The fools… The mad fools.


From Dr Strangelove, in 1964:

Ambassador DeSadeski: The fools… the mad fools.
President Muffley: What’s happened?
DeSadeski: The doomsday machine.
Muffley: The doomsday machine? What is that?
DeSadeski: A device which will destroy all human and animal life on earth.
Muffley: All human and animal life? … I’m afraid I don’t understand something, Alexiy. Is the Premier threatening to explode this if our planes carry out their attack?
DeSadeski: No sir. It is not a thing a sane man would do. The doomsday machine is designed to to trigger itself automatically.
Muffley: But surely you can disarm it somehow.
DeSadeski: No. It is designed to explode if any attempt is ever made to untrigger it.
Muffley: Automatically? … But, how is it possible for this thing to be triggered automatically, and at the same time impossible to untrigger?
Strangelove: Mr. President, it is not only possible, it is essential. That is the whole idea of this machine, you know. Deterrence is the art of producing in the mind of the enemy… the fear to attack. And so, because of the automated and irrevocable decision making process which rules out human meddling, the doomsday machine is terrifying. It’s simple to understand. And completely credible, and convincing.
Turgidson: Gee, I wish we had one of them doomsday machines, Stainsy.
Muffley: But this is fantastic, Strangelove. How can it be triggered automatically?
Strangelove: Well, it’s remarkably simple to do that. When you merely wish to bury bombs, there is no limit to the size. After that they are connected to a gigantic complex of computers. Now then, a specific and clearly defined set of circumstances, under which the bombs are to be exploded, is programmed into a tape memory bank. … 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?
DeSadeski: It was to be announced at the Party Congress on Monday. As you know, the Premier loves surprises.

From Wired, this week:

Russia’s doomsday machine. That’s right, an actual doomsday device—a real, functioning version of the ultimate weapon… Turns out Yarynich, a 30-year veteran of the Soviet Strategic Rocket Forces and Soviet General Staff, helped build one.

The point of the system, he explains, was to guarantee an automatic Soviet response to an American nuclear strike. Even if the US crippled the USSR with a surprise attack, the Soviets could still hit back. It wouldn’t matter if the US blew up the Kremlin, took out the defense ministry, severed the communications network, and killed everyone with stars on their shoulders. Ground-based sensors would detect that a devastating blow had been struck and a counterattack would be launched.

The technical name was Perimeter, but some called it Mertvaya Ruka, or Dead Hand. It was built 25 years ago and remained a closely guarded secret. With the demise of the USSR, word of the system did leak out, but few people seemed to notice. In fact, though Yarynich and a former Minuteman launch officer named Bruce Blair have been writing about Perimeter since 1993 in numerous books and newspaper articles, its existence has not penetrated the public mind or the corridors of power. The Russians still won’t discuss it, and Americans at the highest levels—including former top officials at the State Department and White House—say they’ve never heard of it. When I recently told former CIA director James Woolsey that the USSR had built a doomsday device, his eyes grew cold. “I hope to God the Soviets were more sensible than that.” They weren’t.

It’s not quite the same as the fictional Premier Kissov’s scheme, but – damn. And it’s still being upgraded.

ELSEWHERE: Talking of worrying automated systems

10 responses to “The fools… The mad fools.

  1. i read this in gizmodo, and this was the sentence that scared me – “Ground-based sensors would detect that a devastating blow had been struck” – because wouldn’t, say, an explosion at one of their wonderfully reliable nuclear facilities possibly trigger this?

    this – “But fear not, fellow humans, because the Dead Hand system is not completely automatic. The actual red button is apparently activated by a soldier hidden in some underground bunker” – only gave me the slightest of relief.

  2. No it wouldn’t LGWS, as Chernobyl proved.

    A nuclear power station melts down, it doesn’t blow up in a nuclear blast.

    What of a terrorist letting off a small nuke or dirty bomb in Russian city, or a minor nuclear power with a madman in charge launching a warhead or two against Russia. Nah, don’t think that would do it either. Warheads are tracked and their origin pretty well known.

    Also I guess it would require an overwhelming nuclear attack in surprise (SLBMs), and I’m afraid the only other country outside Russia capable of that is the US, with maybe the UK, France, China and Israel able to carry out limited attacks.

    I would also gather that for Dead Hand to be triggered an overwhelming amount of warheads would have to get through the ABM and defensive systems, again only the US would have this capability.

    So the way I see it unless a madman got into power in Russia and triggered it, or a madman got into power in the US (and I believe we were close to having someone close to madness in charge their recently), then the chances of this system accidentally triggering are very remote. Not zero mind you, no system is foolproof.

    I also don’t in any way believe a single Russian soldier sitting in a bunker in front of a red button has sole responsibility for triggering the system. There’s not the slightest chance in hell that is the real case.

  3. The risk is of them taking the junior officer out of the equation and leaving it in the hands of a machine. Since it sounds heavily-automated already, that’s not a huge leap.

  4. the original quote was “Ground-based sensors would detect that a devastating blow had been struck”, nothing about multiple strikes, or the origin of that strike (given that it would have been designed when only the superpowers had nuclear weapons).

    also, i suspect the human would only have the option to press that “red button” if the system had been activated/triggered by the “dead hand” system, kind of like windows asking “are you sure you want to delete these 3 items” only after you hit the delete key (or drag them over the recycle bin, or right click on them and select delete, etc, you get the point).

  5. Ground based sensor(s) LGWS, plural.

    Unless you or I know for certain the exact technical make-up of the system(s), it’s extent, fail-safes, layers, types and sophistication of sensor nets and just how many nuclear warheads going off will need to trigger it and just where those warheads need to impact, we are only speculating.

    Jeremy I’m not happy with having an automated system running the entire nuclear arsenal of Russia, but we really don’t know exactly what this system is. We also don’t know if the US doesn’t have one in place, and considering they are hell bent in removing the man out of the combat loop, throwing large amounts of money in this aim and some very advanced technology, plus their great love of technology being the magic bullet for most things, my guess is they will have.

  6. Well, quite. Also this.

    Have these people never watched a Terminator film?

  7. I think you should read the whole article. It’s not triggered by simply one or two large explosions, there are a whole set of criteria including loss of communications to the outside world for a number of hours. It can also be reset remotely if communications can be restored

    It’s also interesting that they built it to restrain their hawks – since retaliation is guaranteed there is no need for a first strike.

    Therefore the panicky tough guys don’t have the “use ’em or lose ’em” argument.

  8. I did read the whole article and yes, what they have in place isn’t – as I conceded in the post – quite as mad as Kissov’s plan. But it’s still worrying, and having that level of automation is frightening.

  9. Off topic, but relevant.

    Please watch this video of a young Ukranian girl expressing her feelings about Kiev massacre of 1945.

    It’s beautiful.


  10. Pingback: Triumphalism or simply relief that we survived? « An Onymous Lefty

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