27 December, 2017

Dead Hand

Remember Dr. Strangelove?  For those of you too young to get the reference, "Dr. Strangelove: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb" was a black comedy by Stanley Kubrick released a couple of years after the Cuban Missile Crisis.  It described an accidental attack on the the Soviet Union, which triggered an automatic response, which essentially destroyed the world (except, maybe, for a few top leaders and their harems, deep underground).  Much of the dialogue could have been taken directly from a couple of the leading books of the day: Herman Kahn's On Thermonclear War, and Henry Kissinger's Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy.

Kubrick tried to make the movie look very accurate, and for the most part he succeeded (the "War Room" was designed for drama, not for accuracy). His story tried to take the ideas of the nuclear strategists to their logical conclusions. Since the people he was condemning were already trying to push their ideas to their logical conclusions, there wasn't much farther to go.  One of the devices he mentioned, from a thought experiment, was the "Doomsday Machine"--an automated system that would, when certain conditions were met, launch an  overwhelming strike against the projected enemy without any human involvement whatever.  In fact, it was designed so it couldn't be turned off.  Once activated, the threat was automatic, unlimited, and unstoppable.

What nobody realized for years is the Russians really built the damn thing.  For all we know it's still there.  The "Perimeter" system, also known as "Dead Hand" would (does) monitor for evidence of a nuclear strike, check that it was out of touch with higher authorities, and unlock a key that would enable an officer on duty (the only human in the loop, told that everything he ever loved was dead) to launch the counterstrike (or first strike, if the system glitched).

A big question, even addressed in Dr. Strangelove, is if this is meant to be the ultimate deterrent "why would you keep it a secret?"  In the movie it had just been activated, and it was to be announced at the next Party conference.  In reality, the Russians never mentioned it.  Today, they avoid talking about it.  The Americans never knew it was there.  And we still don't know if if it is, or is not, active today.

The more I learn about the Cold War, the more amazed I am we are still alive.  And stories like these lead me to wonder if we can keep it that way.

Inside the Apocalyptic Soviet Doomsday Machine | WIRED