Most people asssume that the end of the cold war has erased the risk of nuclear confrontation. But the break-up of the Soviet Union has actually increased the risk of accidental or "unauthorised" nuclear strikesby Christoph Bluth / December 20, 1998 / Leave a comment
For four decades the world lived in the shadow of nuclear war. But in the mind of the general public the threat has now receded out of sight; and the nuclear issue arouses little passion. This is at odds with the real situation.
The end of the cold war did mean the dismantling of conventional and nuclear confron-tation in Europe, but strategic nuclear arsenals have stayed largely intact, even after the disintegration of the Soviet Union. This will not fundamentally change, even when the strategic nuclear arms reduction treaties are implemented. Moreover, as Russia experiences severe dislocation, new dangers have arisen. As a result of the degradation of command and control systems, and of the decline in the protection and maintenance of weapons, the risk of an accidental nuclear strike is now much greater. The threat of unauthorised use of nuclear weapons has increased too-whether by rogue individuals or by disaffected soldiers.
The nuclear era’s theories of deterrence assumed that the two powers had their arsenals and military establishments under tight control. In Russia this is no longer true. During the cold war, the Soviet Union built about 50,000 nuclear weapons. This weapons complex is now a serious threat both to Russia and the world. As the Russian analyst Alexei Arbatov observed: “Whether the world will survive the break-up of a nuclear superpower still remains to be seen.”
Russia’s nuclear mess
In the final years of the Soviet Union there was a weakening of control over many sections of society, including the armed forces. As military units found themselves short of basic necessities, the practice of selling surplus military equipment became widespread. Even strategic rocket force (SRF) bases did not receive enough food; as a result, officers went on strike in at least one location. Entire surface-to-air missile complexes were abandoned without guard, so that anyone could have taken the missiles or any of their components.
But when considering the security of nuclear weapons in Russia, we must draw a distinction between strategic nuclear weapons and tactical nuclear weapons. Land-based strategic missiles are comparatively secure. Launch sites for intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) are heavily protected by passive defences such as barbed wire, electrified fences, minefields and other unknown facilities. The guards on duty have an order to kill anyone who does not respond to the first order to freeze. The forces defending the missile launch centres are said to be sufficient to deal with a large, well-organised attack.
This does not mean that ICBM launch sites are completely safe. The equipment used to control strategic nuclear weapons is no longer kept in full working order; it exhibits regular malfunctions, including spontaneous “alerts.” Duty schedules at SRF bases have increased, from the recommended maximum of eight hours to 12 hours, while pay and conditions have deteriorated. Colonel Robert Bykov, himself formerly an SRF officer, warned recently that “very few realise the danger of the unstable psychological state of the officers on routine duty at strategic nuclear control stations.”
Strategic nuclear weapons require authorisation codes to be launched; three missile officers have to turn keys in order to enable the launch. The electronic devices which protect the nuclear weapons from being armed are called “permissive action links” (Pals). However, according to Colonel Bykov, rocket engineers working at missile bases have found ways to short-circuit the launch system, thereby enabling launch without authorisation codes. Accidental launches have already occurred, although the missiles did not travel very far.
If ICBM launch sites are still relatively secure, this cannot be said of storage sites for tactical weapons. Thousands of tactical nuclear weapons have been withdrawn from eastern Europe over the past few years. As a result, the existing storage sites are filled with warheads-to about 60 per cent beyond the capacity for which they were designed. There is no money for building new facilities, and even facilities under construction are not being completed. There is no adequate accounting for all the warheads, many of which were withdrawn under emergency conditions and dumped at the sites. There are reports of missing warheads: prior to the withdrawal of all warheads from eastern Europe, 23 warheads disappeared from a depot at Komsomolsk-na-Amure in March 1992 and 12 warheads based in East Germany could not be accounted for. Two warheads were stolen by Russian officers in Kazakhstan; these were later recovered in their garages. Many Soviet-built tactical nuclear warheads do not possess Pals. So in principle, stolen tactical nuclear warheads could be detonated by terrorists or by the military forces of other states.
The volatile political situation in Russia also raises wider questions about the control of strategic nuclear weapons. During the 1991 coup, in the final year of the Soviet Union, President Gorbachev was cut off from his nuclear command. Violent disintegration of the Russian Federation, as the war in Chechnya illustrates, remains a realistic scenario. Will a civilian leader (should there be one) be able to keep control of the nuclear arsenal in such circumstances? An unprovoked ICBM launch against the US by the top echelons of the military leadership is very unlikely, but uncertainties about the nuclear chain of command, in a state beset by deep political and social crises, is a real cause for concern.
Limited progress in disarmament
Russia and the US have taken some steps to wind down their nuclear arsenals since the end of the cold war. The Strategic Arms Reduction Treaties (Start I and II) will result in a reduction of strategic nuclear warheads, from over 10,000 on both sides to 3,500. Furthermore, in January 1994 Clinton and Yeltsin signed an agreement no longer to target strategic nuclear forces at each other-substituting wartime targets with targets in the middle of the ocean. This agreement, while politically important, remains purely symbolic. First, there were no provisions for verification, so it is impossible to know whether the detargeting procedures have in fact been carried out. Second, those missiles whose guidance systems have preprogrammed target data have several target sets, and can be rapidly retargeted. The US Minuteman III ICBMs, for example, can be retargeted in an instant, with one central computer command. Third, most of the modern Russian ICBMs do not have preprogrammed target data in their guidance systems anyway.
The only advantage of detargeting is that in the event of an accidental launch, the warheads will come down in the ocean. But it does not mean that there has been a decisive retreat from launch-on-warning postures. Command and control procedures still operate on the same basis as during the cold war, with both Russia and the US ready to launch massive nuclear strikes within about ten minutes.
