Thirty minutes past midnight, one September night in 1983, Lieutenant-Colonel Stanislav Yevgrafovich Petrov looked up at the computer monitors inside his glass-walled office at the Serpukhov 15 early-warning station in Moscow—and saw the apocalypse approaching. From 15 km above the earth, the Soviet Union’s Oko satellites had detected five incoming Minutemen ballistic missiles, each armed with a 335-kiloton warhead, almost 20 times more destructive than the bomb which was dropped on Hiroshima in 1945.
Petrov’s console allowed him one, only one, choice. He could find Oko’s warning true, and thus unleash a retaliatory strike on the United States before the Soviet Union’s own command-and-control facilities were wiped out. He could, alternately, declare it false, risking the annihilation of his nation. True, False.
The spoiler, of course, is that the human race still exists. As India contemplates the bizarre story of the malfunctioning cruise missile that it “accidentally” fired at the obscure Pakistani town of Mian Channu, though, the learnings from Lieutenant-Colonel Petrov’s story helps understand what the stakes really are.
Nukes that went rogue
General George Lee Butler, who commanded the United States Strategic Air Command in 1991-1992, saw enough to convert him to a nuclear disarmament advocate: “missiles that blew up in their silos and ejected their nuclear warheads outside of the confines of their silos; B52 aircraft that collided with tankers and scattered nuclear weapons across the coast.” In one B52 crash, six of seven safety devices preventing an accidental nuclear explosion were disabled.
The story sold by nuclear-weapons establishments across the world is that their missiles and warheads are safely chained to highly secure, fault-resistant systems. The truth is, they’re machines, operated by human beings. Neither are failsafe.
In 2016, a state-of-the-art Hsiung Feng III missile, accidentally fired from the Taiwanese patrol boat Jin Chiang while she was at the dock in Zuoying, slammed into a fishing boat, killing three crew. The missile’s radar-guided target-detection systems, it emerged, likely led it to home in on the fishing boat, mistaking it for a military target.
Last year, spectacular footage emerged of a Russian Kalibr missile—now being widely used in Ukraine—malfunctioning after its launch from the destroyer Marshal Shaposhnikov, performing fireworks-like cartwheels before finally impacting near the ship. And in 2020, nineteen Iranian soldiers were killed in a live-fire exercise, when a C802 Noor missile accidentally hit the support ship Konarak, which was placing targets for the fleet.
Each of those incidents could have had worse outcomes: imagine, for example, the Taiwan missile hitting a People’s Liberation Army (PLA) naval ship in the contested waters off Penghu, or the Iranian Noor killing the United States military personnel.
Mushroom clouds of the Cold War
From the history of the Cold War, we know the world came close to worse, more than once. In November 1979, United States early-warning systems detected first 200, then 2,200 incoming Soviet warheads. National security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski prepared to call the President for authorisation to respond, when the missiles mysteriously disappeared. Later on, it turned out that a technician had inserted a training tape to impress a visiting VIP into the wrong computer.
“The world’s fate,” scholar Jonathan Granoff has noted in an essay on nuclear near-disasters, “hung in the balance of but a few people, and a few minutes.”
Events like these weren’t outliers. In 1980, United States nuclear forces were mobilised for a counter-attack, because of first-strike warnings generated by a malfunctioning chip. In 1995, a Soviet early-warning system mistook a weather satellite for a nuclear device; then-President Boris Yeltsin later admitted he used his “football,” the real-time communication device used in a nuclear-weapons crisis.
And in February 2009, the United Kingdom’s Vanguard, and the French Le Triomphant, both carrying nuclear weapons, collided in the Atlantic, because, officials later said, they were “unable to see each other.”
Even the best-resourced systems do not guarantee against such errors. In 2003, half of all United States Air Force units responsible for managing nuclear weapons failed security and safety inspections, despite having been notified of the checks in advance. Four years later, nuclear-armed cruise missiles were accidentally loaded onto a B52 bomber, because of crew-protocol errors.
To some, like the nuclear scholar Bruno Tertrais, near-misses are evidence that the nuclear-weapons system works: on each occasion, after all, reason and protocol did prevail. The problem is that this does guarantee all future mishaps—and they will, almost certainly occur—will have good outcomes. With nuclear weapons, bad outcomes are unacceptable—for either side.
Rising risks of nuke missteps
Exactly what went wrong with the missile that hit Mian Channu, we do not know. The missile might, or might not, have misfired during a test. It might, or might not, have been carried under a combat jet, among the few circumstances where a single individual can authorise launch. It might or might not be a BrahMos, which might or might not be currently equipped with nuclear warheads. And, in critical senses, these are not the important questions.
In normal circumstances, there’s little chance that India and Pakistan will launch missiles just because their systems detect an incoming strike—there just won’t be the time, for one thing. Likely, either side would either absorb the first strike or seek to preempt the other one by striking first, with its massed resources.
Little imagination is needed, though, to see that in other circumstances—a military stand-off, ongoing airstrikes, even large-scale deaths in a mishap—things might go somewhat differently. Islamabad reacted to the Mian Channu incident with admirable sangfroid; in other circumstances, it or New Delhi might have acted differently.
Moreover, the risks are growing. As both sides work on improving their defences against the other’s nuclear arsenal, scholars Christopher Clary and Vipin Narang have pointed out, the temptation to strike first increases. India’s nuclear weapons, they state, are now kept at “a high state of readiness, capable of being operationalised and released within seconds or minutes.”
“Six minutes to decide how to respond to a blip on a radar scope and decide whether to unleash Armageddon,” President Ronald Reagan famously declared: “How could anyone apply reason at a time like that?”
Armageddon is preventable
The benefits of nuclear deterrence are well-established, and ought not to be casually dismissed. The period since 1945 has been historically exceptional, scholars like Kenneth Waltz have pointed out, in not having seen a war between the major powers. Nuclear weapons were among the reasons India and Pakistan stepped away from the full-scale war in 1999, 2001-2002, and 2019.
Yet, there’s plenty that can be done to increase resilience against ending up at war because of missteps, miscalculations and mishaps. The models for India-Pakistan protocols to mitigate nuclear-war risks exist. In 1971, the United States and the Soviet Union signed a treaty committing both sides to measures against mishaps. There were treaties restricting how many and what kinds of weapons could be deployed—and verification regimes to make sure no one cheated.
Nuclear deterrence did keep the peace—but it was, in turn, sustained by a deep superpower engagement on strategic arms limitation. Islamabad and New Delhi must engage in the granular, meaningful conversation needed to learn from the Mian Channu experience, and apply its lessons to their nuclear weapons contexts.
In 1983, Lieutenant-Colonel Petrov called the strike warning false. Investigators later found the early-warning had buggy code, which mistook sunlight bouncing off the clouds for incoming missiles. He saved the world. He could, though, have easily called it wrong.
The author tweets @praveenswami. Views are personal.
(Edited by Prashant)