Spectator contributors were asked: Which moment from history seems most significant or interesting? Here is Dominic Cummings’s answer:
In the early morning of 26 September 1983, Stanislav Petrov of the Soviet Union’s Air Defence Force was on duty, monitoring his country’s satellite system, when the siren sounded. His computer indicated that the US had just launched five nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missiles, and protocol required him to notify superiors immediately. Soviet strategy was to ‘launch on warning’, and many in Moscow believed Ronald Reagan was planning a first strike.
But Petrov had a gut feeling this was a false alarm. Five missiles seemed too few, and the system itself was new. He did not inform superiors and within a few minutes it became clear that he had been right. Much of the world could have been destroyed within an hour if Petrov had followed protocol. It was only because of his intensive training and quick wits that many millions of lives weren’t lost. Afterwards, he was reprimanded for failure to do his post-event paperwork properly.
We have fluked many similar episodes since the 1960s. ‘Launch on warning’ protocols combined with flawed early warning systems remain a huge danger today. Nuclear and biological weapons are proliferating. Issues of existential importance are largely ignored and our political systems incentivise politicians to focus more on Twitter and gossip-column stories about their dogs.
In Britain parts of the nuclear enterprise have rotted from years of neglect, though thankfully the new cabinet secretary knows and cares and is acting to remedy this. In America and Russia security disasters are routine. As Covid has shown, far greater intellectual and material resources ought to be deployed on such apparently low-probability, high-impact events.