Archive for May, 2010

Missile Attack?

May 23, 2010

Tales from the Nuclear Age:

Copyright © 2010 by Charles Glassmire ______________________________________________________ May 23, 2010

Missile Attack?

Lieutenant Colonel Stanislav Petrov of the Soviet Air Defence Force was commanding a secret alert bunker (Serpukhov-15) south of Moscow on the night of September 23rd , 1983. His crew was monitoring the United States missile silo field watching for an attack on the USSR. They were using spy satellites (Molynia) [Lightning] in orbit, comprising the Oka [Eye] system, with infra-red and optical telescope sensors transmitting back continuous data feeds of the surface.

It was necessary to have multiple viewpoints of the U.S. missile bases from multiple satellite orbital positions. This required several Molynia’s to be in orbit at the same time. There were nine satellites in the Oka system, each one known only by its number. Colonel Petrov knew No. 5 was the most sensitive, and this night it was sending back more data than was usual as it approached its apogee orbital position. The computers were continuously examining each sighting, looking for the characteristic heat signature which would indicate a missile launch.

No. 5 was entering its apogee some 19,800 miles distant. It was observing the U.S. missile fields at dusk, which was a difficult technical challenge. As the sun dipped behind the Earth rim, the infra-red image field often became a hazy out-of-focus blur, requiring the operators to observe very carefully. Even the telescope back-up systems produced an image so dim the operators had to sit in a darkened room for two hours to accommodate their night vision to be able to see an image in the dark field optical telescope. Number 5 normally triggered on ten to twenty targets during a shift, but by midnight Petrov’s team was handling over thirty.

It was 12:15 a.m.,  when Petrov was suddenly dumbfounded as the system alerted to a hostile missile blast off! It was targeting the USSR, and launched from an American silo! For the first time in his experience he saw the little used alert board above the wall map light up with large red letters proclaiming “LAUNCH.” Oka was verifying an incoming nuclear missile!

The team had observed many missile launches over the years from Vandenberg Air Force Base and from Cape Canaveral in Florida. Some of these had failed on launch with massive explosions, and some had gracefully entered their orbital trajectory. None had ever been identified as hostile incoming.

Colonel Petrov had served in the military for twenty-six years and was now appointed Deputy Chief of Combat Algorithms. He spent most of his time as an engineer programming the system, inventing new faster ways to recognize missile signatures. He only worked an operational shift twice a month to keep his hand in. He knew there were some 19,000 warheads between the two giant nations, and it all now seemed  to be poised on a decision by him! He was not authorized to launch missiles, but a report from him on a detected incoming first strike would almost certainly result in a higher decision to launch immediate retaliation.

A siren began to warble. The crew operators on the floor below rose from their stations and stood looking upward toward him. He was the Commander – he needed to tell them what action to take. What was happening? He stood up and took the intercom off its hook. He ordered them all to get back to their stations. It would take at least ten minutes to verify this data and he didn’t have ten minutes to wait. He had to make a decision.

He fought for logical control of his racing brain. If it was only one missile, it could be an accidental launch, or a launch by someone unauthorized. But he also knew that was unlikely. A U.S. launch required two keys to be turned simultaneously followed by launch command codes to be entered by two missile crewmen to unlock the missile safety systems for launch. In addition to launch control, the nuclear weapon safety system was a second safguard system beyond the launch safeguards. It was known as “PAL” for Permissive Action Link. On the airborne bombs it was an electrical panel on the side of the weapon. The correct pass codes had to be entered before the weapon would arm itself. If any incorrect information was entered, the weapon immediately rendered itself inoperable and useless. The missile PAL was more sophisticated. The probability of two officer conspirators seemed rather low. Could one madman have a gun pointed at the other crewman? And if the missile did launch, what did that portend? Would a war be started with only one launch? His training always stated that a first strike would consist of a barrage of missiles all incoming at once.

He had picked up the red telephone and stood with his hand frozen in mid air. He called the dark room and asked for optical telescope sightings. The operators examined their dim telescope images and could see no inbound missile. He slowly began to say to himself this was not the way for a war to start. It made no sense. He was told a massive strike would be needed. The risk was too great for total destruction. He knew the Oka system was rushed into service and had many flaws in operation. The floor crew was demanding instructions.

He had to make a decision now and it was relying mostly on his gut instinct! The Duty Officers alarmed voice could be heard coming from the telephone in his clenched hand:

Yes? Yes? What is happening?

(to be continued…)


Missile Launch!

May 10, 2010

Tales from the Nuclear Age:

 Copyright © 2010 by Charles M. Glassmire

May 10, 2010

 Missile Launch!

 “Never, perhaps, in the postwar decades was the situation in the world as explosive and hence, more difficult and unfavorable, as in the first half of the 1980s.”

–Mikhail Gorbachev, February 1986

          Paranoia in the Soviet Union was high at this time. It seemed to emanate from Yuri Andropov, the Soviet leader. Dobrynin notes in his memoirs

Andropov was the first Soviet top leader since Stalin who seemed to believe that the United States might launch a surprise [nuclear] attack on the USSR.”

          The WWII invasion of Russia by Hitler which defeated the Red Army had left an indelible impression on an entire generation of Russians. At that time Stalin had ignored all intelligence warnings that Hitler was about to invade, and the catastrophic losses during that operation were never to be forgotten. Older KGB leaders proclaimed their strategy in the ‘80s to be “never again…. .” One former KGB officer [Oleg Kaluigin] who was stationed in Leningrad in 1981 notes in his memoirs

“…in 1981 we received what I can only describe as a paranoid cable from Andropov warning of the growing threat of a nuclear apocalypse.”

