‘Dead Hand,’ Russia’s Terrifying Doomsday Device

By Chris McQ on Wednesday, March 26, 2014
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“We have had our last chance. If we will not devise some greater and more equitable system, Armageddon will be at our door.” —General Douglas MacArthur

In A Nutshell

During the Cold War, Russia created a fail-safe device for their nuclear weapons arsenal to ensure a second strike capability even if all command and control were to be destroyed. The system (code-named Dead Hand) utilized seismic, light, radioactivity, and pressure sensors to detect an incoming nuclear attack and retaliate if necessary. The best part? The system is almost certainly still operational.

The Whole Bushel

Originally built 25 years ago, the system was created to ensure a nuclear retaliation if Russia were attacked by the US. Should this happen, the system would be triggered by an elaborate network of sensors positioned around Russia, it would then retaliate with an all-out launch of missiles against targets throughout the US.

At the time that Dead Hand was created, many Russian military strategists feared US ballistic nuclear submarines and their first strike capabilities. If the submarines were to stealthily move within Russia’s territorial waters, they could strike with very little notice. This would make it possible for the Americans to destroy the entire Soviet leadership without provoking a retaliation by the leaderless Soviet military. To combat this perceived weakness, the Soviets created Dead Hand to ensure they maintained a second strike capability regardless of a US first strike outcome.

One of the many systems that Dead Hand relies on is an interesting reserve communication system known as “Perimeter.” Perimeter consists of a network of command rockets that are used to transmit launch commands directly to the strategic missile launchers. Once Perimeter received commands to proceed, the rockets would be launched and begin broadcasting launch orders to the missile launch sites continuously for up to 50 minutes. This ensured that, even if communication networks were disabled, launch commands could still be sent to strategic missile regiments in the field and a nuclear strike could proceed.

In typical Cold War–era reasoning, Dead Hand was just one more level of annihilation stacked on top of the already terrifying idea of mutual self-destruction, perhaps (theoretically) giving the Americans one more reason to pause their itchy trigger fingers. However, the scariest part of Dead Hand is the fact that it does not require human intervention at all. If an event, like an asteroid, triggers its detectors in any way that resemble a nuclear attack, Dead Hand is more than capable of beginning the process of nuclear annihilation all on its own. According to reports, it would attempt to contact political and military leaders, and if they could not be contacted within a specified period of time, it could decide its own time for retaliation.

All is not lost it seems, as Russia had the good sense to place human intervention somewhere within this process. Situated deep underground in a bunker sit three Russian duty officers who decide whether or not to begin Armageddon. It rests in their good hands to question whether said event passed from Dead Hand was an actual nuclear attack or something of a much more benign nature. If it is determined that a real attack had occurred and the Moscow leadership had been destroyed or was unreachable, they were tasked with deciding whether or not to initiate the Perimeter system and launch all their remaining missiles.

Luckily for us Russia did not go through with their original, fully automatic version of Dead Hand . . . assuming that we take them at their word on that particular point. What do you say, Ukraine?

Show Me The Proof

Russian Strategic Nuclear Forces, by Frank Von Hippel
NPR: ‘Dead Hand’ Re-examines the Cold War Arms Race
Slate: The Return of the Doomsday Machine
ABC News: Russia’s ‘Doomsday Machine’ Still Ready for Action?