The doctrine of “mutually assured destruction” (MAD) holds that a full-scale nuclear war between two superpowers can never happen because it would result in the total annihilation of both sides. In game theory, this represents a so-called “Nash equilibrium” – a stand-off where no player can gain an advantage by unilaterally changing strategy.
MAD, in fact, was responsible for the world’s most dangerous arms race. For almost 50 years during the Cold War, the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. competed to research, develop and manufacture increasingly sophisticated missiles and warheads. As a result, both powers ultimately acquired massive stockpiles of nuclear weapons.
In theory, however, they could never be used. Well, at least that’s what the world told itself every time political tensions escalated into a crisis. However, the chilling experience of one videographer who explored a former nuclear bunker in Ukraine suggests that MAD is not as foolproof as one might hope.
“As someone born during the Cold War but too young to remember it, the notion of a real, persistent threat of nuclear annihilation is hard to imagine,” said Drew Scanlon in a video posted on YouTube in June 2017. “It’s one of the reasons I wanted to come here.”
Scanlon, who previously produced videos for the gaming website Giant Bomb, visited the bunker for a solo travel series called “Cloth Map.” Funded by pledges through the crowd-funding website Patreon, it aims to explore “how games impact the lives of people around the world.”
Nuclear war isn’t exactly a game, but it has been depicted in popular video games such as Fallout 4 and Defcon. However, according to Scanlon, it’s easy to abstract nuclear war in the artificial world of a game. “It’s less easy when you’re standing in a facility designed for the purpose of waging it,” he added.
The facility in question is located underground in Southern Ukraine, near the town of Pervomaisk in the province of Mykolaiv. Punctuated with 170 yards of subterranean tunnels, it was designed to withstand a devastating nuclear attack. Moreover, equipped with missile silos, it was also intended to launch one.
The facility was subsequently decommissioned in 2000, but it reopened a year later as the “Strategic Missile Forces Museum” – a unique exposition dedicated to the nuclear brinkmanship of the Cold War. Inside, Scanlon observed a number of the site’s original features, including extensive barbed wire defenses, a sniper’s tower and a collection of working tanks.
Furthermore, several deactivated nuclear missiles remained above ground for education and display purposes. This SS-18, also known as “Satan,” had a range of 9,000 miles, making it capable of striking anywhere in the world. In order to confuse rocket tracking systems, it carried ten fake warheads along with five real ones.
There were also a number of behemoth vehicles. These included fuel trucks, fire trucks and an enormous mechanical device for lowering missiles into silos. The silos themselves, like most examples in Ukraine, had been filled with concrete. In fact, there are unconfirmed reports of some farmers using Ukrainian silos to store vegetables.
However, the most chilling sights were hidden underground in the dark heart of the facility. “As you see, it’s a double-door system,” said Dmytro, Scanlon’s guide, as he revealed the entrance to the complex and the thick, heavy metal doors protecting it. “An officer entering this place would dial a special code.”
What’s more, beyond the doors was a decompression chamber designed to withstand the shockwave of a nuclear blast. A similar system is used in atomic submarines. Then, beyond that was a platform suspended in darkness above an empty silo. Once upon a time, a fully armed nuclear missile would have occupied that space.
After descending to the lower levels of the facility via a tiny elevator, Scanlon came to the living quarters. “This compartment is for personnel after they’ve destroyed the whole world,” Dmytro told Scanlon. “They used to have radio sets and a television set but what’s the use after everyone died?”
Dmytro then led Scanlon through a hatch into a tiny control room lined with panels and monitors. There were many buttons and switches, with colored lights blinking on and off. “The living quarters were cool,” Scanlon said to the camera. “But I was not prepared for what came next.”
“This is the main room,” said Dmytro. “The room to destroy the world.” So, after strapping Scanlon into the control seat, he began explaining the protocol for waging thermonuclear war. “First of all, they would get the codes from Moscow on those screens,” he said.
“And then it takes two officers…They used to have keys to put into those keyholes and turn it right at the same time. You’ve probably seen in American movies the infamous ‘red button,’ right? In reality, it’s a grey one, this one.” Dmytro subsequently began counting down from five to one.
Scanlon’s body language appeared to convey anxiety. Ultimately, however, he did not fail. As Dmytro reached “one,” Scanlon pressed the button, causing an alarm to sound and a sequence of lights to illuminate, indicating the launch sequence. “It takes 22 minutes to nuke Washington, D.C.,” said Dmytro. “Goodbye America.”
“Sorry everyone,” said Scanlon, apparently bemused by his actions. Of course, it’s impossible to know how he might have acted under real-world conditions, but he had not hesitated to push the button. The threat of mutually assured destruction, albeit imagined, had not prevented Scanlon from launching a strike.
Moreover, some YouTube commenters seemed to be genuinely disturbed by this scenario. “I understand all those functions are deactivated,” wrote Jacob Schumer. “But I’d still be scared to touch any of those buttons.” “This was cool and also extremely unsettling,” wrote Ruck. “I don’t think I could’ve pushed that button.”
Fortunately, not all officers are as obedient as Scanlon. Indeed, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, Vasili Arkhipov, the second-in-command aboard a nuclear submarine, was ordered to strike against the U.S. after his vessel lost radio communication. Had he listened to his captain, the world would be a very different place today. Moreover, chillingly, it only would have required the simple push of a button.