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Soviets Built a Doomsday Machine; It's Still Alive 638

Posted by kdawson
from the dead-hand dept.
An anonymous reader points out a story in Wired introducing us to the Doomsday Machine built by the Soviet Union in the 1980s — and that remains active to this day. It was called "Perimeter." The article explains why the device was built, and why the Soviets considered it to be something that kept the peace, even though they never told the US about it. "[Reagan's] strategy worked. Moscow soon believed the new US leadership really was ready to fight a nuclear war. But the Soviets also became convinced that the US was now willing to start a nuclear war. ... A few months later, Reagan... announced that the US was going to develop a shield of lasers and nuclear weapons in space to defend against Soviet warheads. ... To Moscow it was the Death Star — and it confirmed that the US was planning an attack. ... By guaranteeing that Moscow could hit back, Perimeter was actually designed to keep an overeager Soviet military or civilian leader from launching prematurely during a crisis. The point, [an informant] says, was 'to cool down all these hotheads and extremists. No matter what was going to happen, there still would be revenge. Those who attack us will be punished.'"
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Soviets Built a Doomsday Machine; It's Still Alive

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  • by onionman (975962) on Tuesday September 22, 2009 @02:30PM (#29507801)

    What's the point of building a Doomsday machine if you don't tell everyone about it?

    • by Ukab the Great (87152) on Tuesday September 22, 2009 @02:43PM (#29507941)

      If you tell everyong about it, the liberals will try to interfere with our right to bear doomsday devices by either adding a 3 day waiting-period for mad scientists or by classifying them as "assault rifles".

    • by Trepidity (597) <delirium-slashdotNO@SPAMhackish.org> on Tuesday September 22, 2009 @02:47PM (#29507985)

      As the article explains, the purpose was to keep Soviet generals from being less hot-headed, by assuring them there was retaliatory capability. It wasn't to deter the US, so no need to tell the US.

    • by 99BottlesOfBeerInMyF (813746) on Tuesday September 22, 2009 @02:47PM (#29507989)

      What's the point of building a Doomsday machine if you don't tell everyone about it?

      That point is well covered in the article:

      By guaranteeing that Moscow could hit back, Perimeter was actually designed to keep an overeager Soviet military or civilian leader from launching prematurely during a crisis. The point, Zheleznyakov says, was "to cool down all these hotheads and extremists. No matter what was going to happen, there still would be revenge. Those who attack us will be punished."

      The machine was designed as a deterrent to soviet military commanders, not to deter the US.

    • by MeatBag PussRocket (1475317) on Tuesday September 22, 2009 @02:47PM (#29507993)

      Gentlemen! you cant fight in here, this is the War Room!

    • by ssintercept (843305) <ssintercept@nOSpaM.gmail.com> on Tuesday September 22, 2009 @03:26PM (#29508451) Journal
      President Merkin Muffley: But this is absolute madness, Ambassador! Why should you *build* such a thing?
      Ambassador de Sadesky: There were those of us who fought against it, but in the end we could not keep up with the expense involved in the arms race, the space race, and the peace race. At the same time our people grumbled for more nylons and washing machines. Our doomsday scheme cost us just a small fraction of what we had been spending on defense in a single year. The deciding factor was when we learned that your country was working along similar lines, and we were afraid of a doomsday gap.
      President Merkin Muffley: This is preposterous. I've never approved of anything like that.
      Ambassador de Sadesky: Our source was the New York Times.
  • by MozeeToby (1163751) on Tuesday September 22, 2009 @02:34PM (#29507839)

    First, where's the Dr Strangelove tag?

    Second, (as Dr Strangelove pointed out) a doomsday machine only makes sense as a deterent if both sides know about it. Why wasn't the machine made public earlier when the Soviets thought that the US was about to launch an attack?

    Third, no worries. A small, controlled population with a ratio of 1 male to 10 females properly sheltered will be able to keep society going. Naturally, the females will need to be chosen for their attractiveness and the males for the knowledge and skills they know (I'm thinking lots of engineers will be needed so sign me up).

