The concept of nuclear deterence has been one of the defining geo-political concepts of the post-war world. Between 1945 and 1990, NATO and the Warsaw Pact faced off against each other in Europe and (via various proxies) elsewhere in the world too. OK, recently declassified documents show that the Russians never seriously contemplated an invasion of Western Europe after about 1975, but NATO wasn’t to know that then. Both sides knew that they were playing a game – a game of terrible balance. On the Russian side it was realised that conquering West Germany wasn’t much point if all that was left was irradiated wasteland and NATO commanders knew full well that nukes might be the only sure way of stopping the five Warsaw Pact armies in East Germany.
So, both sides glared at each other across the Inner German Border and talked tough for the look of the thing. Deep down everyone knew that if it all kicked off it would be bucket of sunshine time. During the 1970’s and 80’s there were various periods when it looked as if some people were forgetting that point.
Two close calls during this period are especially noteworthy. The first happened on 9 November 1979 when the NORAD computers indicated that a full-scale Soviet first strike had been launched against the mainland USA. A senatorial visit to Cheyanne Mountain was in progress – its members vividly described the mood of ‘gut-loosening terror’ that gripped the NORAD complex. It wasn’t until the early-warning stations confirmed that 2000 plus warheads were not inbound that the culprit was found – a faulty computer test circuit.
Result: Massively improved procedures at NORAD and an unknown number of changed underpants.
The second occured a lot less publically, and full details of it have only become clear over the past decade or so. On 26 September 1983 all seemed normal at the control centre for the Soviet ‘Oko’ early warning system. Quite suddenly all that changed. Alarms started going off and the duty officer (one Lt.Colonel Stanislav Petrov) was horrified to see that five American Minuteman missiles were seemingly inbound to their targets in the Soviet Union.
When this incident was first revealed to the world in the mid 1990’s, senior figures in the Russian Federation went to a lot of trouble to point out that Petrov alone could not have ordered a retaliatory strike. His job was simply to monitor the system and pass the information to his superiors – particularly his immediate boss, General Yuri Votintsev, one of the senior men in the Soviet Strategic Rocket Forces.
And here we have the crucial pivot point. Petrov analysed the data and decided that it was a false alarm. Soviet expectations of an ‘effective’ US first strike ran to rather more than five missiles and that was a major factor in Petrov’s decision to do – nothing. As it turned out, there were some serious glitches in the Soviet early warning system – when Petrov saw that ground based radar was not corroborating the American launch he cancelled the alert.
Petrov received no commendation at the time – his actions had exposed some pretty embarrassing errors after all. The issue here is that the man thought on his feet, analysed the data and wasn’t afraid to act on his own logical conclusions. Given the tensions between the USA and the Soviet Union at the time the outcome if he had reported the ‘launch’ is uncertain at best. Even the most disbelieving analysts had to admit that the Soviet leadership, given only a few minutes to decide, would have ordered a reprisal strike – one which would have sparked off a general nuclear exchange.
Petrov, despite receiving two World Citizen Awards from the UN, remains pretty modest about his part in the story. In an interview for the documentary film The Red Button and the Man Who Saved the World, Petrov says, “All that happened didn’t matter to me — it was my job. I was simply doing my job, and I was the right person at the right time, that’s all. My late wife for 10 years knew nothing about it. ‘So what did you do?’ she asked me. ‘I did nothing.'”
Just as well really.