Due to his knowledge of the early warning system he was more likely to cast doubt than a regular officer on duty. Several factors looked suspicious: 1) The reported starts (5 in total) happened from a single base in the US which didn't make sense from the military point of view: the US would have put themselves at a grave disadvantage by sending just a few missiles; 2) They had visible light and infra-red visuals on the US territory and none of them checked out and 3) It would have been highly unlikely for the war to start suddenly, without any prior escalation.
Like other officers on duty, he had college education as an electronics engineer and additional 2 years of special training. All this probably helped him make the right decision.
This is not to take away from the importance of Mr.Petrov's heroic personal contribution: he definitely deserves recognition (which he didn't get from the Soviet Army and his own country BTW). Still I would also like to hope that we are all collectively not as stupid as to go caboom just because of the single fluke in the satellite system.
There was an interview with Petrov (in the 90s or 00s) when he spoke about this point, and the interviewer said that in 1983, the US plans for a preemptive strike started with a "beheading strike", in which a few missiles would be sent to hit the Kremlin and a handful strategic military bases. Then the US would wait if the Soviets were still twitching, in which case the second, more massive round would've been fired. Petrov admitted that, if he had known that, he would've decided differently on that fateful day.
(Don't have a direct source link to back this up, sorry. My source is one of the earlier episodes of https://alternativlos.org where they talked about the Cold War.)
Then again, it's not a proper Cold War strategic game theory play unless you're banking on your enemy to hesitate due to the unusual nature of the attack. SLBMs scream first strike, while a few birds out of many launching from farm country in the central United States in sequential fashion, not so much.
That said, I'm not sure what would have consituted "twitching" after Soviet C&C is wiped out, and if I was a planner at the time I don't think I'd want to find out. It would likely have been prudent to immediately follow up the decapitation strike with complete annihilation of Soviet nuclear retaliatory capability. Every deployed Soviet boomer accounted for and shadowded, with firing solutions computed. Every missile silo targeted. Presumably strategic air bases would be targeted in the first volley, though there would remain the possibility of strategic bomber patrols already airborne.
First strikes are really messy and entail a ridiculous amount of risk. Considering the stakes, it's no wonder neither side ever tried.
The original mistake was just an autocorrect error. Some day I'll learn not to write posts from mobile devices.
Also, I noticed you created an account just for this. Assuming it isn't a throwaway, welcome to HN. That's a cool username.
"The factory was to be a vast installation, comprising fifty buildings" is the same kind of use.
Nowadays there’s an automated system in place that ensures a response even if the entire high command is taken out: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dead_Hand_(nuclear_war)
Wow, so given Petrov's response, this plan might have actually worked. Those clever generals. (Insert emoticon of me being horrified right now..)
There isn't really a workable first strike plan, and that's probably a good thing.
So why you're spreading FUD, if you have nothing to prove your point?
The reason Petrov is to be considered a hero of old times is not just because he was able to spot a mistake, but to report something different from what he saw. He took the liberty to decide for an entire nation, and as he also admitted, the 12-13 minutes during which these potential nukes were supposed to reach their final destination were "really long". If he had been so certain, he'd have had no issues - he based his decision on his instinct.
If he had simply followed the rules (pretty common in a military hierarchy), we'd probably not be here today. This is what makes this man exceptional - the fact that in the end he even got scolded for not obeying the rules, and that he died "almost" in misery.
Anyway, it uses that incident to go back in history and explain the development of nuclear weapons and how the command and control systems we have today came about. A lot of it was driven to prevent all sorts of near-miss accidents that have happened in the past. We've been really, really lucky.
Highly recommend the book, especially for the HN crowd. It's good prose, but gets deep enough into the tech and system details that you come away with a solid understanding of how it all works.
The anniversary of the crisis Petrov saved us from is coming up soon, on September 26th. There's a ritual/ceremony that I and some others have been observing yearly on that day, which I recently put online at http://petrovday.com/, which talks about that (and the world's other close calls, and historical context).
There no such thing as an unimportant person because countless time in the stories the world or even the universe have been saved by ordinary people and nobody will ever know about them.
Only this is real life, this is deeply amazing. I feel so much gratitude and kindnesses for this man. RIP Станислав Евграфович Петров
PS: added emphasis on Fictional stories for clarity.
And on that theme, when I wore uniform we were told never to use the term VIP but instead NP, Notable Person. Which I thought was a good workaround as it separated fame from "importance"
On the theme that anyone can save the world, I think of the Lord of the Rings. And particularly of Samwise Gamgee.
For others confused like me: recurring theme in the Doctor Who stories.
