventory, all aimed at Soviet targets, seemed like too few to be a real first strike -- when war came, Soviet officers had been taught, the first strike would be massive an overwhelming, because neither power was likely to get the chance to make a second.
With the siren still wailing and the alert still flashing on the screen, Petrov picked up the phone and called his superiors to report a second false alarm. But even in that moment, he wasn't sure.
"The thought crossed my mind that maybe someone had really launched a strike against us," he told a BBC reporter years later. It took an excruciating 15 minutes of waiting before he could be sure. In the end, nothing happened. The world had come within a hair's breadth of nuclear war, and no one outside Petrov's chain of command even knew about it until 1998.
Petrov had been right to distrust the new computer system, it turned out. In a chance alignment of the satellites' orbits with the reflection of sunlight off high-altitude clouds over North Dakota, the system had misread the resulting glare as the gleam of incoming missiles. To address the problem, the system added an automatic cross-reference against data from geostationary satellites, which would be looking down from a different angle.
And Petrov, who had taken a tremendous risk and helped save millions of lives, wasn't immediately rewarded or punished. He was quietly reassigned to other duties, and retired early from the Soviet Army in 1984; he lost his wife to cancer a few years later. Petrov's bold decision to trust his gut won him international acclaim once the story became public in 1998, but despite making several tours abroad and doing countless media interviews, Petrov lived on a meager pension in a small flat in Moscow until his death in 2017.
It was the moment Stanislav Petrov had been dreading since childhood, and preparing for much of his adult life.
After decades of Cold War tension, the early warning satellites had been triggered. The Americans had launched their nuclear missiles at the Soviet Union.
As the duty officer in the Soviet Air Defence in the command centre bunker outside Moscow, it was Lt Col Petrov's job to call his superiors and warn of an impending nuclear strike.
Based on his word, the Soviet forces would reply with tens of thousands of nuclear missiles targeting the US and its allies. If it did not end human life on this planet, it would change it irrevocably.
But, based on nothing more than gut instinct, Lt Col Petrov, then 44, did not make the call.
And, 35 years ago today, an unheralded Armageddon was averted.
The world would not know for years how close it came to destruction.
It was the day in 1983 Australia II won the America's Cup. The nation's attention could not have been further away.
"Launching the amount of nukes ready at the time would have severely impacted the way humans live on earth," the University of Sydney's US Studies Centre research fellow Brendan Thomas-Noone told nine.com.au.
"Would some humans survive? Yes. We've all seen Mad Max."
A false alarm
Lt Col Petrov knew it was a race against time if US missiles were rocketing towards the Soviet Union.
"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," he told the BBC.
"I felt as if I was sitting on a hot frying pan."
But he had a feeling that things weren't right.
His misgivings proved fortituous for the entire planet. The early-warning satellites had made the most banal of errors.
What appeared to be missiles being launched en masse was merely an illusion caused by sunlight reflecting off the top of clouds. That error could have destroyed the planet, were it not for Lt Col Petrov's caution.
Technology has improved dramatically since then, but another error like that could still take place, according to nuclear disarmament campaigner John Hallam.
"It could all still happen," Mr Hallam told nine.com.au.
"The hands of the Doomsday Clock in 1983, stood at three minutes to midnight, midnight being the end of civilisation. The hands of the Doomsday clock now stand at two minutes to midnight."
"This means that the room full of Nobel prize winners who move the hands of the doomsday clock think that the chances of nuclear war that could end civilisation right now, are worse than in 1983, a year in which the world nearly ended not just once, but twice, within a six-week period."
Mr Hallam said the difference in 1983 was that people were protesting against nuclear weapons in their hundreds and thousands, something which wasn't taking place today.
"Sydney had a number of peace marches that numbered in the hundreds of thousands," he said.
"Washington had one that numbered a million. The possibility of global annihilation was then the number one issue. Why is it not the number one issue right now?"
Mr Hallam, who campaigns at the UN for nuclear disarmament, warned that "moving the deckchairs" in Canberra, was nowhere near as important as the potential end of civilisation and said the world's leaders needed to push for the abolition of nuclear disarmament now more than ever.
"There is an urgent need for measures that would 'take the apocalypse off the agenda'," he said.
