Monday, November 14, 2011

Stanislav Petrov, The Man who Saved the World

 A friend just passed me a link to The history Onyx blog where there is a great article about a Russian guy
who decided not to launch a nuclear counterattack against the US in 1983.
Its a very interesting read specially for those who think that us preppers are just a bunch of crazy guys and
that nothing bad will ever happen.

Usually it takes something monumental to be realised as a truly great historical figure. Such a person is
normally well-known for doing something brilliant that has truly benefited the world and the people within
it.The likes of Martin Luther King, Winston Churchill, Ghandi and countless others leap to mind as being
among that ilk for the immense contributions that they have made. Sometimes, however, it only takes a small
act by an unknown person to truly do the world a favour.

The unknown person of which I speak is now an elderly man in his early 70s who is quietly seeing out his
days in an apartment block to the north-east of Moscow, a retired soldier who, thanks to a decision he
made nearly 30 years ago, warrants a far greater deal of appreciation from history than his anonymous
lifestyle would suggest. That man is Stanislav Petrov, the man who saved the world from mutually-assured-

It is 1983 and the Cold War is getting too hot for comfort. the hawkish anti-Communist Ronald Reagan is in
the White House and an increasingly paranoid-clique of elderlies surround the less-than-healthy Yuri
Andropov in the Kremlin. Relations between the United States and the Soviet Union are at their worst since
the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 and there is a genuine sense of fear in the corridors of power in Moscow
that the Americans are planning to jump them with a surprise nuclear attack. Although it was and remains
standard US policy never to strike first with nuclear weapons, Andropov and his cohorts within the Soviet
politburo and the spy agencies believed that President Reagan was capable of ordering a first strike and was
planning to do just that. It was in the Moscow mindset both to expect an American attack and to react to it
very quickly.

The fact that the Soviet military and political leadership were on hair-trigger alert coupled with the less-than-
infallible nature of their early-warning systems made an accidental nuclear war a terrifyingly realistic
prospect, although it remained largely unknown to much of the world's population at the time. Throughout
1983 relations continued to get more and more tense. On the other side of the Iron Curtain, much of
Western Europe was engulfed by a storm of protest over American plans to install Pershing tactical missiles
in West Germany. The Americans themselves were doing little to dampen down the tension. Things took a
turn for the even worse on September 1st when Korean Airlines flight 007 strayed off course and entered
Soviet airspace whilst en-route from Alaska to Seoul. The Soviet air force shot the plane down without
asking questions, killing all 269 people on board, including a United States congressman. American public
opinion suddenly took a dangerous swing against the Soviets.

President Reagan himself had already sent alarm bells ringing in Moscow when he described the Soviet 
Union as an "evil empire" during a speech in Florida before going live on American TV to announce the
launch of his Strategic Defense Initiative, which has become known to history as Star Wars. This idea
involved using satellites to shoot down incoming Soviet missiles from space. If the Americans could put this
concept into reality it would render the whole of Moscow's massive nuclear weapons stockpile obsolete.
This further instilled within the Soviet leadership the belief that they ought to act sooner rather than later in
order to avoid being outwitted by Washington.

This is where our friend comes in. Lieutenant Colonel Stanislav Petrov was serving in the Soviet Air Defence
Forces right in the middle of this rather dodgy period. On the morning of September 26th 1983, less than a
month after the Korean Airlines incident, Petrov was the officer on duty at the Serpukhov-15 operations
bunker near Moscow. This particular bunker happened to house the command centre for the entire Soviet
early-warning system, codenamed Oko (Russian for "eye"). Petrov's job was to observe the satellite imagery
being fed to the big screens and report immediately to his superiors should any of the eyes-in-the-sky detect
incoming American missiles. Petrov himself obviously did not have the authority launch a counterstrike but,
given the dangerously high level of alert that the Soviets were operating under, such a response was only a
phone call away.

