Mertvaya Ruka, the Dead Hand

Have you ever seen Doctor Strangelove?  If not, you really should.  It’s amazing and hilarious.  If you’re a decent human being, though, and have seen it, then you surely remember the doomsday weapon that the Soviets had built: a machine that would, in the event of a detected nuclear attack, launch Cobalt Thorium G, which would sterilize the surface of the earth, ending life as we know it.  Wouldn’t that be a scary thing to have exist in the real world?


Mertvaya RukaIt’s called PERIMETR, and it’s located in Kosvinsky, in the Urals, but I much prefer the nickname Mertvaya Ruka, which means “the dead hand,” in Russian.  It had it’s first test in 1984, and has been waiting since.  The purpose of this device, as is the purpose of any thermonuclear weapons plan, is deterrence.  People might be moved not to retaliate.  After all, if the Kremlin is already destroyed and the Red Army is dust, why bother destroying the other half of the world?  Better that some of humanity survive than none of it, right?  Well, we can’t give the enemy any hope that they won’t be committing suicide by starting a nuclear war, so that can’t do.  And so PERIMETR was born.

With PERIMETR, even a decapitating surprise attack against the Soviet leadership wouldn’t save America from retaliation.  Mertvaya Ruka’s eyes and ears were sensors located in important parts of the Soviet Union, designed to detect nuclear explosions as well as disruptions of the chain-of-command.  If enough of these sensors indicated an attack had happened, missiles would be prepared for launch.  At that point, a single human being needed to confirm that an attack had occurred.  After that, it was all automatic.

The PERIMETR missiles were the queens of the missile fleet.  They would fly over missile fields, transmitting codes to the dormant missiles below.  Nuclear missiles.  These would then launch automatically without any further human input.

Oddly, though, as in Doctor Strangelove, no one was ever told about it publicly.  Rumors of it would certainly deter, but it’s been suggested that one purpose of the Mertvaya Ruka was to deter the Soviets themselves from launching an attack.  If your retaliation is guaranteed, it’s less important that you strike first.  This is one reason why Israel is so vulnerable to nuclear attack: four bombs could take out most everything important.  For them, if there’s a first strike, it needs to be Israeli.  But the Soviets didn’t want to destroy the world, so they built something to remove the possibility that they might launch an unnecessary first-strike, and take down the world with them.  There were times when Russian systems mistook birds for nukes, or malfunctioned and presented their operators with ghost data.  If not for the certainty of PERIMETR, it’s possible that the missiles would have been launched against a perceived American first-strike, initiated World War III.

Although it’s easy to see the Mertvaya Ruka as a danger, I actually think systems like this might help get us back to zero nuclear weapons.  After all, if you have an automatic system ready to kick in in the event of a first-strike attack, you don’t need as many nuclear weapons.  There’s no reason to have 40,000 nuclear weapons.  The only reason for that many is to ensure the survival of enough after an attack that you can still fully retaliate.  PERIMETR ensures your ability to retaliate, though, necessitating fewer nuclear weapons.  I doubt you’d ever see politicians calling for handing over our nuclear arsenals to doomsday machines, but I nevertheless believe that PERIMETR is a safer system than massive nuclear superfluity.

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