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Monday, September 25, 2006

Colonel Petrov Saves The World, September 26, 1983

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Today in 1983, Stanislav Yefgrafovich Petrov may have saved the world. You've probably never heard of Stanislav Petrov, and had the Cold War not ended, he and his actions of 23 years ago would remain unknown. His story helps demonstrate how thin the line between peace and war really was in the last decade of the Soviet Union.

Petrov, a Lieutenant Colonel in the Soviet Army, was on duty south of Moscow during the night of September 25th and the morning of the 26th. His post was at a military satellite surveillance site which kept tabs on the Soviet Union's fleet of early warning satellites. Petrov was the officer in charge and so was ultimately responsible for alerting the highest levels of the Soviet command structure in the event of a missile launch by the United States. In such an event, the response would be an all-out nuclear counterattack. Such an exchange could threaten the continued existence of human life on earth.

Just after midnight, an alarm sounded in the site's control room. This meant that a missile launch had been detected. Petrov was quickly informed by the men under his command that only a single missile had been launched. Instead of alerting his superiors, the Lieutenant-Colonel assumed that the launch alarm was in error. After all, a US missile strike would not be made by one rocket, but by hundreds or even thousands all launched at the same time.

Seconds later, the alarm sounded again. This time, the satellites were reporting that four more missiles had been launched and were inbound. Petrov believed this was a false alarm as well, but he had no way or knowing one way or another. One weakness of the Soviet's early warning system was that there was nothing by which to compare the satellite data. There was an early-warning radar system in place, but by the time it detected the missiles would only be a few minutes or less from their targets. Petrov had to take a decision and he only had a few minutes to do so.

In the end, Colonel Petrov trusted his instincts and declared the warnings to be a false alarm. Of course, he was correct. Later investigation would show that a software defect had caused the satellites to interpret light reflections from clouds as missile exhaust. Even in the Soviet Union, the IT people get all the blame when things don't work.

Petrov was called before his superiors and grilled relentlessly about the events of that evening. In the end, he was not punished for his actions, but nor was he given any recognition for his initiative and calm handling of the crisis. The Soviet military did not take kindly to officers who found flaws in procedures and equipment, so Petrov found himself moved to a less demanding position. His career soon reached a dead-end and he eventually took an early retirement from the military. The close call remained a guarded secret until the early 1990's when Petrov's story was told in the memoirs of the former commander of the Soviet Missile Defense Units.

To this day, the Russian government maintains that Colonel Petrov could not have started a nuclear war simply by reporting a missile launch. They claim that confirmation would have been necessary for any launch orders to be given. While this may be true, it is also true that Soviet forces were on high alert during the first half of the 1980's. Yuri Andropov, head of the Soviet Union, had a very strong distrust of Americans, especially President Ronald Reagan. For his part, Reagan was blunt in his appraisal of the Soviet Union and made no secret of his intention to drive the Communists in Moscow from power. Military analysts have theorized that had Petrov reported a missile strike, it is highly possible that the regular protocols would not have been followed.

Reagan did contribute to the fall of the Soviet Union, but not by the use of nuclear weapons. The already weak Soviet economy could not keep up with American military spending and technology; additionally, Western clothes, music and capitalism were slowly creeping into the average Russian's life, showing him that a better life lay beyond the walls of Communism. Fortunately for all of us, the trillions of dollars' worth of armaments stockpiled for Armageddon were never used.

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