Remember the "Doomsday Machine" from Doctor Strangelove? The Soviets built it in 1984: a device that would automatically launch missile strikes against the United States in the event of an attack on Russia. And it's still active, says Wired Magazine.
Wired Senior Editor Nicholas Thompson wrote an article for the magazine's latest issue about the Soviet defensive weapon, known as Perimeter, but also frequently referred to as The Dead Hand. Thompson, author of The Hawk and The Dove: Paul Nitze, George Kennan, and the History of the Cold War, the system used sensors around Russia to look for evidence of nuclear attack. But don't worry: it had several safeguards built in:
Perimeter ensures the ability to strike back, but it's no hair-trigger device. It was designed to lie semi-dormant until switched on by a high official in a crisis. Then it would begin monitoring a network of seismic, radiation, and air pressure sensors for signs of nuclear explosions. Before launching any retaliatory strike, the system had to check off four if/then propositions: If it was turned on, then it would try to determine that a nuclear weapon had hit Soviet soil. If it seemed that one had, the system would check to see if any communication links to the war room of the Soviet General Staff remained. If they did, and if some amount of time-likely ranging from 15 minutes to an hour-passed without further indications of attack, the machine would assume officials were still living who could order the counterattack and shut down. But if the line to the General Staff went dead, then Perimeter would infer that apocalypse had arrived. It would immediately transfer launch authority to whoever was manning the system at that moment deep inside a protected bunker-bypassing layers and layers of normal command authority. At that point, the ability to destroy the world would fall to whoever was on duty: maybe a high minister sent in during the crisis, maybe a 25-year-old junior officer fresh out of military academy. And if that person decided to press the button ... If/then. If/then. If/then. If/then.
Here's Thompson appearing on NPR to explain more about this hair-rising device:
The really interesting part is that Perimeter wasn't a deterrent — nobody in the U.S. government ever knew the Soviets had built the thing, and even Russia's own arms negotiators didn't know. Rather, it was intended to cool down hotheads in the Soviet military, by reassuring them that they could still strike back at the U.S. later, even if they personally died first. That way, they'd be less likely to order preemptive strikes.
And yes, the Dead Hand still exists, and it's continuously being upgraded. The only question is, if the system were activated and some happenstance (an earthquake, a glitch) were to convince it that a nuclear attack had happened, would whoever's in charge be level-headed enough to avoid pressing the final button?
The whole article, over at Wired, is well worth reading. [Wired]