Did Russia build a Doomsday Machine?

During the 1950s, Herman Kahn and Harold Brown proposed the concept of a weapon that could destroy all life on earth.  In the event of a nuclear attack from another nation, a computer would detonate multiple salted hydrogen bombs, covering the globe with lethal radioactive material.  They called it a Doomsday Machine.  Fortunately, such a device was never built…or was it? What was Dead Hand?

“Operation Castle, ROMEO Event – The 11-megaton ROMEO Event was part of Operation Castle. It was detonated from a barge near Bikini atoll on 26 March 1954.”
Source: Photo courtesy of National Nuclear Security Administration / Nevada Site Office

The Mysterious Dead Hand?

In 1985, the USSR completed the construction of a top-secret military installation known as Perimeter, or Dead Hand.  Its purpose remained closely guarded for years but in the early 1990s the truth came out.  Dead Hand was a semi-automated doomsday machine.

At the time, a doomsday machine was viewed as the perfect deterrent.  No sane leader would dare launch a nuclear attack if they knew it would bring mutually assured destruction.  A pure doomsday machine requires the complete removal of human decision-making.  So, Dead Hand didn’t quite fit into that category.  It required human activity…but not all that much of it.  Just four steps (two involving people) separated mankind from extinction.

  1. Activation: In the event of a crisis, a high official activated the system.
  2. Scan: Using seismic, radiation, and air pressure sensors, Dead Hand scanned Soviet-controlled territory for evidence of a nuclear attack.
  3. Communication: Upon finding evidence, Dead Hand checked whether it could still communicate with the Soviet General Staff’s war room.
  4. Switch of Launch Authority: If communications had ceased, launch authority transferred to three rotating duty officers who manned Dead Hand.  Ultimately, they would make the choice of whether or not to launch nuclear winter.

Why was Dead Hand Created?

Doomsday machines gained fame in fiction.  So, how did such a device ever become a reality?  In the 1980s, President Reagan and his staff initiated an aggressive campaign to convince Soviet leaders that they weren’t adverse to waging nuclear war.  The strategy worked well.  Maybe too well.

Over time, the Soviets began to believe that Reagan might actually initiate a nuclear war.  It seems clear that Dead Hand was originally intended as a deterrent in order to ensure that a nuclear attack would not go unpunished.  But a deterrent only works if others know about it.  And in shades of Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, it appears that the Soviet Union never told anyone about Dead Hand.

Some claim that Dead Hand’s true purpose was to be a self-deterrent.  In other words, it allowed Soviet leaders to avoid making hasty decisions since, in the event of an actual attack, reprisal was a near certainty.  Regardless of Dead Hand’s true purpose, its easy to imagine plenty of scenarios that could’ve led to the accidental launch of a literal doomsday.

Guerrilla Explorer’s Analysis

These days, the idea of nuclear war seems almost far-fetched.  And indeed, Dead Hand’s current location and situation remain closely guarded.  However, according to at least one source it still exists, remains fully operational, and continues to receive upgrades.  If that’s the case, nuclear doomsday may not be that far-fetched after all.

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