[FoRK] Dr. Strangelove alive and well

Eugen Leitl eugen at leitl.org
Tue Sep 22 08:24:45 PDT 2009



Politics  :  Security   RSS

Inside the Apocalyptic Soviet Doomsday Machine

By Nicholas Thompson Email 17 hours ago

The technical name was Perimeter, but some called it Mertvaya Ruka, Dead

Illustration: Ryan Kelly

Valery Yarynich glances nervously over his shoulder. Clad in a brown leather
jacket, the 72-year-old former Soviet colonel is hunkered in the back of the
dimly lit Iron Gate restaurant in Washington, DC. It's March 2009—the Berlin
Wall came down two decades ago—but the lean and fit Yarynich is as jumpy as
an informant dodging the KGB. He begins to whisper, quietly but firmly.

"The Perimeter system is very, very nice," he says. "We remove unique
responsibility from high politicians and the military." He looks around

Yarynich is talking about Russia's doomsday machine. That's right, an actual
doomsday device—a real, functioning version of the ultimate weapon, always
presumed to exist only as a fantasy of apocalypse-obsessed science fiction
writers and paranoid über-hawks. The thing that historian Lewis Mumford
called "the central symbol of this scientifically organized nightmare of mass
extermination." Turns out Yarynich, a 30-year veteran of the Soviet Strategic
Rocket Forces and Soviet General Staff, helped build one.

Chart source: Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Natural Resources Defense

The point of the system, he explains, was to guarantee an automatic Soviet
response to an American nuclear strike. Even if the US crippled the USSR with
a surprise attack, the Soviets could still hit back. It wouldn't matter if
the US blew up the Kremlin, took out the defense ministry, severed the
communications network, and killed everyone with stars on their shoulders.
Ground-based sensors would detect that a devastating blow had been struck and
a counterattack would be launched.

The technical name was Perimeter, but some called it Mertvaya Ruka, or Dead
Hand. It was built 25 years ago and remained a closely guarded secret. With
the demise of the USSR, word of the system did leak out, but few people
seemed to notice. In fact, though Yarynich and a former Minuteman launch
officer named Bruce Blair have been writing about Perimeter since 1993 in
numerous books and newspaper articles, its existence has not penetrated the
public mind or the corridors of power. The Russians still won't discuss it,
and Americans at the highest levels—including former top officials at the
State Department and White House—say they've never heard of it. When I
recently told former CIA director James Woolsey that the USSR had built a
doomsday device, his eyes grew cold. "I hope to God the Soviets were more
sensible than that." They weren't.

The system remains so shrouded that Yarynich worries his continued openness
puts him in danger. He might have a point: One Soviet official who spoke with
Americans about the system died in a mysterious fall down a staircase. But
Yarynich takes the risk. He believes the world needs to know about Dead Hand.
Because, after all, it is still in place.

The system that Yarynich helped build came online in 1985, after some of the
most dangerous years of the Cold War. Throughout the '70s, the USSR had
steadily narrowed the long US lead in nuclear firepower. At the same time,
post-Vietnam, recession-era America seemed weak and confused. Then in strode
Ronald Reagan, promising that the days of retreat were over. It was morning
in America, he said, and twilight in the Soviet Union.

Part of the new president's hard-line approach was to make the Soviets
believe that the US was unafraid of nuclear war. Many of his advisers had
long advocated modeling and actively planning for nuclear combat. These were
the progeny of Herman Kahn, author of On Thermonuclear War and Thinking About
the Unthinkable. They believed that the side with the largest arsenal and an
expressed readiness to use it would gain leverage during every crisis.

You either launch first or convince the enemy that you can strike back even
if you're dead.

Illustration: Ryan Kelly

The new administration began expanding the US nuclear arsenal and priming the
silos. And it backed up the bombs with bluster. In his 1981 Senate
confirmation hearings, Eugene Rostow, incoming head of the Arms Control and
Disarmament Agency, signaled that the US just might be crazy enough to use
its weapons, declaring that Japan "not only survived but flourished after the
nuclear attack" of 1945. Speaking of a possible US-Soviet exchange, he said,
"Some estimates predict that there would be 10 million casualties on one side
and 100 million on another. But that is not the whole of the population."

