What an Officer of the Soviet Strategic Missile Forces Taught us on Extreme Risk
9 August 2020
Almost nobody noticed what happened on 26 September 1983
In 1983 the Cold War had reached a new peak. The great nuclear powers had not found a way out of the logic of the mutual threat by the complete destruction of not only the two countries. Both superpowers followed the “MAD” principle (“Mutually Assured Destruction”).
That meant that both of them had the capability to obliterate the other side and were able to launch a powerful second strike, even after the destruction of their own missile bases. The equilibrium meant that security was guaranteed as long as something unforeseen did not upset the balance of powers. The Soviet Union relied on “Oko”, a satellite system designed to detect the launch of ballistic missiles from US territory. On 26 September 1983 Lieutenant Colonel Stanislav Yevgrafovich Petrov
Shortly after midnight the Oko system reported the launch of initially one and then another four intercontinental ballistic missiles from bases in Montana.
After the discovery of a nuclear attack, the Soviet leadership had 28 minutes to decide on a counterattack. The logical consequence of a confirmed nuclear attack against the USSR would have been the launch of the country's entire terrestrial arsenal against the United States and NATO members, which would have immediately triggered lethal NATO counter-strikes from submarines.
The officer suspected a false alarm, but he did not have enough information to be certain of that. He made a decision to deviate from the military protocol. He reported a warning system failure to the Soviet leadership. He did not report his professional assessment.
His report made sure that there was no “retaliation”. Actually, the report turned out to be correct in terms of content, the warning system had misinterpreted solar reflections on clouds near Malmstrom Air Force Base as missile launches.
The incident became known to the public only in 1998. Stanislav Petrov was surprised by the numerous honours and the expression of deep gratitude from all over the world. He lived modestly in Frjasino (Moscow oblast) until his demise on 19 May 2017.
Several interviews conducted many years later clearly show the considerations Stanislav Petrov made during the decisive 28 minutes:
- He was aware that a nuclear exchange of blows between the US and the USSR would quickly wipe out vast parts of the planet and contaminate the rest.
- The firing of only 5 missiles from Montana seemed implausible to him.
- He had doubts about the reliability of the Oko system.
- It was clear to him that reporting uncertainty about the warning system's alarm signal (i.e. the truth) would irrevocably prompt the leadership to an unpredictable decision. There was Yuri Andropov at the top who was already terminally ill.
- It was clear to him that by simply giving a report which was incorrect at that time, because it stated his assessment as a fact, he alone would predetermine the military decision-making process and there would be no nuclear strike made by the USSR.
The statements made by Stanislav Petrov years later are available on the Internet, pointing out a professional with a strong sense of responsibility and whose human integrity was beyond any doubt.
However, they do not reveal what excessive tension this person experienced during those 28 minutes and somehow made rational decisions.
Heroes appear in critical situations such as wars or natural disasters. They fight for ideals, right or wrong, often for years. Some sacrifice their lives and are revered afterwards. Sometimes new evaluations of “post mortem” appear because the ideals of societies change.
A decision-making process of 28 minutes that saves humanity does not fit the classic model. Stanislav Petrov saw himself as a rational decision-maker, not as a hero. The need to avert danger from humanity was a criterion that took precedence in his mind to make a report contrary to his military duty. His transgression saved us all.
Stanislav Petrov’s action has not been and will not be re-evaluated in the future.
A look into the uncertainty abyss
The Oko risk was unique in its greatness. However, there are other hazardous situations that can also have huge scale and involve the conflict between the processes that were previously established on the basis of comprehensive risk analysis with a high level of authority and factors that were not previously taken into account. These can be particularly stupid.
An example of this is the Forsmark (Sweden) Nuclear Power Plant incident of 25 July 2006, where a short circuit in the electrical system that was too simple to be included in the planning of risk scenarios, triggered a chain of initially uncontrollable chain reactions. The engineers could prevent a meltdown but only with difficulty.
Once again, the rescuers were professionals who despite the carefully formulated set of rules worked out for all eventualities, took the situation under control and prevented the meltdown just in time.
However, the small number of documented cases do not allow to come to a conclusion that the statistical regularity of "absurd causes" can be admitted here.
Does human discretion make the world safer?