    • Re:Dr Strangelove? (Score:4, Informative)

      by socrplayr813 (1372733) on Tuesday September 22, 2009 @02:50PM (#29508039)

      From what I've read, the system wasn't designed as a deterrent to a nuclear war, but rather as a deterrent to an overreaction by the Soviets in the event of an incident with the US. Essentially, it was to keep the Soviets from starting a nuclear war based on bad information or an overreaction such an incident. By ensuring they can strike back after a successful first strike by the US, they allow themselves time to consider the ramifications of their actions and allow cooler heads to make a decision that could lead to the end of the world.

      I really hope the system wasn't completely automated in case of some kind of malfunction, but I applaud their foresight. If they anticipated the potential problem of a hot-headed overreaction on their side and put measures in place to help keep that in check, bravo.

      • Re:Dr Strangelove? (Score:4, Informative)

        by MozeeToby (1163751) on Tuesday September 22, 2009 @02:58PM (#29508133)

        I really hope the system wasn't completely automated in case of some kind of malfunction...

        There was a man in the loop, but it was whoever happened to be present at the Perimeter facilities at the time. Ideally, it would be someone from high command sent there because the crisis was recognized before hand; but it's possible that it would be just some random soldier sitting in the hot seat.

        Even still, the system is only activated for a limited amount of time by high command, only when they suspected an impending attack.

    • by WinPimp2K (301497) on Tuesday September 22, 2009 @03:13PM (#29508311)

      Ah but before you get too comfortable with your government assigned harem - and do you really want women whose "attractiveness" is determined by a committee? (oh wait this is Slashdot...)

      But before you get started on repopulating the planet, you have to deal with the mine shaft gap.

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by Phat_Tony (661117) *

      For reference:

      DeSadeski: The fools... the mad fools.
      Muffley: What's happened?
      DeSadeski: The doomsday machine.
      Muffley: The doomsday machine? What is that?
      DeSadeski: A device which will destroy all human and animal life on earth.
      Muffley: All human and animal life? ... I'm afraid I don't understand something, Alexiy. Is the Premier threatening to explode this if our planes carry out their attack?
      DeSadeski: No sir. It is not a thing a sane man would do. The doomsday machine is designed to trigger itself automat

  • by elrous0 (869638) * on Tuesday September 22, 2009 @02:35PM (#29507843)
    Its construction might have had less to do with Reagan and more to do with the fact that a single moment of restraint [wired.com] two years earlier had stopped a nuclear war. This is exactly the sort of almost-disastrous incident that this system was designed to address.
    • by Tablizer (95088) on Tuesday September 22, 2009 @02:46PM (#29507979) Journal

      It's hard to say what factors weigh in leaders' heads. We cannot rip out their neurons and study them in a lab[1], so we must use available clues to guess.

      Reagan often gets credit for ending the Soviet Union, but the story may not be so simple. Some cite evidence that the Soviets simply wanted to "join" the western world and become more European. The Beatles and their sorts perhaps should be given as much credit as any politician.

      Further, Reagan was gambling. His gamble appears to have paid off, but it may have also gone sour because one can never know for sure what another leader is thinking. Is it brilliant strategy, or shear luck?

      We should thank our lucky stars (or the Anthropic Principle) that we are still here......so far. The Cold War played with fire many times.

      By the way, howz the LHC coming along?

      [1] Although there's a few I would have liked to try.

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      Or you could read the article and find out that Perimeter had to be turned on by a human in the first place, and there are several ways that it could be turned off even if Perimeter determines that it should launch.

    • Its construction might have had less to do with Reagan and more to do with the fact that a single moment of restraint [by a soviet officer who got a bogus five-missile launch detection from a satellite during a crisis] two years earlier had stopped a nuclear war.

      Same thing happened the other way, too.

      The DEW line was turned on to operational status a few days before the announced date - in case the Soviets decided to stage a strike just before it was turned on. A few hours after that it began reporting wav

  • Creepy thought... (Score:4, Interesting)

    by swanzilla (1458281) on Tuesday September 22, 2009 @02:36PM (#29507869) Homepage
    Some anti-Yankees (North Korea) could detonate a warhead to set off Perimeter, and wipe us off the map. Maximum return on investment.
    • Re:Creepy thought... (Score:4, Informative)

      by Monkeedude1212 (1560403) on Tuesday September 22, 2009 @02:44PM (#29507961) Journal

      That IS a Creepy thought. Unless Doomsday can detect location of Origin, and decide accordingly. I bet Washington's Co-ordinates are hardcoded though.