"Adopting strategies of 'No First Use' (NFU) and lowering the operational readiness of nuclear weapon systems so that Presidents and senior military do not have minutes and seconds to take decisions that might mean the end of the world are obvious ones."
A humble end
Lt Col Petrov's actions on September 26, 1983, has seen today marked as annual International Day for the Total Elimination of Nuclear Weapons.
His actions may be remembered forever, but Lt Col Petrov was not given the celebrity status that stopping the end of the world might warrant.
He was reprimanded by his superiors for not keeping the logbook accurate the night of the false alarm.
He retired from the military the following year, scraping by on a pension in his final days.
© Nine Digital Pty Ltd 2019
A FORMER Soviet colonel credited with averting all-out nuclear war between Russia and the United States has been honoured 35 years after his heroic act.
Stanislav Petrov was working as an officer at a secret command base in Moscow in 1983 when he dismissed an incoming missile warning as a false alarm.
EPA 5 Petrov, who died last May, decided not to act when he heard an alarm which indicated the US had fired ballistic missiles
The investigation which followed proved he was right and Petrov, who died aged 77 last year, has since been hailed as the "man who saved the world".
Had he told his superiors, the Soviet leadership which was locked in an arms race with Washington may have ordered a retaliatory strike.
At a ceremony at the Museum of Mathematics in New York, former United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon paid tribute to Petrov.
He said: "It is hard to imagine anything more devastating for humanity than all-out nuclear war between Russia and the United States.
Nikolai Ignatiev / Alamy 5 Petrov was working as an officer at a command base in Moscow when he dismissed an incoming missile warning as a false alarm
"Yet this might have occurred by accident on September 26 1983, were it not for the wise decisions of Stanislav Yevgrafovich Petrov.
"For this, he deserves humanity’s profound gratitude. Let us resolve to work together to realise a world free from fear of nuclear weapons."
Last year’s Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, Beatrice Fihn, also praised Petrov, as the Bulletin reported.
She said: "Stanislav Petrov was faced with a choice that no person should have to make, and at that moment he chose the human race - to save all of us.
Getty - Contributor 5 If Petrov has alerted his superiors, the Soviet Union would have launched its own nuke-carrying missiles
"Thirty-five years from that day when Stanislav Petrov chose us over nuclear weapons, nine states still hold the world hostage with 15,000 nuclear weapons.
"We cannot continue relying on luck and heroes to safeguard humanity."
Petrov kept his courageous decision secret for eight years and it only came to light in 1991 when the Soviet Union collapsed and the Cold War ended.
Yet the famously modest former soldier lived in a small town outside Moscow and died in relative obscurity on May 19, 2017.
Petrov was in a Moscow command centre went off signalling that the US had launched nuke-carrying intercontinental ballistic missiles.
The officer - who had only a few minutes to make a decision and was not sure about the incoming data - dismissed the warning as a false alarm.
Alamy 5 His death only made headlines months later when a German friend wrote a blog post in tribute to him
The 44-year-old lieutenant colonel reported a system malfunction and an investigation that followed afterwards proved he was right.
Petrov came home only several days later but did not tell his wife or family about what had happened.
Several months later Petrov received an award "for services to the Fatherland" but the incident at the control centre was kept secret for many years.
In 1984, he left the military and settled in the town of Fryazino around 12 miles northeast of Moscow.
Petrov's story only came to light after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 and over the years he became the subject of numerous media reports in Russia and abroad.
A self-effacing man, Petrov never thought of himself as a hero, according to his son.
DPA/Press Association Images 5 The former colonel did not consider himself a hero and instead said he did not want to be responsible for World War 3
"My father could not have cared less. He was always surprised that people were making a hero out of him," he said.
"He simply did his job well," said Petrov's son, adding that his father received hundreds of letters from Europeans thanking him for averting the outbreak of a nuclear war.
"The Man Who Saved the World", a documentary film directed by Danish filmmaker Peter Anthony and narrated by US actor Kevin Costner, was released in 2014.
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Footage of the elderly Petrov is combined with re-enactments of what happened at that secret control centre in 1983.
"I categorically refused to be guilty of starting World War III," Petrov said in the film.
