Dead Hand (nuclear war)

This article is about the Cold War nuclear control system. For the non-fiction book, see The Dead Hand.

Dead Hand (Russian: Система «Периметр», Systema "Perimetr", GRAU Index 15E601, Cyrillic: 15Э601),[1] also known as Perimeter,[2] was a Cold-War-era nuclear-control system used by the Soviet Union.[3] General speculation from insiders alleges that the system remains in use in post-Soviet Russia.[4] An example of fail-deadly deterrence, it can automatically trigger the launch of the Russian intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) if a nuclear strike is detected by seismic, light, radioactivity, and overpressure sensors. By most accounts, it is normally switched off and is supposed to be activated during dangerous crises only; however, it is said to remain fully functional and able to serve its purpose whenever it may be needed.[5]


The purpose of the Dead Hand system, as described in the book of the same name,[6][7] was to maintain a second-strike capability, by ensuring that the destruction of the Soviet leadership would not have prevented the Soviet military from releasing its weapons.[3]

Soviet concern about the issue grew with the U.S. development of highly accurate submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) systems in the 1980s. Until then, the United States would have delivered most nuclear weapons by long-range bomber or ICBM. Earlier U.S. sub-launched missiles, such as the 1960s-vintage UGM-27 Polaris and 1970s-vintage UGM-73 Poseidon, were considered too inaccurate for a counterforce or first-strike attack, an attack against an opponent's weapons. SLBMs were reserved for attacking cities, where accuracy was of less importance. In the first case, an opponent with effective radar and satellite surveillance could expect a 30-minute warning of an attack before the first detonation. This made an effective first strike difficult, because the opponent would have time to launch on warning to reduce the risk of their forces being destroyed on the ground. The development of highly accurate SLBMs, such as the Trident C4 and, later, the D5, upset this balance. The Trident D5 is considered to be as accurate as any land-based ICBM. Therefore, US or UK Trident submarine systems could stealthily approach an enemy's coast and launch highly accurate warheads at close range, reducing the available warning to less than three minutes, making a counterforce first strike or a decapitation strike viable.

The USSR took steps to ensure that nuclear retaliation, and hence deterrence, remained possible even if its leadership were to be destroyed in a surprise attack.[3] In contrast, Thompson argues that Perimeter's function was to limit acts of misjudgment by political or military leadership in the tight decision-making window between SLBM/cruise missile launches and impact.[8] He quotes Zheleznyakov on the purpose of Perimeter being "to cool down all these hotheads and extremists. No matter what was going to happen, there still would be revenge."[8]


In 1967, the Soviet Union first attempted to create a system, called "Signal", which they could use to create 30 premade orders from their headquarters to the missile units.[3] Although the system still was not completely automatic, their intent was no different.

In the early 1990s, several former high-ranking members of the Soviet military and the Central Committee of the Communist Party, in a series of interviews to the American defense contractor BDM, admitted the existence of the Dead Hand, making somewhat contradictory statements concerning its deployment.[9]

Colonel General Varfolomey Korobushin, former Deputy Chief of Staff of Strategic Rocket Forces, in 1992 said that the Russians had a system, to be activated only during a crisis, that would automatically launch all missiles, triggered by a combination of light, radioactivity and overpressure, even if every nuclear-command center and all leadership were destroyed.[10]

Colonel General Andrian Danilevich, Assistant for Doctrine and Strategy to the Chief of the General Staff from 1984–90, stated in 1992 that the Dead Hand had been contemplated, but that the Soviets considered automatic-trigger systems too dangerous. Furthermore, such systems became unnecessary with the advent of efficient early-warning systems and increased missile readiness, so the idea had been rejected.[11]

In 1993 Vitaly Katayev, Senior Advisor to the Chairman of the Defense Industry Department of the Central Committee of the Communist Party in 1967–85, responsible for strategic arms and defense policy, arms control negotiations and military doctrine, confirmed that the Dead Hand had been "definitely operational" by the early 1980s. According to Katayev, it was not completely automatic but was intended to be activated manually during a threatening crisis. It was to be triggered by numerous sensors sensitive to light, seismic shock, radiation or atmospheric density.[12]

Although both Katayev and Korobushin claimed that the mechanism had already been deployed, Viktor Surikov, Deputy Director of the Central Scientific Research Institute for General Machine Building (TsNIIMash) in 1976–92, confirmed in 1993 that the Soviets had designed the automatic launch system with seismic, light and radiation sensors, but said that the design had been ultimately rejected by Marshal Sergey Akhromeyev on advice of Korobushin and never materialized.[13]

Accounts differ as to the degree of automation of Dead Hand. In a 1993 issue of The New York Times:[14]

The dead-hand system he [Dr. Blair] describes today takes this defensive trend to its logical, if chilling, conclusion. The automated system in theory would allow Moscow to respond to a Western attack even if top military commanders had been killed and the capital incinerated.

