1983 Soviet nuclear false alarm incident
On 26 September 1983, the nuclear early warning system of the Soviet Union twice reported the launch of USAF Minuteman intercontinental ballistic missiles from bases in the United States. These missile attack warnings were correctly identified as a false alarm by Stanislav Yevgrafovich Petrov, an officer of the Soviet Air Defence Forces. This decision is seen as having prevented a retaliatory nuclear attack based on erroneous data on the United States and its NATO allies, which would have probably resulted in nuclear war and the deaths of hundreds of millions of people. Investigation of the satellite warning system later confirmed that the system had malfunctioned.
The incident occurred at a time of severely strained relations between the United States and the Soviet Union. Responding to the Soviet Union's deployment of fourteen SS-20/RSD-10 theatre nuclear missiles, the NATO Double-Track Decision was taken in December 1979 by the military commander of NATO to deploy 108 Pershing II nuclear missiles in Western Europe with the ability to hit targets in eastern Ukraine, Belarus or Lithuania within 10 minutes and the longer range, but slower BGM-109G Ground Launched Cruise Missile (GLCM) to strike potential targets farther to the east. In mid-February 1981, and continuing until 1983, psychological operations by the United States began. These were designed to test Soviet radar vulnerability and to demonstrate US nuclear capabilities. They included clandestine naval operations, in the Barents, Norwegian, Black, and Baltic seas and near the Greenland-Iceland-United Kingdom (GIUK) gap, as well as flights by American bombers, occasionally several times per week, directly to Soviet airspace that turned away only at the last moment.
"It really got to them," told Dr. William Schneider, [former] undersecretary of state for military assistance and technology, who saw classified "after-action reports" that indicated U.S. flight activity. "They didn't know what it all meant. A squadron would fly straight at Soviet airspace, and other radars would light up and units would go on alert. Then at the last minute the squadron would peel off and return home."
From the accounts of CIA and senior KGB officers , by May 1981, obsessed with historical parallels with 1941 and Reaganite rhetoric, and with no defensive capability against the Pershing IIs, Soviet leaders believed the United States was preparing a secret nuclear attack on the USSR and initiated Operation RYaN. Under this, agents abroad monitored service and technical personnel who would implement a nuclear attack so as to be able either to preempt it or have mutually assured destruction.
On 1 September 1983 the Soviet military shot down the South Korean passenger jet, Korean Air Lines Flight 007, that had strayed into Soviet airspace. All 269 people aboard the aircraft were killed, including U.S. Congressman Larry McDonald and many other Americans. The first Pershing II missiles were reportedly deployed in late November 1983.
Bruce Blair, an expert on Cold War nuclear strategies and former president of the World Security Institute in Washington, D.C., says the American–Soviet relationship at that time "had deteriorated to the point where the Soviet Union as a system—not just the Kremlin, not just Soviet leader Yuri Andropov, not just the KGB—but as a system, was geared to expect an attack and to retaliate very quickly to it. It was on hair-trigger alert. It was very nervous and prone to mistakes and accidents. The false alarm that happened on Petrov's watch could not have come at a more dangerous, intense phase in U.S.–Soviet relations." In an interview aired on American television, Blair said, "The Russians (Soviets) saw a U.S. government preparing for a first strike, headed by a President Ronald Reagan capable of ordering a first strike." Regarding the incident involving Petrov, he said, "I think that this is the closest our country has come to accidental nuclear war."
On 26 September 1983, Stanislav Petrov, a lieutenant colonel in the Soviet Air Defense Forces, was the officer on duty at the Serpukhov-15 bunker near Moscow which housed the command center of the Soviet early warning satellites, code-named Oko. Petrov's responsibilities included observing the satellite early warning network and notifying his superiors of any impending nuclear missile attack against the Soviet Union. If notification was received from the early warning systems that inbound missiles had been detected, the Soviet Union's strategy was an immediate nuclear counter-attack against the United States (launch on warning), specified in the doctrine of mutual assured destruction.
Shortly after midnight, the bunker's computers reported that one intercontinental ballistic missile was heading toward the Soviet Union from the United States. Petrov considered the detection a computer error, since a first-strike nuclear attack by the United States was likely to involve hundreds of simultaneous missile launches in order to disable any Soviet means of a counterattack. Furthermore, the satellite system's reliability had been questioned in the past. Petrov dismissed the warning as a false alarm, though accounts of the event differ as to whether he notified his superiors or not after he concluded that the computer detections were false and that no missile had been launched. Later, the computers identified four additional missiles in the air, all directed towards the Soviet Union. Petrov again suspected that the computer system was malfunctioning, despite having no other source of information to confirm his suspicions. The Soviet Union's land radar was incapable of detecting missiles beyond the horizon, and waiting for it to positively identify the threat would limit the Soviet Union's response time to a few minutes.
It was subsequently determined that the false alarms were caused by a rare alignment of sunlight on high-altitude clouds and the satellites' Molniya orbits, an error later corrected by cross-referencing a geostationary satellite.
In explaining the factors leading to his decision, Petrov cited his belief and training that any U.S. first strike would be massive, so five missiles seemed an illogical start. In addition, the launch detection system was new and in his view not yet wholly trustworthy, while ground radar had failed to pick up corroborative evidence even after several minutes of the false alarm.