"I felt like I was being led to an execution," he said of those dramatic moments.
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A Soviet officer credited with preventing nuclear Armageddon 35 years ago has been posthumously awarded for 'saving the world'.
The actions of Stanislav Petrov in 1983 likely averted an all-out nuclear war between the United States and Russia.
Petrov was monitoring radar in Moscow when it showed that America had launched nuclear bombs at Russia, but as Petrov correctly suspected the attack to be false, he decided not to retaliate.
Stanislav Petrov, who died in May last year aged 77, was honoured with the Future of Life Award to 'celebrate that today is not the 35th anniversary of WWIII'
This week, Petrov was honored with the Future of Life Award at the Museum of Mathematics in New York, to 'celebrate that today is not the 35th anniversary of World War III'.
His daughter Elena, who only learned about her late father's heroism more than 15 years later, in 1998, accepted the $50,000 award on his behalf.
Former UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon said: 'It is hard to imagine anything more devastating for humanity than all-out nuclear war between Russia and the United States.
'Yet this might have occurred by accident on September 26 1983, were it not for the wise decisions of Stanislav Yevgrafovich Petrov.
'For this, he deserves humanity's profound gratitude. Let us resolve to work together to realize a world free from fear of nuclear weapons, remembering the courageous judgement of Stanislav Petrov.'
Stanislav Petrov, a former Soviet lieutenant colonel credited with averting a nuclear Armageddon during the Cold War, passed away aged 77 in May 2017
Petrov was in charge of monitoring Russian radar on the night of September 26, 1983, when it showed America had launched five nukes - calling for an immediate response (file image)
Petrov's actions and the nuclear near-miss went completely unacknowledged until military documents were declassified in 1998, bringing his heroism to light.
Even his wife, who died in 1997, was unaware that her husband had helped to avoid what almost certainly would have escalated into World War Three.
Speaking about the night in question - September 26, 1983 - the former lieutenant colonel told the Associated Press that the decision was '50/50'.
He said he witnessed growing panic among his subordinates as warning sirens went off and how his 'legs went limp'.
From the moment the first alarm sounded, Petrov had just 15 minutes to decide whether or not to report the launch, and Russia had 30 minutes to decide whether or not to respond.
Russia was genuinely fearful of a surprise attack by America at the time, after its military shot down a passenger plane flying to South Korea from the U.S., suspecting it of spying.
The United States, after a series of provocative military maneuvers, was preparing for a major NATO exercise, called Able Archer, which simulated preparations for a nuclear attack.
But Petrov (pictured in 2013 collecting the Dresden Prize) correctly identified the reading as a fake, and it was later confirmed to be nothing more than sunlight reflecting off some clouds
Had Petrov reported the warning as genuine, it could have prompted his commanders to launch retaliatory strikes against America - leading to World War Three (file image)
But figuring that America would have launched far more than five missiles in the case of an actual attack, Petrov reported that the alarm was a dud.
His decision was backed by more-reliable ground radar systems, which had failed to detect anything, but he recalled being far from certain when he made his report.
It turned out that his assumptions were correct, but rather than being rewarded, his actions were covered up by superiors, likely embarrassed by the failure of their early warning systems.
Accolades would only come years later after blogger Karl Schumacher convinced Petrov to travel to Germany with him, where his story could be told.
In the next several years Petrov was honored with an award from the Association of World Citizens which said: 'To the man who averted nuclear war.'
Petrov was later given the German Media Prize, previously handed to Mandela and the Dalai Lama, and the Dresden Peace Prize, which is awarded for avoiding conflict.
Perhaps fittingly for a man whose greatest accomplishment went unnoticed for decades, Petrov passed away quietly May, 2017 in a small town near Moscow.
His death only became known to the wider world several months later, when Schumacher called on September 7 to wish him a happy birthday, and was told he had died.
He wouldn’t become the Left’s new man. Neither should we.
Thirty-five years ago, just after midnight on the morning of September 26, a midranking officer in the Soviet Army single-handedly saved both his country and ours. Now that the American public has emerged from the trial (pardon me, the “job interview”) of the century, it would be nice to mark the anniversary.