For retaliation to work, you must have the means to detect an attack. The infrastructure for this includes a large network of satellites, long-range radar systems, and command and control centres. If missiles were launched towards the US from Russian territory, the first warning from satellites with infrared sensors in geosynchronous orbit would be received within two minutes by the duty officers at the missile warning centres in the North American Aerospace Defense Command (Norad), the Strategic Air Command (Sac) and the Pentagon. The command director at Norad would have three minutes to evaluate the warnings on the basis of all incoming data-including an analysis of the strategic situation prior to the warnings-and report his assessment to higher authorities. This assessment would include a judgement of the level of confidence (high, medium or low) that an attack was indeed under way. (Such missile event conferences took place after every Soviet test launch.) If confidence was “medium” or “high” a conference, including the National Command Authorities (which involves the president and the secretary of defence), would be convened. By this time ten minutes would have elapsed since a launch. Because of the time required for the dissemination of authorisation codes, the National Command Authority has to approve a counterstrike 16 minutes after a launch. So it has about six minutes to make a decision.
Similar procedures exist in Russia. The so-called Kazbek communications systems link the nuclear suitcases (portable electronic terminals) held by the president, the minister of defence and the chief of the general staff. In the event that early warning sensors detect an attack, the system is activated. If the president and the minister of defence agree to authorise a response, a signal is sent, combined with a signal by the chief of the general staff which results in authorisation codes being sent to the SRF bases. If the political leadership cannot respond-if they are dead, for example-the general staff can generate the codes necessary to launch the missiles.
A critical factor is the presence or absence of strategic warning. Strategic warning comprises political and military indicators that an attack may be likely in the near future. But although a bolt from the blue has always been considered unlikely, the command and control systems on both the Russian and the US sides are configured to respond to a surprise attack without strategic warning. This is why the risk of inadvertent nuclear war persists, although the east-west confrontation is over.
Mistakes can still happen
Two examples show how erroneous strategic warnings can arise. In November 1993 the “alert readiness” of Soviet nuclear forces was raised in response to a Nato nuclear exercise called Able Archer. According to former KGB colonel Oleg Gordievsky, Soviet command authorities in the general staff misinterpreted the Nato exercises, which involved the practice of nuclear release procedures, and feared that Nato tactical nuclear forces were being made ready for an actual attack.
Another example involved a large-scale operation conducted by the Soviet Navy in the late 1970s. Almost all Soviet ballistic submarines were put to sea and dispersed to unknown locations. The sudden scale of submarine operations (many launched without full crew complement), the pattern of operations (the submarines observed radio silence and did not follow the usual patrol routes), caused fear among US intelligence analysts that the Soviets were behaving as if there were a real emergency. It was seriously considered that the US president should be notified about the possibility of an attack, but in the event such notification was not given.
Take some other examples. In 1980, a computer tape with simulated scenarios was fed into the live system at Norad, generating a warning of a massive Soviet missile attack. Absence of strategic/political warning was a contributing factor in deciding that the warning must be erroneous.
Errors can also arise within the early warning network. Soviet satellites are known to have interpreted heat gradients in the atmosphere, caused by intense sunlight, as missile exhaust plumes, and reported a massive launch of US Minuteman missiles. Fortunately the operators in the Soviet command bunkers understood that the signals they received were wrong.
A more recent example occurred in January 1995, when a Norwegian scientific rocket triggered a high-level nuclear alert in Russia. The trajectory of the missile was miscalculated by Russian radar systems designed to detect launches from US submarines. A ten-minute countdown for a counterstrike was initiated. President Yeltsin was alerted-and he was one minute away from a decision to transmit the unblocking codes to enable the launch of Russian strategic nuclear missiles. When it became apparent that the missile was not heading towards Russian territory, the countdown was aborted. This incident demonstrates the potential for false warnings. It also shows that the early warning and nuclear response systems are still operating as they did during the cold war.
The end of the cold war makes a false strategic alert less likely. What remains are risks of false tactical warnings, accidental or unauthorised launches, and simple misreading of data. Some of these risks are more likely as a result of the crisis in Russia.
Russia’s early warning, command and control infrastructure has degraded since the end of the Soviet Union. The Krasnoyarsk radar station was never completed and the only long-range radar systems now operational are at Olenegorsk (Kola), Lyaki (Azerbaijan) and Pechora (Urals). This means that there are big gaps in the coverage of the long-range early warning radar system. There are also gaps in the satellite-based missile launch detection system. Russia’s former defence minister, Igor Rodionov, warned that “because of the shortage of satellites we sometimes cannot conduct the necessary observations outside Russia.” In a system configured for launch-on-warning, the uncertainties generated by gaps in the early-warning infrastructure weaken the safeguards and reduce the possibility of confirming tactical warnings from one source against another.
In view of the end of the east-west confrontation, there is no reason why the two nuclear arsenals should continue to face each other, ready to be launched at a moment’s notice. Specific steps can be taken to reduce the risks of inadvertent nuclear war. The main one is to extend the period in which nuclear forces can be made ready for launch. If it takes more than 48 hours to prepare nuclear forces for launch, then, by definition, “launch-on-warning” is impossible. The most obvious solution for ICBMs and strategic bombers would be to separate warheads from delivery systems. If all nuclear warheads were removed from the ICBMs and stored under multilateral supervision, sufficiently far away from the launch sites, then the risks of their use in inadvertent nuclear strikes would be almost entirely eliminated. (The issue is more complicated for submarine-based systems.)
This was suggested by Boris Yeltsin at the signing of the Nato-Russia founding act, in May 1997. It seemed that Russia was prepared unilaterally to remove all its warheads from nuclear missiles. But clarifications were soon issued to the effect that, rather than remove the warheads, Russia would no longer target the signatory states. As this commitment had already been made, it is not clear that anything has changed.