The Soviets Built a Doomsday Machine. It’s Still Working

In the 1980s, the Soviets built a Doomsday Machine — and it’s still active. I learned about it while researching my new book, The Hawk and the Dove: Paul Nitze, George Kennan, and the History of the Cold War. It’s also the subject of a story in the current issue of WIRED.
The system would have allowed the USSR to respond in semi-automatic fashion to an American nuclear strike — even one that had knocked out the Kremlin and the Defense Ministries. And one obvious question that people ask when they learn about this system is “Why didn’t the Soviets tell us?” As we all know from Dr. Strangelove, the point of a Doomsday Machine is to convince the other side in a conflict that attack is futile.
The answer to that question is the most interesting thing I learned in my research. Yes, the Soviets were extremely secretive; and, yes, they were worried that, if they told us, we could disable it. But the more interesting reason is that they also built the system to deter themselves. Here’s the relevant passage from the story:
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.”
Perimeter also bought the Soviets time. After the US installed deadly accurate Pershing II missiles on German bases in December 1983, Kremlin military planners assumed they would have only 10 to 15 minutes from the moment radar picked up an attack until impact. Given the paranoia of the era, it is not unimaginable that a malfunctioning radar, a flock of geese that looked like an incoming warhead, or a misinterpreted American war exercise could have triggered a catastrophe. Indeed, all these events actually happened at some point. If they had happened at the same time, armageddon might have ensued.
Perimeter solved that problem. 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. “

I suppose it has since occurred to them that a madman who cobbled together an EMP and set it off in Moscow would trigger this thing and launch all missles??!

Russian / Soviet safety contingency planning doesn’t exactly give me warm fuzzies…

Of course, the even bigger problem will be when this thing gains sentience and the Terminators start taking over… :rolleyes:

In an interview with the former head of all Russian nuclear rocket forces, he described an incident that occurred in the 1960s. Satellites showed a launch of all US ICBMs. The Commander had about 15 minutes to launch a counterstrike. The Russians had people on the ground in the United States, and they could launch supersonic aircraft to predesignated observation points.

Spies in the US observed no rocket plumes from known ICBM silos. Strategic Air Command had not gone on high alert. There was no increase in American bomber launches. With a few minutes to spare, he ordered all rocket forces off alert status. It turned out the satellites had picked up the sun reflecting off of high clouds.


Cool read from Wired Magazine. Thanks gilliam. I remember in the late 80s or early 90s there being ominous portentous mumblings from some in the Russian leadership of a “doomsday” machine (maybe it was Yeltsin) and trying to imagine what it could be. Now I know.

The magazine article only makes two omissions to my knowledge. The Soviets with their superior ICBM fleet in the 70s actually planned out a First-Strike strategy against the U.S. which was espoused in the writings of Marshals Grechko and Sokolovskii of the Strategic Rocket Forces Command - the cream of all the arms of the Soviet military. Secondly, the Soviets began working on missile defense before Reagan came up with his idea at a military base in Krasnoyarsk.

That’s all I can add, but now I know what all those ominous “hints” were about.

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