The setting on that terrifying night in 1983 was Serpukhov-15, a military command center from which nervous Communists monitored satellites in anticipation of Western nuclear aggression. Though ridiculous from our perspective, Soviet concerns about an American first strike were not entirely unjustified. Four weeks earlier, the USSR had shot down Korean Air Lines Flight 007, a passenger jet carrying dozens of Americans and a United States congressman. President Reagan had responded with a milk-curdling speech (the phrase “inhuman brutality” couldn’t have pleased the Kremlin), and NATO had undertaken a military exercise — Able Archer — that had included a simulated nuclear launch.
In her extraordinary political biography of Margaret Thatcher (no timid Cold Warrior herself), NR contributor Claire Berlinski notes that nuke-laden Soviet fighters literally kept their engines running that fall. It was in that nerve-racking atmosphere that Lieutenant Colonel Stanislav Petrov faced what may well have been one of the most momentous decisions in human history. Ensconced in his bunker southwest of Moscow, Petrov was staring at his computer screen when satellite data revealed five approaching missiles — presumably nuclear, presumably American. Though his standing orders, as Berlinski relates them, were to “send this information up the chain of command and precipitate the launching of a massive nuclear counterstrike,” Petrov miraculously did nothing, understanding intuitively that what the radar showed “simply couldn’t be happening.” Petrov’s reading of the situation was, of course, correct — the false alarm was due to a combination of orbital angles and sunlight — but Moscow reacted with characteristic fury. “The Kremlin,” Berlinski writes, “rewarded Petrov for breaking his orders by demoting him and sending him into exile, where he suffered a nervous breakdown.”
Looked at a certain way, the story of the Cold War is the story of men who might have destroyed civilization but didn’t. “Our dream is to see the day when nuclear weapons will be banished from the face of the earth,” Ronald Reagan told Japan’s parliament not seven weeks after the Serpukhov incident. “You boys must be crazy,” Dwight Eisenhower chided the Joint Chiefs upon being advised to aid the French defense of Dien Bien Phu with nukes. Though both presidents were world-bestriding figures by any measure, the case can be made that Stanislav Petrov was a hero of a superior kind. Unlike Reagan and Eisenhower — leaders who took up defined roles with explicit power to shape events — Petrov was a minor cog in an impersonal machine. It isn’t only that he had no business being a good man. He wasn’t supposed to be a man at all.
Rather, Petrov was meant, like every victim of the long, wicked experiment through which he lived, to evolve — to transform himself from Homo sapiens into Homo sovieticus, the “fearful, isolated, authority-loving personality created by Communism,” to borrow Francis Fukuyama’s apt definition. Petrov refused to comply — “I made a decision, and that was it,” he told the Washington Post in 1999 — and in so doing he claimed not only his humanity but the moral heritage of rational self-rule given to all men by God, if not by governments. That Petrov was punished by his Soviet masters is lamentable but ultimately beside the point. In a moment of unimaginable fear, he struck a blow for both conscience and reason. He saw what was right and chose to do it.
Like their intellectual forebears in the authoritarian murk of the 20th century, the men and women of today’s Left wish also to create a new person. And just as Homo sovieticus was marked by a self-imposed blindness, so Homo progressus is the being who no longer knows, or dares say, what is true. One sees him chiefly in matters concerning sexuality and gender, but the new man is summoned whenever ideology and fact collide. At times, he is asked to defend the plainly ridiculous (as when an Australian “expert” posited last May that parents should obtain their babies’ consent before changing their diapers), but no absurdity is unworthy of his support. Homo sapiens may roll his eyes at such nonsense (or, in certain moods, grieve), but Homo progressus merely nods. “If this is what is now expected of me,” one hears him telling himself, “I must willingly do it.”
Because the new man is a creature without history, he is deaf to its appeals and admonitions. As the Kavanaugh saga illustrated, Homo
Can one man save the world? Could just one action by one person prevent the downfall of human civilization? This simply sounds like a fictional story like Superman. It’s unrealistic. But one man, Stanislav Petrov, was able to do this. Yet, he is not talked about in schools or mentioned in history textbooks. The average person may not know the name and face of “The man who single-handedly saved the world from nuclear war”.
Who Was Petrov?
