A Close Call: Twice

Tuesday, September 26th marks the anniversary of a significant event which, had events gone differently, we wouldn’t be writing or reading this.

It was forty years ago today that Stanislav Petrov (September 7, 1939 to May 19, 2017) saved the world by doing nothing.  He was the duty officer at the command center for the Oko nuclear early-warning system in the USSR.  It was barely three weeks after the Soviet Union shot down Korean Airlines Flight 007 killing nearly 300 people, and tensions between the US and USSR were near boiling.  Imagine how  things would have gone if Ronnie Raygun’s “we have outlawed Russia and begin bombing in five minutes” buffoonery of August 1984 had happened a year earlier.

From the BBC, September 2013:

Stanislav Petrov: The man who may have saved the world

Thirty years ago, on 26 September 1983, the world was saved from potential nuclear disaster.

In the early hours of the morning, the Soviet Union’s early-warning systems detected an incoming missile strike from the United States. Computer readouts suggested several missiles had been launched. The protocol for the Soviet military would have been to retaliate with a nuclear attack of its own.

But duty officer Stanislav Petrov – whose job it was to register apparent enemy missile launches – decided not to report them to his superiors, and instead dismissed them as a false alarm.

This was a breach of his instructions, a dereliction of duty. The safe thing to do would have been to pass the responsibility on, to refer up.
But his decision may have saved the world.

“I had all the data [to suggest there was an ongoing missile attack]. If I had sent my report up the chain of command, nobody would have said a word against it,” he told the BBC’s Russian Service 30 years after that overnight shift.

Mr Petrov – who retired with the rank of lieutenant colonel and now lives in a small town near Moscow – was part of a well-trained team which served at one of the Soviet Union’s early warning bases, not far from Moscow. His training was rigorous, his instructions very clear.

His job was to register any missile strikes and to report them to the Soviet military and political leadership. In the political climate of 1983, a retaliatory strike would have been almost certain.

And yet, when the moment came, he says he almost froze in place.

“The siren howled, but I just sat there for a few seconds, staring at the big, back-lit, red screen with the word ‘launch’ on it,” he says.

The system was telling him that the level of reliability of that alert was “highest”. There could be no doubt. America had launched a missile.

“A minute later the siren went off again. The second missile was launched. Then the third, and the fourth, and the fifth. Computers changed their alerts from ‘launch’ to ‘missile strike’,” he says.

Mr Petrov smokes cheap Russian cigarettes as he relates the incidents he must have played over countless times in his mind.

“There was no rule about how long we were allowed to think before we reported a strike. 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,” he told us.

Although the nature of the alert seemed to be abundantly clear, Mr Petrov had some doubts.

Alongside IT specialists, like him, Soviet Union had other experts, also watching America’s missile forces. A group of satellite radar operators told him they had registered no missiles.

But those people were only a support service. The protocol said, very clearly, that the decision had to be based on computer readouts. And that decision rested with him, the duty officer.

But what made him suspicious was just how strong and clear that alert was.

“There were 28 or 29 security levels. After the target was identified, it had to pass all of those ‘checkpoints’. I was not quite sure it was possible, under those circumstances,” says the retired officer.

Mr Petrov called the duty officer in the Soviet army’s headquarters and reported a system malfunction.

If he was wrong, the first nuclear explosions would have happened minutes later.

“Twenty-three minutes later I realised that nothing had happened. If there had been a real strike, then I would already know about it. It was such a relief,” he says with a smile.

Now, 30 years on, Mr Petrov thinks the odds were 50-50. He admits he was never absolutely sure that the alert was a false one.

He says he was the only officer in his team who had received a civilian education. “My colleagues were all professional soldiers, they were taught to give and obey orders,” he told us.

So, he believes, if somebody else had been on shift, the alarm would have been raised.

A few days later Mr Petrov received an official reprimand for what happened that night. Not for what he did, but for mistakes in the logbook.

