'I Had A Funny Feeling in My Gut'
By David Hoffman
MOSCOW – It was just past midnight as Stanislav Petrov settled into the commander's chair inside the secret bunker at Serpukhov-15, the installation where the Soviet Union monitored its early-warning satellites over the United States.
Then the alarms went off. On the panel in front him was a red pulsating button. One word flashed: "Start."
It was Sept. 26, 1983, and Petrov was playing a principal role in one of the most harrowing incidents of the nuclear age, a false alarm signaling a U.S. missile attack.
Although virtually unknown to the West at the time, the false alarm at the closed military facility south of Moscow came during one of the most tense periods of the Cold War. And the episode resonates today because Russia's early-warning system has fewer than half the satellites it did back then, raising the specter of more such dangerous incidents.
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.
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.
Petrov's role was to evaluate the incoming data. At first, the satellite reported that one missile had been launched – then another, and another. Soon, the system was "roaring," he recalled – five Minuteman intercontinental ballistic missiles had been launched, it reported.
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 relentlessly interrogated afterward, was never rewarded for his decision and today is a long-forgotten pensioner living in a town outside Moscow. He spoke openly about the incident, although the official account is still considered secret by authorities here.
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.
In the end, less than five minutes after the alert began, Petrov decided the launch reports must be false. 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.
"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."
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.
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.
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 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. Pry has described this exercise as "probably the single most dangerous incident of the early 1980s."
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company