Military history

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THE DEAD HAND

In the final weeks of his life, Andropov had few visitors. One of them was Mikhail Gorbachev, the youngest member of the Politburo, who had been Andropov’s protégé. They met for the last time in December 1983. “When I entered his room he was sitting in an armchair and made a weak attempt to smile,” Gorbachev recalled. “We greeted each other and embraced. The change since my last meeting with him was striking. I saw a totally different person in front of me. He was puffy-faced and haggard; his skin was sallow. His eyes were dim, he barely looked up, and sitting was obviously difficult. I exerted every effort to glance away, to somehow disguise my shock.”1

Within days of this meeting, Andropov prepared remarks he was scheduled to give to a Central Committee plenum. The text was typed up as usual, but Andropov was too ill to appear in person. He wrote an additional note of six paragraphs in his own hand. He called one of his top assistants, Arkady Volsky, to his bedside December 24 and gave him the note. Andropov had written in the last paragraph: “For reasons which you will understand, I will not be able to chair meetings of the Politburo and Secretariat in the near future. I would therefore request members of the Central Committee to examine the question of entrusting the leadership of the Politburo and Secretariat to Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev.” Volsky was stunned. He consulted two other aides, and they, too, were taken aback. Until then, Konstantin Chernenko had been considered the number two leader in the party. Andropov was proposing to skip Chernenko and go right to Gorbachev to lead the country. The aides took the precaution of photocopying Andropov’s note, and then submitted it to the Central Committee apparat to be typed and included with Andropov’s other remarks for distribution before the meeting.

Two days later, at the plenum, Volsky opened the red-leather-covered portfolio and discovered the last paragraph written by Andropov was missing. When he protested, he was told to keep quiet. The aging dinosaurs at the helm of the Soviet Union—Chernenko, Defense Minister Dmitri Ustinov, and Chairman of the Council of Ministers Nikolai Tikhonov—had quietly blocked Andropov’s attempt to name Gorbachev his successor. The old guard had kept their grip on power.2

Andropov died February 9, 1984, and the ailing Chernenko was chosen as his successor. British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher flew to Moscow for the funeral, arriving on February 13 in the bitter cold. On the day of the funeral, she met Chernenko for a short, private meeting. He read rapidly from a text, stumbling over his words from time to time. Thatcher recalled that she had been urged to wear fur-lined boots; at the Andropov funeral, guests had to stand for a long period in the cold. The boots had been expensive, she said. “But when I met Mr. Chernenko, the thought crossed my mind that they would probably come in useful again soon.”3

At seventy-two years old, Chernenko had never been more than a shadow of Brezhnev as his chief of staff and a party apparatchik. Suffering from an advanced stage of emphysema, Chernenko faltered during his televised inaugural speech from a podium atop Lenin’s tomb, running out of breath in the middle of sentences. He was unable to hold a salute to the military parade as it passed before him in Red Square. At one point during Andropov’s funeral, Gromyko turned to Chernenko and instructed him in a whisper—loud enough to be picked up by microphones—“Don’t take off your hat.”4 Two weeks later, in another televised address, Chernenko stumbled, lost his breath, paused for half a minute and, when he resumed, skipped an entire page of his text. Chernenko was a transitional figure, and his colleagues sensed it. “Whom did we acquire in the post of General Secretary?” asked Gorbachev. “Not merely a seriously sick and physically weak person but, in fact, an invalid. It was common knowledge, and immediately visible with the naked eye. It was impossible to disguise his infirmity and the shortness of breath caused by emphysema.”5

Anatoly Chernyaev, who was then deputy director of the International Department in the Central Committee, recalled that when Chernenko was to meet the king of Spain, aides wrote out his main points on small cards, with no long sentences, so that Chernenko would seem to be talking and not reading. “That was in the beginning,” Chernyaev said. “Later, Chernenko couldn’t even read the notes anymore, but just stumbled through them with no idea what he was saying.”6

What if the ailing Chernenko had to make a decision about nuclear attack? For the Soviet leadership, the ultimate catastrophe would be a bolt-from-the-blue first strike that would destroy the Kremlin in minutes. There was a special underground train out of the Kremlin to the war bunkers—but what if they were facing sudden death, if the missiles were only minutes away, a decapitation? With the leaders gone, who would order retaliation? Who would transmit the orders? How would they communicate to the remote missile command posts and submarines? If decapitation were swift and powerful, perhaps they would not be able to retaliate; and if so, they were vulnerable. Soviet fears of decapitation were real, fed by actions in the United States. The directive signed by President Carter in 1980 for protracted nuclear war, P.D. 59, had deliberately singled out the Soviet leadership as a target. The deployment of Pershing II and ground-launched cruise missiles in late 1983 seemed to further reinforce the threat of weapons that could reach the Soviet Union in a matter of minutes.

