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Cover Story March 2, 2006


  by lyle e davis


by lyle e davis


The Russian Early Warning Satellites had flashed an urgent signal.  An ICBM (Intercontintental Ballistic Missile) was heading for Mother Russia.  It was inbound from the United States of America.  It was thirty minutes past midnight on September 26th, 1983.  Because of time-zone differences, it was still Sept. 25 in America, a Sunday afternoon.


Sirens blaring, warning lights flashing, computer screens showing a nuclear missile on its way, one man in charge of a red button labeled "START" - that's start a retaliatory strike - and a roomful of people at their terminals and switchboards waiting for him to push it.


Soviet Army Lt. Col. Stanislaw Petrov stared incredulously at the warning lights on his console.  Alarm bells continued to go off throughout the top secret Serpukhov-15 bunker located outside of Moscow. 


Now the terror increased. 


Indications were that there was yet another ICBM inbound from America . . . and now another!  And another!  Each ICBM was MIRV capable (multiple independently-guided reentry vehicles . . . in layman’s terms, enough nuclear power in each ICBM to hit Mother Russia with anywhere from  three to ten nuclear warheads, each warhead with its own individual target.)  With the number of incoming ICBM’s shown to be steadily increasing on the early warning defense system the count now suggested as many as five ICBM’s were on their way . . a potential of 50 nuclear warheads!


In front of Petrov, on his command console, flashed that bright red button, blinking "START."


Petrov knew that the Russian early warning system had a history of flaws, and dismissed the first alarm as a glitch. But now there was not one alarm but five!


He had two options: call the alarm a computer glitch - which would be a direct violation of his orders- and risk losing the USSR's retaliatory options, or press "START" and unleash hell.


As Petrov described it in an interview, one of the Soviet satellites sent a signal to the bunker that a nuclear missile attack was underway. The warning system's computer, weighing the signal against static, concluded that a missile had been launched from a base in the United States.


He said "That night the nuclear attack warning system suddenly showed the launch of five ballistic nuclear missiles within three minutes from a base on the Atlantic coast of America.”


"It was showing a full nuclear attack. I felt as if I'd been punched in my nervous system. There was a huge map of the States with a U.S. base lit up, showing that the missiles had been launched.


"I was in command of 200 people, mainly officers. We knew the Americans had twice almost launched missiles because of a computer error. But we hadn't had this before."


The responsibility fell to Petrov, then a 44-year-old lieutenant colonel, to make a decision: Was it for real?


Petrov was situated at a critical point in the chain of command, overseeing a staff that monitored incoming signals from the satellites. He reported to superiors at warning-system headquarters; they, in turn, reported to the general staff, which would consult with Soviet leader Yuri Andropov on the possibility of launching a retaliatory attack.


On the night of the crisis, Petrov had little time to think. When the alarms went off, he recalled, "for 15 seconds, we were in a state of shock. We needed to understand, what's next?"


Usually, Petrov said, one report of a lone rocket launch did not immediately go up the chain to the general staff and the electronic command system there, known as Krokus. But in this case, the reports of a missile salvo were coming so quickly that an alert had already gone to general staff headquarters automatically, even before he could judge if they were genuine. A determination by the general staff was critical because, at the time, the nuclear "suitcase" that gives a Soviet leader a remote-control role in such decisions was still under development.


Understanding that if he were wrong, nuclear missiles would soon be raining down on the Soviet Union, and knowing that the Soviet Union's strategy was to launch an immediate all-out nuclear counter-attack against the United States, as the doctrine of Mutual Assured Destruction required, Petrov decided to trust his intuition and declare the system's indications a false alarm. After a short while, it was apparent that his instincts were right. There were no approaching missiles. The crisis put him under immense pressure and nervousness, yet Petrov's judgement had been sound. A full-scale nuclear war had been averted.


He recalled making the tense decision under enormous stress – electronic maps and consoles were flashing as he held a phone in one hand and juggled an intercom in the other, trying to take in all the information at once. Another officer at the early-warning facility was shouting into the phone to him to remain calm and do his job.