Let us start with the simple side of this question: when there is such a long and convincing series of numbers that even the most vigilant statistician would classify them as solid, we can compare the degrees of certainty under different constellations.
A contemporary example of this is the question of the safety of autonomous driving: for almost every country we have plenty of data on the frequency and causes of car accidents under existing circumstances (car types, technical equipment of the cars, road conditions, weather, road signs, insobriety, health condition of the driver . . .). These figures make it possible to work out measures to adjust the factors identified as dangerous and so to reduce the number of accidents. This works well.
The idea of letting go of the steering wheel and putting a computer in charge of the car may make some of us shiver. However, as soon as enough statistical data is available on a different technical environment (e.g. frequency of failure of fast Internet), we are approaching the point at which autonomous driving becomes statistically safer than steering by humans with driving licenses. Carefully compiled statistics makes it possible to deal with autonomous driving in a responsible manner. In the end, the pragmatically achieved result may become that we give up the steering wheel of the car to the computer and only intervene in certain exceptional situations.
On the other end of the spectrum there are enormous risks. There cannot be enough statistical data here to improve the uncertainty to such an extent that we can really sleep easily. Certainly, it improves safety to analyse the known technical correlations and to document presumably correct processes in such a way that the technicians in charge are less exposed to errors.
On the other hand, such rulebooks can also pose an additional danger: we humans have the strange specific nature to trust in rules too easily and too willingly. Even if (or because) they are very complicated and also incomprehensible, we give too much credit to those who wrote them, and we easily develop an unfounded feeling of security.
The belief in the wisdom and protective power of sophisticated rulebooks and hierarchies is a refutable belief. It has been refuted time and again. And it will be refuted again.
People with reasonable knowledge and experience, a sound ethical awareness and robust nerves, who can quickly identify measurement errors and implausible technical sequences of events and who understand the relative value of predefined processes must have the authority to intervene. This increases security considerably but does not guarantee it.
Better stay away completely
We must not rely on the hope that in the end there will always be a Stanislav Petrov ready to intervene. From a functional point of view the hope is the expectation of something desirable, which is unlikely. Therefore, the hope has no role to play in risk management. If a risk can only be mastered with the luck or the exceptional skills of specially qualified and ethically strong human beings, we fare best if we don't take it at all.
The stumbling block
The issue of immigration is stirring up emotions all over Europe, but in order to consider the appropriate rational response, we need to first distinguish between the different forms of migrations. In fact, only one of the four categories of immigration distinguished below is to be classified as a challenge:
Migration of High-Net-Worth Individuals (HNWI)
Let's start with the probably smallest group of migrants, which is also the least debated: very wealthy people who are able to move from one country to another with ease. Members of this group seldom encounter rejection and in some cases are actively sought after by countries.
HNWI can weigh up their motives and choose their targets according to their criteria. These include, for example,
security for personal life and wealth
quality of life
quality of the healthcare system
landscape or climatic preferences
quality of schools and universities.
Protection of wealth is frequently a major motivation for migration among the super wealthy and countries with low or no income tax are popular in this regard. On the other hand, while certain countries encourage HNWI to migrate to them, the benefits are not always as great as they might expect, especially when the migrant’s assets do not always accompany them to the country they are settling in. Furthermore, with laws that say an individual faces taxation if they spend more than 182 days in a country, those wishing to avoid this, simply rotate through different countries each year thus avoiding paying any income tax at all.
The number of migrants from this group is increasing, and the countries concerned are well known.
This group of migrants does not pose major challenges to European states.
2. Migration within the European Union: everyone with an EU passport
Article 45 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union and Regulation (EU) No 492/2011 on freedom of movement for workers within the Union guarantee the freedom of every EU citizen to take up a job in any other state of the Union and to settle there with their family. This freedom of choice is a cornerstone of the European Union. It has led to significant migratory movements, which, due to the enlargement of the Union into Central Europe, have been accelerating gradually since the 1990s. In most cases, families put down roots in their new place of residence and do not move back to their countries of origin, although they maintain ties there.
The disadvantage of this migration is that citizens whose education took place at the expense of their home states now move to member states with higher wage levels and better career prospects, in effect creating what is known as an internal ‘brain drain’ scenario, where talented workers move out of the country of origin, depleting the national workforce. The receiving states thus strengthen their national economies at almost zero cost to them and at the expense of domestic countries responsible for their education and socialization.