Petrov underwent intense questioning by his superiors about his actions. Initially, he was praised for his decision. General Yury Votintsev, then commander of the Soviet Air Defense's Missile Defense Units, who was the first to hear Petrov's report of the incident (and the first to reveal it to the public in the 1990s), stated that Petrov's "correct actions" were "duly noted." Petrov himself stated he was initially praised by Votintsev and was promised a reward, but recalled that he was also reprimanded for improper filing of paperwork with the pretext he had not described the incident in the military diary.
Oleg Kalugin, a former KGB chief of foreign counter-intelligence who knew Soviet chairman Andropov well, says that Andropov's distrust of American leaders was profound. It is conceivable that if Petrov had declared the satellite warnings valid, such an erroneous report could have provoked the Soviet leadership into becoming bellicose. Kalugin says, "The danger was in the Soviet leadership thinking, 'The Americans may attack, so we better attack first.'"
In popular culture
- The incident was relayed in the first episode of the 2010 American web series Pioneer One.
- The false alarm incident was depicted in the 2014 feature film The Man Who Saved the World.
- The incident is also mentioned in the November 1, 2015, episode #2.5 of the U.S. television show Madam Secretary.
- Oleg Burov tells the story of the false alarm in episode 48, "The Day After," of the period spy drama, The Americans.
- The Doctor Who audio story Protect and Survive (audio) takes place in an alternative history where Stanislav Petrov, controlled by the Elder Gods, launches a 'secondary' nuclear strike
- List of nuclear close calls
- WarGames, a 1983 movie released 4 months prior to the incident, depicting an early warning system's false alarm of a thermonuclear strike
- 1961 Goldsboro B-52 crash — another nuclear accident which narrowly missed widespread destruction.
- Vasili Arkhipov — another nuclear war-averting incident during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
- Able Archer 83 — NATO military exercise that happened over a month after the Petrov incident.
- Norwegian rocket incident — a rocket carrying scientific equipment to study the aurora borealis resembled a submarine-launched Trident missile.
- World War III — Situations resulting in close encounters of a third world war.
- Deutschland 83
- Peter Schweizer, Victory: The Reagan Administration's Secret Strategy That Hastened the Collapse of the Soviet Union (New York: The Atlantic Monthly Press, 1994), p. 8, as quoted at Fischer, "A Cold War Conundrum" (CIA Centre for the Study of Intelligence, 2007). Retrieved on May 18, 2013.
- Peter Schweizer, Victory: The Reagan Administration's Secret Strategy That Hastened the Collapse of the Soviet Union (New York: The Atlantic Monthly Press, 1994), p. 8, as quoted at Fischer, "A Cold War Conundrum" (CIA Centre for the Study of Intelligence, 2007).
- Andrew and Gordievsky, Comrade Kryuchkov's Instructions: Top Secret Files on KGB Foreign Operations, 1975–1985, 74–6, 86, Stanford UP 1993 https://books.google.com/books?id=6ahujvo6ukwC ISBN 0-8047-2228-5
- Fischer, Ben B. "The 1983 War Scare in US-Soviet Relations" (PDF). National Security Archive. Archived (PDF) from the original on 28 March 2015. Retrieved 21 November 2015.
- Kennedy, Bruce. "War Games: Soviets, Fearing Western Attack, Prepared for Worst in '83". CNN. Archived from the original on 19 December 2008.
- Oberg, James (1993). "KAL 007: The Real Story". American Spectator. 26 (10): 37.
- Pieta, Ewa. "The Red Button & the Man Who Saved the World" (Flash). logtv.com. Archived from the original on 16 October 2006. Retrieved 27 September 2006.
- "War Games". Dateline NBC. Burrelle's Information Services. 12 November 2000.
- Дайджест : Тот, который не нажал
- "The Man Who Saved the World Finally Recognized". Association of World Citizens. Retrieved 7 June 2007.
- Hoffman, David (10 February 1999). "I Had A Funny Feeling in My Gut". Washington Post. Retrieved 18 April 2006.
- Molniya orbit
- Тот, который не нажал. Moskovskiye Novosti (in Russian)
- BBC TV Interview, BBC Moscow correspondent Allan Little, October 1998
- Shane, Scott (31 August 2003). "Cold War's Riskiest Moment". Baltimore Sun. Archived from the original on 19 August 2006. Retrieved 20 August 2006. (article reprinted as "The Nuclear War That Almost Happened in 1983"')
- BrightStarSound.com Stanislav Petrov tribute website, multiple pages with photos and reprints of various articles about Petrov
- Nuclear War: Minuteman Article from Weekendavisen, 2 April 2004.
- The Nuclear War that Almost Happened in 1983 (posted September 5, 2003). History News Network, Originally in the Baltimore Sun of 31 August 2003
- Armageddon Almost Not Averted link is dead on 30 September 2013
- "Sept. 26, 1983: The Man Who Saved the World by Doing ... Nothing".
- 30 years on: The day a computer glitch nearly caused World War III. The Register. 27 September 2013