Thursday, February 05, 2009

The Soviet "Doomsday Device" Myth

Those of you who watch the History Channel may have come across this clip, which is from a series titled "Secrets of War." The speaker, Victor Suvorov, is the author of a notorious and now wholly-discredited book about the Soviet entry into WWII. I was wondering where this persistent "Soviets planned a doomsday machine" myth came from, and it appears it is simply another of Suvorov's many imaginative fabrications. I can find no Russian-language references to this tale whatsoever, and all the English ones lead back to this "documentary," and to the ever-unreliable Mr. Suvorov. Given what I know about Soviet nuclear war planning (my field of academic specialization) the story is ludicrous on it face, as well. The concept of self-immolation implicit in a doomsday machine like this is absolutely alien to Soviet political and strategic thought. The Soviet "doomsday machine" is no more than a fairy tale to concocted to amuse American basic cable subscribers, nothing more.


DV8 2XL said...

The idea of the cobalt bomb originated with Leo Szilard who publicized it in Feb. 1950, not as a serious proposal for weapon, but to point out that it would soon be possible in principle to build a weapon that could kill everybody on earth and I am sure that the Soviet nuclear weapons community looked into doomsday devices as well. And so they should have, because this was a mater of some concern at the time.

However I am equally sure that both sides swiftly came to the same conclusion and realized this type of weapon is as strategically useless as it is tactically useless.

First, as you mentioned the deployment of such a bomb is outside the doctrines of both the Soviets and the Americans.

Second, for such weapon like this to have any leverage as a deterrent, knowledge of its existence would have to be disseminated as widely as posible, but it would also make such a system the first target in any nuclear exchange. If it could not be guaranteed to survive to be used as a last resort,it could not be depended on to carry out its mission. This is what renders the whole thing pointless. Of course it also makes the various reports on the web about one still active in Russia utterly lubricious.

Sovietologist said...

The stories about a "doomsday machine" in Russia today are generally distortions of how Russia's command-and-control regime works. It's true that there is a system to prosecute a war if the leadership is annihilated in a sneak attack; but launch authority is then delegated to military commanders in one of Russia's hardened command posts (I understand they have several). As is emphasized by all knowledgeable observers, the system always requires human intervention to order a retaliatory strike. A rumor got started that the Russian system could launch a retaliatory strike on its own if Russia was attacked; this simply isn't the case. Of course, in the message boards this gets twisted into much more elaborate (and implausible) variants.

Rod Mollise said...

This is just about the silliest thing I've ever heard. E'en if the Soviets had contemplated such a thing, 1-minute of contemplation/calculation wouldn've shown the scenario described in this clip wouldn't work. Not even if this was the vaunted Cobalt Bomb..LOL. It's possible that this story is in part attributable to some of Teller's wacked out ideas being distored and retold as the years went on. These fantasies, going back to his Super days, involved very large yield weapons on ships driven close to enemy shores.

Anonymous said...

Perimeter? Yeah, when you hear interviews from Soviets/Russians that were actually in the war and help BUILD the machine, it would make more sense wouldn't it.

Read this:

Sovietologist said...

I wrote a post a few weeks ago about Perimeter. It's just not a doomsday machine, as is emphasized by Pavel Podvig (who literally "wrote the book" on Russian Strategic Nuclear Forces). Most importantly, Perimeter is NOT automatic--it requires several layers of human permission to launch a retaliation strike. As automatic retaliation is the most important characteristic of a doomsday machine, Perimeter does not qualify as one.