another look at the soviet doomsday machine

September 23, 2009

Yesterday, a Wired article tried to give readers a glimpse into a potentially terrifying Cold War relic created by the Soviet military in top secrecy and rarely mentioned to this day. It’s a system which seems to come out of an apocalyptic science fiction story and it has the theoretical potential to be a doomsday device, though if it’s still truly active and functioning could very well be debatable. This complex military network is called Perimeter, but it’s aficionados like to call it by the nefarious moniker Мертвая Рука, or the Dead Hand. Why? Because it’s an ingenious system of computers, sensors and missile silos designed to deliver a full blown nuclear retaliation if an enemy ICBM manages to destroy or incapacitate central command. It would be like the hand of the dead generals pushing the launch button in a final act of vengeance as expected by the infamous M.A.D. doctrine.

hand of death

Oddly enough, for such a seemingly important system, Perimeter is rarely mentioned, although it does show up in Russian language sources. Earlier this month, it got a rather ominous write-up in the Russian version of Popular Mechanics under the title “Weapon of Revenge.” The article proclaimed it as the only system of its kind and presented it as a sort of controllable Skynet from the Terminator movies, seeking revenge on behalf of its fallen masters. A number of commenters were highly skeptical and rightfully so. What kind of super top secret project gets detailed write-ups in the media and has its own, detailed Wikipedia page? Then again, all we really have in the way of evidence are confessions of a few former Soviet officers and random blog posts from people who say they’ve either worked with the system or saw its specifications. Officials don’t talk about Perimeter and there’s no confirmation that it was ever really completed or tested, much less activated. And if it really is an active, classified project, there’s no reason to confirm or deny any details.

From a technical standpoint, it seems relatively easy to build and as the Wired article points out, there was the very real incentive for assembling the system as the United States took a harder and harder line, trying to push the limits of M.A.D. as far as it could without actually starting a nuclear war. However, creating a hair trigger for a doomsday device is rather dangerous and according to some of the reports, Perimeter had so many checks and balances that it might never actually be used. At every level, the decision comes down to a human and in the absence of an absolutely certain way to be sure that this apocalyptic device should actually be fired, there are far too many reasons not to press the button, pull the switch, enter the code or whatever sets the system off. Additionally, the system would require an awful lot of money to update, maintain, repair and keep primed and ready, maybe too much money against an now non-existent enemy. It could be that just the rumors of the device possibly existing and still being looked after, would be enough to act as a deterrent by themselves…

[ illustration by Ryan Kelly for Wired Magazine ]

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  • http://lewisshepherd.wordpress.com lewis

    I believe you’re right to be skeptical. This is the equivalent of the Soviets re-flying bomber after bomber over May Day parades, designed to fool Western observers. Potemkin Village of a program.