Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
Stanislav Petrov (born c. 1939) is a retired Russian Army colonel who, on September 26, 1983, averted a potential nuclear war by refusing to accept that missiles had been launched against the USSR by the United States, despite the indication given by his computerized early warning systems . The Soviet computer reports were later shown to have been in error, and Petrov is credited with preventing World War III and the devastation of much of the Earth by nuclear weapons. Because of military secrecy and political and international differences, Petrov's actions were kept secret until 1998.
The 1983 incident
Lieutenant Colonel Stanislav Petrov was the officer on duty at the Serpukhov-15 bunker near Moscow on September 26, 1983, a time when the Cold War was at a peak. (Just three and a half weeks prior, the Soviets had shot down Korean Air Flight 7, killing all 269 people on board the Boeing 747). It was Lt. Col. Petrov's responsibility to observe the satellite early warning network and notify his superiors of any impending nuclear missile attack against the USSR. In the event of such an attack, the Soviet Union's strategy was to launch an immediate all-out nuclear counter-attack against the United States, as the doctrine of Mutual Assured Destruction required.
Just past midnight, the bunker's computers indicated that an American missile was heading toward the Soviet Union. Lt. Col. Petrov reasoned that a computer error had occurred, since the United States was not likely to launch just one missile if it were attacking the Soviet Union -- it would launch many simultaneously. Also, the satellite system's reliability had in the past been questioned, so he dismissed the warning as a false alarm , concluding that no missile had actually been launched by the United States.
A short time later the computers indicated that a second missile had been launched, followed by a third, a fourth and a fifth. Petrov still felt that the computer system was wrong, but there was no other source of information with which to confirm his suspicions. The Soviet Union's land radar was not capable of detecting missiles beyond the horizon, so by the time land radar could positively identify the threat, it would be too late.
Understanding that if he were wrong, nuclear missiles would soon be raining down on the Soviet Union, Petrov decided to trust his intuition and declare the system's indications a false alarm. After a short while, it was apparent that his instincts were right. The crisis put him under immense pressure and nervousness, yet Petrov's judgement had been sound. A full-scale nuclear war had been averted.
Stanislav Petrov was not originally scheduled to be on duty that night. Had he not been there, it is possible a different commanding officer would have made the opposite decision.
Despite having prevented potential nuclear disaster, by refusing to acknowledge the computer system's warnings Lt. Col. Petrov had disobeyed his orders and defied military protocol. He later underwent intense questioning by his superiors about his actions during the nerve-wracking ordeal, the result of which was that they no longer considered him a reliable military officer.
The Soviet military did not punish Petrov for his actions, but did not reward or honor him either. His actions had revealed imperfections in the Soviet military system which showed his superiors in a bad light. He was given a reprimand, officially for the improper filing of paperwork, and his once-promising military career came to an end. He was reassigned to a less sensitive post and ultimately retired from the military.
Petrov went on to live his life in Russia as a pensioner, spending his retirement in poverty in the town of Fryazino . He has said he does not regard himself as a hero for what he did that day, but nevertheless, on May 21, 2004, the San Francisco-based Association of World Citizens gave Colonel Petrov its World Citizen Award along with a trophy and $1,000 in recognition of the part he played in averting a catastrophe.
Less than two months after the event of September 1983, ABC-TV in the USA broadcast a controversial movie titled The Day After. This fictional drama was about a nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union and what effect it would have on families living in a typical American city. The events surrounding Petrov were unknown at this time to the American public. Most people (incorrectly) felt the Cuban Missile Crisis, twenty years prior, was the most recent event in which nuclear war would have been possible.
- Burrelle's Information Services (Dateline NBC, Nov. 12, 2000)
- Washington Post (Feb. 10, 1999)
- BBC News (Oct. 21, 1998)
- Daily Mail (Oct. 7, 1998)
- BrightStarSound.com a tribute website, multiple pages with photos and reprints of various articles about Petrov
- S. Petrov on SkySurfer.co.uk
- Petrov on Spectrum.ieee.org
- Cdi.org article 28 May 2004
- World Citizen Award
- Washington Post article on Stanislav Petrov
This article is based in part upon content originally by Bright Star Sound with permission and licensed under the GFDL.
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