In early 1984, just as Chernenko took power, Valery Yarynich, then forty-seven, a colonel in the elite Strategic Rocket Forces, was quietly transferred to a new position as a deputy department chief in the Main Rocket Armaments Directorate. Yarynich was a master of communications channels and methods who had worked for two decades setting up cables, radio systems and satellites which linked the rockets, troops, commanders and the political leaders in Moscow. He had a serious demeanor and a sense of purpose. When there was a break in a vital communications link for the Strategic Rocket Forces, Yarynich was the one they trusted to fix it quickly. He was transferred to a sensitive, ultra-secret new project for decision making and communications in the event of nuclear war.

In the early days of the Soviet nuclear weapons program, communications were primitive. Getting word to the troops—and the missiles—was time-consuming. Yarynich witnessed the cumbersome procedures. Born in 1937 to the family of a Soviet naval officer at Kronshtadt, near Leningrad, Yarynich graduated from the Leningrad Military Academy of Communications in 1959, two years after Sputnik. That December, the Strategic Rocket Forces was established as a separate service, and the giant, cumbersome R-7 liquid-fueled intercontinental missiles were put on combat duty. Khrushchev was boasting that the Soviet Union was turning out missiles like sausages. Yarynich served in the first Soviet division of intercontinental ballistic missiles, at Yurya, north of Kirov. They were just building the rocket base when he arrived, carving it out of the forest. At the end of 1960, Yarynich moved up to the corps headquarters in Kirov, where five new missile divisions were being formed.

At the time, the Soviet general staff transmitted orders to the missile commanders by radio and cable, using code words in a system called “Monolit.” The system relied on special packets prepared in advance and kept under strict control in a safe at the command posts, to be opened in an emergency. Yarynich recalled that during drills, in a decisive moment, an unfortunate duty officer often failed to open the packet fast enough with scissors because his nervous hands were shaking so badly. Precious minutes were wasted. The problem of using scissors was considered serious enough that experts were asked to come up with a new method. “The packet was constructed with a pull-string, on which an operator could tug to immediately open it up,” Yarynich recalled. The whole system was slow and cumbersome. Monolit had another, more serious shortcoming. The orders could not be recalled—there was no way to cancel.7

In late October 1962, during the Cuban missile crisis, Yarynich was sent as a communications officer to supervise at a rocket division near Nizhny Tagil, 860 miles east of Moscow in Siberia. At the peak of the confrontation, the crews received an unmistakable signal through the Monolit system. The code word was “BRONTOZAVR.” The word was a signal: switch the command system from peacetime to combat alert status. A telegraph typed it out, and Yarynich took the paper tape from one of the young women who served as operators. The word was unmistakable, he remembered. “Oh God,” he said. “BRONTOZAVR!”

“Never before had we sent it out,” he recalled. “It was a signal to cut open the packages.”

Inside the packages were new call signals and frequencies for radio communications in the event of nuclear war. “It was a wrong idea in my view, because to change frequencies and call signals when the war is breaking out meant to mess everything up,” Yarynich said. “Still, that was the procedure. So, our job was to introduce this new radio information immediately, everywhere, on receiving the order.”

Yarynich recognized immediately the message was not a drill. He handed the tape to a colonel on duty. “You understand?” Yarynich asked. The man was shaking. They had never received this command, even during exercises. The missiles at Nizhny Tagil were not yet fueled, so they would not be launched soon, yet the switch to combat alert was met with dread. “It was strangely quiet,” Yarynich recalled. “I cannot forget the mixture of nervousness, surprise and pain on the faces of each operator, without exception—officers, enlisted men, women telephone operators.” In the end, the Cuban crisis was defused, and in Nizhny Tagil, the “BRONTOZAVR” alert expired. But the problem of command and control of nuclear weapons grew more intense as the Soviet leaders threw their resources into building a new generation of missiles, which required new methods of control—the paper packets were obsolete.

