1983 was a different time. The world was a bit simpler. Two major superpowers — the US and Soviet Union — were sitting on nuclear arsenals that could obliterate the planet. One misstep, and the US would launch ICBMs at the Soviet Union and vice versa. On September 26, we came awful close to such a misstep.
Tensions were high. NATO was solidifying plans to deploy Pershing II missiles in West Germany. This would put Moscow in arms reach of this new missile. The Soviet Union didn’t like this. Support for the Pershing II installations had actually began wavering.
Then the Soviet Union had a colossal blunder. They shot down KAL Flight 007 claiming it had been a spy plane (there was, according to the Soviets, a USAF RC-135 reconnaissance plane in the area) and that it did not respond to demands to leave Soviet airspace. Apparently, the KAL crew went a bit off coarse on their approach to Alaska and wandered over Soviet territory. After initially denying anything had happened, the Soviet Union was called out by the United States in front of the UN Security Council in a presentation that included recordings of the Soviet fighter’s radio communications. The US played a strong hand and showed just how deep its ELINT went.
Just 19 days after the UN presentation, the Soviet early warning system showed a US ICBM launch.
With tensions running high and a general belief within the Soviet Union that Reagan was willing to strike first, it could have been believed. The signal, sent from one of the Soviet early warning satellites in the Oko network, alerted a duty officer in the Serpukhov-15 bunker outside Moscow. His job was to monitor the Oko network and alert his superiors if a launch had been detected. They, in turn, would order the immediate launch of the Soviet Union’s ICBM fleet. Mutual Assured Destruction would move from theory to practice.
Had this been any other system, the signal may have been believed immediately and a retaliatory strike launched.
Fortunately for humanity, the duty officer was Lt. Colonel Stanislav Petrov. He had enough experience with the Oko system to know that it occasionally emitted false signals. Furthermore, only one ICBM was detected. Comrade Petrov knew that if the US were to launch a first strike, they wouldn’t send one bird. They would send hundreds. With only minutes to make a decision, and no time to wait for ground radar to pick up the signal, he decided it was a false alarm.
Later that same day, the Oko system picked up four inbound US ICBMs. This still seemed too small of an event for a first strike, and this time Petrov was able to corroborate the detected incident with another satellite in the Oko system. It was later determined that a rare alignment of the sunlight on high altitude clouds and the orbit — called a Molniya orbit — of the satellite conspiring to trick the satellites into thinking they saw something that wasn’t there. On the second false alarm, Petrov was able to cross-reference the data from a geosynchronous satellite to prove or disprove the Molniya orbit satellite’s data.
Petrov was praised by his superiors for correctly diagnosing the situation and avoiding a world-ending event.
[Image Credit: Found on Internet]