Super weapons have been a staple of both fiction and warfare since time immemorial. One of the oldest–and most deceptively simple–is attributed to Archimedes, whose weapon building prowess has been greatly exaggerated by subsequent history. Super weapons often turn out to be more fantasy than reality, even when conceived by one of the greatest minds to ever grace humanity.
While most super weapons turn out to be nothing more than pipe dreams, one class of weapon that seems to only exist in fiction has been built in reality: the doomsday device. The worst nightmare of fevered Cold War dreamers, a doomsday device would be a weapon that would be unstoppable by any human means. It would use the most fearsome weapon ever devised–the thermonuclear bomb–to wipe out humanity. Exact designs of the device varied. Such a weapon was discussed in the classic film, Dr. Strangelove. In the movie, the weapon consisted of 50 large thermonuclear devices scattered around the world, designed to detonate automatically should the Soviet Union be struck by a nuclear attack. These weapons were salted with radioactive “cobalt-thorium-G,” which would leave the world irradiated for almost a century. The titular Dr. Strangelove quipped: “The whole point of a doomsday machine is lost if you keep it a secret! Why didn’t you tell the world?”
In the movie, the terror weapon was detonated by a rogue bomber squadron launching an unauthorized strike on Russia. In a terrifying case of fiction and reality mirroring each other way too closely, such a weapon actually exists. The system is called Perimeter, but it is known more ominously as Mertvaya Ruka, literally “Dead Hand.”
Brinksmanship leads to a real-live doomsday machine
The Dead Hand resulted from one of the most harrowing times in human history. It was the 1980s, and America had elected a new president, the now legendary Ronald Reagan. Determined to bring America back to glory after a decade marked by a scandal, oil crises, recession, and the end of Vietnam, he took a hard line against the Soviet Empire. His administration expanded the US nuclear arsenal, and signaled that it was not afraid of a nuclear war with Russia. This gave the US, the administration believed, leverage when dealing with the Soviet Empire.
But the most provocative move came when the Reagan administration announced plans to build a space-based shield against Soviet nuclear attack. Consisting of lasers and nuclear weapons, the science fiction construct was known as the Strategic Defense Initiative officially, but it was known to the public (somewhat mockingly) as “Star Wars.”
The Soviets weren’t laughing. What they saw was an American president preparing for nuclear war. With a shield over America that could effectively stop many–but not all–Soviet nukes, the Americans would have less fear of lobbing their own ICBMs at the Soviet homeland. In addition, the US had recently developed accurate submarine based ICBMs that could hit any target within the Soviet Union within minutes. While the US would be bloodied, the Soviet Union would be left a smoking crater.
It was under this climate of fear and brinksmanship that the Soviets conceived of The Dead Hand system. While details are a bit sketchy, the system allegedly came online in 1985. It was not automatic like the fictional doomsday device in Dr. Strangelove, however. Dead Hand consisted of four layers, four if/then statements that would determine the fate of the world. First, it had to be switched on by a high official, presumably during a crisis. The system would then begin monitoring a system of seismic, radiation, and air pressure sensors, looking for evidence of a nuclear strike. If the sensors found enough evidence, the system would then monitor communication connections to the Soviet General Staff. If a connection existed and if a certain amount of time passed without anymore evidence of nuclear attack, and if the connection to leadership remained intact, the system would shut down. However, if communications were severed, the system would assume the worst and give the authority to launch Soviet missiles to those manning a bunker deep underground. Whoever that was–and it is unclear who exactly that would be–would make the final decision whether or not to end civilization as we know it.
If the fateful decision were made, a signal would be sent via low frequency radio signals to hardened silos containing missiles designed to fly across the ruined Soviet Union, signalling whatever silos remained active to launch their deadly payloads at the US and her allies like a Soviet version of SkyNet.
Dead Hand is shrouded in secrecy. It has never once been officially acknowledged by Russian officials, although former Soviet defense officials and advisers have confirmed its existence. Like the Soviets mocked in Dr. Strangelove, the Russians have never once announced to the world their doomsday device, thus defeating the purpose for building it. Unless, of course, that wasn’t their purpose at all. The Dead Hand was not designed to deter the US from nuclear war, but rather designed to keep anxious Communist Party officials from jumping the gun. By insuring that the Soviet Union could hit back in the event of a strike aimed at the central leadership, the Dead Hand put distance between Soviet officials and the decision to end the world. Put short, the Dead Hand was a terrifyingly high tech way to achieve the age old work of politics: passing the buck.
While the Cold War has ended, the Dead Hand slumbers on. Sketchy reports show that the system continues to be upgraded from time to time, but Russian officials remain hush hush and many US officials are still ignorant of its existence. A bad situation, especially with the tensions between the US and Russia at the moment. Let’s hope that cooler heads will prevail, and the Dead Hand will never awaken in our lifetime.
Rosenbaum, Ron. “The Return of the Doomsday Machine?” Slate.com. September 5, 2007. Slate. May 11, 2014. http://www.slate.com/articles/life/the_spectator/2007/08/the_return_of_the_doomsday_machine.single.html
Thompson, Nicholas. “Inside the Apocalyptic Soviet Doomsday Machine.” Archive.Wired.com. September 21, 2009. Wired Magazine. May 11, 2014. http://archive.wired.com/politics/security/magazine/17-10/mf_deadhand?currentPage=all
Broad, Williams. “Russia Has ‘Doomsday’ Machine, US Expert Says.” NYTimes.com. October, 8, 1993. The New York Times. May 11, 2014. http://www.nytimes.com/1993/10/08/world/russia-has-doomsday-machine-us-expert-says.html