Dead Hand (nuclear war)
Dead Hand (Russian: Система «Периметр», Systema "Perimetr", 15Э601), known also as Perimeter, is a Cold-War-era nuclear-control system used by the Soviet Union. General speculation from insiders alleges that the system remains in use in post-Soviet Russia. An example of fail-deadly deterrence, it can automatically trigger the launch of the Russian intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) if a nuclear strike is detected by seismic, light, radioactivity and overpressure sensors. By most accounts, it is normally switched off and is supposed to be activated during dangerous crises only; however, it is said to remain fully functional and able to serve its purpose whenever needed.
The purpose of the "Dead Hand" (or Perimeter) system, as described in a book of the same name, was to maintain a second strike capability, by ensuring that the destruction of the Soviet leadership would not have prevented the Soviet military from releasing its weapons.
Soviet concern about the issue grew with the U.S. development of highly accurate submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) systems in the 1980s. Until then, the United States would have delivered most nuclear weapons by long-range bomber or ICBM. Earlier U.S. sub-launched missiles, such as the 1960s-vintage UGM-27 Polaris and 1970s-vintage UGM-73 Poseidon, were considered too inaccurate for a counterforce or first strike attack, an attack against an opponent's weapons. SLBMs were reserved for attacking cities, where accuracy was of less importance. In the first case, an opponent with effective radar and satellite surveillance could expect a 30-minute warning of an attack before the first detonation. This made an effective first strike difficult, because the opponent would have time to launch on warning to reduce the risk of his forces being destroyed on the ground. The development of highly accurate SLBMs, such as the Trident C4 and later the D5 upset this balance. The Trident D5 is considered to be as accurate as any land based ICBM. Therefore, US or UK Trident submarine systems that could stealthily approach an enemy's coast and launch highly accurate warheads at close range would reduce the available warning to less than 3 minutes making a counterforce first strike or a decapitation strike viable.
The USSR took steps to ensure that nuclear retaliation, and hence deterrence, remained possible even if its leadership were destroyed in a surprise attack. In contrast, Thompson argues that Perimeter's function was to limit acts of misjudgment by political or military leaderships in the tight decision making window between SLBM or cruise missile launches, and impact. He quotes Zheleznyakov on the purpose of Perimeter being "to cool down all these hotheads and extremists. No matter what was going to happen, there still would be revenge."
In the early 1990s several former high-ranking members of the Soviet military and the Central Committee of the Communist Party in a series of interviews to the American defense contractor BDM admitted the existence of the Dead Hand, making somewhat contradictory statements concerning its deployment.
Colonel General Varfolomey Korobushin, former Deputy Chief of Staff of Strategic Rocket Forces, in his 1992 interview admitted that the Russians had a system which would automatically launch all missiles, triggered by a combination of light, radioactivity and overpressure, even if every nuclear command center and all of their leaders were destroyed. According to him, the system was to be activated only during a crisis.
Colonel General Andrian Danilevich, Assistant for Doctrine and Strategy to the Chief of the General Staff in 1984–90, stated in 1992 in an interview that the Dead Hand had been contemplated, but the Soviets considered automatic trigger systems too dangerous, furthermore they became unnecessary with the advent of efficient early warning systems and increased missile readiness, so the idea had been rejected.
In 1993 Vitaly Katayev, Senior Adviser to the Chairman of the Defense Industry Department of the Central Committee of the Communist Party in 1967–85, responsible for strategic arms and defense policy, arms control negotiations and military doctrine, confirmed in an interview to John G. Hines that the Dead Hand had been "definitely operational" by the early 1980s. According to him, it was not completely automatic, supposed to be activated manually during a threatening crisis. It was to be triggered by numerous sensors sensitive to light, seismic shock, radiation or atmospheric density.
Although both Katayev and Korobushin claimed that the mechanism had already been deployed, Viktor Surikov, Deputy Director of the Central Scientific Research Institute for General Machine Building (TsNIIMash) in 1976–92, confirmed in a 1993 interview that they had designed the automatic launch system with seismic, light and radiation sensors, but said that the design had been ultimately rejected by Marshal Sergey Akhromeyev on advice of Korobushin and never materialized.
Accounts differ as to the degree of automation of Dead Hand.
The dead-hand system he [Dr. Blair] describes today takes this defensive trend to its logical, if chilling, conclusion. The automated system in theory would allow Moscow to respond to a Western attack even if top military commanders had been killed and the capital incinerated.
The heart of the system is said to lie in deep underground bunkers south of Moscow and at backup locations. In a crisis, military officials would send a coded message to the bunkers, switching on the dead hand. If nearby ground-level sensors detected a nuclear attack on Moscow, and if a break was detected in communications links with top military commanders, the system would send low-frequency signals over underground antennas to special rockets.
Flying high over missile fields and other military sites, these rockets in turn would broadcast attack orders to missiles, bombers and, via radio relays, submarines at sea. Contrary to some Western beliefs, Dr. Blair says, many of Russia's nuclear-armed missiles in underground silos and on mobile launchers can be fired automatically.
The communication missile would work similarly to the US Emergency Rocket Communications System (ERCS).
However, more recent sources indicate the system was semi-automatic. In a 2007 article, Ron Rosenbaum quotes Blair as saying that Dead Hand is "designed to ensure semi-automatic retaliation to a decapitating strike." Rosenbaum writes, "Of course, there's a world of difference between a 'semi-automatic' doomsday device and the totally automatic — beyond human control — doomsday device."