    • Re:Creepy thought... (Score:5, Informative)

      by 99BottlesOfBeerInMyF (813746) on Tuesday September 22, 2009 @02:52PM (#29508071)

      Some anti-Yankees (North Korea) could detonate a warhead to set off Perimeter, and wipe us off the map. Maximum return on investment.

      It doesn't work that way. High command has to enable it because they saw what they think was a launch from us. Then the detonation would have to sever all communication between command and the bunker. Then, an officer in the bunker would have to look at the seismograph and radiation data and misinterpret it to think there had been a major attack that wiped out all the people in charge and in turn order a launch.

  • by Artifakt (700173) on Tuesday September 22, 2009 @02:40PM (#29507913)

    The whole ND aspect of the cold war involved calculated appearances of insanity by both sides leaders. What "Perimiter" proves is that you can't expect the other side to fake crazy the same way you would fake crazy. This long after the fact, nobody in the US knows how President Reagan's moves were interpreted by the USSR nor how sincere they were in developing an automated response.
                The cost of going down that path is incalcuable. Both sides spent themselves dry funding responses to every conceivable attack, and trying to detect which responses were fake insane and which might be real insane.

  • FTA (Score:4, Interesting)

    by wiredog (43288) on Tuesday September 22, 2009 @02:42PM (#29507925) Journal

    Given the paranoia of the era, it is not unimaginable that a malfunctioning radar, a flock of geese that looked like an incoming warhead, or a misinterpreted American war exercise could have triggered a catastrophe. Indeed, all these events actually occurred at some point. If they had happened at the same time, Armageddon might have ensued.

    I wonder if the Israelis and Iranians have contemplated this possible chain of events?

  • by It doesn't come easy (695416) * on Tuesday September 22, 2009 @02:45PM (#29507967) Journal
    I got news for you...while I will not go into any more detail than this, while I was in the Air Force I worked on a system for three years for the Strategic Air Command that would automatically launch all of our ICBMs if the chain of command was ever knocked out. As far as I know that system or its successor is still operational (I've been out of the military for 29 years). I am always amazed that the world has managed to avoid a nuclear war...
    • by girlintraining (1395911) on Tuesday September 22, 2009 @02:57PM (#29508123)

      At the risk of stating the bleedingly obvious, since you're claiming to have been in the military, and you are stating something obviously directly related to national security... I can't imagine this would be unclassified at its inception and remain so. Therefore, for you to tell us this, it would have had to be declassified at some point, and you would have received a communication to this effect.

      Please provide a citation with either the name of the authority who notified you of the new classification status, or whatever relevant information is required to get an authenticated document confirming this statement. Otherwise, you're seriously lacking in credibility and/or taking an enormous risk posting this publicly. Or you're just plain nuts.

    • by DerekLyons (302214) <(fairwater) (at) (gmail.com)> on Tuesday September 22, 2009 @03:15PM (#29508329) Homepage

      I got news for you...while I will not go into any more detail than this, while I was in the Air Force I worked on a system for three years for the Strategic Air Command that would automatically launch all of our ICBMs if the chain of command was ever knocked out.

      Of course you won't go into details - because the system you described never existed. It sounds more like you're confused (very confused) about how ABNCP/TACAMO or the ERCS worked.
       
      In fact, US policy was to keep man-in-the-loop to the lowest operational levels possible in order to prevent a 'Dead Hand' scenario. Strategic policy (implicit from the 60's and explicit from the 80's) was to prepare for nuclear war fighting, not 'wargasm'. Furthermore, it was US policy was to publicize such things - because (as TFA correctly points out) deterrence doesn't work if the other side doesn't know its supposed to be deterred.
       
       

      I am always amazed that the world has managed to avoid a nuclear war.

      Many people not familiar with either the psychology of deterrence or with how the systems worked are so amazed.

