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26 September 2011

On this day in history: Stanislav Petrov averted a nuclear war, 1983

At a little past midnight on 26th September, 1983, the computers of the Soviet early warning system, code-named Oko, reported an incoming intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) launched from the mainland of the United States. In the Oko command centre located in the Serpukhov-15 bunker near Moscow, the computer screens went red and a piercing alarm sounded. Following the doctrine of mutual assured destruction, both superpowers employed the strategy of immediate counter attack on detection of incoming ICBMs.

The duty officer in the Serpukhov-15 bunker that night was Lieutenant Colonel Stanislav Petrov. Petrov decided that the alarm was a computer error. He reasoned that if the United States had initiated a first strike then they would have launched hundreds of missiles in order to prevent a Soviet counter-strike.

A short time later the system detected another missile launch, closely followed by three more. In spite of having no means to confirm his suspicions, Petrov concluded that each detection was a computer malfunction. Consequently, he did not inform his superiors who probably would have ordered a retaliatory launch of Soviet ICBMs.

Petrov was proven to be correct, the error had been caused by an alignment of sunlight on high-altitude clouds and the elliptical orbit of the detection satellites. Although he initially received praise from his superiors, Petrov was later subject to intense questioning and received a reprimand for not following procedure. They reassigned him to a less sensitive position, from which he took early retirement. In 2004, the Association of World Citizens presented Petrov with its World Citizen Award, and two years later they presented him with a second award at the United Nations in New York City during a meeting held in his honour.

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Stephanie Barr said...

I've always found this a fascinating story and a great pity it hasn't received more information.

Why don't we automate everything?

Well, there you go.

wiregems said...

Wow! Thanks goodness for guys with common sense!

Stepterix said...

Human error is indeed outweighed by common sense when it comes to these devices