But some fans would cringe because you can refer to "Doctor Who" as the show or "The Doctor" for the character but "The Doctor Who" Make no sense so your initial correction might be even more confusing to some ;)
"On 27 October 1962, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, a group of eleven United States Navy destroyers and the aircraft carrier USS Randolph located the diesel-powered,
nuclear-armed Soviet Foxtrot-class submarine B-59 near Cuba. Despite being in international waters, the Americans started dropping signaling depth charges, explosives
intended to force the submarine to come to the surface for identification. There had been no contact from Moscow for a number of days and, although the submarine's crew
had earlier been picking up U.S. civilian radio broadcasts, once B-59 began attempting to hide from its U.S. Navy pursuers, it was too deep to monitor any radio traffic.
Those on board did not know whether war had broken out or not. The captain of the submarine, Valentin Grigorievitch Savitsky, decided that a war might already have
started and wanted to launch a nuclear torpedo.
"Unlike the other subs in the flotilla, three officers on board the B-59 had to agree unanimously to authorize a nuclear launch: Captain Savitsky, the political officer
Ivan Semonovich Maslennikov, and the second-in-command Arkhipov. Typically, Russian submarines armed with the "Special Weapon" only required the captain to get
authorization from the political officer to launch a nuclear torpedo. However, due to Arkhipov's position as flotilla commander, the B-59's captain also was required to
gain Arkhipov's approval. An argument broke out, with only Arkhipov against the launch.
"Even though Arkhipov was only second-in-command of the submarine B-59, he was in fact commander of the entire submarine flotilla, including the B-4, B-36 and B-130, and
equal in rank to Captain Savitsky. According to author Edward Wilson, the reputation Arkhipov had gained from his courageous conduct in the previous year's Soviet
submarine K-19 incident also helped him prevail. Arkhipov eventually persuaded Savitsky to surface and await orders from Moscow. This effectively averted the nuclear
warfare which probably would have ensued if the nuclear weapon had been fired. The submarine's batteries had run very low and the air-conditioning had failed, causing
extreme heat and high levels of carbon dioxide inside the submarine. They were forced to surface amidst its U.S. pursuers and return to the Soviet Union as a result.
"Immediately upon return to Russia, many crew members were faced with disgrace from their superiors. One admiral told them "It would have been better if you'd gone down
with your ship."..."
 - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vasili_Arkhipov
The main point here - this has shown that Soviet officers were reluctant to carry orders, and if ordered "fight to the bitter end," would betray the political leadership
It showed that no matter of what Soviet political establishment tries, it would be unable to force the military to blindly follow the protocol. The fact that this got uncovered and publicised displeased the higher ups in the military because this endangered their positions, by rendering them incapable of instilling that order.
He was truly a hero, without his reaction a good chunk of this planet would be nuclear wasteland.
On the other hand, there are more trustworthy news outlets.
It's an interesting sub, sometimes a thought provoking article bubbles up to my front-page which is always a bit of a joy, Tho sometimes a bit of garbage bubbles up too.
…On the other hand, a not-so-intelligent person that blindly followed protocol would have caused the downfall of the US and Soviet Union and the death of hundreds of millions of people all over the world.
We all just got lucky.
It would have been a disaster anyway, if it was a real strike Soviet Union couldn't prevent it in any feasible way. The only thing they could possibly do was level the United States, but it wouldn't change the outcome for them.
I was reading on the Cuban missile crisis last night. There not one but several instances where the Americans said 'if x happens, we nuke the soviets', and then when x happened they didn't (for example, the downed U2 incident). The Soviets probably had just as many of those incidents. I think it really shows that deep down nobody was actually ready to go to war, so in all the chances they had to launch they chose instead not to.
I'm reminded by the movie WarGames when the nuke officers (not sure the actual designation) are replaced by relays...
I'm just glad the officer-just-doing-his-job expects systems to fail & trust hsi own judgment, instead of our current ever-increasing trust in machines
Taught that in case of a real attack the US would have gone on an all-out offensive, Petrov told his bosses the alarm must have been caused by a system malfunction.
The fact that these incidents have happened and armageddon has not yet happened suggests that the probability of accidental nuclear war is relatively low. But how low? Maybe the odds are one in a million per year. Maybe the odds are one in a hundred per year. I'd say that both numbers are compatible with the publicly known facts, but result in wildly different conclusions. The former number suggests that nuclear war is a minor worry and we should concentrate elsewhere. The latter suggests that human civilization is very likely to be destroyed in this way, and we should do everything possible to avert it.
How robust are we talking about? Do you think the odds of a nuclear war in your lifetime are <1%? I certainly do not.
It's a good watch. RIP Stanislav Petrov.
I hope detection systems improved since the 80s.
“My cozy armchair felt like a red-hot frying pan and my legs went limp. I felt like I couldn't even stand up. That's how nervous I was when I was taking this decision,” he told RT.
How well would any of us have done in that situation? It's tempting to think that we'd have said no, don't launch. But picture yourself as a military commander, raised in that lifestyle. Then add the natural inclination to freeze up and make bad choices under pressure.
It's also a lesson in secrecy. We almost didn't hear about this story. It was kept secret for a decade. How many secrets are you sitting on, bound by your NDAs? Will you ever make the important ones public a decade later, or will you decide it's not your position, or that it might affect your career?
