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The Not-So-Dead Hand of the Soviet Union

So there really was a Soviet doomsday device. Or so says a fascinating article in this month’s Wired magazine. What’s more — it’s still in service and periodically upgraded. (I wonder if it’s open source, like Linux? Nah.) At least this is the story from one Valery Yarynich, “a 30-year veteran of the Soviet Strategic Rocket Forces and Soviet General Staff,” who helped build it.

Much like the gizmo that was at the center of Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, Perimeter (aka the Dead Hand) was intended to act as the ultimate deterrent: Even if you wipe us out, we can still retaliate.

The only problem, just as in the movie, is that the Soviets forgot to tell anyone they had the thing.

So why was the US not informed about Perimeter? Kremlinologists have long noted the Soviet military’s extreme penchant for secrecy, but surely that couldn’t fully explain what appears to be a self-defeating strategic error of extraordinary magnitude.

The silence can be attributed partly to fears that the US would figure out how to disable the system. But the principal reason is more complicated and surprising. According to both Yarynich and Zheleznyakov, Perimeter was never meant as a traditional doomsday machine. The Soviets had taken game theory one step further than Kubrick, Szilard, and everyone else: They built a system to deter themselves.

Wait until General Ripper hears about this. Just so long as President Obama doesn’t, because he might want to do nothing, unlike Ronald Reagan, who did something, and look where that got us with the old Soviets. (Didn’t Reagan explode the sun or something? I could have sworn I read that in the Guardian . . .)



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