Monday, February 15, 2010

Dead Hand Revealed

Russian Topol ICBM launched from silo
(see video footage)
There have been numerous speculations about the notorious "Dead Hand", developed by the former Soviet Union to counter a nuclear attack by the United States, even when all political and military Soviet leaders would be knocked out by an initial attack. However, most speculations lacked any good sources.

September last year, the National Security Archive published several previously classified interviews from 1995 with many important former Soviet military and political decision makers. In one of the interviews, Vitalii Leonidovich Kataev, former Senior Advisor to the Central Committee Defense Industry Department (now Defense Department), talks about the real "Dead Hand".

The "Dead Hand" is one of two trigger systems on a system of Command Missiles. These missiles are well concealed and extremely well protected missiles, deployed near clusters of Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) silos. Once launched into near space, they transmit launch orders to the clusters of ICBMs they are assigned to. This enables the automated launch of a large numbers of ICBMs, even when military command is disabled by a U.S. nuclear attack

As said, there are two ways these Command Missiles might be launched or 'triggered'. The first one is by central control, when an enemy attack is detected but there's no time left for normal launch procedures (read: when the nukes strike Soviet soil it will be too late, so hit the button).

The second way is the notorious "Dead Hand", which is only operational when the decision makers unblock a no-fire mechanism at the center. From that moment on, the launch of a Command Missile is under control of numerous triggers. If the sensors register a flash, seismic shock, radiation or atmospheric density, the Command Missile is launched and in turn will launch its cluster of ICBMs. The Dead Hand system is explained in the Kataev interview (alt. link).

Silo hatch of a Soviet SS-18 SATAN ICBM missile (more about the SS-18)

This might seem a most scary scenario, left in the hands of computers and sensors. However, it always needs human intervention before activation and was only to be used in extremely threatening situations, where it was expected that all decision makers were already dead upon launch.

It is now clear that the Soviets well understood, and feared, the consequences of a nuclear strike, either preemptive or retaliatory, and believed that such scenarios would always be fatal to both the Soviet Union and the United States. The Soviets were absolutely not trigger-happy, but it was an ideal method of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) and effective deterrence.

The 1995 study and interviews show how U.S. analysts exaggerated Soviet aggressiveness and understated the Kremlin's fear for nuclear war. It places the Dead Hand doomsday scenario papers, based on assumptions, in another perspective. I can highly recommend a most interesting series of interviews with retired General-Colonel Andrian A. Danilevich, General Staff Officer until 1990 and former assistant for Doctrine and Strategy to Marshal Akhromeev. Download (right-click) or read the Danilevich interview here (alt. link) More on the Nuclear Vault.

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