This week in history: Stanislav Petrov avoids nuclear war

In 1983, a Soviet early warning system sounded the alarm for an incoming nuclear missile. A young officer had to make the decision: is this for real?

October 1, 2010 14:12
3 minute read.
A photo of the young Lt.-Col. Stanislav Petrov

311_Stanislav Petrov. (photo credit: Associated Press)

On September 26, 1983, Soviet Lt.-Col. Stanislav Petrov correctly interpreted a missile attack warning as a false alarm, thus preventing a retaliatory attack against the United States. This decision may have prevented an all out nuclear war.

The timing of the incident, at the height of the Cold War, was critical. Only three weeks earlier, the Soviet military shot down a South Korean passenger jet that had entered Soviet airspace, killing 269 people. Many Americans were killed, including a congressman, which strongly contributed to the escalation.

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At the same time, NATO was about to launch Able Archer 83, a military exercise interpreted by the KGB as preparation for a nuclear first strike.

The combination of both events led to an extremely tense environment in which both Soviets and Americans were expecting a nuclear attack at any time. In fact, many historians consider this period to be the closest the world has come to nuclear war since the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962.

Lt.-Col Petrov was on duty at the Serpukhov bunker near Moscow which housed the command center of the Soviet early warning system. As outlined by the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD), if inbound missiles were detected, the response was an immediate nuclear counter-attack against the US: the “launch on warning.”

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

On the day in question, shortly after midnight, the alarms suddenly went off; the red button in front of Petrov began flashing the word “Start.”  The bunker’s computers had detected an in-bound intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) headed towards the Soviet Union, from the US. Petrov believed that the detection was a computer malfunction, for the simple reason that a US first strike would most likely involve hundreds of missile launches in order to disable retaliation capabilities.

However, four additional warnings of incoming ICBM’s followed. In that dramatic moment, Petrov had very little time to think. “For 15 seconds, we were in a state of shock. We needed to understand, what’s next?” he recalled.

Less than five minutes after the alert began, Petrov decided the launch reports must be false. He recalled making the decision under enormous stress, a phone in one hand and an intercom in the other trying to take in all the information at once. Another officer was shouting at him over the phone to remain calm and do his job. Petrov later said “I had a funny feeling in my gut; I didn’t want to make a mistake. I made a decision and that was it.”

In a later interview, Petrov said he knew the warning system had flaws. Another factor, he mentioned, was that Soviet ground based radars (which would have detected missiles several minutes later) showed no evidence of an attack, even after a delay of several minutes.

As of result of the incident, Petrov was heavily questioned. At first, he was praised for his actions, and was promised a reward from his superiors. However, the incident revealed a major flaw in the Soviet missile detection system and Petrov received no reward in order not to embarrass his superiors and influential scientists who were responsible for the system.

The event was made public only in 1990, when widespread media reports increased public awareness of Petrov’s actions. Some confusion remains surrounding Petrov’s precise role, since he was not in a position to single-handedly launch any missile.  

However, the event was ultimately described by former CIA analyst Peter Pry as “probably the single most dangerous incident of the early 1980’s” because according to Bruce Blair, a Cold War nuclear strategies expert, “The top leadership, given only a couple minutes to decide, told an attack had been launched would make a decision to retaliate.”

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