How Col. Stanislav Petrov
Saved The World
From John Hallam
FoE Sydney - Nuclear Campaign

Memo on September 26 Serpukhov-15 Incident
"I think this is the closest we've come to accidental nuclear war."
-- Cold War nuclear strategy expert Bruce Blair, Dateline NBC, Nov. 12, 2000
The world was nearly destroyed by nuclear holocaust on 26 September 1983. Only the cool of Russian Colonel Stanislav Petrov under extreme pressure that night prevented the launch of 15,000 Russian warheads at the United States. This in turn would have prompted a devastating response from surviving US forces, though the US would have been destroyed several times over, together with Western Europe and Japan. Australia too would have been targeted.
The smoke from the destruction of modern urban civilisation would have turned day to night for a number of years, causing sub-zero temperatures in normally tropical areas and killing most land-based living things. (Nuclear winter)
The possibility of such a massive nuclear holocaust, though smaller than it was in 1983, with sixty times the megattonage needed to create a nuclear winter now reduced to a mere six times the megattonnage for nuclear winter, and with the cold war over, still remains and is inherent in a nuclear posture that insists on keeping thousands of warheads on 'Launch on Warning'(LoW) status.
In 1999, this author was responsible for two motions in the Australian Senate and one in the European Parliament that urged the 'standing down' of land-based ICBMs from LoW status. Though these motions were passed without opposition, US and Russian strategic missiles remain on LoW status.
The Association of World Citizens, a San-Francisco-based NGO, is to make an award to Colonel Stanislav Petrov in Moscow.
It also plans to introduce very soon into the UN General Assembly First Committee, a motion urging the removal of world nuclear arsenals from Launch on Warning status (it will have to do this very soon to make it into the current session - I am really not sure re the timing here).
A motion in the Australian Senate (or any other legislature) urging support for the AWC-UN initiative, or less specifically noting Stanislav Petrov's role in the survival of humanity and the need for removal of global nuclear arsenals from LoW status would be helpful.
What Colonel Stanislav Petrov Did
On 26 September 1983, Colonel Stanislav Petrov was the duty officer at the Russian satellite surveillance facility of Serpukhov-15, outside Moscow.
Serpukhov 15 both performs critical nuclear command and control functions, and also operates the series of surveillance satellites known as 'Oko' (eye) whose function, like the DSP satellites that download data through Pine Gap in Australia, is to provide early warning of a nuclear attack.
The 'Oko' satellite series was at that time new. The orbits of this satellite series have now degraded to a point such that many of them are no longer able to be used, and a severe fire at Serpukhov-15 in 2001 further degraded the once massive Soviet early warning system.
At that time however, the 'Oko' satellite system was designed with highly elliptical orbits, designed to look more or less 'sideways' at US missiles as they rose in 'boost phase' from the missile bases in North Dakota.
There was however, one glitch, not known at that time: certain rare formations of very high cloud combined with strong sunlight, looked just like a US launch.
There was no way for the Soviet satellite system to tell the two apart. After the September 26 incident, the system was reconfigured so that a warning of launch would only be given if in fact two 'Oko' satellites at right angles (or at least at different angles) both recorded infrared emissions. On the night of Sept 26 1983, an infrared signature from one satellite was enough. (There are almost certainly insufficient satellites now, to use two at different angles. )
On the night of September 26th, 1983, what seems to have happened is that high cloud over North Dakota, combined with solar flare activity, gave the 'Oko' satellites the impression that a series of missiles had been launched from US missile bases.
In Colonel Stanislav Petrov's command bunker, lights flashed, klaxons blared, and a flashing red button with 'start' lit up.
It would have commenced a sequence that would have fired 15,000 roughly megaton-sized warheads at the US.
According to Stanislav Petrov, 'I felt like I had been punched in the nervous system'.
Alarm after alarm went off, and for quite some time the system was 'roaring'.
A total of five US 'launches' were reported by the satellites.
