Similar to how the Doomsday Machine is depicted in the 1964 movie Dr. Strangelove, the USSR actually later built a system called Perimeter, or Dead Hand, to launch their nuclear missiles if sensors determined a nuclear strike had taken place and communication with the war room had been cut off.
This is terrifying because of the chance that once the system was put into high alert mode during a period of global tension, it could launch on a false positive.
But in a small bit of good news, I learned recently that even if it’s still in use—which is unclear—it’s not quite fully automatic.
If it detected what it thought was a nuclear attack and lost contact with the war room, Dead Hand would transfer launch authority to whoever was manning the command missile system in a bunker somewhere. That person would still have to press the launch button themselves.
At that point, if they did so, “command missiles” would take off on trajectories that took them over the USSR’s nuclear missile silos and send out radio signals that would initiate the launch of the intercontinental ballistic missiles that had survived the first strike.
Now this is all still terrifying, but the fact that there’s at least one person in the loop is a relief: assuming that the command missile bunker includes feeds from various sources, there is a decent chance that that person would recognize a false positive and not launch.
There is a history of people on both sides during the Cold War pushing back in ambiguous situations where they could have launched nuclear weapons. Not everyone is willing to follow orders or procedures if it could mean the end of the world.
So spreading the idea that Dead Hand was fully automatic was actually a bluff to dissuade the US from launching first, because it meant that retaliation would be guaranteed; as Dr. Strangelove says:
Because of the automated and irrevocable decision-making process which rules out human meddling, the Doomsday Machine is terrifying and simple to understand… and completely credible and convincing.
On a fun ending note, I read that after Terry Southern, one of the screenwriters for Dr. Strangelove, died in 1995, papers and index cards were found among his effects, indicating that Stanley Kubrick had wanted Terry Gilliam to direct a sequel called Son of Strangelove, which featured Dr. Strangelove living in a bunker full of young women.
And now, some relevant music: “Multilateral Nuclear Disarmament” by the Beastie Boys, from 2011, which has just one line, but it’s a good one.
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