25 years ago today I was a three year old boy, living in a village in the Yorkshire Dales, from where you could see the golfball aerials at the NSA’s Menwith Hill base. Later, people I knew well would protest it for ages, and a man who was supposedly an engineer for LockMart there lived next door.
Via Charlie Stross, today is Stanislas Petrov day. As a Soviet air defence forces colonel, he was in charge of monitoring their satellite early warning system when it indicated five incoming missiles. But he was well aware of the system’s possible failings, and the strategy the US was expected to pursue – after all, what on earth would be the point of firing only five missiles, on a polar trajectory that the Molniya satellites would detect?
And so he declined to give the warning, knowing that if he was wrong, the radar line would light up with panic soon enough. The phones certainly did; they complained he hadn’t filled in the station log right, to which he said that he couldn’t because he’d had a phone in each hand all night. Of course, the radars didn’t go off because there were no missiles – when the ideologues and bureaucrats handed the issue to serious scientists, they worked out that it was an inherent flaw in the system’s design, connected with the unusual orbit of the satellites and rare conditions in the upper atmosphere. A false positive could have happened at any time.
That didn’t wash with the Karlo Rovskis; they sacked Petrov, who had anyway had a nervous breakdown (who wouldn’t?) not long afterwards.
Petrov’s heroic success was based on a few things; the first was his sound understanding of the machines. He didn’t need to ask the experts or believe the big computer. The second was that he understood the political and grand strategic situation. It made no sense to send five rockets. The third was that he feared what the buggers might do anyway; yes, it might be clear that nobody would send five rockets, and anyway the radars would give enough time to press the button, but who knew what the politicians (of every kind) would do under the effect of fear?
The fourth was that he acted, not letting the fools take the wheel. The Soviet Union was in the hands of a middle-ranking air force colonel, as in so many science-fiction horrorshows; but no-one could have been better. I can’t help but think of the lowborn Model Army men of the civil war; Colonel Hewson and Cornet Smith against the Duke of Godknows.