September 26: Stanislov Petrov Day: The Man Who Prevented a Nuclear Holocaust
September 26, 2015 Gar Smith / The Berkeley Daily Planet & David Wright / The Union of Concerned Scientists
September 26 should be recognized globally as Petrov Day. If it hadn't been for Lt. Col. Stanislav Petrov, in 1983 nuclear war would have erupted and billions of people would have been killed. Russian radar has incorrect reported incoming US ballistic missiles and it was Petrov's duty to unleash a retaliatory attack. Petrov ignored his training and refused to launch the missiles. A movie about this incident -- "The Man Who Saved the World" -- is now showing in select theaters.
September 26: Stanislov Petrov Day
Who's He? Simply, the Man Who Saved the World Gar Smith / The Berkeley Daily Planet
(September 25, 2015) -- It's time (long past time, actually) for a planet-wide shout-out to Stanislav Petrov.
September 26 should be recognized globally as Petrov Day.
If it hadn't been for Stanislav Petrov, you and I -- and billions of other people -- might not be alive today.
Petrov was the Russian officer whose finger was on the nuclear button on September 26, 1983, the fateful day that Russian radar mistakenly reported an incoming flight of US ballistic missiles.
Petrov was in the chain-of-command. He had less than 30 minutes to make a decision and respond.
Surrounded by panicking soldiers urging him to act and launch a "retaliatory strike," Petrov balked.
He ignored his training and disobeyed orders.
He thought the radar signals might be bogus.
He took his finger off the nuclear trigger.
And the world did not end.
Thirty-two years later, Petrov remains virtually unknown when, by rights, his name should be as familiar as that of Lincoln, Jesus, Gandhi or Malala.
Petrov's time may finally have come, thanks to a new movie that's just begun showing in limited release -- in New York and Los Angeles. Some of the folks involved in "The Man Who Saved The World," the film honoring Petrov, are well-known names -- Matt Damon, Robert De Niro and Kevin Costner.
When you look at the trailer (below), there's a funny/chilling moment in a scene showing Petrov (long retired) sitting down on a sofa to relax in front of his TV. He opens up a beer bottle and ... spills it on the floor. (I think the filmmaker's message here was: "Accidents happen.")
As Daniel Ellsberg has observed: "The more one learns about the hidden history of the nuclear era, the more miraculous it seems that the doomsday machines which we and the Russians have built and maintained have not yet triggered each other. At the same time, the clearer it becomes that we could and that we must dismantle them."
So this Saturday, let's all pause and raise a toast to Stan Petrov. He saved us all from being toast.
Stanislav Petrov And The Day the World Almost Ended (Really) David Wright @ The Equation / The Union of Concerned Scientists
(September 23, 2015) -- Every day since Sept. 26, 1983 has to some extent been borrowed time.
That was when -- during one of the most tense periods of the Cold War -- Soviet warning systems announced an incoming attack by US nuclear missiles. Urgent checks and rechecks of the warning system showed it was operating correctly and the attack was real.
The Soviets kept their nuclear missiles on hair-trigger alert so in a situation like this they could launch them before incoming US missiles landed and destroyed them. This left only minutes for the Soviet launch officers to decide what to do.
The officer on duty, Lt. Col. Stanislav Petrov, knew this situation was what the entire Soviet nuclear weapons enterprise had been built for. His job as a launch officer was to follow orders and set in motion a retaliatory nuclear launch. It was what all his training was about.
He also knew that once the US detected the launch of Soviet missiles, it would respond with whatever nuclear weapons it had left. The exchange would likely destroy both countries and, we now know, put enough soot into the atmosphere to disrupt global agriculture for years and add perhaps billions to the death toll.
We're here today because -- despite the data he was getting -- Petrov had doubts and broke the rules: He told his superiors it was a false alarm before he actually knew that to be true.
Soon after Petrov's decision it became clear that it had been a false alarm: The Soviet warning satellites had been fooled by reflections of sunlight no one had anticipated. Luckily, Petrov ignored protocol and literally saved the world.
A movie about this incident -- The Man Who Saved the World -- is now showing in New York City, Los Angeles, Detroit, and Portland (OR).
Unfortunately, this was not the only time the world came close to a nuclear war due to false warning, misperceptions, etc. And this problem is still with us since the US and Russia each keep many hundreds of nuclear missiles on hair-trigger alert.
But another anniversary -- this one on Sept. 27 -- shows how the US can take steps to end this threat.
The Bush Initiatives
By Sept. 27, 1991, the Iron Curtain had fallen and the Cold War was ending. President George H. W. Bush decided to take dramatic steps to reduce nuclear risks, and decided that the US could take these initiatives on its own, independent of what the Soviet Union did. President Bush withdrew thousands of nuclear weapons from around the world.
His initiatives also included taking US nuclear bombers off high alert. During the Cold War, fear of a surprise first strike by the Soviets led the US to keep nuclear-armed bombers on alert. Initially this meant several B-52s were in the air 24-7.
Accidents, including bomber crashes, came close to causing nuclear explosions on multiple occasions, and had in fact spread toxic plutonium in a couple cases. So after 1968, airborne alert was cancelled but dozens of bombers were kept on ground alert at all times -- fueled, loaded with nuclear bombs, and ready to take off at a moment's notice.
This policy grew out of the deepest fears of the Cold War, but to President Bush it had outlived any usefulness, and could be ended without affecting deterrence. In a single stroke, he ordered all bombers -- and all the nuclear weapons they carried -- to be taken off high alert.
President Obama: End Hair-Trigger Today
Today President Obama is in a similar situation as President Bush. While bombers are no longer on alert, the US continues to keep many hundreds of nuclear missiles on hair-trigger alert -- another policy left over from the Cold War. Unfortunately, Russia does as well.
This policy increases the risk that nuclear weapons will be used, as the Petrov Incident and other incidents have made painfully clear. The policy has outlived whatever usefulness it had and is simply too risky.
President Obama should follow the example of President George H.W. Bush and do the sensible thing: take all silo-based missiles off alert. It would clearly be best if Russia did the same, but the US would be safer even if acts alone, since a mistaken US launch would lead to a Russian retaliatory launch. And taking the first step would help encourage Russia to follow suit, as it did in 1991.
President Obama, just like President Bush, has the authority to do this. Until he does, he continues to gamble with the safety of the US public -- and the fate of the world.
David Wright is a physicist and the co-director of the UCS Global Security Program. He is a nationally known expert on the technical aspects of missile defense systems, missile proliferation, and space weapons. David also blogs on All Things Nuclear.
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