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The Most Dangerous Software Bug and How It was Handled

We had a very close call once. This is the story surrounding that day.

On this date (September 26) in 1983, the world as we know it almost ended due to a software bug-induced nuclear war.  It almost happened.  Really.  But first let me set the scene.

The second Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union took place between 1979 and 1985.  There was a battle between the East and West alliances over factions fighting for control of Afghanistan.  U.S. SALT II peace talks collapsed, and President Reagan labeled the Soviet Union “the evil empire”.  The U.S. boycotted the 1980 Moscow summer Olympics (in return, Russia would boycott the 1984 L.A. summer Olympics).  Talk of potential nuclear war grew more commonplace, and the game Missile Command was released in video arcades, making it easy to picture what a MIRVed nuclear attack might look like.  East and West could both agree that nuclear proliferation was placing missiles closer to “the enemy” than ever before.  Between the military build-up and decreasing cost of oil, the Soviet economy was in trouble.

1983 would see two movies concerned with nuclear war (spoiler alert – neither considered nuclear war to be a good thing): The Day After and WarGamesWarGames included themes of computer hacking, distrust of people to press the nuclear launch button when commanded to do so, and questionable A.I. of a security system.  On September 1, commercial flight KAL 007 was shot down after flying into Soviet airspace, resulting in 269 deaths including a U.S. Congressman.  A few months later, the U.S. would conduct a naval exercise codenamed Able Archer 83 to simulate a NATO nuclear attack that would infuriate the Soviets.  But the incident I want to discuss occurred after the downed airplane but before Able Archer 83, with tensions high for American or NATO reprisal.

Shortly after midnight, Stanislav Petrov, a Soviet Air Defense Forces lieutenant colonel received a warning from the satellite early warning system that an incoming ICBM had been detected.  Standing orders were to call for an immediate Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) counter-strike while still possible.  The new early warning system was known to be buggy, and the land radar double-check, incapable of detecting past the horizon, would leave only minutes to counter-attack.  To think that a nuclear strike would consist of a single missile seemed ludicrous, so he decided not to immediately report it.  Then, four more incoming missiles were detected.  Again, he chose to see this as a false alarm.

It would later be determined that an uncommon sunlight alignment on high-altitude clouds and the highly elliptic satellite orbits, if cross-referenced with a geostationary orbit, would catch the miscalculation.  Stanislav reported that General Yury Votintsev initially praised his actions, but he was also reprimanded for omitting the incident from the military diary that day.  Public congratulations would have also required public acknowledgment of what went wrong.  In the 1990’s, Votintsev’s memoirs were published, making the world aware of what had happened.  Stanislav Petrov, “The Man Who Saved the World”, died earlier this year on May 19.