Petrov's dilemma was this: if he was disregarding a real attack, then the Soviet Union would be devastated by nuclear weapons without any warning or chance to retaliate, and he would have failed at his duty. On the other hand, if he were to report a non-existent attack, his superiors might launch an equally catastrophic assault against their enemies. In either case, millions of innocents would die.


I was supposed to supervise the combat crew. When the first launch happened, everyone was stupefied. After the first launch, I started giving orders, because in the room below, where there were five switchboards, and all the operators jumped out of their seats to see what my reaction was. I can only imagine what went on at the other posts.”


"I had a funny feeling in my gut," Petrov said. "I didn't want to make a mistake. I made a decision, and that was it."


Petrov's decision was based partly on a guess, he recalled. He had been told many times that a nuclear attack would be massive – an onslaught designed to overwhelm Soviet defenses at a single stroke. But the monitors showed only five missiles. "When people start a war, they don't start it with only five missiles,” he remembered thinking at the time. "You can do little damage with just five missiles. I just couldn’t believe that just like that, all of a sudden, someone would hurl five missiles at us. Five missiles wouldn’t wipe us out. The U.S. had not five, but a thousand missiles in battle readiness.”


On the potential end-of-the-world scenario, Petrov said:


“I imagined if I’d assume the responsibility for unleashing the third World War — and I said, no, I wouldn’t.”


Another factor, he said, was that Soviet ground-based radar installations – which search for missiles rising above the horizon – showed no evidence of an attack. The ground radar units were controlled from a different command center, and because they cannot see beyond the horizon, they would not spot incoming missiles until some minutes after the satellites had.


Petrov's role was to evaluate the incoming data. Despite the electronic evidence, Petrov decided – and advised the others – that the satellite alert was a false alarm, a call that may have averted a nuclear holocaust. But he was never rewarded for his decision. He spoke openly about the incident, although the official account is still considered secret by authorities here.


Stanislav Petrov was not originally scheduled to be on duty that night. Had he not been there, it is possible a different commanding officer could have made the opposite decision.


"After it was over, I drank half a litre of vodka as if it were only a glass, and slept for 28 hours," he said. "In principle, a nuclear war could have broken out. The whole world could have been destroyed."


Following the false alarm, Petrov went through a second ordeal. At first, he was praised for his actions. But then came an investigation, and his questioners pressed him hard. Why had he not written everything down that night? "Because I had a phone in one hand and the intercom in the other, and I don't have a third hand," he replied.


"It was a false alarm started aboard a satellite," says retired General Yuri Votintsev, then the Commander of the Soviet Missile and Space Establishment. Votintsev raced to the command post and was the first to hear Petrov's story after the incident.


"I noted Lieutenant Colonel Petrov's correct actions, given the situation. Literally within a minute he informed all the command posts that the information about the launch of space vehicles is false. His actions were duly noted."


Petrov should have been praised to the skies by a grateful world. "The first reaction of my commander-general was 'We will honour you'. But then a commission was launched into what had gone wrong. My commanders were blamed. And if the commanders were to blame, then the subordinates like me could not be innocent. It's an old thing we have in Russia. The subordinate cannot be cleverer than the boss, so there was no honour or credit for me."


Petrov, who was assigned to the satellite early-warning system at its inception in the 1970s, said in the interview that he knew the system had flaws. It had been rushed into service, he said, and was "raw."


Petrov said the investigators tried to make him a scapegoat for the false alarm. In the end, he was neither punished nor rewarded. According to Petrov and other sources, the false alarm was eventually traced to the satellite, which picked up the sun's reflection off the tops of clouds and mistook it for a missile launch. The computer program that was supposed to filter out such information was rewritten.


It is not known what happened at the highest levels of the Kremlin on the night of the alarm, but it came at a climactic stage in U.S.-Soviet relations that is now regarded as a Soviet "war scare." According to former CIA analyst Peter Pry, and a separate study by the agency, Andropov was obsessed with the possibility of a surprise nuclear attack by the West and sent instructions to Soviet spies around the world to look for evidence of preparations.


