No One Actually Saved Us From Thermonuclear War in 1983

Time magazine has sold you a whopper (9/18/17). It has repeated inaccurate assertions peddled by other ‘news’ outlets that the late Lt.Col. Stanislav Petrov, duty officer in an air defence installation under a closed town, Serpukhov-15, south of Moscow, saved us all from annihilation in September 1983 after another miscalculation,  the tragic Soviet shootdown of a KAL airliner packed with innocent civilians.

It is a bizarre assertion. The grain of truth behind it appeared in the memoirs of Petrov’s commanding officer, Col. General Yuri Votintsev in 1993 (Voenno-istoricheskii zhurnal, No.8-9). Votintsev dates the incident to 13 July 1983, well before the KAL shootdown. Self-evidently that does not sound dramatic enough to journalists at Time. A false positive in a defective program and not the ‘OKO’ program referred to, which was not fully operational with at least nine orbiting satellites until 1987, indicated a missile launch from the USA.

Petrov, an engineer specialising in algorithms, did the right thing, however, and reported that the program was probably wrong. But even had he done otherwise, the system required any single report be communicated to the duty officer in Moscow within five minutes. There it was subjected to multiple means of verification against KGB, GRU and other Ministry of Defence intelligence sources, before it was reported urgently to the Chief of the General Staff. Thus, although Petrov was correct, even had he been mistaken, the information was insufficient to justify a retaliatory strike.

Moreover, Mikhail Onufrienko of OsNaz (Signals/Communications Intelligence), otherwise known as the ‘intellectuals’ of the GRU, trained these officers at the centre in Pavlovsk, outside Leningrad. He had also spent thousands of hours as duty officer like Petrov. Onufrienko dispels the myths dished up by Time magazine. He has pointed out that everyone working these systems was paranoid and many suffered from ulcers given the weight of responsibility on their shoulders. Moreover, the apparently spectacular remark uttered at the time – ‘For the defence of the state frontiers of the USSR’ – was nothing at all special. It was barked out at each change of guard in the bunkers (‘Predotvrashchennaya yadernaya voina’ – propagandistskii mif’, Voennoe obozrenie, 2 November 2017.)