HAIR TRIGGER

Thirty-three years ago today, just about everyone in the United States came closer to dying than they would realize for many years.

During the Cold War the USSR had some military capabilities that were great and others that were primitive. The former were usually of the brute force variety (large missiles, sturdy tanks, rugged planes) and the latter were generally high-tech things like satellites, electronics, and computers. So at the point at which the US and USSR had rough parity in the ability to rain nuclear warheads on one another, the USSR was decidedly behind in the ability to do things like detect missile launches.

In 1982 – I swear I'm giving you the short version, so bear with me – the USSR launched a generation of spy satellites called Oko (Eye) intended to give it the ability to detect American missile launches. It wasn't very good. It scanned the horizon for the visual signs of a missile plume or a flash at the point at which the curvature of the Earth met the blackness of space (think about that for a second, how insanely far-fetched that is). Each one also carried an optical telescope that ground observers could use to look for those same flashes and streaks. To do so, the technicians who monitored the optical 'scopes had to sit in a pitch dark room for two hours (!!!) to prepare their eyes to look through the dim, grainy, distant telescopes. At this point I want to reiterate that I'm not making any of this up.

In 1983, during a period of heightened tension precipitated by the unusual degree of paranoia among the – What can you write about the Cold War without using this phrase at least once? – "Aging Kremlin Hardliners" and the dick-waving belligerence of the Reagan administration who considered it some combination of productive and hilarious (mostly the latter) to feint like we were about to launch a nuclear attack but not actually do it. Ha ha! Good one. Had they known how bad the Soviet command and control system was, they might have thought better of that. Nah, they weren't strong on thinking.

On September 26 the Oko system began registering flashes on the horizon which were auto-detected by the computer. The human controllers also noticed a glint, seemingly offering more evidence. But the engineer in charge, one Stanislav Petrov, paused before kicking this up the chain of command. First, he knew all about the penchant for false alarms and overall mediocre data produced by the Oko system, the archaic Soviet computers, and the men squinting into telescopes at barely decipherable images. Second, he asked aloud why thee United States would initiate a nuclear attack on its mortal enemy by lobbing a single missile when all of the doctrine of the era suggested that nuclear attack was murder-suicide and the only hope for coming out ahead was to strike first in an overwhelming saturation attack? If this were The Big One, Petrov concluded, American bombers, submarines, and missiles would be inbound by the thousands. Instead there was one phantom missile launch that none of the powerful Soviet ground radars could pick up.

The alarmed Soviet chain of command, already on hair trigger alert due to international tensions (see also Able Archer 83 shortly after this incident), realized it had only seconds to decide what to do. If they waited too long and it was a real nuclear attack, the Soviet forces would be clobbered before they could retaliate. If they jumped the gun, so to speak, they'd be starting a war that would result in their own destruction in return. Due to Petrov's insistence and skepticism within the military at the effectiveness of the new satellite system, the Soviets declined to respond. Sweating bullets, in ten or fifteen minutes they were relieved to find that no missiles were landing anywhere. It turned out upon later analysis that Soviet mathematicians and designers chose a highly elliptical orbit for the satellites that left them susceptible, under very rare circumstances, to seeing "flashes" from sunlight off of high altitude clouds. The system was fixed by adding geostationary satellites for cross referencing.

I'm not telling this story just because it happens to be the anniversary today. I'm telling it to emphasize that sometimes the only thing between the planet and nuclear holocaust is human rationality; for all of our advanced technology, we still rely heavily on people of rationality and intellect to make correct judgments and decisions. Something worth keeping in mind tonight, just in case there is any kind of televised event that lays bare the temperament and intelligence of the people who are jockeying for control of the American nuclear arsenal.

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31 Responses to “HAIR TRIGGER”

  1. Zosimus the Heathen Says:

    This incident (and other false alarms like it) is just one of the many reasons I have no time at all for the oft-made argument that nuclear weapons are a force for good because "they keep the peace", "make the world a safer place", and other such nonsense. I would've been ten years old at the time of the aforementioned incident – it's scary to think that the world might suddenly have ended one otherwise uneventful day (and all because a pack of morons had decided it'd be the height of hilarity to engage in a reckless and highly dangerous "prank"). As I recall, the '80s were, overall, a very scary decade on the nuclear front: largely, I suspect, because the USSR was on its last legs, and becoming as desperate and dangerous as the proverbial cornered animal. Often I think it's a miracle we got through that decade without blowing ourselves up!

  2. Dave Dell Says:

    Not going to watch the debate. It won't help my blood pressure or mental state in general. I find it difficult to believe that anyone hasn't already made up their mind for the presidential race. Maybe they say they're undecided but I doubt they truly are.

    I'm sure if anything truly significant to the chattering masses occurs tonight that I'll hear and read about it for weeks.

