Self Assured Destruction

If you thought mutually assured destruction was strange, wrap your mind around this:

An actual doomsday device—a real, functioning version of the ultimate weapon, [was] always presumed to exist only as a fantasy of apocalypse-obsessed science fiction writers and paranoid über-hawks. … Turns out Yarynich, a 30-year veteran of the Soviet Strategic Rocket Forces and Soviet General Staff, helped build one. The point of the system, he explains, was to guarantee an automatic Soviet response to an American nuclear strike. Even if the US crippled the USSR with a surprise attack, the Soviets could still hit back. It wouldn’t matter if the US blew up the Kremlin, took out the defense ministry, severed the communications network, and killed everyone with stars on their shoulders. Ground-based sensors would detect that a devastating blow had been struck and a counterattack would be launched. …

The Russians still won’t discuss it, and Americans at the highest levels—including former top officials at the State Department and White House—say they’ve never heard of it. … So why didn’t the Soviets tell the world, or at least the White House, about it? … In fact, the Soviet military didn’t even inform its own civilian arms negotiators. … The Soviets had taken game theory one step further than Kubrick, Szilard, and everyone else: They built a system to deter themselves. … By guaranteeing that Moscow could hit back, Perimeter was actually designed to keep an overeager Soviet military or civilian leader from launching prematurely during a crisis. … No matter what was going to happen, there still would be revenge.

GD Star Rating
Tagged as: ,
Trackback URL:
  • DPH

    Seems to me that such a system can have two different strategies.

    1) as you outlined, it keeps your own military in line, knowing that regardless of what happens, revenge will happen.

    The second is that you convincingly sell the notion that the system exists and that it works to your opponent. Thus there is no benefit for them to hit first, because they know that regardless of if they can actually truly sever the communication infrastructure, they will still be destroyed.

  • DPH

    I lost a 2) in that post. The last paragraph was the second strategy

    • Constant

      Next time do it like this:




  • haig

    The most troubling aspect of this scheme was its secrecy. Its possible that they kept it secret because automating the ‘big red button’ would seem unpopular and frightening to the populace. But going ahead with it in secret accomplishes only one thing: satisfying their fatalistic need to see their enemies obliterated alongside themselves. This is not normal retaliatory behavior as evolved to dampen the prospect of initial conflict, this is revenge gone haywire.

  • Constant

    They built a system to deter themselves. … By guaranteeing that Moscow could hit back, Perimeter was actually designed to keep an overeager Soviet military or civilian leader from launching prematurely during a crisis.

    That’s plausible, but how much is this really why they did it, and how much is spin? The doomsday device is straight out of Dr. Strangelove, a film about madness gone mad. I notice the article is in Wired, which I do not trust to do much beyond dramatically overhype this week’s technological hype.

    • Autumnal Harvest

      It is very much out of Dr. Strangelove:


      Yes, but the… whole point of the doomsday machine… is lost… if you keep it a secret! Why didn’t you tell the world, eh?


      It was to be announced at the Party Congress on Monday. As you know, the Premier loves surprises.

  • It’s a fun story – but there are no pictures or evidence. Since each side likes the other to think it has powerful weapons, there is considerable incentive for lies and misdirection.

    • deo

      Russian page on wikipedia has more detailed information, and google does pretty descent job at translating it here

  • Anonymous Coward

    Didn’t Eliezer write about Stanislov Petrov? The Russian guy who kept Andropov from launching a preemptive strike on the Americans in 1983? Seems the doomsday thing didn’t work in that case.

  • wedrifid

    In this game the other significant agent is not America. It is ‘overeager soviets’. It is mutually assured destruction, used to prevent the lesser cost of the undesired potential action of the other soviet agents.

  • David

    Is this the “cobalt bomb” of the 70s?

  • anon

    It should be noted that the Soviet system was not an automated doomday device. The system had to be switched on by a high official during a suspected crisis. Then, if the ground sensors were tripped by a nuclear attack and communication links to the Soviet centers went down, authority for a counterstrike would be delegated to officers inside protected bunkers.

    The United States did effectively the same thing only with lesser safeguards, by delegating launch authority to airborne crews if ground command centers ever went down.

  • Wow. Now there’s one heck of a principle-agent problem!

  • jonathan

    I heard about this, read the analysis and didn’t agree. As a very rough student of Soviet history, I thought this system was meant to deter those who might seek accommodation in times of crisis. Perhaps my reading is influenced too much by learning about the paranoia within the Soviet system’s leadership mechanisms – deeply implanted by Stalin. In their world view, there was always tremendous fear of the other leaders as potential rivals. A doomsday system would take a lever of potential power away from any moderate who might seek to weaken, undermine or even overthrow the official leadership’s position against external enemies.

    This paranoid thread is remarkable and perhaps difficult to grasp, but the enemy of the leader was not so much the United States but the other people whom he worked with, who ran regions, who ran the military, who might take over. By trying to guarantee a massive military response, the leader would be consolidating possible strategic responses to align with his own.

    I think, therefore, that people err in a game theoretical mode when they consider the Soviets vis-a-vis the US as the primary game space.

  • Lord

    As long as something natural such as meteor didn’t trigger it. Negative control is risky.

  • I wonder if the cobalt bomb wasn’t another example of double game theory.

    When Leo Szilard suggested it in 1950 it was part of his argumentation against nuclear weapons: he tried to convince people that true doomsday devices were feasible, and that this made it imperative to stop the nascent arms race. While this argument didn’t change the arms race, he might appear to have made things worse by giving a hint on how to build something very nasty.

    However, when I calculated the necessary amount of cobalt and from that the necessary yield of the bomb I found that they were definitely in the very, very impractical range (many thousands of tons of metal, at least 960 megatons of yield). Now, Szilard was a very smart guy who could probably do these calculations easily in his head, and he knew the physics of nuclear weapons intimately. I hence guess that he might deliberately had come up with an example that would never be built, yet would convince the non-experts about the imminent danger. Perhaps he was even devious enough to make it an example that couldn’t be publicly criticized on the technical grounds without giving away secrets about the then-in-development hydrogen bomb (since the important issue is how many tons of neutrons you can get to convert cobalt).

    So maybe Szilard was trying to make a game-theoretical argument to the public and policy-makers, while also gaming a different game versus bomb-designers.

  • Alexei Turchin

    960 megatons is only 10 Tsar bombs, so it is possible.
    I read calculation in the book of P.D.Smith that the full bomb shoud weight 2.5 times of Lincor Missuri – or 150 000 tons.

    The ITER will weght 30 000 tons and LHC is much larger.

    So Doomsday bomb is possible.

    See also
    Herman Khan. On Doomsday machine.

  • Pingback: Self Assured Destruction » Dig for Leadership - Stories that try to make the world a better place.()