Sunday, October 28, 2007

3 Seconds from World War 3

Stanislav Petrov
September 1, 1983. Soviet airspace over the Sakhalin Island. A Korean Boeing 747, flying from the US to South Korea, doesn't respond after violating Soviet airspace a second time. After escorting the 747 for more than an hour, two Soviet SU-15 interceptor aircraft receive the order to shoot down the airplane. 269 passengers and crew are killed.

The Cold War is on its hottest ever. The US military superiority feeds the belief of the Kremlin that a First Strike scenario by the United States is only a question of 'when'. What happens 4 weeks later should be viewed in that context.

On the night of September 26, lieutenant colonel Stanislav Petrov resumed his shift in a bunker of the Strategic Rocket Forces. The unimaginable happens when a Soviet УС-К Satellite from the Missile Early Warning System detects the launch of a U.S. ICBM and the computers report the incoming missile. According to Soviet strategy protocol, an immediate full-blown nuclear weapons counterattack against the US should be launched.

Colonel Petrov cannot believe that World War 3 has begun. Why only one missile? He's convinced it's a computer error and decides not  to confirm the missile launch to higher command, which might start a nuclear counterstrike. However, only minutes later, a second, a third and a fourth missile are detected. The USSR is under missile attack! Millions of people will be killed in Moscow. Now is the time to push the button.

Petrov refuses to believe it has come this far and stays convinced that the detected launches are a malfunctioning satellite or computer error. Despite the operators confirm that the missile detection system works properly, he confirms to higher command that the alert is a fals alarm.
Petrov was right and prevented a worldwide nuclear war that would have destroyed all large cities in both the US and the Soviet Union. This makes him one of the most important persons in the 20th century. As it later turned out, the false alarm was triggered by the sun that scattered on high altitude clouds.

Stanislav Petrov 2014
Unfortunately, the Kremlin wasn't that happy. By breaking a critical military protocol, Petrov risked millions of Soviet lives. He was sent into early retirement with a small pension and suffered a nervous breakdown. It was only in 1998 that a book, written by another officer in that bunker, revealed the story of this heroic man.
In 2006, Stanislav Petrov was honored by the United Nations in New York and received the World Citizen Award. Some of his trip to the United States was filmed and later used in the 2014 documentary movie The Man Who Saved the World that featured Stanislav Petrov himself and his translator Galina Kalinina. Stanislav Petrov passed away in Fryazino near Moscow in 2017, aged 77.

More about Petrov in this BBC news article with video, on and the Brightstarsound tribute page.

There's more related info on this blog. The Soviet Око program with the УС-К  and УС-КС satellites in Russia’s Modern Early Warning Systems. This was not the first or worst nuclear incident, as you can read in 1983 - The Brink of Apocalypse, but it sure could have ended as the worst ever incident in history of human civilisation. Meanwhile, US Strategic Intelligence on the USSR. seriously miscalculated the Soviet nuclear intentions, fueling the race for nukes.



Blaarp said...

Heh, quite a chilling thought, really .. to think that we were this >< close to nuclear fire ..

Reilly said...

Hi, this is my first time to your blog.

Very interesting story. I have looked into the shooting down of flight 007, but never heard this other very important detail/follow-up to the story. This event has always interested me. I'll look forward to the movie.

Dirk Rijmenants said...

Don't forget that, on top of that, in November 83 NATO did the exercise "Able Archer 83" which was a hugh training to launch a massive nuclear attact. The Russians went mad when they saw all nukes getting prepared in Western Europe.