Meanwhile, in ways both small and large, US behavior toward the Soviets took
on a harsher edge. Soviet ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin lost his reserved
parking pass at the State Department. US troops swooped into tiny Grenada to
defeat communism in Operation Urgent Fury. US naval exercises pushed ever
closer to Soviet waters.

The strategy worked. Moscow soon believed the new US leadership really was
ready to fight a nuclear war. But the Soviets also became convinced that the
US was now willing to start a nuclear war. "The policy of the Reagan
administration has to be seen as adventurous and serving the goal of world
domination," Soviet marshal Nikolai Ogarkov told a gathering of the Warsaw
Pact chiefs of staff in September 1982. "In 1941, too, there were many among
us who warned against war and many who did not believe a war was coming,"
Ogarkov said, referring to the German invasion of his country. "Thus, the
situation is not only very serious but also very dangerous."

A few months later, Reagan made one of the most provocative moves of the Cold
War. He announced that the US was going to develop a shield of lasers and
nuclear weapons in space to defend against Soviet warheads. He called it
missile defense; critics mocked it as "Star Wars."

To Moscow it was the Death Star—and it confirmed that the US was planning an
attack. It would be impossible for the system to stop thousands of incoming
Soviet missiles at once, so missile defense made sense only as a way of
mopping up after an initial US strike. The US would first fire its thousands
of weapons at Soviet cities and missile silos. Some Soviet weapons would
survive for a retaliatory launch, but Reagan's shield could block many of
those. Thus, Star Wars would nullify the long-standing doctrine of mutually
assured destruction, the principle that neither side would ever start a
nuclear war since neither could survive a counterattack.

As we know now, Reagan was not planning a first strike. According to his
private diaries and personal letters, he genuinely believed he was bringing
about lasting peace. (He once told Gorbachev he might be a reincarnation of
the human who invented the first shield.) The system, Reagan insisted, was
purely defensive. But as the Soviets knew, if the Americans were mobilizing
for attack, that's exactly what you'd expect them to say. And according to
Cold War logic, if you think the other side is about to launch, you should do
one of two things: Either launch first or convince the enemy that you can
strike back even if you're dead.

Perimeter ensures the ability to strike back, but it's no hair-trigger
device. It was designed to lie semi-dormant until switched on by a high
official in a crisis. Then it would begin monitoring a network of seismic,
radiation, and air pressure sensors for signs of nuclear explosions. Before
launching any retaliatory strike, the system had to check off four if/then
propositions: If it was turned on, then it would try to determine that a
nuclear weapon had hit Soviet soil. If it seemed that one had, the system
would check to see if any communication links to the war room of the Soviet
General Staff remained. If they did, and if some amount of time—likely
ranging from 15 minutes to an hour—passed without further indications of
attack, the machine would assume officials were still living who could order
the counterattack and shut down. But if the line to the General Staff went
dead, then Perimeter would infer that apocalypse had arrived. It would
immediately transfer launch authority to whoever was manning the system at
that moment deep inside a protected bunker—bypassing layers and layers of
normal command authority. At that point, the ability to destroy the world
would fall to whoever was on duty: maybe a high minister sent in during the
crisis, maybe a 25-year-old junior officer fresh out of military academy. And
if that person decided to press the button ... If/then. If/then. If/then.

Once initiated, the counterattack would be controlled by so-called command
missiles. Hidden in hardened silos designed s

When: 1960s

What: Midway through the Cold War, American leaders began to worry that a
rogue US officer might launch a small, unauthorized strike, prompting massive
retaliation. So in 1962, Robert McNamara ordered every nuclear weapon locked
with numerical codes.

Effect: None. Irritated by the restriction, Strategic Air Command set all the
codes to strings of zeros. The Defense Department didn't learn of the
subterfuge until 1977.
US-Soviet Hotline

When: 1963

What: The USSR and US set up a direct line, reserved for emergencies. The
goal was to prevent miscommunication about nuclear launches.

Effect: Unclear. To many it was a safeguard. But one Defense official in the
1970s hypothesized that the Soviet leader could authorize a small strike and
then call to blame the launch on a renegade, saying, "But if you promise not
to respond, I will order an absolute lockdown immediately."

Missile Defense

When: 1983

What: President Reagan proposed a system of nuclear weapons and lasers in
space to shoot down enemy missiles. He considered it a tool for peace and
promised to share the technology.