Stanislav Petrov, son of a WW2 pilot, joined the Soviet Air Defense Forces in 1972. Stanislav became lieutenant colonel and was stationed at the Serpukhov-15 base near Moscow during the early 1980s, his duty was monitor early nuclear detectors (called Oko), and warning his superiors of an attack. This was during one of the most dangerous periods of human history: the Cold War. There had been decades of tension between the capitalist West and communist East. The Soviets and Americans were in an intense near-nuclear war with the fear of annihilation on everyone’s minds. Both sides were waiting for the other to attack.
Many people know the close call of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Not as many know that on September 26th, 1983, we were just as close. On September 26th, 1983, Oko picked up five USAF minutemen ICBM (intercontinental ballistic missiles) heading towards the Soviet Union. As the alarms went off and panic ensued, Stanislav was left with a choice: to call his superiors warning of an attack, or to dismiss it as a false alarm. Stanislav was skeptical of the new technology and thought it to have many flaws. He had a gut feeling the alarm was false. In a 1999 interview with the Washington Post he recalled thinking:
“When people start a war, they don’t start it with only five missiles, you can do little damage with just five missiles.”
He figured an attack would be much larger and would have the goal of obliterating the Soviets. He made the final decision that it was a false alarm and checked for computer error, rather than reporting the incoming attack. He was correct, Oko had picked up by sunlight on high altitude clouds.
Following the incident, Stanislav was interrogated by higher-ups as to what happened. Although initially receiving credit, he was scolded for not properly documenting all the paperwork amidst the chaos. He defended himself saying:
“Because I had a phone in one hand and the intercom in the other, and I don’t have a third hand”
Thus, he was never rewarded for his actions. The improper filling of paperwork was enough to lose credit for saving the world. Stanislav also claimed he received no reward because his reward would result in the punishment of the scientists who developed Oso. He claimed he was made a scapegoat. Stanislav left the military in 1983.
After the Soviet Union collapsed, his story was told. He was honored at the United Nations in 2006, winning the World Citizen Award. Also winning the Dresden Peace Prize in Germany in 2013. Also having a documentary film made about him called “The Man Who Saved the World”.
What If He Wasn’t There?
Stanislav has claimed he doesn’t consider himself a hero, but rather just a man doing his job. He has also stated, however, that they were lucky he was there that day.
Indeed, we all are lucky. Had he not been there, it is likely everyone reading this article wouldn’t be alive or would never have been born.
Assume he wasn’t there. Instead, another officer on duty that day who was not skeptical of the detectors. What would have happened? It is highly possible this officer may have reported the attack to higher up officials-who were very paranoid about an attack. They were not afraid to retaliate. They would have likely retaliated with a nuclear strike. The United States would then pick up an attack coming there way and retaliate, starting World War Three and a nuclear holocaust. This would likely be the end of civilization.
Indeed, this man is a hero. He was doing his job and his job saved civilization. JFK and Reagan get much credit for getting us through the Cold War, but Petrov is not given the praise he deserves. He deserves to be taught about in schools. Moreover, it is an interesting concept in the idea of how important and powerful the individual is.
Petrov died May 19th, 2017, but his impact on the world will never die. It is important that we keep his story alive. For his story saved all stories that happened after that fateful day in 1983.
“The Man Who Saved the World” is the gripping true story of a lieutenant colonel of the Soviet Air Defense Forces, Stanislav Petrov, who refused to order the launch of nuclear weapons when the warning system showed — erroneously — incoming U.S.missiles.
The Danish-made film, directed by Peter Anthony, is half-documentary and half-reconstruction.It was released in October 2014 at the Woodstock Film Festival and since then, Anthony, who wrote and directed the movie, has been on the road bringing Stanislav Petrov’s story to audiences all around the world.
“It cannot be called only a feature film or only a documentary,” Anthony told The Moscow Times at a press screening in Moscow earlier this month. “It has its own style and universe.”
Anthony said that he, like other journalists and specialists, knew little about the story of Stanislav Petrov. When he first came to Russia ten years ago, Anthony found it difficult to piece together what happened, in part because Petrov did not want to talk about it. “’I would never tell you all about my life’,” Anthony said Petrov told him. “’I am a Russian lieutenant colonel and I do not talk about my personal life’.”