David E. Hoffman wrote on the semi-automatic nature of Dead Hand:
And they [the Soviets] thought that they could help those leaders by creating an alternative system so that the leader could just press a button that would say: I delegate this to somebody else. I don't know if there are missiles coming or not. Somebody else decide.
If that were the case, he [the Soviet leader] would flip on a system that would send a signal to a deep underground bunker in the shape of a globe where three duty officers sat. If there were real missiles and the Kremlin were hit and the Soviet leadership was wiped out, which is what they feared, those three guys in that deep underground bunker would have to decide whether to launch very small command rockets that would take off, fly across the huge vast territory of the Soviet Union and launch all their remaining missiles.
Now, the Soviets had once thought about creating a fully automatic system. Sort of a machine, a doomsday machine, that would launch without any human action at all. When they drew that blueprint up and looked at it, they thought, you know, this is absolutely crazy.
It is not known whether Russia continues to use the system, and it is possible that it is still in place. Some commentators say the system never operated in fully automatic mode. A 2009 article in Wired magazine claimed Dead Hand exists, is ready to react as intended, and still receives system upgrades.
In popular culture
A similar automatic retaliation system called the "Doomsday Machine" features prominently in the movie Dr. Strangelove. The system depicted there is however completely automatic, and impossible to shut down. Thus, an American nuclear bomb dropped by accident on the Soviet Union causes an automatic reaction. This would, however, not be a nuclear-retaliation in the sense of launching nuclear weapons against America, but the detonation of 50 large cobalt bombs buried on Soviet territory intended to create a "Doomsday shroud" of deadly radioactive fallout that would encircle the Earth and extinguish all life.
The thriller movie WarGames also explored the consequences of putting a major nuclear arsenal under computer control, after a (fictional) surprise drill revealed that 22% of bunker commanders were unwilling to launch their missiles when ordered to and be responsible for Armageddon; in the story, the computer nearly starts a nuclear war, and only refrains when it concludes that such an action cannot possibly lead to victory.
The film The Forbin Project explores similar themes of an automatic deterrent gone wrong.
The video game Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker had this concept also in the titular Peace Walker, which is a fail-deadly automatic retaliation system designed to maintain deterrence protocol, but if so needed, can launch an ICBM from any point or terrain. Like the example of WarGames, the Peace Walker system is eventually used to broadcast fake data to NORAD, to fool them into thinking that the Soviets had launched missiles toward America.
In the movie By Dawn's Early Light, the Soviet President sends a teletype message to the President of the US after nuclear missiles are launched against the US. In the message, he states: "By now you will know a nuclear device was detonated over the Soviet city of Donetsk. At that time, it appeared the missile was launched by NATO forces from Turkey, and our defensive system retaliated automatically. "
In the The Outer Limits episode Dead Man's Switch, the world's chemical, nuclear, and biological weapons stockpiles were linked to create a single doomsday weapon to make earth uninhabitable, if an approaching fleet of aliens turns up to be hostile and diplomacy fails.
- Mount Yamantaw
- Operation Looking Glass
- Letters of last resort
- Dr. Strangelove
- Space Cowboys
- Dead man's switch
- Literally, "Perimeter System"
- Blair, Dr. Bruce G, "Preface" (PDF), C3: Nuclear Command, Control, Cooperation, CDI.
- Thompson, Nicholas (21 September 2009), Inside the Apocalyptic Soviet Doomsday Machine, Wired.
- Coyle, Harold. Dead Hand. Forge Books. ISBN 978-0-8125-7539-2.
- Also, Doomsday: On The Brink (documentary film), Learning Channel, 1997, "That order will ultimately be obeyed, even if nobody is left alive to obey it". In the film, Dead Hand was mentioned along with the Norwegian weather rocket incident of 1995, and nuclear proliferation in the Muslim world, to show that Doomsday did not go away with the Berlin wall.
- Thompson, Nicholas (21 September 2009), "Inside the Apocalyptic Soviet Doomsday Machine", Wired, ¶ starting "The silence can be attributed..." and 3 following paragraphs.
- Hines, John G (1995), "II. Soviet View of the Strategic Relationship" (PDF), Soviet Intentions 1965–1985, BDM Federal, pp. 9–21.
- Summary of narrative: Korobushin (PDF) II, GWU, pp. 106–8.
- Summary of narrative: Danilevich (PDF) II, GWU, pp. 19–69.
- Summary of narrative: Kataev (PDF) II, GWU, pp. 96–101.
- Summary of narrative: Surikov (PDF) II, GWU, pp. 134–35.
- Broad, William J (8 October 1993), Russia Has 'Doomsday' Machine, U.S. Expert Says, The New York Times.
- Ron Rosenbaum, Slate magazine "The Return of the Doomsday Machine?", 31 August 2007.
- Terry Gross and David Hoffman, Fresh Air, "'Dead Hand' Re-Examines The Cold War Arms Race" October 12th, 2009.
- Jasinski, Michael (March 2001), Russia: Strategic Early Warning, Command and Control, and Missile Defense Overview, NTI.
- Keim, Brandon (7 September 2007), Soviet Doomsday Device Still Armed and Ready, Wired.