Thursday, October 08, 2009

The Dead Hand

Listening to Fresh Air on NPR today I learned something about Cold War history I didn't know.

I think it's a safe bet that most of my readers weren't born yet when the Cold War was still hot. Or if you were, you probably aren't old enough to have any memory of what it was like.

I remember.

When I was in grade school, we still had "Duck and Cover" drills. Yeah. If you were sitting at your desk when the nukes started raining in like a Persian arrow volley, you might die. But if you ducked under your desk and covered your eyes, everything would be OK!

I remember the Cuban Missile Crisis. I was 7 years old. Old enough to grasp the fact that we could all be dead in 20 minutes. That's how long it would take Soviet ICBMs carrying H-Bombs to travel from launch to detonation. 20 fucking minutes. Less time than it took to walk from home to school. Less time than it took to watch an episode of Superman.

But that 20 minutes was the travel time from the U.S.S.R. Travel time from Havana, just 90 miles off the Florida coast, would be a tad quicker.

It was a scary fucking time to be a kid.

The strategic position on both sides of the Cold War was Mutual Assured Destruction. MAD. No fucking shit, that's really what it was called.

MAD depended on a Second Strike capability. For instance, if the Soviet Union mounted a First Strike against the United States, we would need to still have the capability of launching a Second Strike massive enough to wipe them off the face of the earth.

Our Second Strike capability was maintained via The Nuclear Triad.

Land based ICBMs in hardened, underground, concrete silos,

nuclear submarine based ICBMs,

and B-52 bombers
carrying live nukes that were airborne 24/7/365.

Beacuse the bombers were essentially on a one way trip, they carried a lot of survival gear.

Every one of our nukes had at least 3 humans in the loop. You had The President who had to issue the command to launch the nukes. Each nuke had 2 controllers. Both controllers had to acknowledge that they had received a valid order to launch. Both controllers had to agree to follow that order. And both controllers had to execute the commands and procedures to unleash the nuke.

It was called a Fail-Safe.

It was supposed to ensure that Doomsday would never be an accident.

But what I learned today is scarier than anything I learned as a kid.

The Soviet Union had a fallback option. It was called The Perimeter. Also known as Mertvaya Ruka, or Dead Hand.

Today's Fresh Air interview was with David E. Hoffman, author of "The Dead Hand". I was so intrigued by what he reported that I googled it when I got home and found a "Wired" article by Nicholas Thompson discussing the same subject.

The Perimeter was the Soviet Union's response to Reagan's "Star Wars" missile defense system and a guarantee of a Second Strike capability. An incredible, overwhelming Second Strike.

Here is how it worked.

Much like the authorization to launch the nukes, it had to be turned on by the leader of the Soviet Union. In essence, it gave him the option of saying "You know what guys, I'm gonna have to take a pass on this. I can't decide if I should launch the nukes or not. I'm going to press this button and pass the decision to The Perimeter."

From Nicholas Thompson's "Wired" article:

"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.

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 ... "

In the American Fail Safe system, even under a Second Strike protocol, each and every nuke requires 2 people to agree to let it go. There was always the possibility that 1 or both of the Control Officers would balk and refuse the order.

Not so much in The Perimeter.

This where it starts to get scary.

The Duty Officer who receives authorization to launch the nukes has the keys to The Gates of Hell.

From this point on, the robots are in charge.

The Command Missiles don't carry warheads. They carry launch authorization codes. Once launched, they arc over the Soviet Union issuing launch commands for every thermonuclear warhead in the Soviet inventory. At it's 1986 peak, that was about 45,000 warheads.

Try to picture that.

A handful of these Command Missiles flying overhead kicking up a wake like a ski-boat of tens of thousands MIRV tipped ICBMs carrying 45,000 hydrogen warheads all aimed at us. At you.

The Command Missiles don't have a human in the loop anymore. This is SkyNet.

The Command Missiles say "Fuck it. We're doing this. Buh Bye, meat puppets!"
But there is one more thing that makes this even more terrifying.

The Perimeter still exists and Russia has continued to "modernize" the system.

Think about it.

Someday a combination of a counterfeit computer control system with Bill Gate's "Blue Screen of Death", an earthquake in Siberia, and a peasant farmer slicing a buried fiber optic cable with an ox-drawn plow could inadvertently launch the The Command Missiles.

This is what the first couple of nukes would look like from right here in Kansas City.

I'll leave it to your imagination what things would look like 44,998 nukes later.


m.v. said...

damn I feel important. I had the whole world in my hand,I had the whole world in my hand,I had the whole world in my hand,but I didn't turn the switch

I Travel for JOOLS said...

The "Perimeter" still exists? I haven't read the references yet but that is really really scarey. On second thought, I'm not sure I want to know more as I don't really like to drink at 7:00 in the morning.

I Travel for JOOLS said...

I wonder how many people remember that the Day After was filmed here, well at least parts of it were, some close to my house.

emawkc said...

Slightly off topic, my high-school physics teacher served on a nuclear missile sub. He used to tell is that there was a saying amongst submariners: If you're not on a submarine, you're on a target.

Nick said...

One of the reasons we live here is the fact that if the ballon goes up, we'll be gone before we know it.

Any on who thinks nuclear war is survivable watches far too much t.v.

Xavier Onassis said...

Nick - That's a pretty cool graph. Does each spot represent a known spot targeted by the old Soviet/new Russian system?

mainstream said...

Great post!

Nick said...

X.O. -

Yeah, it does exactly that. The graph is from an old (1990) FEMA manual now out of print.

If you follow the link to the root URI, you can see the same graph for all 50 states, as well as an info page for each. I do believe there is also a graph for BC, poor bastards.

Surprisingly enough, that FEMA maual is now out of print. Nor was it replaced by a new one.

Jes' saying...

Xavier Onassis said...

Nick - I find it hard to believe they only had 2 or 3 nukes targeted for the Wichita area. Boeing Overhaul Base? B-52s? Hello? McConnel AFB? Cessna? Beechcraft? I know there are missile silos peppered around the area.

Nick said...

Again - 1990: what's been built up in the last 20 years isn't reflected in this maual - the site's author addresses some of this here.

For shits and giggles, contact FEMA and ask them where you can find the replacement document for FEMA-196...