  3. Katydid Says:

    The Nena song "99 Luftballons" covered this in German and English (different versions). Growing up in the 1980s was like a permanent state of "Wargames" (a 1980s movie hit). I agree with Zozimus; it's a wonder we didn't blow up the planet during the 1980s. Petrove offers a sobering lesson in not relying in technology and considering it infallible. He caught the alert for flashes and understood sometimes the warnings were false (like the check engine light on my car?)

    I just read something interesting last night that I'm going to have to investigate further; it claims that what Krushchev actually said was not "We will bury you" (aggressive threat) but "We will still be here long after you're gone" (posturing). I never heard the original Russian of that. In any event, to live in the 1980s was to know there was always the chance to be annihilated in a nuclear war.

  4. Major Kong Says:

    The Soviets, due to their highly centralized government, were very afraid we would try to "decapitate" their leadership with a surprise attack.

    They actually built a system called "Perimeter" that was pretty close to the "Doomsday Device" in Dr. Strangelove.

  5. Jestbill Says:

    The main reason we have survived until now is that neither side actually trusts that their equipment will work.

    A first strike must be on target and on a carefully planned schedule to be successful.

    If you send off your missiles and the debris from the first bomb to go off shoots down most of the rest, the other side need not respond.

  6. Major Kong Says:

    This is also why a missile defense system is destabilizing even though that sounds counter intuitive.

    A power with an effective missile defense could take out most of their adversary's forces with a first strike and then let their defenses stop whatever they had left to hit back with.

  7. mm Says:

    I was 11 years old during the Cuban Missile Crisis. I was already a news junkie. I have never been so scared before or since. When President Kennedy came on TV to announce that the Russians had agreed to remove their missiles I felt so relieved.

    This election however is building up to the same level of fear. Trump, even with his small dick, is a bigger dick waver than even Cheney. Pence who would be in charge of foreign and domestic policy (per Trump) thinks that God will save the US because land of the free and home of the brave and Christian nation.

    I haven't felt that we could all be killed since 1962. Trump would do his best to turn the entire world against us. Plus he's doing his best to radicalize anybody who isn't white. And radicalize the white gun owners. Something is going to happen.

    I had my hair cut the other day and the barber and one of the clients were discussing the election. They've seen a lot of information on facebook. Hillary has seizures. They can't wait for the debates. Trump Trump Trump.

  8. Tim H. Says:

    We can be thankful for the weapons systems that weren't built during the cold war, Charles Stross describes some in "A Colder War". One of those dubious joys was a proposed military use of the Saturn 5, orbiting a FOBS armed space station that would cut missile flight times even further.
    One positive thought I carried in my youth was the Kansas City area had enough cold war targets that I had a decent chance of dying quickly, and a very small targeting error would take me instantaneously.

  9. Carl Says:

    Wacky Internet sports-and-stuff personality Jon Bois made a pretty good video about this.
    http://www.sbnation.com/2015/8/27/9215363/stanislav-petrov-pretty-good

  10. KaceyL Says:

    I believe I saw this on an episode of "The Americans".

  11. alighierispal Says:

    Google Vasili Arkhipov next time you want a real scare. This is the Soviet submarine commander who single-handedly saved the world from nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis. He should have gotten the Nobel Peace Prize, if there were any justice. We all owe our lives to him. No exaggeration.

  12. Robert Walker-Smith Says:

    I told someone at college (early 1980s) that my main concern with a nuclear exchange was surviving the first strike and having to live through the aftermath.
    "Are you planning on living here in the San Francisco Bay Area after college?"
    Yes.
    "Well, you can stop worrying."

  13. Kent W. Says:

    If you want to test this theory, open a Twitter account, call it, say, Joesph Stalin Andropov, and tell Trump his steaks taste like shit, and his wife looks like a mole. Watch President Trump end the world.

  14. Kovpakistan Says:

    IIRC, Khrushchev actually said words to the effect of "We will be around long after the USA has been buried."

    As for that Doomsday device, it is called "Dead hand" and I believe it still exists. It was located by the mountain Yamantau (this locale is actually featured in the first CoD: Black Ops game), which is a Tatar/Bashkort word meaning, I shit you not, "Evil Mountain."

  15. Safety Man! Says:

    I grew up outside Robins AFB, it was an article of faith that we were a first-tier target and would be dust on the wind before we knew what happened. I hope that future generations will look back at these comments and stories and find them miasma/ spontaneous generation-level incomprehensible and stupid.

  16. Kovpakistan Says:

    Remembering the constant threat of nuclear annihilation is also a good check against this idiotic idea that the Cold War was more stable than now.

  17. Katydid Says:

    @Kovpakistan, thanks for that; I googled and found similar, including the original words (I can't do Cyrillic on this keyboard) mbi Bac pokhoronim. and one that claims he said mbi Bac zakopaem, which sounds entirely different and I'm giving the side-eye to.

  18. Kovpakistan Says:

    As I understood похоронить is more about burying as in being at a funeral, so it doesn't mean you actually killed them. It can also mean to sort of dismiss something as hopeless, worthless, or something along those lines.

