Soviets built a doomsday device -- and it's still armed

Nothing puts one's own personal tribulations into perspective quite like learning that during the 1980s the USSR built a "doomsday device" meant to ensure that, in case of a nuclear war, a retaliatory strike against the US would still occur -- and that this system still exists today.

To Moscow [Reagan's SDI missle-defense initiative] was the Death Star -- and it confirmed that the US was planning an attack. It would be impossible for the system to stop thousands of incoming Soviet missiles at once, so missile defense made sense only as a way of mopping up after an initial US strike. The US would first fire its thousands of weapons at Soviet cities and missile silos. Some Soviet weapons would survive for a retaliatory launch, but Reagan's shield could block many of those. Thus, Star Wars would nullify the long-standing doctrine of mutually assured destruction, the principle that neither side would ever start a nuclear war since neither could survive a counterattack.

...The system, Reagan insisted, was purely defensive. But as the Soviets knew, if the Americans were mobilizing for attack, that's exactly what you'd expect them to say. And according to Cold War logic, if you think the other side is about to launch, you should do one of two things: Either launch first or convince the enemy that you can strike back even if you're dead.

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. But 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 ... If/then. If/then. If/then. If/then.

Once initiated, the counterattack would be controlled by so-called command missiles. Hidden in hardened silos designed to withstand the massive blast and electromagnetic pulses of a nuclear explosion, these missiles would launch first and then radio down coded orders to whatever Soviet weapons had survived the first strike. At that point, the machines will have taken over the war. Soaring over the smoldering, radioactive ruins of the motherland, and with all ground communications destroyed, the command missiles would lead the destruction of the US.

It's also cheering to learn that the "Permissive Action Links" that were supposed to prevent unauthorized use of US nukes by requiring a numerical code, were set to a string of zeros.

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