Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Stanislav Petrov: The man who saved the world

Stanislav Petrov: 1939-2017

From the obituary in the NY Times:

Early on the morning of Sept. 26, 1983, Stanislav Petrov helped prevent the outbreak of nuclear war.

A 44-year-old lieutenant colonel in the Soviet Air Defense Forces, he was a few hours into his shift as the duty officer at Serpukhov-15, the secret command center outside Moscow where the Soviet military monitored its early-warning satellites over the United States, when alarms went off.

Computers warned that five Minuteman intercontinental ballistic missiles had been launched from an American base. “For 15 seconds, we were in a state of shock,” he later recalled. “We needed to understand, ‘What’s next?’ ”

The alarm sounded during one of the tensest periods in the Cold War. Three weeks earlier, the Soviets had shot down a Korean Air Lines commercial flight after it crossed into Soviet airspace, killing all 269 people on board, including a congressman from Georgia. President Ronald Reagan had rejected calls for freezing the arms race, declaring the Soviet Union an “evil empire.” The Soviet leader, Yuri V. Andropov, was obsessed by fears of an American attack...

After five nerve-racking minutes — electronic maps and screens were flashing as he held a phone in one hand and an intercom in the other, trying to absorb streams of incoming information — Colonel Petrov decided that the launch reports were probably a false alarm.

As he later explained, it was a gut decision, at best a “50-50” guess, based on his distrust of the early-warning system and the relative paucity of missiles that were launched...

Historians who have analyzed the episode say that Colonel Petrov’s calm analysis helped avert catastrophe.

As the computer systems in front of him changed their alert from “launch” to “missile strike,” and insisted that the reliability of the information was at the “highest” level, Colonel Petrov had to figure out what to do. The estimate was that only 25 minutes would elapse between launch and detonation.

“There was no rule about how long we were allowed to think before we reported a strike,” he told the BBC. “But we knew that every second of procrastination took away valuable time, that the Soviet Union’s military and political leadership needed to be informed without delay. All I had to do was to reach for the phone; to raise the direct line to our top commanders — but I couldn’t move. I felt like I was sitting on a hot frying pan.”

...As the tension in the command center rose — as many as 200 pairs of eyes were trained on Colonel Petrov — he made the decision to report the alert as a system malfunction.

“I had a funny feeling in my gut,” he told The Washington Post. “I didn’t want to make a mistake. I made a decision, and that was it.”

Colonel Petrov attributed his judgment to both his training and his intuition. He had been told that a nuclear first strike by the Americans would come in the form of an overwhelming onslaught. “When people start a war, they don’t start it with only five missiles,” he told The Post.

Colonel Petrov was at first praised for his calm, but in an investigation that followed, he was asked why he had failed to record everything in his logbook. “Because I had a phone in one hand and the intercom in the other, and I don’t have a third hand,” he replied.

He received a reprimand.

The false alarm was apparently set off when the satellite mistook the sun’s reflection off the tops of clouds for a missile launch. The computer program that was supposed to filter out such information had to be rewritten.

Colonel Petrov said the system had been rushed into service in response to the United States’ introduction of a similar system. He said he knew it was not 100 percent reliable.

“We are wiser than the computers,” he said in a 2010 interview with the German magazine Der Spiegel. “We created them"...

Rob's comment:
This shows why it's scary of President Trump and his administration to threaten North Korea: it raises tensions and creates a situation where such mistakes become more likely: War With North Korea Starts to Look Inevitable.


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