The World As We Know It Almost Ended in September 1983

A Topol-M ICBM parading through Moscow's Red Square.
A Topol-M ICBM parading through Moscow’s Red Square.

Chances are you can come up with a long list of things that might go wrong so as to cause TEOTWAWKI.  But do you have ‘computer mistake’ on your list of things to worry about?  If you don’t, you should.

This article concerns the little known events on 26 September 1983, when Russia’s (well, back then, it was the Soviet Union) early warning system reported multiple missiles, launched from the US, and headed towards its territories.  The early warning system further rated the probability that this was a real bona fide first strike attack on the USSR at its highest level of certainty.

The duty officer at the monitoring station was supposed to urgently telephone the country’s leadership in Moscow, and there was close to a certainty that the leadership (Yuri Andropov had recently taken over the General Secretary position from Leonid Brezhnev) would respond by ordering a reciprocal strike on the US, launching their own missiles before the incoming missiles could destroy them on the ground.

But the duty officer suspected that, no matter what the computers were telling him, the warning was false rather than real, and saw some inconsistencies in the raw data.  So he disobeyed his instructions and instead of calling the leadership to report an incoming missile strike as he was supposed to do, he reported a system malfunction to the people responsible for maintaining it.

As it turned out, he did the right thing.  But if he had followed orders, we’d have ended up with an inadvertent nuclear war that would have very likely destroyed most of the US, the USSR, and much of the rest of the world.

Details here.

Thirty years later, could such a thing still happen?  Unfortunately, the answer is ‘yes’.  Indeed, there is less time now for incoming information to be evaluated and cross-checked, and more of an urgent need to respond before any incoming strike takes out our own (or anyone else’s) arsenal.  Furthermore, increased computerization makes it harder to see the ‘raw data’, and we instead have to rely on the computerized, processed, interpretations.

So go ahead and add this to your already long list of potential life-changing events – and put it in the most extreme category, because it is something that could suddenly occur without any warning or any chance for us to transition from our normal lifestyles to our retreats.  Perhaps now is also a good time to read our series on radiation issues.

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