Over time, however, changing politics and glasnost made it possible to piece together the story. And Petrov eventually agreed to share some of his memories. By then he was tired and embittered by his treatment after the incident. In the film, the documentary footage of Petrov’s last years, which were rather lonely and isolated, contrast with the reconstructed scenes of the young and active lieutenant colonel, played by Sergei Shnyryov.
Next week marks 35 years since America and Russia narrowly avoided fighting a nuclear war—the kind that “cannot be won and must never be fought,” in the words of Ronald Reagan. It wasn’t the first time the two nations lived through such a close call, and stories like this can only remind us how much our continued existence may depend on individual humans’ handling of mistakes, accidents, misunderstandings and miscalculations—in other words, they remind us that a nuclear war is as likely to start through inadvertence as by design.
The “stand-off” in 1983 lasted minutes, not days like the Cuban Missile Crisis some 20 years earlier, but could have likewise led to full-blown nuclear war between the U.S. and USSR: Soviet early-warning systems detected a nuclear attack coming from the United States. The natural response would have been a counter-strike by Moscow. The result, as one Stanford professor wrote later, could have been “roughly a hundred million people blown apart, burned up and poisoned on the first day of the war.” (Within months, he estimated, the death toll could have reached a billion.)
The decision that prevented that from happening was made by a Soviet officer working the night shift at a secret military facility outside Moscow who determined, in the 10 minutes he had to make the call, that the alarm was false. His name was Stanislav Petrov.
According to several authoritative books by scholars of the Cold War, and one journalistic account, Petrov was a software engineer serving in the Soviet Space Defense Forces as a lieutenant colonel. As deputy head of the department of combat algorithms, Petrov spent most of his time fine-tuning the software of the Soviet Union’s early-warning system, Oko (an archaic—and Biblical—word for “eye”), which had been put into service in late 1982 even though it was not fully ready. He also regularly worked 12-hour shifts at Oko’s secret “nerve center” near Moscow to keep on top of the system.
Petrov was on such a shift on Sept. 26, 1983, when one of the nine Oko satellites watching U.S. intercontinental-ballistic-missile fields sent a signal that a missile had been launched from the Malmstrom Air Force base in Montana. The satellite then alerted Petrov’s center that four more Minuteman ICBMs had taken off and were headed toward the USSR. The alerts were automatically sent to the Soviet General Staff, but it was up to Petrov, as the commanding officer on duty at the center, to make the ultimate judgment on whether an American nuclear attack on Soviet Russia was really underway. The then 44-year-old officer had 10 minutes to decide.
Then, like now, tensions were running high between Moscow and Washington. Just a few weeks before, the Soviet Air Force had mistakenly shot down a South Korean passenger plane, prompting U.S. condemnation of a “massacre” by “Soviet aggressors.” About five weeks later, NATO would start Able Archer, a military exercise that involved raising the alert levels of U.S. nuclear forces in Europe to simulate preparations for an attack—war games that themselves would nearly prompt a nuclear conflagration.
Petrov himself recalled that his decision was based partly on an educated guess. He had been briefed many times that a U.S. nuclear attack would be massive, but the monitors showed only 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 false alarm was eventually traced to the Cosmos 1382 satellite, which picked up the sun's reflection off the tops of clouds and mistook it for missile launches. (As noted above, this was not the first such incident: In 1960, for instance, a comparable false alarm was triggered in the U.S. when one of its early-warning radars mistook the rising moon for a Soviet missile. Other stories abound, though exactly how close a “close call” each one was often remains a matter of debate.) After the 1983 scare, the glitchy computer program was rewritten to more effectively filter out such information.
The incident involving Petrov remained secret until the early 1990s when it was disclosed by Yuri Votinstev, who had been commander of the Soviet missile-defense forces at the time. Immediately after the incident, Petrov recalled, he had won praise from Votinstev. But then came an investigation, and Petrov’s questioners pressed him hard for failing to immediately write down the details of what had happened. Petrov was not surprised that he received no official recognition: If he had, he told an interviewer in 2004, “someone would have had to take the rap” for the glitch, most likely including some influential scholars who had designed the early-warning system.