Petrov had, however, an IT background, and 'a feeling in my gut' that this was a false alarm.
"I had a funny feeling in my gut," Petrov said. "I didn't want to make a mistake. I made a decision, and that was it."
For some time he seems from various accounts, to have juggled an intercom and a phone to his superiors (which would have included party secretary Andropov), and to have been convincing them that this was indeed a false alarm, knowing that if he was wrong he (and the USSR) would be incinerated. It seems that they were contacting him, demanding to know what was going on, and that the alert was automatically relayed to them.
He says that when the incident was over, he drank half a litre of vodka as if it were a glass and slept for 28 hours. He was later rigorously interrogated.
In the immediate aftermath of the incident he was told he'd be given a medal. As investigations into the incident revealed various shortcomings, he was instead blamed for it, fired, and put on a worthless military pension in a tiny flat in the dreary town of Fryanzino near Moscow.
In an interview in 1998 Stanislav Petrov said,
"The first reaction of my commander-general was, 'We will honour you.' But then a commission was launched into what had gone wrong. My commanders were blamed. And if the commanders were to blame, then the subordinates like me could not be innocent. It's an old thing we have in Russia. The subordinate cannot be cleverer than the boss, so there was no honour or credit for me."
"Once I would have liked to have been given some credit for what I did. But it is so long ago and today everything is emotionally burned out inside me." (Daily Mail, Oct. 7, 1998)
Stanislav Petrov was much later interviewed by reporter Dennis Murphy on Dateline NBC (Nov. 12, 2000):
DENNIS MURPHY: "I know you don't regard yourself as a hero, Colonel, but, belatedly, on behalf of the people in Washington, New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, thank you for being on duty that night."
STANISLAV PETROV: "Well, I accept the thanks with the condition that I am not the only person to thank."
Col Petrov may well not have been on duty that night - he had swapped his shift for that of someone else. If the someone else had been less sceptical of the launch warnings and had acted according to the book, pressing the 'Start' key, we wouldn't be here to talk about it.
We owe him.
More importantly however, the September 26, 1983 incident at Serpukhov-15 illustrates the vital importance of taking strategic nuclear weapons off LoW status.
It isn't by any means an isolated incident - similar events have taken place in the US in 1979 when a practice tape for full-scale nuclear war was inserted into the US main combat computer at Cheyenne Mountain, causing missiles to be readied for launch, nuclear-armed bombers to be taxied to runways, and the 'National Emergency Airborne Command Post' (the Presidential Doomsday plane) to be launched, without the president who could not be quickly enough located. A congressional committee that happened to be present at the time described what ensued as 'blind panic'.
A similar event sequence took place three times in 1980, with massive Russian attack being reported until the problem was traced to a faulty 20 cent chip in a Colorado switching station.
In 1995, the apocalypse was only narrowly averted by Boris Yeltsin when he elected to ignore procedural deadlines for the transmission of the 'go codes' and wait 'one more minute' while a Norwegian Black Brant weather research rocket plunged harmlessly into the arctic after having been taken for an incoming submarine-launched strike on the Kremlin.
Col Stanislav Petrov's story shows the wisdom of the Canberra Commissions recommendation made in 1996, that strategic nuclear weapons be removed from LoW status. Initiatives to that effect, such as that which may possibly be coming up in the UN first committee very soon deserve support.
The author coordinated a global campaign to take strategic nuclear weapons off LoW status before the Y2K rollover, including a unanimous resolution in the European Parliament urging the standing down of strategic nuclear weapons from LoW status, and two resolutions in the Australian senate.
Numerous resolutions in UNGA, notably those of the New Agenda Coalition, have incorporated the lowering of alert status for strategic nuclear weapons.
The issue may well come up in the coming session of the UNGA First Committee.
Parliamentary resolutions urging support for any moves in first committee to press for lowering of alert status would be very useful.
John Hallam




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