Soviets built a Doomsday Machine... to stop themselves from launching a nuclear war

A fascinating article at Wired.com on the Soviet Union’s Doomsday Machine.

For 60+ years, U.S. and Soviet strategic thinkers have analyzed the “optimal” strategies in a world with nuclear weapons. (Ironically, the principal tool for such strategic thinking about the unthinkable is called “game theory.”)

Until the 1980s, the basic logic — called “Mutually Assured Destruction,” appropriately nicknamed “MAD” — ran like this: Each country wanted to maintain the capacity (and perceived intention) to obliterate the other, should it should launch a nuclear attack. So each side attempted to hide nuclear weapons (on mobile trucks), shield them (deep underground in bunkers hardened against nuclear attacks), and keep them totally unreachable (on submarines and planes in the air). The U.S. SAC (Strategic Air Command), for example, maintained 24-hour flights by nuclear-armed bombers.

Ronald Reagan and his saber-rattling subordinates ratcheted up the rhetoric many notches, even going so far as to talk openly about how we might win a nuclear war by causing disproportionate damage to the Soviet Union.

The Reagan Administration backed up its fiery words with a plan to build “Star Wars” technology that threatened to destabilize the stable “MAD” equilibrium. Reagan wanted to use lasers and defensive missiles to protect America against Soviet nuclear weapons. Were America to acquire the ability to stop, say, 500 Soviet ICBMs, the Soviet Union would suddenly find itself in a situation of “use ‘em or lose 'em.” America — the Soviets reasoned — would have a strong incentive to launch a secret attack on the Soviet Union that would wipe out most Soviet missiles and then use “Star Wars” technologies to stop any missiles it failed to blow up in their silos.

Faced with militaristic rhetoric from Reagan and his military men and a real threat of “use ‘em or lose 'em,” the Soviets did an extremely clever thing: they (apparently) built a Doomsday Machine… a system intended to launch a retaliatory strike on America even if America launched a massive nuclear attack on Russia that wiped out all its top military and civilian leadership.

What makes this Doomsday Machine especially interesting is that the Soviets (and, later, Russians) did NOT tell America’s leadership about it. For decades, discussions about a Doomsday Machine assumed its value was in deterring an attack by scaring the other side so much that it would not launch such an attack. But the Soviets kept their Doomsday Machine secret. Why?

The Soviets intended their Doomsday Machine not to deter America from attacking them but to deter their own generals and civilian leaders from attacking America! The Doomsday Machine was designed to assure Soviet leaders that the U.S. could not wipe the Soviet Union out of existence before the Soviets got a chance to do the same to America!

By the perverse logic of nuclear war, such a Doomsday Machine — a machine created to inflict incalculable death — was actually a stabilizing force:

The Soviets… built a system to deter themselves.

By guaranteeing that Moscow could hit back, Perimeter was actually designed to keep an overeager Soviet military or civilian leader from launching prematurely during a crisis. The point, Zheleznyakov says, was “to cool down all these hotheads and extremists. No matter what was going to happen, there still would be revenge. Those who attack us will be punished.”

And Perimeter bought the Soviets time. After the US installed deadly accurate Pershing II missiles on German bases in December 1983, Kremlin military planners assumed they would have only 10 to 15 minutes from the moment radar picked up an attack until impact. Given the paranoia of the era, it is not unimaginable that a malfunctioning radar, a flock of geese that looked like an incoming warhead, or a misinterpreted American war exercise could have triggered a catastrophe. Indeed, all these events actually occurred at some point. If they had happened at the same time, Armageddon might have ensued.

Perimeter solved that problem. If Soviet radar picked up an ominous but ambiguous signal, the leaders could turn on Perimeter and wait. If it turned out to be geese, they could relax and Perimeter would stand down. Confirming actual detonations on Soviet soil is far easier than confirming distant launches. “That is why we have the system,” Yarynich says. “To avoid a tragic mistake.”

Posted by James on Wednesday, September 23, 2009