These implications were clear from the outset, but the net benefits from a large economic area with free movement of people, capital and goods outweigh the drawbacks. Free movement has had a predominantly positive impact on the prosperity of citizens. Changing this structure and enacting new restrictions on internal migration would have a negative impact on the powerful new industrial structures that have emerged over the years.
Traditionalists should be very careful when they argue against free migration within the Union as there is a long-standing practice of it within the continent. The last two centuries have seen massive migrations within the area that now makes up the European Union: the countries of origin were mainly Italy, Poland and Greece. These movements are themselves a valuable component of European identity and increased wealth.
3. Migration from outside the European Union: skilled labour
While the world population is still increasing, a simultaneous decline in birth rates has been evident worldwide for many years. The trend is more pronounced in Europe, where population numbers are increasingly moving towards shrinkage.
Clearly it is not possible to fill the gaps in the labour market out of the continent's existing population. This would not change even if Europeans could be persuaded to sharply increase the current birth rate. In that unlikely case it would take at least two decades for a generation to become visible in the labour market.
Many industrial processes and services can be designed through additional automation in such a way that even fewer human resources are needed than now. This may mitigate the bottleneck somewhat, but would not eliminate it.
If there is no quick turnaround, Europe’s economies will inevitably enter a shrinking process.
The only possible countermeasure is to enter the global competition and attract talent for the known gaps in the labour market. This has been crystal clear for a long time, but fear of traditionalist and conservative voters’ sensitivities has led to most governments to only address the issue in the abstract and try to cook the necessary debates on a low flame. Slogans like "We are not a country of immigration" earn significantly more public applause in Europe than "We urgently need lots of immigrants". Yet everyone knows from their own experience that when a tooth hurts, it is better to go straight to the dentist. Postponing the treatment makes the pain worse.
The fight for human talents is not much different from the struggle for other scarce resources such as raw materials or technical components. The difference is that the competition for material things is rarely a source of cultural friction. Imported goods and commodities don’t arouse sensitivities among traditionalist voters. When it comes to human migration however, public decision makers tend to tread more cautiously and thus do not give the issue the visibility which corresponds to its actual relevance.
The Europeans are now operating a "Blue Card" system, which allows people from outside the Union to take jobs offered to them and apply for nationality after five years. This is a relatively arduous path for applicants. The “Blue Card” approach is less attractive than the more successful American "Green Card" system in which holders are granted permanent residency from the outset, and after five years they can apply for US citizenship.
Under the present circumstances the winners in the competition for talent are likely to be those countries that have a tradition of continuous immigration, have a long history of selective immigration and have the lowest bureaucratic barriers for immigrants who fit into their labour markets. These would be, for example, Canada, the USA and Australia.
4. Migration from outside the European Union: refugees, skilled or unskilled
The right to be granted asylum is not only enshrined in national constitutions and laws, it is also based on:
The right to asylum protects people irrespective of their origin who are exposed to political, racial or religious persecution in their home country. These rules, born out of painful historical experiences that includes the societies of Europe itself, are more than set in stone. All European national states are firmly bound by them. Debates about their abolition are as pointless as those about the abolition of gravity. Yet they are common.
The legal criteria do not extend to refugees who seek to migrate to another country for economic or climatic reasons and who are therefore unlikely to be regarded as refugees from a legal perspective. In order not to be classified unfavourably, refugees may exaggerate or embellish stories of persecution in their country of origin. It is difficult for the authorities of the receiving countries to properly verify the truth of such statements.
The examination procedures are complicated and take a long time. Even if an application is rejected, expulsion to the country of origin tends to be the exception. Suffice it to say that the length of procedures creates new social realities as applicants more or less take root, children are born and are shaped by the national school system.
Growing influx of refugees
The number of refugees is considerable and on average it has been increasing strongly over the years. According to Eurostat's findings, the number of asylum seekers in the Union in 2022 was 881,220 persons, up by 64% compared with 2021. Once individuals have been recognised as eligible for asylum, a second wave of immigration begins when family members are allowed to join them.
