John Burroughs

On January 19, 2006, at the UN in New York, the Association of World Citizens presented an award to Stanislav Petrov. On September 26, 1983, Petrov was the duty officer at a Soviet command and control center who declined to pass along to headquarters apparent signals from satellites showing incoming U.S. missiles. In his comments, Petrov said he was not a hero, as several described him at the event, but rather somebody doing his work, along with others in his unit. But he did seem convinced that the decision likely averted catastrophe, in the form of a Russian counterstrike. He indicated that the decision could have gone the other way, saying that he was not sure he had made the right one until it was confirmed later that the signals were a false alarm.

The Russian Mission to the UN distributed a press release at the event. This curious document is worth quoting at some length:

“On January 19, 2006, former Russian colonel Stanislav Petrov will receive an award from the Association of World Citizens ‘for a unique act of heroism that saved the world’. According to representatives of the Association in 1983 Petrov did not react to an erroneous computer warning of a US missile attack on the Soviet Union and thus ’saved the world from nuclear war’.

It is not a secret that warnings of missile launches took place both in the Soviet Union and in the United States. Often natural phenomena like flocks of birds or the Northern Lights were taken as ICBMs. Under no circumstances a decision to use nuclear weapons could be made or even considered in the Soviet Union (Russia) or in the United States on the basis of data from a single source or a system. For this to happen, a confirmation is necessary from several systems: ground-based radars, early warning satellites, intelligence reports, etc. Therefore, even if one officer had ‘reported a satellite signal about an incoming nuclear missile’, the nuclear war would have never started. Besides, one should keep in mind that both in the United States and in the Soviet Union (Russia) the information automatically fed from satellites is directed to various recipients, and a single hero or miscreant cannot stop it.”

Afterwards, I asked one of the speakers, Bruce Blair, what he thought of the Russian statement. Blair, now president of the Center for Defense Information and formerly of the Brookings Institute, is a former missile control officer who became a leading scholar of nuclear command and control. He also became a key advocate of standing down nuclear forces, often called “dealerting,” by a range of measures, from taking the launch keys away from missile control officers to removing missiles from silos and submarines. Blair said that there were basically three factors involved, also mentioned in the Russian release: 1) data from early warning satellites; 2) data from ground radar; and 3) the overall assessment of the strategic situation. In 1983, the Soviet assessment of the strategic situation was dire, not surprisingly; that was when, among other things, the Reagan administration was talking freely about fighting and winning a nuclear war. Data from ground radar would come in later than satellite data, and might be missing or otherwise inconclusive or too late to stop a process underway. Blair’s comments indicate that while there is much that is not known about this incident, and while it’s inherently difficult to say given X, Y would have happened there could be other intervening variables, nonetheless it’s not farfetched to call Petrov, as he was in the award given him at the UN, “The Man Who Averted Nuclear War.” Blair noted that Petrov was an engineer who was aware that the Russian systems were new and in need of debugging. If it had been more of a “warrior” type, primed to act reflexively…

As Blair observed in his public remarks, incredibly, today the United States and Russian Federation remain locked in the hair-trigger nuclear standoff that existed in 1983. In a side conversation I asked him what the current numbers are: how many warheads are the two countries capable of launching within a matter of minutes after an order to do so. The range that disarmament NGOs have been using for several years is four to five thousand. Blair said that while he has not analyzed the matter in the last couple of years, his off-the-cuff estimate would be around 3000: 1000-1200 in Russia, 1600-1700 in the United States. Or, put another way, about 75,000 Hiroshima bombs.

Current data on the world’s nuclear arsenals can be found at the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists.