Doomsday Now!

by wjw on September 29, 2009

Doctor Strangelove would seem to be my favorite movie. I believe I’ve seen it more often than any other film— I’ve watched Slim Pickens ride that H-Bomb to Laputa something like twenty times.

It was Strangelove that popularized the notion of the Doomsday Device. (The Doomsday Bomb was actually conceived by Leo Szilard, who also conceived the idea of the nuclear chain reaction and later [with Fermi] patented the idea of a nuclear reactor.) In Strangelove, the Device is a computer hooked up to cobalt-jacketed thermonuclear bombs, and programed to detonate the bombs if the Soviet Union is attacked, thus eradicating life from the planet for something like 93 years.

It turns out that the Soviets actually built one of these. It’s called Perimetr and is buried under the Kosvinski Mountains in the southern Urals.

“Kosvinsky,” Blair tells us, “is regarded by U.S. targeteers as the crown jewel of the Russian wartime nuclear command system, because it can communicate through the granite mountain to far-flung Russian strategic forces using very-low-frequency (VLF) radio signals that can burn through a nuclear war environment. The facility is the critical link to Russia’s ‘dead hand’ communications network, designed to ensure semi-automatic retaliation to a decapitating strike.”

Of course, there’s a world of difference between a “semi-automatic” doomsday device and the totally automatic—beyond human control—doomsday device in Strangelove, something that Blair is careful to note. The Soviet facility does require a human hand for the final fatal push of the button. But Blair believes that the human brain behind that hand has not been programmed to suddenly turn peacenik. And the details of the device are far from reassuring.

“This doomsday apparatus, which became operational in 1984, during the height of the Reagan-era nuclear tensions, is an amazing feat of creative engineering.” According to Blair, if Perimetr senses a nuclear explosion in Russian territory and then receives no communication from Moscow, it will assume the incapacity of human leadership in Moscow or elsewhere, and will then grant a single human being deep within the Kosvinsky mountains the authority and capability to launch the entire Soviet nuclear arsenal.

But why did the Russians keep this a secret? As Dr. Strangelove so cogently pointed out: “Yes, but the … whole point of the doomsday machine … is lost … if you keep it a secret! Why didn’t you tell the world, eh?

Turns out that Perimetr wasn’t really aimed at the U.S., but at hotheaded Soviet generals who might be tempted to launch a nuclear counterstrike if their radars detected incoming flights of geese or meteors. With Perimetr assuring retaliation even if the Russian command structure was decapitated, the hotheads could stand down.

By guaranteeing that Moscow could hit back, Perimeter was actually designed to keep an overeager Soviet military or civilian leader from launching prematurely during a crisis. The point, says [former Soviet space official Alexander] Zhelenyakov says, was “to cool down all these hotheads and extremists. No matter what was going to happen, there still would be revenge. Those who attack us will be punished.”

. . . If Soviet radar picked up an ominous but ambiguous signal, the leaders could turn on Perimeter and wait. If it turned out to be geese, they could relax and Perimeter would stand down. Confirming actual detonations on Soviet soil, after all, is far easier than confirming distant launches. “That is why we have the system,” says Valery Yarynich, one of the system’s designers. “To avoid a tragic mistake. “

There is no indication that Perimetr has ever been turned off. And with Putin announcing that Russian strategic bombers are now resuming their patrols, it would seem that Kubrick’s brilliant film hasn’t yet lost its relevance.

Ralf the Dog September 29, 2009 at 9:11 pm

"Confirming actual detonations on Soviet soil, after all, is far easier than confirming distant launches. "

tunguska, 1908.

Ken Houghton September 29, 2009 at 10:06 pm

Side note: that closing scene does, of course, have Vera Lynn singing on it. She who just broke the record in the UK for oldest living person with a #1 album. (Previous record-holder: Bob Dylan, 67, earlier this year. Ms. Lynn's age: 92.)

David Pulver September 30, 2009 at 5:04 am

I await the James Bond movie in which an evil genius attempts to set off an atomic blast or equivalent in Russia to trigger Perimeter.

Rikk September 30, 2009 at 2:42 pm

This is really interesting to consider from the fictional perspective of Terminator and Skynet. Perimeter is no AI, but hmm…who activates the system, exactly, and who deactivates.
–of course, now we'll hear complaints that Pres. Obama gave away our "defense" against this insidious "Russian" weapons system. Le sigh.

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