Nuclear Weapons, Early Warning Systems, and the Development of Digital Technologies

in , on March 12, 2023

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This PowerPoint introduces students to the history of early warning systems in nuclear command and control and the challenges associated with implementing them. It emphasizes the trade-off between enhancing the credibility of deterrence through early warning systems and the inherent limitations on the safety and reliability of those systems. Drawing on Charles Perrow’s concepts of ‘normal accidents’ it makes the case that many nuclear technologies are examples of tightly coupled complex systems in which redundancy increases the likelihood of accident. As an example, students are introduced to the case of a Soviet early warning system that produced a false alarm. This lecture pairs well with the Launch on Warning: A Nuclear Crisis Decision Making Exercise.

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Learning Objectives
  • Learn about the problem(s) US military, scientists and engineers hoped that digital computing would solve for nuclear strategy
  • Learn the challenges associated with implementing early warning systems
  • Know how digital technology introduces new questions about reliability and the potential for ‘normal accidents.’
  • Learn the story of Stanislav Petrov, the officer in charge of the Soviet operations center the night that a satellite malfunction indicated a possible incoming nuclear attack

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