  19. Katydid Says:

    @Kovpakistan; that's my sense, too, from my reading and experience. i am not a native speaker of Russian. Maybe we should ask Gulag? How's about it, Gulag? Govorite li russki yazik?

  20. John Danley Says:

    A man who has never read a book, has unlimited access to cash, and a diagnosis of moderate mental retardation with poor impulse control would "shake things up" with those silly codes.

  21. Kruschev Said... Says:

    Kruschev apparently said "Мы вас похороним!" which is pronounced "M-wee vass poxho-RO-neem!" literally "We you will bury."

    The X in the Russian word похороним is pronounced like a gutteral "hch" we are familiar with from Jewish expressions and words, like the beginning of the word halvah, the pasty fudge that is of Russian origin. Pohxh-o-RO-neem

    Apparently, Kruschev's reference to burying was common Marxist thought at the time, from Marx' Communist Manifesto and other works, which frequently referred to funerals and the burying of bourgeois types and ideals, as socialism inevitably marched on into victory over capitalism in the future.

    While there are other nuances that make other English idioms reasonable – "It's your funeral," "We'll dance at your funeral," "Famous last words," "It's lights out!" even "Don't let the door hit you on the way out!" – the expression "We will bury you!" is probably best, in that 1) it is exactly what Kruschev actually said, 2) it was how his interpreter translated it at the time, and maybe more than anything, 3) it singularly refers to the uniquely rude, cocky and flat-footed exclamation made by Krushchev in 1956, in a way that "Good night, nurse!" or "See you in the funny papers!" or any other alternative phrasing do not.

  22. Major Kong Says:

    Kruschev was afraid that if we found out just how weak the Soviet Union was at the time that we would attack them.

    There actually was a "bomber gap" and a "missile gap", it just happened to be in our favor.

    Kruschev never knew if he should try to be nice to us or scare us.

  23. Katydid Says:

    "Muy VAs pahaROnim" (unstress o's revert to ah's) or "we you bury" (not future tense). The Russian language is very, very colorful and uses a lot of metaphors. Just like the English "we will CREAM you" doesn't necessarily mean "we will dump you in a bowl with sugar and butter and whip you up until you're frothy", "we bury you" doesn't necessarily mean "we will put you in a box and push the box into a hole in the dirt".

  24. Katydid Says:

    P.S. Anyone got the Sting song "The Russians" running through their minds, or is that just me?

  25. Skepticalist Says:

    Here I was in my thirties when this thing took place. I never knew of it. Still, since "Dr. Strangelove," we all assumed it was just a matter of time.

    I was 16 during the Cuban missile crisis and we assumed we were close enough to Buffalo and Cleveland that we'd never see it coming.

    On that: In 1962 we had access to just three national TV channels. These were staffed by serious reporters, mostly former war correspondents, that knew how to give us room to catch our breath between horror stories. Man on the street interviews were part of the 1/2 hour newscasts–not day long rants by deplorables. A few special reports and selected scenes of the naval blockade kept us on our toes. It amounted to a kind of filter. Maybe it wasn't so good but it was appreciated by my mother at least. Fear wasn't as marketable at the time.

  26. c u n d gulag Says:

    I watched the debate for an hour, before I reached my gag limit.

    t-RUMP never mentioned 'strawberries', and didn't juggle little steel balls, so I expect our idiot MSM will call him the winner.

  27. tkno77 Says:

    Charlie Pierce posted about the same story today on his blog – I wonder if he's a fan? One can only hope.

  28. geoff Says:

    Here's another tale of Cold War Follies from today's Guardian:

    https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/sep/27/receding-icecap-top-secret-us-nuclear-project-greenland-camp-century-project-iceworm

    And yes, I was pretty sure the world was going to end between 1981 and 1986 or so.

  29. 所沢 脱毛サロン Says:

    昔を思えば、ワキ脱毛は凄く安くなりました。その理由としては、ワキ脱毛を脱毛のビギナー専用の位置づけにしており、取りあえず安価で体験してもらおうと計画しているからです。

  30. Ed Cooper` Says:

    I remember being 15 during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and a follower of the guys in the small group which had accepted me. We were all certain Kennedy was going to get us killed, beyond any doubt, and that as close as we were to the Bay Area, (San Francisco, for you folks on the right coast), as somebody here has already posted, we were certain that we would be radioactive dust before the sun set the next day. I thank FSM and DOG on a freq;uent basis that John Kennedy, for all his faults, ( he was human), had the large brass bells to tell Curtis (Nukes Away) Lemay to go sit in the corner while the adults figured out what to do.

  31. skin Says:

    VIOを除いた部位を脱毛してほしいなら、エステで行なっているフラッシュ脱毛でも効果が期待できるので良いのですが、VIO脱毛というと、違う方法でないとうまく行かないと思います。