Effect: Destabilizing. The Soviets believed the true purpose of the "Star
Wars" system was to back up a US first strike. The technology couldn't stop a
massive Soviet launch, they figured, but it might thwart a weakened Soviet
Airborne Command Post

When: 1961-1990

What: The USSR and US set up a direct line, reserved for emergencies. The
goal was to prevent miscommunication about nuclear launches.

Effect: Stabilizing. Known as Looking Glass, it was the American equivalent
of Perimeter, guaranteeing that the US could launch a counterattack. And the
US told the Soviets all about it, ensuring that it served as a deterrent.

The first mention of a doomsday machine, according to P. D. Smith, author of
Doomsday Men, was on an NBC radio broadcast in February 1950, when the atomic
scientist Leo Szilard described a hypothetical system of hydrogen bombs that
could cover the world in radioactive dust and end all human life. "Who would
want to kill everybody on earth?" he asat the same time, Armageddon might
have ensued.

Perimeter solved that problem. If Soviet radar picked up an ominous but
ambiguous signal, the leaders could turn on Perimeter and wait. If it turned
out to be geese, they could relax and Perimeter would stand down. Confirming
actual detonations on Soviet soil is far easier than confirming distant
launches. "That is why we have the system," Yarynich says. "To avoid a tragic
mistake. "

The mistake that both Yarynich and his counterpart in the United States,
Bruce Blair, want to avoid now is silence. It's long past time for the world
to come to grips with Perimeter, they argue. The system may no longer be a
central element of Russian strategy—US-based Russian arms expert Pavel Podvig
calls it now "just another cog in the machine"—but Dead Hand is still armed.

To Blair, who today runs a think tank in Washington called the World Security
Institute, such dismissals are unacceptable. Though neither he nor anyone in
the US has up-to-the-minute information on Perimeter, he sees the Russians'
refusal to retire it as yet another example of the insufficient reduction of
forces on both sides. There is no reason, he says, to have thousands of armed
missiles on something close to hair-trigger alert. Despite how far the world
has come, there's still plenty of opportunity for colossal mistakes. When I
talked to him recently, he spoke both in sorrow and in anger: "The Cold War
is over. But we act the same way that we used to."

Yarynich, likewise, is committed to the principle that knowledge about
nuclear command and control means safety. But he also believes that Perimeter
can still serve a useful purpose. Yes, it was designed as a self-deterrent,
and it filled that role well during the hottest days of the Cold War. But, he
wonders, couldn't it now also play the traditional role of a doomsday device?
Couldn't it deter future enemies if publicized?

The waters of international conflict never stay calm for long. A recent case
in point was the heated exchange between the Bush administration and Russian
pr over Georgia. "It's nonsense not to talk about Perimeter," Yarynich says.
If the existence of the device isn't made public, he adds, "we have more risk
in future crises. And crisis is inevitable."

As Yarynich describes Perimeter with pride, I challenge him with the classic
critique of such systems: What if they fail? What if something goes wrong?
What if a computer virus, earthquake, reactor meltdown, and power outage
conspire to convince the system that war has begun?

Yarynich sips his beer and dismisses my concerns. Even given an unthinkable
series of accidents, he reminds me, there would still be at least one human
hand to prevent Perimeter from ending the world. Prior to 1985, he says, the
Soviets designed several automatic systems that could launch counterattacks
without any human involvement whatsoever. But all these devices were rejected
by the high command. Perimeter, he points out, was never a truly autonomous
doomsday device. "If there are explosions and all communications are broken,"
he says, "then the people in this facility can—I would like to underline

Yes, I agree, a human could decide in the end not to press the button. But
that person is a soldier, isolated in an underground bunker, surrounded by
evidence that the enemy has just destroyed his homeland and everyone he
knows. Sensors have gone off; timers are ticking. There's a checklist, and
soldiers are trained to follow checklists.

Wouldn't any officer just launch? I ask Yarynich what he would do if he were
alone in the bunker. He shakes his head. "I cannot say if I would push the

It might not actually be a button, he then explains. It could now be some
kind of a key or other secure form of switch. He's not absolutely sure. After
all, he says, Dead Hand is continuously being upgraded.

Senior editor Nicholas Thompson (nicholas_thompson at wired.com) is the author
of The Hawk and the Dove: Paul Nitze, George Kennan, and the History of the
Cold War.

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