Soviet "Doomsday" Device Might Still be Operational

A Cold War-era network of sensors dispersed across Russia might still be rigged to unleash nuclear devastation on the United States if triggered by physical stimuli linked to a nuclear attack, ABC News reported yesterday (see GSN, June 1).

Although the existence of the system, referred to as "Perimeter," became public after the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia might never have disabled the system designed in the 1980s, said Nicholas Thompson, who discussed the system with former Soviet military figures and scoured Defense Department archives for a report published last month by Wired magazine.

"The Soviets really did fear that the U.S. was going to launch a nuclear strike," Thompson said. "It's still in place, but it's not as though they're sitting around waiting for America to strike. It's on lower alert."

Former Soviet Col. Valery Yarynich helped to design the system, which, when activated, continuously scans the environment for seismographic, barometric and radioactive events that could signal a nuclear strike.

If the system was unable to contact high-level officials in the event of a probable nuclear attack, it would delegate retaliation authority to a military detachment stationed deep underground. The military officers would be expected to fire beacons that would fly across the continent, sending launch orders to any missiles that had not been destroyed in the initial attack.

"(They were) the so-called human firewall. They had criteria. ... It wasn't fully automatic," said David Hoffman, who recently completed a book on the Perimeter system.

The system was designed to let Russia's top leaders delegate counterstrike authority, Hoffman said

"The idea here was if I turn on the switch, I give the decision to somebody else," Hoffman said. "If I'm wiped out, I know there will be retaliation. If it's a flock of geese, I won't make a mistake."

Hoffman said that Russia has apparently begun to dismantle Perimeter, but other analysts disagreed.

"As far as I know, the system remains in essentially the same status as it was," said Bruce Blair, head of the World Security Institute in Washington. "The U.S. and Russia keep thousands of weapons on launch-ready alert. I think there's no reason to believe that this system would have been shut down."

Upon learning of Perimeter from Thompson, former CIA Director James Woolsey said, "I hope to God the Soviets were more sensible than that" (Ki Mae Heussner, ABC News, Oct. 8).

October 9, 2009
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A Cold War-era network of sensors dispersed across Russia might still be rigged to unleash nuclear devastation on the United States if triggered by physical stimuli linked to a nuclear attack, ABC News reported yesterday (see GSN, June 1).