  • by TheProphet92 (1448257) on Tuesday September 22, 2009 @02:45PM (#29507973)
    ...is the fact that it was designed by the Russians to stop them from making a pre-emptive strike. With an automatic retaliation system in place, Russia gets its revenge whether or not there are any survivors. There was no reason to announce its existence when its purpose is not to prevent your enemy from attacking you, but instead to prevent you from attacking your enemy.
  • by damn_registrars (1103043) <damn.registrars@gmail.com> on Tuesday September 22, 2009 @02:56PM (#29508115) Homepage Journal
    Indeed, Reagan's true achievement wasn't in intimidating the USSR militarily into despair. Rather, he managed to convince them that he thought Star Wars was a documentary. He then subsequently convinced them that we were building this fantastic laser-beam and ICBM-based international defense system that would annihilate them if they sneezed on us. Which cause the military hot-heads over there to spend far too much money on military defenses, while letting the rest of their empire rot.

    Hence Reagan's irresponsible spending and gloating lead to even more irresponsible spending and gloating in the USSR - which became their undoing.
    • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday September 22, 2009 @03:43PM (#29508651)

      ... Which cause the military hot-heads over there to spend far too much money on military defenses, while letting the rest of their empire rot.

      Hence Reagan's irresponsible spending and gloating lead to even more irresponsible spending and gloating in the USSR - which became their undoing.

      Interesting. Isn't this what Al-Queda has done to the US?

    • by orin (113079) on Tuesday September 22, 2009 @03:49PM (#29508731)
      Except that in the book Arsenals of Folly, Richard Rhodes falsifies this myth by showing that Soviet expenditure on arms peaked well before Reagan came to power and was in decline throughout the Reagan presidency. Reagan gets credit for bringing down a system during his presidency that had already failed and was in significant decline during his governership of California. The USA wouldn't have had to have spent a cent more on its military during the 80's and it still would have achieved the same result.
    • Total bullshit (Score:4, Insightful)

      by pnuema (523776) on Tuesday September 22, 2009 @04:01PM (#29508841)
      The Soviet Union fell because communism doesn't work. Period. (Or do you really believe that communism is viable, and that the Soviet implimentation was flawed?) Gorbachev specifically went about liberalizing the economy and political system (perestroika and glasnost), and the resulting freedom to criticize the central government lead to the rise of nationalist parties in all of the Soviet satellite states in 1989. In 1991, the logical conclusion was reached, these countries declared independence, and the Soviet Union fell apart.

      Notice that none of that had anything to do with money. It was the relaxation of political control that led to the fall of the USSR, not an economic failure. The Soviets had demonstrated time and again that they cared nothing for the suffering of their people. They would happily murder them in the millions, let them starve, and imprison anyone who criticized the government. Moreover, they were still quite capable of competing with us militarily at the time.

      The Soviet Union fell because planned economies do not work. Gorbachev recognized that, and decided to end the suffering of his people. Soviets were standing in bread lines long before Reagan. I know conservatives need to lay something at the feet of St. Reagan, but really y'all need to own up that the man was a complete joke that never accomplished anything but tricking Republicans into voting against their own self-interests.

      • Re:Total bullshit (Score:4, Insightful)

        by bbasgen (165297) on Tuesday September 22, 2009 @05:19PM (#29509529) Homepage
        Mod parent up please.

        The Soviet Union wasn't chugging along perfectly until Reagan showed up. The Soviet Union was falling apart as early as the mid-1960s. The economic model was fundamentally flawed. The Soviets never learned the lessons from Stalin's disastrous communist experiments: collectivization doesn't work.

        In a typical Chinese critique, the classic failure of the Soviet Union is that Gorbachev attempted to liberalize the POLITICAL system before he properly liberalized the ECONOMIC system. The economic system was completely geared toward state interests (the definition of a planned economy)-- not the needs of the people. Meanwhile, the Chinese have managed to convert their economy over to capitalism in a somewhat managed fashion, while still largely stifling political reforms. With an economic system in place that adequately provides for the people, political reforms can follow in a somewhat controlled manner.

  • by careysub (976506) on Tuesday September 22, 2009 @02:59PM (#29508149)

    If one reads the article one soon discovers that it is misrepresenting itself. The Perimeter system is not an automatic response system - it transfers launch authority to an actual authorized person in a secure location who makes the launch decision. In no way is this an automatic "Doomsday Machine".

