Rusty Soviet-era threat?

October 27, 2009 at 2:00 am Leave a comment

In my efforts to bring you news of the myriad ways humanity may snuff it (apart from snuffing it from our own stupidity of course) – you can probably scratch December 21, 2012 out of your diary. This is not the day the world will come to a cataclysmic end. Mayan elder, Apolinario Chile Pixtun, says he’s sick and tired of hearing how the world will be engulfed in a giant hissy fit of volcanoes erupting and comets smacking into us when the Mayan Long Count calendar (which is marked by 394-year periods known as Baktuns) reaches the end of the 13th Baktun on December 21, 2012.  Shame really as I was looking forward to this being my final day at work 🙂

But seems there might be another danger lurking in store for us – the Russian Doomsday Machine. Yep, those Russkies forgot to turn off this machine when the Soviet Union crumbled around their ears. What is this machine I hear you ask? Well, when the former Soviet Union and the USA were in the icy grip of the Cold War, the Russians developed a computerised system that would automatically launch their entire nuclear arsenal in a counter-attack. The Russian armed forces might have been wiped out in some crippling Cold War cat-fight, the Kremlin could be kaput and there might be no military commanders around to bark orders but the “dead hand” (as the system is called or Mertvaya Ruka in Russian) would still operate. Its official name is Perimeter and it came online in 1985.

In an understatement, Robert M. Gates, Director of Central Intelligence during Dubya’s administration, said if this Russian doomsday device actually exists it would be “terribly uncivilized.” Ah yeah! Skeptics are doubting its existence, saying it’s the brainchild of sci-fi enthusiasts and those who still pine for the dark spy dramas of the Cold War period. But Wired had an interview with Valery Yarynich, a 72-year old former Soviet colonel, who claims he helped build the “dead hand”. Gulp.

So where is this machine? Are there any humans watching it to make sure it doesn’t spiral out of control? Is the computer system some ancient relic of the Cold War period likely to suffer a “prone to error” message (just after it launches a nuclear strike I might add)? How many nukes would it take to knock off humanity? Apparently, the Russkies won’t admit it exists and the Americans say nah, it’s all science fiction (well, they would say that wouldn’t they – because if it does exist and the Americans never knew of it, then this was one huge intelligence failure on the part of good old USA).  One former Soviet official, who spoke to American intelligence about Perimeter, died in mysterious circumstances (he fell down some stairs: was he pushed?). Of course, Prez Ronald Reagan and his carry-on about the Star Wars programme probably forced the Russians into developing a defensive system. And the Able-Archer exercise of 1983 wouldn’t have made the Soviets feel warm and fuzzy either.

Fortunately, there seem to be some inbuilt safety mechanisms. Perimeter must be switched on first by a high-ranking military commander during a crisis situation. Until then, it’s designed to lie dormant. Before launching a nuclear strike, the system has to check off four if/then propositions but after this, it’s war conducted by machines and welcome to nuclear holocaust. Yeah, well I’d be worried that some “if/then” proposition is now a missing feature of an ailing computer system or its early warning detection is kaput or gives off a false alert.

It is said that Perimeter lies dormant south of Moscow in deep underground bunkers. Given that Russia is prone to the odd civil war or two, let’s hope the system is constantly being upgraded or better yet, decommissioned. But Dr Bruce Blair, an expert on Russian nuclear weapons, says: “The US and Russia keep thousands of weapons on launch-ready alert…..I think there’s no reason to believe that this system would have been shut down”. Great. That makes me neeeervous. And what made me shiver back in 2007 was the fact that the Yanks “lost” some nuclear missiles. What’s to stop the Russians, after 25 years or so, losing track of Perimeter’s functionality or where its back-up system is located (if there is one)?

One of my fav Star Trek episodes (from the original series) is called “The Doomsday Machine“. Do you remember it? The starship Enterprise receives a distress call and finds several planets in a nearby galaxy destroyed. Intrepid Spock discovers that a giant planet-killing machine breaks planets into rubble and Captain Kirk believes it’s a doomsday machine, built by some long-kaput civilization. Kirk theorises that the machine was built as a deterrent and never meant to be activated but somehow it came online and chk-chk-boom.  The machine lives on, thousands of years later, fueling itself by consuming planets. Sound familiar?

Oh well: maybe thousands of years from now, once Perimeter has knocked us off, some bunch of alien dudes on a joy-ride around our galaxy will find Earth completely devoid of life. Only one thing will be standing – Perimeter – oh and maybe some cockroaches, which are said to be able to withstand a nuclear blast. Perhaps these creatures will inherit the Earth.

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