The first attempt to automate the command and control system was ready by 1967. It was called “Signal,” and it could transmit thirteen fixed commands from headquarters to the troops, such as telling them to escalate to a higher readiness. The new system could also transmit a cancel order. While a vast improvement over the paper packets, the Signal system did not command the weapons, but rather sent orders to the troops, and they in turn had to operate the weapons. This was still cumbersome and time-consuming. As pressure increased for more speed and streamlining, a second stage of automation was developed in the mid-1970s, known as “Signal-M.” It reached all the way from the top decision-makers to the lowest level in the field. The installation of the new, faster Signal-M came as the Soviet Union put on duty the new generation of missiles, including the giant SS-18. This was the first time the Soviet nuclear command and control featured a remote-control button that could be pushed to launch.8

In the Soviet system of the 1970s, the General Staff oversaw the weapons at sea and on bombers, while the Strategic Rocket Forces supervised land-based missiles. At the time, Soviet leaders sitting in the Kremlin did not have a nuclear “football” carried around everywhere they went. The launch apparatus remained with the military branches. The political leaders shared control with the generals.

Yarynich, who worked on Signal-M, often pondered the profound psychological calculus of nuclear weapons command and control. How would real people behave when they had to press the button? How would they make a decision about whether to inflict utter devastation in just minutes? Yarynich recalled another episode he experienced in the mid-1970s when he was working on command and control systems for nuclear weapons. A malfunction occurred in the alert system. An erroneous message was automatically transmitted from the top down to the command posts of all rocket divisions: go one step to a higher alert. Most duty officers in the command posts failed to obey. “People didn’t believe it,” Yarynich said. “We were not at war.” Instead of summoning troops from their barracks to combat sites, they began telephoning their superiors to find out if the message was genuine. Only a lone duty officer, a lieutenant colonel, actually put his unit on alert. The incident revealed a great deal of reluctance in the rocket forces to push any buttons. The duty officers knew, Yarynich said, that “one could not act blindly.”

In order to give a Soviet leader additional precious minutes to make a launch decision, the military strove to build super-fast communications to carry messages from the headquarters right to the missiles themselves. In 1985, Signal-M was upgraded to a computerized system known as Signal-A, which allowed missiles in remote silos to be retargeted directly by the Strategic Rocket Forces main staff. Several different flight plans were stored at the launcher and could be chosen remotely. It would take only ten or fifteen seconds to load a flight plan.9 The significance of this was that Soviet authorities would gain speed and bypass uncertainty—the human kind—on the ground. They would skip over any troops who, lacking discipline and burning with curiosity, might be tempted to pick up the phone to ask what was going on. The military designers were being pushed all the time to make the launch system as fast as possible. “The designers said we need it—now it is five minutes, then it will be three, and soon it will be 20 seconds,” Yarynich recalled.

In addition to speed, the designers wanted fail-safe, ironclad security. They knew the flaws of Soviet industry, and the potential for error. Yarynich said they devoted just as much effort to guarding against failure or cheating as they did to gaining speed; they built in rigid procedures, constantly checking for anomalies, up and down the chain.

In 1985, the Soviet designers finished work on a nuclear “football,” in this case a briefcase known as the Cheget. Three were prepared: to accompany the general secretary of the party, the defense minister and chief of the General Staff. However, the Cheget was for information only; it could not be used to launch, and did not have a button to press. The officer carrying the Cheget would plug into a wider communications network, known as Kavkaz, designed just for the national leadership. Then the general secretary could give permission to the military, also plugged into Kavkaz, to launch. This “permission command” would then be transformed into a “direct command” by the General Staff. The direct commands were authenticated, and if proven correct, would become “launch commands” sent to the missiles.

Over the years, as Yarynich worked to build and strengthen these communications systems, he came to see the hair trigger as a dead end, that neither side could gain an edge by just shaving minutes off the decision process. But in 1984, he was doing his job, caught up in the quest for speed.

In the event of nuclear explosions, communications links would be vulnerable to disruption, especially between the headquarters and the missile silo. The Soviet military designers wanted to eliminate that uncertainty. All the previous experience had shown that the traditional cables, radio and satellite channels they had built to carry the data might be suddenly incinerated. They also feared the electromagnetic pulse that would precede a nuclear attack could wipe out all standard communications equipment. Some other means to control the missiles in time of war had to be found.

One answer was the survivable underground command post in the Ural Mountains, known as Grot, carved out of a mass of granite. The designers had searched long and hard for a site that would allow radio signals to penetrate through the rock. The granite was perfect. Grot was situated at a mountain place known locally as Kosvinsky Kamen, east of Moscow and north of Sverdlovsk.10 While the mountain bunker was intended to shield the commanders from nuclear war, the designers also created a parallel plan for safely broadcasting the launch orders—via missiles soaring high above the earth.

