Soviet General Petrov and the (almost) End of the World

Petrov stared down all seven of the stupidities

There is a book and movie from the 1960s called Fail Safe. It is the story of how a fleet of U.S. military aircraft mistakenly flies across the Atlantic to drop a nuclear bomb on Moscow.

The entire time the planes are in flight and the U.S. is trying to recall the mission, the leaders of both countries are on the phone with the U.S. telling the Soviets that this is a mistake and not an act of war. The U.S. bombers do not respond to the recall messages because they believe the messages are fake and sent by the Soviets.

The bomb was dropped, and Moscow was destroyed. The U.S. president offers a solution to avoid an all-out nuclear war with the Soviets: he will have a U.S. military aircraft drop a similar bomb on New York City. In the end, Moscow and New York are destroyed, but each country stays intact. 

Crazy stuff, right?  But this was the way it was back then.

Here is a transcription of part of the movie that gives us a sense of the feeling between the U.S. and the Soviet Union at the time. This is part of the dialogue where a professor is educating U.S. military leaders:

….The Russian aim is to dominate the world. They think that Communism must succeed…..

….These are Marxist fanatics, not normal people. They do not reason the way you reason, General Black. They're not motivated by human emotions such as rage and pity. They are calculating machines…..

So, imagine the real-life case of Soviet Colonel Stanislav Petrov. 

In 1983, at the peak of the Cold War, Petrov was the officer on duty when the Soviet’s early warning system indicated a launch of missiles from the U.S. was targeted at the Soviet Union. The system told him five missiles were inbound. The missiles, each with multiple nuclear warheads, would strike and detonate in the Soviet Union in less than twenty minutes.

The way the Soviet system worked at the time, if Petrov followed protocol and immediately reported the incoming missiles up the chain to the Soviet command, the automatic response would be a full-scale nuclear retaliatory strike on the U.S. The end of the world. Not cool.

But something was not quite right in Petrov’s mind, so he hesitated to report the strike up the chain. He started to think deliberately, assemble data, and go full-on Kahneman System 2. Remember, his basis was U.S. vs Soviet Union, and it was winner-take-all. 

Petrov thought, Why just five missiles and not an all-out strike from the U.S. on the Soviet Union? Five missiles would be akin to the U.S. “poking the bear,” and the Soviets would respond with overwhelming force.

Strategically, the five-missile attack made no sense to Petrov.

Warfare expert Jeffrey Lewis from an NPR interview:  

"[Petrov] just had this feeling in his gut that it wasn't right. It was five missiles. It didn't seem like enough. So even though by all of the protocols he had been trained to follow, he should absolutely have reported that up the chain of command and, you know, we should be talking about the great nuclear war of 1983, if any of us survived."

Source: Stanislav Petrov, 'The Man Who Saved The World,' Dies At 77, Greg Myre, NPR, September 18, 2017.

What did Petrov do? Simple. Before making this monumental Tectonic Decision, he changed the dynamic of the decision-making process. 

Petrov had his team verify the facts before a decision was made. As it turned out, there was a reflection from the sun off the clouds that the early-warning system interpreted as incoming missiles. Once verified, there was no need for Petrov to pull the trigger. He made the decision without his palms sweating and heart racing.

Given the tensions between the countries at that time, nobody would have faulted Petrov for following protocol and hitting the button. Petrov was heavily criticized and interrogated by the Soviets for his behavior. Years later, he was hailed as an international hero. 

How Petrov Beat the Stupidities

He did not surrender to FOMO. Given the tensions between the U.S. and Soviet Union at the time, it would have been easy for Petrov jump right in, pull the trigger, and be in the middle of the action. Staying out of the action was much harder, but he managed to overcome his fear and think rationally.

He did not rely on family and friends. In this circumstance, Petrov could have accessed his comrades, both above and below him in rank, to solicit advice. Doing so may have created more problems for Petrov than he wanted since his “friends” may have turned him in for treason for even questioning the protocol. Remember in the family and friends chapter how we talked about how only one of the three outcomes was a good outcome when relying on advice from family and friends? Petrov’s situation was no different, except the fate of the world rested upon his decision.

He did not use quick and dirty thinking. If he did, he would have said, “System says fire the missiles; let’s fire first and ask questions later.” Kudos to Petrov for avoiding this stupidity.

He was not blinded by the upside. Even if he was saving the world (for real), Petrov knew that in the Soviet military, there was no upside to his decision. He was not getting promoted for questioning protocol or hesitating like he did. He likely understood his decision was all downside for him personally. The glory and upside would have been in pressing the button and having the Soviet Union destroy the United States.

He did not go for a moonshot. Quite contrary to trying to change the world and revolutionize the Soviet defense infrastructure, Petrov did the opposite. He stayed focused on what incremental changes he could make to improve the situation like rechecking instruments and being satisfied that his data were verified. Another day at the office.

He did not trust the media. In the introductory paragraphs above, see how the U.S. viewed the Soviets and how the Soviets viewed the U.S. These attitudes were only amplified by the media and Petrov, as a Soviet commander, was well-schooled in the perception of the U.S.

These are our enemies and must be destroyed.

Yet, he did not let the media dictate his emotions and take over his decision-making. 

He did measure twice. Boy, did he ever. Perhaps the paltry five-missile attack did not make sense to Petrov at a subconscious level or maybe he said it out loud: “Why would they only send five missiles instead of five hundred?” In either case, Petrov measured once by registering the problem, then did the critical second measurement by rechecking the instruments to realize it was not unprovoked attack by a hated adversary, but a weather anomaly.

Quite a guy, this Petrov was.

What was the key to his clear-headed thinking? He did not try to add anything to the process but, rather, he deduced it would better to eliminate items from the decision-making.

Petrov knew he was on the cusp of a Tectonic Decision and whether or not he realized it, he clicked through each of the seven deadly stupidities and steered clear of them all.

We must be more like Petrov and move stupidities out of the way to clear a path to a better decision.

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