Last year Petrov died, at the age of 77. When the news became widely known, some four months later, he was feted in headlines as “the man who saved the world”—the title of a 2014 documentary about his fateful choice. In his lifetime Petrov receiv
The Cuban Missile Crisis is typically the gold standard for nuclear close calls. For 13 days, America had nuclear missiles ready to deploy from Italy and Turkey, while Russia did the same in Cuba. It is widely considered the nearest that we have ever been to all-out nuclear war, but there is another, more harrowing instance that has been lost to American history (likely because the hero of this tale is Russian). Every human alive should know the name Stanislav Petrov: the man who may have literally saved the world.
In the early hours of September 26th, 1983, the Soviet Union’s early-warning systems detected incoming missiles from the United States. This incident came three weeks after the U.S.S.R. shot down Korean Air Lines Flight 007—killing all 269 people on board, including a U.S. congressman—so a retaliatory strike was surely anticipated by the Soviet high command. The climate of 1983 was dramatically different than the Cuban Missile Crisis’ 1962. For one, the United States had waged endless war in Vietnam, demonstrating that we were willing to take the fight anywhere on the Asian continent in order to combat the U.S.S.R.’s communism (whatever the hell that meant). Secondly, the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979, and a year later, President Ronald Reagan and U.K. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher introduced a new foreign policy of the “rollback” of the Soviet Union—effectively declaring intent to wage war.
According to a Gallup poll in 1961, a staggering 81% of Americans preferred all-out nuclear war to living under communist rule. To call Americans brainwashed is an understatement. We laugh at North Korea’s propagandistic relationship with their rulers, but the baby boomers came of age in an America that thought communism was worse than ubiquitous nuclear radiation. It’s not like we could feign ignorance about the power of atomic weapons at that point, as it had been sixteen years since we dropped nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The Cuban Missile Crisis occurred one year after this immensely depressing poll, and the next two decades were defined by wars in Vietnam and Afghanistan, and people in America trying to succeed Joseph McCarthy’s legacy of whipping up a Soviet hysteria that appealed to at minimum, four out of five Americans.
Combine those rising tensions with the growth of the military industrial complex, and the stage for all-out nuclear war was set for the 1980s, where NATO deployed 108 Pershing II nuclear missiles in Western Europe that had the ability to strike targets in Ukraine, Belarus or Lithuania in 10 minutes. From 1981 to 1983, the United States executed psychological maneuvers designed to test Soviet radar vulnerabilities. We were literally running operations intended to make the Kremlin think we were waging war against them. Yuri Andropov, the head of the KGB, initiated Operation RYAN in 1981 to collect intelligence on Reagan in preparation for a first nuclear strike by the United States. It’s difficult to overstate how bad relations between the United States and the Soviet Union were at the beginning of the 1980s. Bruce Blair, an expert on Cold War nuclear strategies said that the relationship between the U.S. and U.S.S.R.:
had deteriorated to the point where the Soviet Union as a system—not just the Kremlin, not just Soviet leader Yuri Andropov, not just the KGB—but as a system, was geared to expect an attack and to retaliate very quickly to it. It was on hair-trigger alert. It was very nervous and prone to mistakes and accidents. The false alarm that happened on Petrov’s watch could not have come at a more dangerous, intense phase in U.S.-Soviet relations.
With all that history at the forefront of your mind, let’s travel back to that fateful night in 1983. Stanislav Petrov was the officer on duty at the Serpukhov-15 bunker near Moscow. The lieutenant colonel’s job was to monitor the Oko early warning network—a Soviet array of satellites designed to look for nuclear missile launches. Here is what happened in Petrov’s own words, per an interview with the BBC in 2013:
“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.
“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’.”
The computers were issuing their highest confidence possible that America had just fired nuclear weapons at the Soviet Union. NATO had nuclear weapons that could reach Soviet targets on their western flank in 10 minutes. Every second was precious, and if Petrov did what his marching orders commanded him to do and reported these computer messages up the chain of command, we could have been in a nuclear war in a matter of minutes. Petrov continued about those tense moments:
“There was no rule about how long we were allowed to think before we reported a strike. But we knew that every second of proc
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