Missiles had always been a Soviet strength, so it was natural to turn to them to solve the problem of wartime communications. The designers conceived robot-like command missiles that could be kept in super-hardened silos, and then launched quickly at the onset of nuclear war. Instead of a warhead, the command missiles would carry a special nose cone of electronics. Once in flight, safely above the war conditions on the ground, the command missiles would broadcast a message to all the remaining nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missiles in their silos below: “launch!” Should all else fail, the retaliation command would get through. There was one drawback: the command missiles might take thirty minutes to complete the mission; at that point, all the intercontinental ballistic missiles might be destroyed. Nonetheless, a decision was made to build the system. In utmost secrecy, the Soviet military and civilian designers won approval to start work in 1974. The Yuzhnoye Design Bureau, one of the leading Soviet missile builders in Dnepropetrovsk, Ukraine, was given responsibility for the command rocket.11 The electronics were created at the Special Design Bureau of the Leningrad Polytechnic Institute, an elite engineering and computer institute. Colonel General Varfolomei Korobushin, first deputy chief of the rocket forces main staff, was in charge of the project for the military. Taken together, the new bunkers and rockets were one of the most creative, astonishing and frightening inventions of the Cold War. It was called Perimeter.12

When Yarynich was transferred to the new job in January 1984, he was assigned to Perimeter—then approaching the final year of testing.

In the logic of nuclear alert, the fate of the Earth would rest on human decisions made in a few fleeting minutes. If Soviet leaders feared an imminent attack, they had three choices. The first option was preemption, to attack first. But such a strike had almost no chance of success—it was just not possible to wipe out the land and sea legs of the American missile force with a preemptive strike. The second option was to launch immediately when a warning was received that enemy missiles were on the way—a warning that would come from the infrared satellites, and then, ten to fifteen minutes later, from ground-based radars. To launch on a warning was to take extraordinary risks. What if the warning was wrong? What if a radar had mistakenly seen a flock of geese? Or if an early-warning satellite had mistakenly seen a glint off the clouds? These kinds of errors were common to both superpowers. No one wanted to launch nuclear missiles because of a flock of geese. Nonetheless, in the tense standoff of the early 1980s, launch on warning was not dismissed out of hand. The third option was to retaliate only when under attack. Among the Soviet leadership, this was also considered a realistic scenario, especially after they achieved rough parity in missiles with the United States in the 1970s. But launch under attack carried its own risks: what if they didn’t survive to retaliate? In this supreme test of human behavior, a hair-trigger decision to launch a nuclear missile attack was one that theorists and planners simply could not fathom nor reliably predict. It was almost impossible to know whether a leader would launch on warning, and take the risk of firing too soon, or wait for an attack, and take the chance of decapitation and destruction.

Out of such imponderable choices arose yet another aspect of Perimeter. What if the ailing Chernenko could not decide whether to shoot first, or be shot? What if he was wiped out before he could decide? The Soviet designers responded with an ingenious and incredible answer. They built a Doomsday Machine that would guarantee retaliation—launch all the nuclear missiles—if Chernenko’s hand went limp.

In effect, the designers created a command system—a switch—that gave Chernenko the option not to decide on retaliation. If he turned on the switch, the system would pass the decision to someone else. Thus, an ailing general secretary might avoid the mistake of launching all missiles based on a false alarm. Should the enemy missiles actually arrive and destroy the Kremlin, the general secretary could be certain there would be retaliation. According to Yarynich, the logic was to take the immense burden of a sudden, shoot-or-die decision off the shoulders of the Soviet leader, especially someone as feeble as Brezhnev or Chernenko. If retaliation was necessary, that decision would be slightly delayed and transferred to a survivor. The immense burden was shifted to a few duty officers who might still be alive in a concrete bunker. They would face the big decision about destroying what remained of the planet.

This was not only a concept, but an elaborate program which took a decade to build. It was Perimeter.

