Incident 27: Nuclear False Alarm
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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, since a first-strike nuclear attack by the United States was likely to involve hundreds of simultaneous missile launches in order to disable any Soviet means of a counterattack. Furthermore, the satellite system's reliability had been questioned in the past.
Petrov dismissed the warning as a false alarm, though accounts of the event differ as to whether he notified his superiors or not[full citation needed] after he concluded that the computer detections were false and that no missile had been launched. Petrov's suspicion that the warning system was malfunctioning was confirmed when no missile in fact arrived. Later, the computers identified four additional missiles in the air, all directed towards the Soviet Union. Petrov suspected that the computer system was malfunctioning again, despite having no direct means to confirm this. The Soviet Union's land radar was incapable of detecting missiles beyond the horizon.
It was subsequently determined that the false alarms were caused by a rare alignment of sunlight on high-altitude clouds and the satellites' Molniya orbits, an error later corrected by cross-referencing a geostationary satellite.
In explaining the factors leading to his decision, Petrov cited his belief and training that any U.S. first strike would be massive, so five missiles seemed an illogical start. In addition, the launch detection system was new and in his view not yet wholly trustworthy, while ground radar had failed to pick up corroborative evidence even after several minutes of the false alarm.
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...
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.
‘Gut instinct’ told Lt Col Stanislav Petrov that apparent launch of US missiles was actually early warning system malfunction
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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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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 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.
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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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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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.