Missile Launch!

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.


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