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It takes guts, instinct to make good call

By Maj. Garrett Truskett 2nd Contracting Squadron commander

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Ever had to make a really tough decision? What about a decision where you had little time or information to act on, and the fate of the world hung in the balance?

This exact predicament was ¬the subject of movies such as War Games and Crimson Tide, where the possibility of full-scale, nuclear war was imminent, and military leaders were forced to make immediate decisions based on vague and incomplete information. Although the dramatic plot makes for great entertainment, this scenario actually played out in 1983 during the peak of the Cold War. In the wake of international tensions instigated by the Soviet's shoot-down of a Korean civilian airliner on Sept. 1, 1983, U.S. and Russian forces went on high alert and prepared for full-scale war. A mere few weeks after this incident, a fluke malfunction in a Soviet control center brought the world to the razor's edge of nuclear war.

The incident occurred Sept. 23, 1983. A Russian lieutenant colonel named Stanislav Petrov was covering a double shift in a satellite monitoring bunker after his relief called in sick.

As Petrov described in an interview with the Washington Post, late in his shift "suddenly the screen in front of me turned bright red. An alarm went off. It was piercing, loud enough to raise a dead man from his grave."

The monitoring system was indicating that the United States had launched five intercontinental ballistic missles toward Soviet territory. Because the Soviet Union's land radar could not detect missiles over the horizon, Russian military protocol called for an immediate retaliatory launch upon warning. All Petrov had to do was push a button to initiate a reprisal nuclear strike on the U.S. Despite the alarms, klaxons and chaos in the bunker, Petrov remained calm and opted to trust his gut instincts and assess the situation before reacting. His analysis revealed that only five missiles were indicated as inbound. His instincts told him that the emergency was likely due to a false alarm, since it would be illogical for an initial nuclear strike to be carried out with such a small number of warheads.

He recalls making the decision under enormous stress stating, "I had a funny feeling in my gut. I didn't want to make a mistake. I made a decision, and that was it."

That course of action was to do nothing, thus violating his standing orders to initiate a retaliatory strike upon notification of an attack.

Despite the fact that Petrov essentially saved a significant portion of the planet from assured destruction, the ordeal did not necessarily turn out so well for him. After Petrov's superiors interrogated him over the violation of standing procedures, he was reprimanded and forced into retirement on a very meager pension. We can all be thankful for the tough decision that Petrov made that day, although it came at the expense of his military career and personal livelihood.

After the incident was made public in 1998, he has since been revered as a hero, although Petrov merely states, "I was simply the right person in the right time; that was all."

As members of the armed services, we are all forced to make tough decisions on a regular basis. It is an inherent duty for anyone acting in a leadership position and requires a willingness to accept risk and be decisive.

Gen. George Patton advised, "Be willing to make decisions. That's the most important quality in a good leader."

Making decisions is easier said than done; however, as we often do not have the time or the information needed to select an optimum course of action, and consequences can be significant. Gen. Colin Powell was known for an innovative concept in decision making known as the 40/70 Rule. He recommends that one should act on a decision when acquiring between 40to 70 percent of the information needed to make an informed decision. In an interview with a well known leadership consulting firm, Powell expounded on this concept, stating, "Sometime after you have obtained 40 percent of all the information you are liable to get, start thinking in terms of making a decision. When you have about 70 percent of all the information, you probably ought to decide, because you may lose an opportunity in losing time."

Although there is no sure-shot recipe for making good decisions in every dilemma that we encounter, the situation endured by Petrov reminds us how we can effectively rely on our gut instincts and experience to aid in making critical decisions in critical circumstances.