He kept silent for 10 years. “I thought it was shameful for the Soviet army that our system failed in this way,” he says.

But, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the story did get into the press. Mr Petrov received several international awards.

But he does not think of himself as a hero.

“That was my job”, he says. “But they were lucky it was me on shift that night.”

There are other items worth reading:

NPR’s obituary on Petrov from 2017

Vox News have today updated their 2018 story on Petrov

The US wasn’t immune to false alarms about Soviet nuclear missile attacks, having suffered multiple events in 1979 and 1980.  The difference there was the number of people involved.  Unlike Petrov (a single man’s judgement) or Vasily Arkhipov (two against one in an argument on a B-59 submarine during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis), NORAD had several layers of decision making and fact checking before any decision to launch would be made.

It appears again that the Russians have learnt nothing from this in how their command structure is causing so many losses in Ukraine.  Go ahead, keep making the same mistakes . . . just as long as you’re not launching nuclear weapons.

From George Washington University:

False Warnings of Soviet Missile Attacks Put U.S. Forces on Alert in 1979-1980

Washington D.C., March 16, 2020 – During the Cold War, false alarms of missile attacks were closely held matters although news of them inevitably leaked. Today the National Security Archive revisits the false alerts of the Jimmy Carter administration when on four occasions warning screens showed hundreds and hundreds of Soviet ballistic missiles heading toward North America.

In a reposting and update of a 2012 collection, the Archive includes recently declassified documents with new details about the 1979 and 1980 false warnings. One document, notes by William Odom, the military assistant to National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, raises questions as to whether Odom called the latter in the middle of the night about the possibility that Soviet ICBMs were incoming. Such a phone call was a major element of the 2012 posting, but Odom’s notes on the 3 June 1980 false alarm make the picture murkier. The only certainty is when Odom spoke to Brzezinski that day, he assured him he had kept the White House “in the loop” during the period of the false alarm.

The false alarms of 1979 and 1980 instigated major efforts to ensure that computers did not generate mistaken information that could trigger a nuclear war. In today’s world where more medium size to great powers, such as North Korea and China,either have ICBMs or are testing them the potential for false alarms is growing.

[ . . . ]

Recently declassified documents about false warning incidents during 1979-1980 – supplementing materials first posted on this site in 2012 – are being published today for the first time by the National Security Archive. The erroneous warnings, variously produced by computer tapes of war games and worn out computer chips, led to alert actions by U.S. bomber and missile forces and the emergency airborne command post, actions that could have led to a superpower confrontation, or at least dangerous tensions, if they had gone any further.

When the original version of this posting went online in 2012 the editor assumed that a false alarm of a missile attack on 9 November 1979 had prompted the middle-of-the-night phone call described above, but old and new evidence suggests that the false alert of 3 June 1980 was the only one where a middle-of-the night phone call would have been possible. The false alert of 9 November 1979 took place in the mid-morning when a war game test tape was mistakenly inserted in a NORAD computer at Cheyenne Mountain. Although a middle-of-the-nighr phone call does not fit those circumstance, it does fit the false alarm on 3 June 1980, which occurred in the very early morning period after midnight. During the half-hour before defense officials agreed there was an error, radar screens at the Pentagon and the Strategic Air Command (SAC) had shown that 200 submarine-launched ballistic missiles and then 2020 intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) were heading toward North America. Yet, no such data appeared on warning screens at NORAD.

The incident on 3 June 1980 was the third false alert since November 1979. The November incident was widely reported and alarmed the Soviet leadership, which lodged a complaint with Washington about the “extreme danger” of false warnings. While Pentagon officials were trying to prevent future incidents, Secretary of Defense Harold Brown warned President Carter that false warnings were virtually inevitable, although he tried to reassure the president that “human safeguards” would prevent them from getting out of control.


  1. StevoR says

    Thanks for this informative post. Stanislav Petrov deserves to be better known.

    As do the other close calls here.