Petrov weekend blogging
It’s Petrov weekend.
Apparently by chance, Wired has a story about the Soviet Union’s Perimetr command-and-control system, which it gives a completely misleading headline to.
As the story itself makes clear, the last thing Perimetr was designed to do was to act as the Doomsday Machine from Dr. Strangelove; in fact, it was designed to ensure that the Soviet ICBM fleet would only be launched by an explicit decision to do so, and that this decision would only be delegated to lower levels of command if communications with the STAVKA were lost and nuclear weapons had actually exploded in the USSR.
Further, as the text points out, the strategic purpose of it was actually restrictive command and control; the idea was that the top party leadership would be reassured by its presence that they didn’t have to launch early in a crisis, and would therefore be self-deterred. Rather than doing anything more provocative, they could decide to put the system on alert in the event of a crisis, and then be assured that if they got it all wrong and the Able Archer/RYAN scenario actually happened, it wouldn’t work and the US would indeed be blown up.
It’s one of the many ironies of the cold war; not only could all this nuclear readiness be considered stabilising, but a system that promised to delegate command under certain conditions could actually tend to retain it at the centre until those conditions came to pass.
Meanwhile, I hadn’t known about Vasily Arkhipov, yet another Soviet officer who saved civilisation. He was the weapons officer in a submarine during the Cuban missile crisis; the American blockade force tried to force them to surface by dropping practice depth charges nearby, which they of course interpreted to mean they were dropping them for real, but missing, rather than firing warning shots.
Accounts differ, but it seems the captain wanted not just to fire back, but to use a torpedo with a nuclear warhead against the aircraft carrier USS Randolph. Unlike a conventional torpedo, which could be launched by the captain and the weapons officer, using a nuclear weapon needed the captain, the weapons officer, and the political commissar. Both the commissar and the captain were all for pressing the button…
Arkhipov wasn’t, and eventually the submarine surfaced and called Moscow for orders, which weren’t “get on with it, you lubber”, and there was no war. Arkhipov, unlike Petrov, went on to command most of the Soviet Navy’s submarines and retired with the rank of vice admiral. Arkhipov Day is in a month’s time, although I’m beginning to suspect it might be a bit like celebrating the siege of Gibraltar.
I’m collecting these people; so far, the only Western equivalent I know about was an MI6 agent stationed in the British Embassy in Moscow at the same time and who was Oleg Penkovsky’s handler. Penkovsky vanished early in the crisis, possibly because the KGB had a mobilisation plan item to lock up all their suspects. He had been given an emergency protocol to get in touch with Roberts in the event he learned of imminent nuclear war – this involved phoning a number in the embassy and blowing into the phone three times.
Not long after the peak of the crisis, on the 2nd of November, the call came in; he decided not to activate the procedure to inform the prime minister at once, suspecting that the KGB had found out the code from Penkovsky and were testing the British response for reasons of their own. The story is in Peter Hennessy’s The Prime Minister, but there is no name.