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Mertvaya Ruka: Dead Hand

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The end of the Cold War brought to many an end to the fears that a nuclear war could erupt at any moment between the United States and the Soviet Union. And while that fear has by and large subsided, there is a relic of the Cold War that could have enacted a nuclear exchange and continues to be used by the Russian military. It isn’t a bomb or a vehicle, but rather a system called Mertvaya Ruka.

May Day Parade in Moscow during the Cold War

Mertvaya Ruka, which is Russian for “Dead Hand,” was a Soviet doomsday system that became active in 1985 and was code-named “Perimeter.” Perimeter received its nickname Mertvaya Ruka because it’s a dead man’s switch, except instead of one bomb it was attached to the Soviets’ entire nuclear arsenal.

Since the end of the Cold War, numerous individuals from the former Soviet Union have come forward to speak about the Perimeter system. One individual, former colonel Valery Yarynich in the Strategic Rocket Forces and Soviet General Staff, stated in March 2009 that the most positive aspect of Perimeter was that it took control of the Soviets’ nuclear weapons away from the politicians and military leadership.

Journalist David E. Hoffman agrees that Perimeter wasn’t intended to be totally automated, as Soviet leaders were supposed to activate Perimeter first if they thought a nuclear attack was imminent. Then, Perimeter would determine if a nuclear attack had taken place and retaliate. In essence, the main purpose of Perimeter was to create an alternative for Soviet leadership. Instead of having to decide if a nuclear attack was taking place or merely a misunderstanding, someone such as the Premiere could instead activate Perimeter and hand the responsibility off to someone else.

An RT-2PM “Topol” ICBM launcher, which entered service in 1985

The way Perimeter worked was that it would be perpetually semi-active, and during an emergency the Soviet leadership could activate the system. Then, Perimeter would monitor its network of radiation, seismic, and air pressure sensors to determine if a nuclear attack had occurred. If Perimeter determined that there was a nuclear attack, then it would determine if the attack occurred within the Soviet Union, and then it would check if lines of communication to the Soviet General Staff were still open. If fifteen minutes to an hour passed and the line of communication was still open, Perimeter would decide that there were still living commanders who could authorize a retaliatory strike and stand down.

However, if the line of communication to the Soviet General Staff wasn’t operating, then Perimeter would assume that said Staff had been wiped out in the nuclear attack and would transfer the authority to launch the nuclear weapons to a small spherical bunker deep underground manned by three officers. If the officers decided to launch, then a series of “command rockets,” rockets stored in silos that were hardened against the blast and EMP effects of a nuclear detonation, were to be launched that would fly over the Soviet Union, transmitting commands to any surviving Soviet nuclear forces (including missile silos, bombers, and even submarines) and then initiate a counter-attack against the U.S.

But what could drive the Soviets to construct such a device when fears of an intentional (or accidental) nuclear war were already so high? Apparently in the years following the Vietnam War, the Soviets had begun to close the missile gap between the Soviet Union and the U.S. while internal unrest and failure in Vietnam made the U.S. look weaker than before. However, the Ronald Reagan administration took the stance that the only way to ensure peace with the Soviets was to make it appear that the Americans were unafraid of a nuclear war. This meant harsher rhetoric and higher defense spending which were backed up by actions such as Operation Urgent Fury in Grenada.

A chart describing SDI

The real final straw for the Soviets was Reagan’s “Star Wars” or Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) which sought to use lasers and space-based weapon systems to prevent a Soviet nuclear attack. While critics in the U.S. thought it was proposterous, the Soviets thought it was legitimate and finally broke the stalemate of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD). To the Soviets, it meant that the U.S. could launch a surprise attack that could heavily cripple the Soviet Union while the few remaining and confusedly-launched nuclear weapons launched in retaliation could be effectively destroyed by SDI.

This was also combined with a deep-rooted fear of foreign attack or invasion on behalf of the Soviets. Many in command remembered the surprise invasion of the Soviet Union by Nazi Germany during World War II, and the extremely heavy losses suffered by the Soviets. Although the new war was to be fought with nuclear weapons, the idea and the fear of surprise attack was still a major factor in Soviet thinking. And as others, including Yarynich, Hoffman, and Aleksandr Zheleznyakov have said, the most important aspect of Perimeter was to help ease Soviet leadership. Instead of being forced to make a potentially horrifying mistake or misjudgement, Soviet leaders could instead relax to a certain degree knowing that regardless of what may happen, Perimeter guaranteed that anyone who attacked the Soviet Union would be retaliated against.

That’s not to say the Soviets totally trusted having an automated nuclear arsenal either. An earlier program, “Signal,” had been devised by the Soviets in 1967 that could issue 30 pre-made orders to the missile forces, although it (like Perimeter) was not totally automatic. According to Hoffman, the Soviets did consider designing a totally automatic system that completely removed the human element from the nuclear launch process. However, Hoffman says “when they drew that blueprint up and looked at it, they thought, you know, this is absolutely crazy.”

On the other hand, U.S. did have something similar to ensure retaliation. Instead of a single computer program, numerous B-52 long-range bombers were constantly kept aloft by the Strategic Air Command (SAC) in order to be able to quickly strike at targets within the Soviet Union. These aircrews were given the authority to launch a retaliatory strike on their own if the U.S. had already been attacked, but unlike Perimeter, the U.S. had already informed the world about it and relied more on the human element than automation.

However, even today after the end of the Cold War, the system remains in use. Sergey Karakaev, the commander of the Russian Federation’s Strategic Rocket Forces, stated in an interview that the Perimeter system was indeed still operational and in use. This has led some to still fear Perimeter, considering the deteriorating relations between the U.S. and Russia and the changing political climate compared to the Cold War, such as the rise of Islamic terrorism and the fear that certain radical groups could attempt to take control of such a device.

Ironically, many compare Perimeter to the Doomsday Machine from the 1964 black satire film Dr. Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. In the film, a rogue U.S. nuclear attack on the U.S.S.R. inadvertently provokes global annihilation when it is discovered that the Soviets had constructed a Doomsday Machine.

Peter Sellers as the ex-Nazi scientist Dr. Strangelove

The Doomsday Machine works by being a computer attached to a series of massive bombs that have been buried, and the computer is programmed to detonate if 1.) a nuclear attack has been carried out against the Soviets or 2.) any attempt is made to disarm the device. The massive bombs are covered in “Cobalt-Thorium-G” which have a radioactive half-life of roughly 100 years, so that if the Doomsday Machine is ever detonated the radioactive shroud will be carried by the winds ensuring that within two weeks everything on Earth will be dead. Of course, the events of the film take place a few days prior to the machine’s official announcement by the Soviet Premiere, making its use as a deterrent useless.

There are some similarities but overall Perimeter is a totally different beast. It is not intended to act independently, and can only take over once it is told to do so by Soviet/Russian leadership. Some argue that like in Dr. Strangelove the device’s secrecy makes it a poor deterrent, as it is almost never talked about openly by the Russian government and few American officials know it exists. Perhaps it is better that most people are unaware of Mertvaya Ruka, and those who are can at least take comfort in knowing that the human element is not totally removed.

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