          At that time Andropov initiated intelligence project RYAN (first letters of the Russian words meaning “nuclear-missile attack”) in which KGB assets worldwide were alerted to watch enemy facilities for indirect signs of preparation of a nuclear first strike by the U.S. Weekly reports were to be filed to Moscow observing things like whether the lights were burning late in state office buildings or military offices, presumably indicating enemy preparations for a nuclear first strike! British blood banks were to be observed for signs of increasing prices paid for blood donations. (KGB headquarters seemed unaware British blood donations were voluntary and donors were not paid.) RYAN was not cancelled until 1991 when the USSR dissolved.

          Perhaps RYAN was a response to U.S. probes by military aircraft across the Soviet borders. Occasionally military flights  probed inland to excite enemy radars in order to collect data on their radar frequencies, locate “holes” in radar coverage around the borders, and do photo reconnaissance. This was a program called PSYOP started by Eisenhower and re-authorized in the Carter administration. Most missions flew along the Soviet borders, but some did penetrate interior airspace. Scores of aircraft were lost on these missions.  The program was dropped after satellite reconnaissance became available. So the Korean Airlines shoot-down (see previous “KAL” post) touched off a seriously heightened hair-trigger episode in Soviet U.S. relations. Dobrynin, in his memoirs, said at that time, both sides “…went slightly crazy….”

          To resume our previous tale, into this maelstrom some three weeks after KAL, on September 25th 1983 Colonel Stanislav Petrov reported for night duty at a Soviet Air Defence Force radar alert center, (Serpukhov-15) to watch for a missile first strike attack from the United States. This was the secret command center for the Soviet early warning spy satellite system, code designator “Oka(Eye).” Petrov’s orders were to analyze and report any impending U.S. attack. Soviet doctrine was clear. An incoming missile alert from Oka would trigger an immediate counter-attack on the United States. In these days of Mututal Assured Destruction, this (MAD) strategy was known as “Launch on Warning.”

          Reporting at 7 p.m.* Petrov received a one hour briefing on the current conditions and then relieved the Watch Commander. His crew of 12 had reported to him and was disbursed to their stations below on the floor of the Center.  Petrov’s station was an armchair in a glass room above the Center’s floor. In front of him he had telephones to contact his superiors and consoles reflecting incoming radar and satellite data. Below he could see his center crew at their consoles receiving streaming data from the satellite systems which had been installed only the year before. Across the floor on the far wall was a large map showing the North Pole at its center. Above the pole was shown the continental United States (upside down), and below the pole situated the lands of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Any aircraft or missile nuclear attack would route over the Pole as this was the shortest route between the two countries. Since Soviet radar systems could not see over the horizon, radar systems alone would only allow 8 minutes warning for senior military to make decisions. The Oka system extended the alert time to some 35 minutes.

          This new satellite spy system was designed to directly monitor the United States’ 1,000 nuclear ICBM launch sites from the ground up. These were of the Molniya (“Lightning”) Class (not similar to the more public Cosmos satellites) and observed the Earth’s surface and space via dual sensors using both infra-red and optical telescope.

          The Molniya’s were 6 foot long cylinders with a five foot circumference, and were characterized by their unusual orbital inclination of 63.4 degrees. The devices observed the Earth’s surface from an elliptical orbit which reached out to 19,800 miles at apogee. This allowed the satellite to linger while monitoring continental United States for a longer observation time. The more usual equatorial orbits were not satisfactory since the Soviet Union was situated in a more northerly location, and the broadcast angle from orbit around the equator was too acute for quality downlink transmissions.

          The rocket exhaust from a missile launch has a very characteristic infra-red pattern against the blackness of space. Each contact was transmitted to the Center and examined by computer (a Soviet Supercomputer M-10) to be classified as a danger, or discarded. The Oka usually examined ten to twenty contacts on a typical shift. In normal operation, none were (usually) classified as a hostile missile track pattern.

          Petrov went for a tea break at 10 p.m. The Oka system had been recently installed in haste in late 1982, in a desperate attempt to catch up with the Americans. The U.S. Keyhole spy satellite cameras had been observing the USSR from orbit since August of 1960 under the secret code name CORONA. The first US satellite photos of the Soviet Union, including the ICBM base at Plesetsk, were shot on film and returned to earth by capturing the parachuted film capsule, snagging it out of the air onto a flying C-119.  The Soviet spy system had been assembled rapidly and put into operation after years of too-often failed testing, long before it was ready for operational use.

          Forty-four year old Colonel Petrov, an engineer and programmer by training, worked to remove problems from the system.  He knew that “Launch on Warning.” left no room for error. But the apparatus was “still troubled”*. The system in fact, was stricken with malfunctions. The satellites, for instance, sometimes just stopped sending down data for unknown reasons. His superiors told him to just ignore the problems; they would be worked out in time. So these watchers over a system with the fate of the World in their hands were told to just “look the other way” for now.

          Returning from break, Colonel Petrov was occupied with handling reports from the operators on the floor, and details of system tuning. The time was now after midnight. Suddenly at 12:15 a.m. Petrov was startled. Across the room there was a little noticed electronic board above the large maps.  Now it lit up in large red letters. “LAUNCH.” On the U.S. map a small white light glowed atop one of the U.S. missile bases. Stunned, the Colonel sat down in his chair. The system was validating a nuclear missile launch from a silo in the mid-western United States against a target in the USSR…

(to be continued…)


*The author thanks David E. Hoffman, former Moscow Bureau Chief for the Washington Post, for details of this event, outlined in his book “The Dead Hand” 2009, Doubleday Random House Inc.