The Mother of all Decisions 

That particular night in the bunker seemed to be just the same as any other. It was just after midnight in
Moscow whilst it was beginning to get dark in the United States. In the main operations room of
Serpukhov-15 a bored Petrov and his underlings watched with forced interest as the satellite images showed
the cloak of darkness advancing east to west across the North American landmass. Despite being well
aware of the delicate international situation, nothing seemed out of the ordinary to the men present. They
knew they had to be ready for anything yet few of them really believed that the Americans would possibly
want to attack, effectively assuring their own destruction as well as that of the Soviets. At that moment the
quiet was suddenly shattered when the piercing wail of the alarm rang out and the main screen suddenly
turned white and a single word flashed up in red Cyrillic lettering:


Petrov immediately sprung into action and checked the computer systems. They indicated that a single
American missile was in the air. The young officer resisted the urge to fly into a blind panic and immediately
suspected a false alarm. He was already aware that the early warning system was far from infallible and
prone to mistakes. Either way, a single missile was simply not logical. If the Americans really were going to
launch a first strike then surely it would be all-out, using every bomb and missile available to cripple them
straight away and minimise retaliatory efforts. Nonetheless Petrov scoured the satellite imagery for any
evidence of a missile launch flash occurring in the United States but the fact it was getting dark there made it
difficult to see anything. He telephoned his superiors who, thankfully, also concurred that some form of
computer error had taken place. Once his superior had hung up, Petrov overrode the early-warning system
and shut down the alarm, bringing the situation abruptly back to normal. He and his colleagues simmered
down and slumped back into their chairs, thanking themselves for averting a catastrophe. Oko, however,
was not done frazzling nerves
Barely minutes after Petrov had shut down the system, the word LAUNCH suddenly flashed up on the big
screen again, accompanied by the alarm. The computers were still detecting the same missile launch...... plus
a second. There were now two American missiles in the air...


Petrov and his men stood frozen with horror. It now looked like the impossible was happening in front of
their very eyes. The computer was showing five missiles inbound from the United States. This was it, they
thought. Reagan had given the order to take out the Soviet Union. Surely now the only thing left to do was to
call in the reports and recommend a full retaliatory strike. If the Soviets were to launch, they had to decide
quickly. Leaving it until the inbounds could be confirmed by land radar (which could not see beyond the
horizon) would limit Moscow's response time to mere minutes.

As before, Petrov checked the satellite images and was still unable to spot any missile flashes. He did not
feel comfortable about phoning his superiors again, especially without further confirmation. He checked the
computers again and found no further launches, still just the five. Once again Petrov began to doubt the
system. Five missiles were a lot more than one yet it still did not make sense with respect to how the
Americans had been expected to lauch an all-out strike. The decision on whether to call it in or not had to be
taken right then and there. As the young officer wrestled with his conscience, history hung in the balance.
After a brief hesitation he made his decision.

He overrode the system and shut off the alarm, without informing his superiors.
By following his good sense rather than following orders, this one man had effectively saved the world from
a nuclear holocaust. One can hardly imagine the horrors that would have taken place had he instead decided
to make that telephone call. A report of five inbound missiles would almost certainly have been enough to
send the paranoid Soviet leadership over the edge. Soviet warheads would have begun bearing down on
Europe and North America, prompting a full NATO counterstrike. By the time the Soviets would have
realised the first launches were a false alarm it would have been far too late.

The Aftermath 

In the end it turned out that Petrov's suspicions about the incoming phantom warheads were correct. The
source of the false alarm was merely sunlight bouncing off high-altitude clouds over North America, which
the Soviet satellites wrongly interpreted as being missile launch flashes. Petrov was vindicated but his
superiors were left feeling rather embarrassed by the exposed flaws in the early warning system and they
conspired to keep the incident under wraps. Petrov himself was never allowed to occupy such a sensitive
role again and he ultimately took early retirement, suffering a nervous breakdown. He was never given any
award or recognition by the Soviet or Russian governments for what he had done.

Knowledge of the Petrov incident only became known to the public after the fall of the Soviet Union
(naturally). It has subsequently brought considerable public attention to the aged and reclusive Petrov, who
continues to insist that he is not some kind of humanitarian hero and was simply doing his job. Nonetheless
he accepted an award and $1000 from the Association of World Citizens "in recognition of the part he
played in averting a catastrophe" (minor understatement there). He has also visited the United States and
been honoured by the United Nations, although the Russian representatives there were only too eager to
point out that Petrov alone could not have started a nuclear war. That may well have been the case but in my
opinion, given the state of the world in September 1983, had that one man made a second phone call to his
bosses on that night in the bunker then the world today would be a VERY different place.

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