Buried within the idea was an even deeper and more frightening concept that the Soviet leaders considered: a totally automated, computer-driven retaliatory system known as the Dead Hand. It would still function if all the leaders and all the regular command system were destroyed. Computers would memorize the early-warning and nuclear attack data, wait out the onslaught, and then order the retaliation without human control. This system would turn over the fate of mankind to computers. The details remain very sketchy. Katayev, the Central Committee staff man, described it as a “super project,” but said it was eventually abandoned. The Soviet designers and leaders could not go that far. Yarynich confirmed that a totally automatic system that would work without the participation of any human element at all was considered in the early 1980s, but the military rejected the idea of launching without one last human firewall. “It was complete madness,” Yarynich said.13

The Perimeter system, however, was constructed. In the early moments of a nuclear crisis, the order might come from the General Staff, or perhaps from the underground command post at Grot, to activate the system. The actual switching-on mechanism is not known. In peacetime, relatively junior duty officers sit in the specialized bunkers. In a crisis, they might be augmented or replaced by experienced high-level officers, but, more likely, under a surprise attack, regular duty officers would be present. The bunkers are known as shariki, spheres or globes. Built of hardened concrete, they were buried so far underground that they could survive a nuclear attack on the surface.14

Deep in the globes, the officers had a checklist of three conditions to monitor as the minutes ticked by. Condition 1: Verify the Perimeter system was activated. This activation meant that the military commanders or the Kremlin had given advance permission for the system to fire. Condition 2: Check whether contact had been lost with the military and political leaders. If the lines went out, if the hand was dead, this meant decapitation. Condition 3: Determine whether nuclear detonations were being felt by a network of special sensors that measured light, radioactivity, seismic shocks and atmospheric overpressure.

If all three of these conditions were met—the system was activated, the leaders were dead and the nuclear bombs were detonating—then from inside the globe, the officers were supposed to issue a command to launch the Perimeter command rockets, which would fly for about thirty minutes and order all the remaining nuclear-armed missiles of the Soviet Union to launch, aimed at the United States.15

The officers buried in the globe were the last human decision-makers in a chain that was now ultrafast and largely automated. If they acted as they had been ordered, Perimeter would unleash a spasm of destruction. “Thus, there was no need for anyone to push a button,” said Korobushin. Much would rest on the thinking of the officers in the globe. Yarynich often wondered whether the men in the bunkers at this point would follow orders or defy them. Did the men in the bunker give it one last layer of sanity, the possibility of saying no to mass destruction? Yarynich thought they did. “We have a young lieutenant colonel sitting there, communications are destroyed, and he hears ‘boom,’ ‘boom,’ everything is shaking—he might fail to launch. If he doesn’t begin the launching procedure there will be no retaliation. What’s the point of doing it if half the globe has already been wiped out? To destroy the second part? It makes no sense. Even at this point, this lieutenant colonel might say, ‘No, I won’t launch it.’ No one will condemn him for it or put him before a firing squad. If I were in his place, I wouldn’t launch.” But Yarynich added that no one could predict how the duty officer would react in such an extraordinary moment, at the edge of the abyss.

Another way to look at Perimeter, however, is more ominous: the duty officers are just another cog in an automatic, regimented system. If the duty officers are drilled over and over again to follow the checklist, and if the highest authorities had given the permission from the top, and if all three conditions on the checklist are met, wouldn’t they naturally do as they had been trained to do? In the sharik, there would be no communications with the outside world, no negotiations or appeals, no second-guessing, and no recalling the command rockets once they were launched.

If the Americans had known of Perimeter—if they realized that decapitation of the Kremlin would trigger near-automatic retaliation—it might have given them pause. It might have been a deterrent. But in the peculiar dark world of the arms race, the Soviets treated the Perimeter project as super-secret, and tried to mask what they had invented. The Perimeter command missiles were cleverly disguised to look like ordinary missiles so they could not be detected by satellites.

“We hid it,” Yarynich said. “We should have announced from the very beginning, here it is, we are having trials. But we hid it. If you don’t know about it, it’s bad. It means you might take a decisive step, and then what?” This prospect worried Yarynich for many years.

On November 13, 1984, the Soviet military carried out a major test of Perimeter. The Leningrad design bureau simulated the General Staff command post. A signal was sent to a low-frequency transmitter in Moscow. Then the signal was transmitted to the command rocket at the Kapustin Yar test range on the banks of the Volga River in southern Russia. The command rocket took off and flew toward Lake Balkhash in Kazakhstan. Along the entire flight, the command rocket delivered the launch order, as a test, and receivers were listening across the country. During the test, Yarynich watched reports come in; some signals were stronger, others weaker.

Among other locations, the command rocket signal was received by an intercontinental ballistic missile located at the Tyuratam test range, also in Kazakhstan. The missile was poised to launch. In conditions of nuclear war, it would have lifted from the silo immediately, but the Soviet officials delayed it during the test because they suspected American satellites were monitoring every move. A while later, the big missile launched and flew to the Kamchatka Peninsula, hitting a target there.16

The test was a success, and the system was put on combat duty in the new year, 1985.

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