One reason for Soviet jitters at the time was that the West had unleashed a series of psychological warfare exercises aimed at Moscow, including naval maneuvers into forward areas near Soviet strategic bastions, such as the submarine bases in the Barents Sea.


The 1983 alarm also came just weeks after Soviet pilots had shot down Korean Air Lines Flight 007,  the incident that intiated the "Star Wars" Strategic Defense Initiative and prompted President Reagan to label the USSR the "Evil Empire," and just before the start of a NATO military exercise, known as Able Archer, that involved raising alert levels of U.S. nuclear forces in Europe to simulate preparations for an attack. This exercise had been labeled as "probably the single most dangerous incident of the early 1980s."


Petrov is credited with preventing World War III and the devastation of much of the Earth by nuclear weapons. Because of military secrecy and international policy, Petrov's actions were kept secret until 1998.


This incident is one of dozens of high-risk decisions that were made by strategic nuclear forces over the years of the Cold War, often at the last minute, by administrative personnel far from the chain of command. It only became known much later due to military secrecy. The US certainly experienced similar events, and the USSR may have experienced others that remain unknown to this day.


The US had experienced a similiar incident to the USSR's close-call, where a clumsy Air Force officer left a simulation tape running in NORAD's computer systems, prompting the ICBM force to begin prepping their missiles and sending bomber crews on alert rushing to their aircraft.


Coincidentally, the theatrical feature film WarGames had been released in the USA in June 1983. It depicted the potential for a nuclear war to be started between the US and the USSR due to computer error. Perhaps most coincidental, the movie plot showed the computerized system being implemented in response to a test in which human missile silo operators refused to launch in the face of an apparent attack.


Today "the man who saved the world," his health destroyed by the incredible stress of the incident, Petrov lives alone in a second-floor flat in the bleak town of Fryanzino, 30 miles east of Moscow. He is now a pensioner, spending his retirement in relative poverty. When he was forced out, he got one perk, a telephone, without having to wait years for installation. But now he is so poor that the phone has been cut off. And his bare kitchen is testimony to the struggle he has to survive. His wife died of cancer leaving him alone in the flat on the grandly named 60th Anniversary of the U.S.S.R. Street.


Petrov has only one momento of his time at Serbukov-15. It is a Soviet-era portable TV set given to him by his workmates who at least remembered him fondly for his cool judgment in preventing a nuclear war.


He does not consider himself a hero, but nevertheless, on May 21, 2004, the San Francisco-based Association of World Citizens gave Colonel Petrov its World Citizen Award along with a trophy and 1,000 United States dollars in recognition of the part he played in averting a catastrophe.


In January 2006 Petrov traveled to the United States where he was honored in a meeting at the United Nations in New York City. There the Association of World Citizens presented Petrov with a second special World Citizen Award.


The following day Petrov met with renowned American journalist Walter Cronkite at his CBS office in New York City. That interview, in addition to other highlights of Petrov's trip to the United States, will be included in the documentary film Minuteman, which is expected to be released in late 2006.


Stanislav Petrov.  A man who would have been considered an enemy by the people of America. But as it turned out, he would become for them and for the world an unknown hero - perhaps the greatest hero of all time. Because of military secrecy, and political and international differences, most of the world had not heard of this man.


Petrov Fund: There are people who want to contribute money to Colonel Petrov, and he is certainly in need of our help. For this purpose a special fund has been established to help the colonel. To contribute make checks out to "World Citizens Foundation" (exact same organization as Association of World Citizens, but with non-profit status).


All contributors will receive a receipt and an IRS number to use for income tax purposes. All contributions are tax deductible. Mail to: Association of World Citizens - 55 New Montgomery Street, Suite 224, San Francisco, CA 94105 - Tel: 415-541-9610 - Email: worldcit@best.com


Website:  http://www.worldcitizens.org/petrov.html


Next time you're tempted to send a contribution to a political campaign, remember that Stanislave Petrov has already saved the lives of millions of registered voters.










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