The heart of the system is said to lie in deep underground bunkers south of Moscow and at backup locations. In a crisis, military officials would send a coded message to the bunkers, switching on the dead hand. If nearby ground-level sensors detected a nuclear attack on Moscow, and if a break was detected in communications links with top military commanders, the system would send low-frequency signals over underground antennas to special rockets.

Flying high over missile fields and other military sites, these rockets in turn would broadcast attack orders to missiles, bombers and, via radio relays, submarines at sea. Contrary to some Western beliefs, Dr. Blair says, many of Russia's nuclear-armed missiles in underground silos and on mobile launchers can be fired automatically.[14]

The communication missile would work similarly to the US Emergency Rocket Communications System (ERCS).

However, more recent sources indicate the system was semi-automatic. In a 2007 article, Ron Rosenbaum quotes Blair as saying that Dead Hand is "designed to ensure semi-automatic retaliation to a decapitating strike."[15] Rosenbaum writes, "Of course, there's a world of difference between a 'semi-automatic' doomsday device and the totally automaticbeyond human controldoomsday device."

David E. Hoffman wrote on the semi-automatic nature of Dead Hand:

And they [the Soviets] thought that they could help those leaders by creating an alternative system so that the leader could just press a button that would say: I delegate this to somebody else. I don't know if there are missiles coming or not. Somebody else decide.

If that were the case, he [the Soviet leader] would flip on a system that would send a signal to a deep underground bunker in the shape of a globe where three duty officers sat. If there were real missiles and the Kremlin were hit and the Soviet leadership was wiped out, which is what they feared, those three guys in that deep underground bunker would have to decide whether to launch very small command rockets that would take off, fly across the huge vast territory of the Soviet Union and launch all their remaining missiles.

Now, the Soviets had once thought about creating a fully automatic system. Sort of a machine, a doomsday machine, that would launch without any human action at all. When they drew that blueprint up and looked at it, they thought, you know, this is absolutely crazy.[16]

Current use

In 2011, the commander of the Russian Strategic Missile Forces, Sergey Karakaev, in an interview with Komsomolskaya Pravda, confirmed the operational state of the Perimeter assessment and communication system.[17]

See also


  1. Literally, "Perimeter System"
  2. Valery E. Yarynich (20 September 2004). "C3: Nuclear Command, Control Cooperation". Air & Space Power Journal. Retrieved 25 May 2015.
  3. 1 2 3 4 "The Origin of Buzzer Monolyths, The Soviet Nuclear Defense System, and The Myth of the Dead Hand". The NSRIC. Retrieved 30 January 2015.
  4. Bender, Jeremy (5 September 2014). "Russia May Still Have An Automated Nuclear Launch System Aimed Across The Northern Hemisphere". Australia: Allure Media. Business Insider International. Retrieved 21 June 2015.
  5. Thompson, Nicholas (21 September 2009), Inside the Apocalyptic Soviet Doomsday Machine, 17 (10), Wired Magazine.
  6. Coyle, Harold (2002). Dead Hand. Forge Books. ISBN 978-0-8125-7539-2. OCLC 49883057.
  7. Doomsday: On The Brink, Learning Channel, 1997, That order will ultimately be obeyed, even if nobody is left alive to obey it. In the film, Dead Hand was mentioned along with the Norwegian weather rocket incident of 1995, and nuclear proliferation in the Muslim world, to show that Doomsday did not go away with the Berlin wall.
  8. 1 2 Thompson, Nicholas (21 September 2009), "Inside the Apocalyptic Soviet Doomsday Machine", Wired, ¶ starting "The silence can be attributed..." and 3 following paragraphs.
  9. Hines, John G (1995), "II. Soviet View of the Strategic Relationship", Soviet Intentions 1965–1985 (PDF), BDM Federal, pp. 9–21 via GWU.
  10. Summary of narrative: Korobushin (PDF), II, GWU, pp. 106–8.
  11. Summary of narrative: Danilevich (PDF), II, GWU, pp. 19–69.
  12. Summary of narrative: Kataev (PDF), II, GWU, pp. 96–101.
  13. Summary of narrative: Surikov (PDF), II, GWU, pp. 134–35.
  14. 1 2 Broad, William J (8 October 1993), Russia Has 'Doomsday' Machine, U.S. Expert Says, The New York Times.
  15. Ron Rosenbaum, Slate magazine "The Return of the Doomsday Machine?", 31 August 2007.
  16. Terry Gross and David Hoffman, Fresh Air, "'Dead Hand' Re-Examines The Cold War Arms Race" October 12th, 2009.
  17. ЗАО ИД «Комсомольская правда». "Командующий РВСН генерал-лейтенант Сергей Каракаев: "Владимир Владимирович был прав - мы можем уничтожить США быстрее чем за полчаса"". ЗАО ИД «Комсомольская правда». Retrieved 9 August 2015.
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