It's easy to rationalize that it isn't our position to say anything about what we know. But it's also too easy.
I wish it were possible to make a service that lets you upload encrypted notes that will be made public after your death. But those two requirements conflict.
Don't people do this using a lawyer / testament?
If you don't want the lawyer to know the contents either, encrypt it and give the key to another lawyer.
Asking people to trust lawyers might strike some as being a bit optimistic, but I haven't come across problems with people who are privileged to my information yet. Doctors, lawyers, accountants.
You might worry about the guy's infosec, but then I counter a lawyer is more likely to use a safe or other non-digital tech than most people.
That sounds like an awesome startup idea. Except that the startup will run out of money after two years and sell your secrets to the highest bidder. Or they will become big enough to be bought by one of the Internet majors who will just shut down the servers and keep the developers.
Worse. Much worse. Imagine 1 further thought at the back of your head: Even if I get this absolutely right and avert WW3, there's an 80% chance I get shot and my family ends up in Siberia. My only way out of this is lucking out about the mood of my whole chain of command, up to and including the paranoid tyrant on top, who may worry I am creating precedent for not following orders to the letter. This may be how my life ends, and that's if I successfully avoid a nuclear holocaust.
That's a very interesting idea. What do you mean by the "requirements conflict"?
Couldn't it be implemented with a dead man's switch where one would check in every year or so. Of course there would need to be some verification methods baked in to thwart pranksters.
Possibly that such a dead man's switch would require the keys to be outside of your control to some extent - after all, if you die the day after resetting the switch, any infrastructure owned, maintained, or paid for by you might not exist for the switch to fire. If you give the keys to a third-party, you have to trust they aren't reading the contents and that their security measures are sufficient.
It could be done on an ad-hoc basis if you have a trusted third-party (close friend, for instance), but it's difficult to see how it could be scaled into a service. Perhaps it could be split into two parties - you upload the encrypted notes to the service, but they don't get the keys. You pass the keys to a trusted third-party (i.e. the close friend), who can make the notes public by giving the keys to the notes holder, who (ideally) would verify the death via public records. This avoids giving the secrets directly to the friend (in case of disagreements etc.), and you can reverse the decision whilst you are still alive (by deleting the notes).
Also, depending on the nature of the secrets, it does provide an incentive for death.
Topol missiles have literally only 5 control inputs available to the launch crew:
1. raise the launch tower, 2. lower the launch tower, 3. arm the missile, 4. disarm the missile, 5. launch the missile
All missiles are programmed at the factory. Precise start coordinates are held by a separate navigation receiver at the missile TEL, and if the receiver fails, there are multiple redundant fallbacks.
The only way a crew can mess up the launch is to override the start coordinates with manual input.
Likewise it would be a good case for a proof of work system with specialized single machine input. You have to prove x amount of work every so often to keep the data encrypted.
Hopefully your attackers are not too determined... but then again, any system where your death results in decryption has that particular flaw. A bigger problem is if you die in such a way that your body can't be recovered.
Zero. I don't sign NDA's.
I feel like that only works while you're young and in demand. Give it a decade or so. But I'm curious about your strategy.
There are many contexts that you simply can't work for someone if you won't sign an NDA. It'd be interesting to know the areas where that isn't true.
It sounds like a well trained person, who was good at their job, did their job well. Had they not of, which we all know happens, it would have been caught up the chain.
It seems like people are more surprised that a Soviet officer was an intelligent, controlled human being and I think this says more about us than anything else.
so this story seems benign enough, but bear in mind the source and consider what their motivations might be.
The BBC is a pretty independent body, and criticizes the government often. RT is a propaganda arm of the government and is under its direct control, as all mass media in Russia now (with few exceptions).
Meanwhile, today in North Korea it's pretty different.
Who knows what kind of systems they have in place to detect US attacks and how faulty and flawed they are likely to be and how unstable the people on top of them are and it's really something to fear.
It's easier, there the top leader decides and he loves his life: "Should you launch something at us, we know where you are (show a few slides) and will launch x nuclear weapons personally at you, wiping your entire family."
USSR had a leader but also the Politburo, in NK we have everything in one, and so far for three generations. Maybe relay the same threat to the top generals and you're done. Make it personal. Not your country, but your family will go go first. The country will follow...
History (and present) is filled with occasions where you can use that same quote. I agree with the luck of not having bombed ourselves yet though.
The way I rationalize it is that the human behaviour is extremely complex and it's very difficult to try and understand the reasons why some things happen (or do not happen), perhaps there's a subtlety that is not visible for most people unrelated with the powers that be.
> Eschew flamebait. Don't introduce flamewar topics unless you have something genuinely new to say. Avoid unrelated controversies and generic tangents.
This is what I responded to in the first place, flamebait. But I would have no issues saying the first sentence in real life, to the face of anyone making such a comment. I did not know how else to put it because it seriously makes zero sense and is impossible to debate.