Missile Attack?

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…)

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