    Is this a shocking revelation? Well, the U.S. has its own "pre-positioned national command authority" who does exactly the same thing! See Bruce Blair's book The Logic of Accidental Nuclear War.

  • scary shit (Score:5, Insightful)

    by jollyreaper (513215) on Tuesday September 22, 2009 @03:03PM (#29508193)

    I first heard of this a few years after the cold war ended. Most of it was probably fictionalized but the way it was described is that three hardened telephone lines took widely separate routes from Moscow to a command bunker maybe a hundred miles away. These were severely hardened lines and for all three to go down at once could only mean that Moscow was nuked -- or some idiot tripped over a plug, you know how it is when you say something is fool-proof. Something else claimed at the time was that the Soviet method of controlling nukes was entirely automatic. The American system relies on computers sending launch codes via hardline or radio and human beings at the weapons personally deciphering and acknowledging the codes.

    There could still be a hole in the system, say launch orders were improperly sent. I guess the pentagon thought erroneous orders could be directly countermanded. But there was a sense of comfort in having humans in the loop. By contrast, the soviet system was described as being completely automatic. I don't think that sounds completely right. I can understand maybe a missile silo being setup for automatic launch on order with the human crew just being caretakers but I don't see that working for a sub. The sub would have to get the order, the crew would have to bring the sub to launch depth, punching through the ice sheet if on polar patrol, and this is all assuming the Russians even had the ULF system the Americans did where subs at patrol depth could receive low-bandwidth radio signals -- because otherwise subs were incommunicado without coming to periscope depth and extending a radio mast.

    The thing that still amazes me to this day was that the soviets could have a coup without nukes flying. I thought for sure a power struggle like that would end in a fireball.

    The thing that scares me the most from the Cold War is we were raised to fear the specter of a Soviet attack but our own leaders were every bit as batshit crazy as they were accusing the Soviets of. Fucking Nixon and his brinksmanship, fucking LeMay and trying to start WWIII during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and fucking Reagan as mentioned in TFA. Those fucking monsters did their level best to end modern civilization.

    • Re:scary shit (Score:4, Interesting)

      by david.given (6740) <dg@cRASPowlark.com minus berry> on Tuesday September 22, 2009 @04:34PM (#29509161) Homepage Journal

      The thing that scares me the most from the Cold War is we were raised to fear the specter of a Soviet attack but our own leaders were every bit as batshit crazy as they were accusing the Soviets of.

      I went to school in the 80s in St.Andrews in Scotland, which is about five miles from the Leuchars RAF base that hosted the North Sea interception squadron.

      Knowing that any incoming Soviet warhead would be followed a few minutes later by an American one (you know, just to make sure the evil communists didn't capture the smoking remnants of the UK) really made for a stable childhood experience. We all pretty much shat ourselves every time they tested the sirens.

  • by Danathar (267989) on Tuesday September 22, 2009 @03:30PM (#29508491) Journal

    From the Article:

    "Hidden in hardened silos designed to withstand the massive blast and electromagnetic pulses of a nuclear explosion, these missiles would launch first and then radio down coded orders to whatever Soviet weapons had survived the first strike."

    Now I'm NOT saying that a first strike doctrine in nuclear warfare is a viable war strategy but lets be serious here. I SERIOUSLY doubt the soviets could hide ANYTHING that could withstand a direct nuclear strike by anybody. Even NORAD could be reduced to vapor with a couple of very high yield or a barrage of ICBM nukes on the mountain.

  • Chernobyl disaster (Score:3, Insightful)

    by hAckz0r (989977) on Tuesday September 22, 2009 @05:32PM (#29509621)
    Wonder what Perimeter would have done if switched on back then. I heard that lots of people were watching the glow in the sky from the roof tops watching all the pretty lights. There was certainly a lot of radiation to trip the alarms, and lots of confused people. Most people didn't know what was going on until the story leaked out days later, after all the Governments children were carted off with respirators and other fancy gizmo's, and the International community was complaining about it. With Perimeter in charge they might have had just a few extra fireworks light off to make it all that more interesting.

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