Some member states of the Union pursue a restrictive policy by enforcing the legal requirements very strictly or selectively, or even by infringing them. This leads to greater refugee flows to those countries that comply more closely with the rules.
As the authorities of the countries with the highest numbers of refugees become increasingly overloaded with examination procedures, processing times are getting longer. The accommodation of asylum seekers in camps is pushing municipal administrations to the limits of their capacity.
Xenophobic currents in the public debate are gaining support. Surprisingly, part of the growing opposition consists of former refugees and their descendants born or raised in the country who have obtained citizenship and successfully achieved social status in their new homeland.
When frightened or even traumatised people from a different cultural background enter a European country for the first time, their first impressions have a powerful influence on how they think and feel. In the case of many refugees, their first experiences are often crowded refugee camps, questioning, long waiting times, further questioning, etc. Bureaucracy weighs them down, and there is no end in sight.
While they are in limbo for a long time, the idea that dealing with bureaucracy is the way to a better life is imprinted in the immigrants' minds. This puts people on the wrong mental tracks and impairs their chances to settle in an industrial society. While they may become adept at filling out forms, they are missing essential cultural impulses and opportunities to learn and improve on valuable skillsets for an industrial economy.
The material interests of the immigration countries
If the member states want to maintain their prosperity, a proper discussion on immigration would mean that all four categories need to be considered.
The first two categories (HNWIs and citizens of other EU countries) do not pose major problems.
The third category ("Blue Card programme") is presently far too small. So a more thorough approach is needed.
This thorough approach could involve giving priority to pre-skilled immigrants from outside the European Union. Labour offices and companies know exactly which human resources are needed. This can be done with low bureaucratic barriers, high-quality language courses to introduce immigrants to the national mentality, help in finding accommodation and schools for children, advice on access to banks and tax advisors, and perhaps even tax holidays for a few years. The threshold before obtaining citizenship should be low for people who prove to be valuable contributors. Employers can be involved in the process of accelerating integration as they themselves have a legitimate interest of their own and will be supportive.
The approach to dealing with the fourth category (asylum seekers) can be to abandon the illusory goal of carefully assessing at the outset whether an asylum seeker has a legal right to stay. Any person whose identity has been verified, who has not already applied for asylum in another member state of the Union and against whom there are no security concerns, should immediately be offered a language course and a first job determined by the labour authorities. This is inconvenient for the applicants, but it provides them with a primary orientation and momentum. It is also more beneficial to their human dignity than the endless dependency on bureaucratic processes. If they prove themselves within a year, for example, they should be given a residence permit and the right to choose a job. This would also give a chance to people who would not be entitled to asylum but who fit into the labour market.
Formal procedures for asylum applications would be resumed only for applicants who cannot be integrated into the country's labour market. Applicants who do not meet the criteria for asylum should be included. Delinquent applicants should be excluded.
For the labour market, the reason for entering the country is not relevant. What counts is a committed and reliable workforce. So the primary responsibility here should lie with labour ministries and administration, while the overburdened immigration authorities are given some air to breathe.
War-disabled, traumatised and seriously ill people should continue to be given special protection and attention. Unfortunately, their number is not small.
Canada, a country with not quite 39 million inhabitants, is an example of a country that derives and updates its demographic needs very accurately from the labour market. There are numerous national and regional programmes that make it easy for needed immigrants to quickly gain a foothold in the country. And the country additionally uses the pool of asylum seekers to enrich the labour market.
“ . . . the Government of Canada is maintaining its target of 485,000 permanent residents for 2024 and completing the final step to reach 500,000 in 2025. Starting in 2026, the government will stabilize permanent resident levels at 500,000, allowing time for successful integration, while continuing to augment Canada’s labour market.”
The demographic gap in European countries is a well-documented fact. The EU's population is ageing and shrinking, and there are not enough people to replace the working population.
This demographic contraction will lead to a decline in economic performance and prosperity. The only way to avoid this is through well-managed immigration.
Traditionalists and xenophobes are against immigration, but they have no realistic solutions to the demographic gap. If we give in to them, we will condemn our economies to decline.
To develop a successful immigration programme, we should look to countries with a long history of immigration . These countries have shown that it is possible to manage immigration in a way that benefits both the host country and the immigrants.