Saturday, March 12, 2016

Bytes People: Two men who avoided nuclear war

Stanislav Petrov (1939 - )

Things were tense between Russia and America in September 1983,

On September 1 of that year the Russians had shot down a Korean airliner en route from Anchorage, Alaska to Seoul. The airliner had flown through Soviet prohibited airspace at the time that a US aerial reconnaissance mission was being carried out. Although the Soviets initially denied knowledge of the incident, they later admitted shooting it down, claiming that the aircraft was on a spy mission. All 269 passengers and crew were killed.

Not long after, on September 26, Stanislav Petrov was the duty officer at the command centre for the Oko nuclear early-warning system. Oko means ‘eye’ in Russian, The missile defence program consists of satellites used to identify launches of ballistic by detection of their engines' exhaust plume in infrared light. The data obtained can be used to launch anti-ballistic missiles.

On that day Oko reported that a missile, followed by another one and then up to five more, were being launched from the United States. 

Petrov judged the report to be a false alarm. Had he reported it as an attack, there would probably have been a retaliatory launch by the Soviets, causing a similar response by the US. It would have been the beginning of a large-scale nuclear war.

Petrov was right, there had been no US launch, Oko was malfunctioning. The false alarm had been created by a rare alignment of sunlight on high-altitude clouds and the Oko satellites' orbits. The error was later corrected by cross-referencing a geostationary satellite

Additional comments:
  • Petrov has stated that he was neither rewarded nor punished for his actions.
  • Petrov has also given reasons for his assessment that the reports were a false alarm:  He had been advised that any US strike would be all-out, so that 5 missiles seemed illogical; the launch detection system was new and, in his view, not trustworthy, and ground radar had not detected any missiles.
  • In a 2013 interview Petrov admitted that he had not been sure that the report was erroneous but made his call nonetheless. It was felt that other officers, all with only military training, would have called it in as a nuclear strike.
  • The incident became known in the 1990’s with the publication of the memoirs of General Yury Votinsev, then commander of the Soviet Air Defense's Missile Defense Units.
  • Whilst Petrov would not have been responsible for launching a retaliatory attack, his report would have been crucial. According to Bruce Blair, a Cold War nuclear strategies expert and nuclear disarmament advocate, formerly with the Center for Defense Information, "The top leadership, given only a couple of minutes to decide, told that an attack had been launched, would make a decision to retaliate."

Vasili Arkhipov (1926 – 1998)

You know the Harrison Ford/Liam Neeson movie “K-19: The Widowmaker”? And the Denzel Washington/Gene Hackman movie “Crimson Tide”? Meet the chap who lived both the scenarios depicted in those films.

Vasili Arkhipov and wife Olga


After graduating in 1947, Arkhipov served in the submarine service aboard boats in the Black Sea, Northern and Baltic Fleets. 

In 1961 he was appointed deputy commander/executive officer of the new Hotel-class ballistic submarine K-19. After a few days of conducting exercises off the coast of Greenland the submarine developed an extreme leak in its reactor coolant system. This leak led to failure of the cooling system. Radio communications were also affected and the crew was unable to make contact with Moscow. With no backup systems, Commander Zateyer ordered the seven members of the engineer crew to come up with a solution to avoid nuclear meltdown. This required the men to work in high radiation levels for extended periods. They eventually came up with a secondary coolant system and were able to keep the reactor from a meltdown. 

Although they were able to save themselves from a nuclear meltdown the entire crew including Arkhipov were irradiated. All members of the engineer crew and their divisional officer died within a month due to the high levels of radiation they were exposed to. Over the course of two years fifteen more sailors died from the after effects. 

Involvement in the Cuban missile crisis:

On 27 October 1962, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, a group of eleven United Statyes Navy destroyers and the aircraft carrier USS Randolph located the diesel-powered nuclear-armed Soviet Foxtrot-class submarine B-59 near Cuba. Despite being in international waters, the Americans started dropping practice signaling depth charges, explosives intended to force the submarine to come to the surface for identification. There had been no contact from Moscow for a number of days and, although the submarine's crew had earlier been picking up U.S. civilian radio broadcasts, once B-59 began attempting to hide from its U.S. Navy pursuers, it was too deep to monitor any radio traffic. Those on board did not know whether war had broken out or not. The captain of the submarine, Valentin Grigorievitch Savitsky, decided that a war might already have started and wanted to launch a nuclear torpedo.

Unlike the other subs in the flotilla, three officers on board the B-59 had to agree unanimously to authorize a nuclear launch: Captain Savitsky, the political officer Ivan Semonovich Maslennikov, and the second-in-command Arkhipov. Typically, Russian submarines armed with the "Special Weapon" only required the captain to get authorization from the political officer to launch a nuclear torpedo. However, due to Arkhipov's position as flotilla commander, the B-59's captain also was required to gain Arkhipov's approval. An argument broke out, with only Arkhipov against the launch.

Even though Arkhipov was only second-in-command of the submarine B-59, he was in fact commander of the entire submarine flotilla, including the B-4, B-36 and B-130, and equal in rank to Captain Savitsky. According to author Edward Wilson, the reputation Arkhipov had gained from his courageous conduct in the previous year's Soviet submarine K-19 incident also helped him prevail. Arkhipov eventually persuaded Savitsky to surface and await orders from Moscow.. This effectively averted the nuclear warfare which probably would have ensued if the nuclear weapon had been fired. The submarine's batteries had run very low and the air-conditioning had failed, so it was forced to surface amidst its U.S. pursuers and head home. Washington's message that practice depth charges were being used to signal the submarine to surface never reached B-59, and Moscow claims it has no record of receiving it either.]

When discussing the Cuban Missile Crisis in 2002, Robert McNamara, who had been U.S. Secretary of Defense at the time, stated "We came very close" to nuclear war, "closer than we knew at the time.” In 2002 Thomas Blanton, who was then director of the National Security Archive, said that "a guy called Vasili Arkhipov saved the world".


Now think about how many countries have nuclear weapons today, including North Korea.

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