A robotic finger, forged in cold war Soviet furnaces, hovers over the button that can launch the Soviet nuclear arsenal at the West. It is designed for vengeance: if the leadership is all dead and Moscow a glass parking lot, Dead Hand will take their revenge and launch everything. Dead Hand first came online in 1985 – but may function to this day.
Excuse the melodramatic intro – doomsday machines always bring it out in me. In all seriousness, Dead Hand – the Soviet Nuclear Doomsday Machine – is a real thing, that was designed to launch the Soviet nuclear arsenal if everyone that could do so had been killed (presumably by a US nuclear strike). On one hand, its a vengeance machine; on the other hand, its a further deterrent – i.e.: “whatever strike you launch, however thorough, we will strike back, and you will burn.” The status of Dead Hand today is – at best – ambiguous.
Dead Hand, or “Mertvaya Ruka” in Russian, was first reported in the west by the New York Times in 1993 – New York Times: Russia has ‘Doomsday’ Machine, US Expert Says.
Russia has a computerized system that can automatically fire its nuclear arsenal in wartime if military commanders are dead or unable to direct the battle… The Russians call it the “dead hand,” according to the expert. (Source: New York Times: Russia has ‘Doomsday’ Machine, US Expert Says.)
Robert Gates, who went on to become Secretary of Defence from 2006 – 2011, was at the time the Director of the CIA, and was quoted in the NYT story:
Robert M. Gates, Director of Central Intelligence, said the dead hand was conceivable in light of other recent surprises about Russia and its military machinery… Mr. Gates added that the United States should ask Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin if the system still exists, since if it does, “it’s terribly uncivilized.” (Source: New York Times: Russia has ‘Doomsday’ Machine, US Expert Says.)
“Terribly uncivilized” – a kinder, gentler age indeed.
Wired Magazine bought Dead Hand back to the world’s attention in 2009, with an interview with a former Soviet colonel (Wired: Inside the Apocalyptic Soviet Doomsday Machine) that shed further light on the intent and operation of the system:
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…
… if the line to the General Staff went dead, then Perimeter would infer that apocalypse had arrived. It would immediately transfer launch authority to whoever was manning the system at that moment deep inside a protected bunker—bypassing layers and layers of normal command authority.
Once initiated, the counterattack would be controlled by so-called command missiles… these missiles would launch first and then radio down coded orders to whatever Soviet weapons had survived the first strike. Soaring over the smoldering, radioactive ruins of the motherland, and with all ground communications destroyed, the command missiles would lead the destruction of the US. (Source: Wired: Inside the Apocalyptic Soviet Doomsday Machine)
NPR got in on the action (NPR: ‘Dead Hand’ Re-Examines The Cold War Arms Race), with speculation in an October 2009 interview that the the Dead Hand was in fact alive and well:
GROSS: Are you saying this system is still plugged in?
Mr. HOFFMAN: Terry, we don’t really know if there’s still a switch in the Kremlin. But that aside, I think the command rockets, the bunker, the entire perimeter system is still there and waiting. And I think the command system part of it is still functioning. (Source: NPR: ‘Dead Hand’ Re-Examines The Cold War Arms Race)
Back in 2009, the thought of conflict with Russia seemed distant. This past year’s uprising and subsequent Russian incursion in the Ukraine, however, combined with new tension in Russia from the collapse of Russia’s oil-dependent economy, raises the specter of an unpredictable, desperate Russia, backed into a corner, and under the command of a single, volatile individual.
This tense situation lead Business Insider to posit that “Russia May Still Have An Automated Nuclear Launch System Aimed Across The Northern Hemisphere:”
“We’ve since asked the Russians if it’s still on,” Nichols writes at The National Interest, “and they’ve assured us, with complete confidence, that we should mind our own business.” (Source: Business Insider: Russia May Still Have An Automated Nuclear Launch System Aimed Across The Northern Hemisphere)
From the last line of the 2009 Wired Article:
It might not actually be a button, he then explains. It could now be some kind of a key or other secure form of switch. He’s not absolutely sure. After all, he says, Dead Hand is continuously being upgraded. (Source: Wired: Inside the Apocalyptic Soviet Doomsday Machine)
On that chilling note — goodnight!