News

Mishaps put Russian missiles in 'combat mode'

Bill Gertz WASHINGTON TIMES Page A1 - 12 May 1997

Recent malfunctions of equipment controlling Russia's vast
nuclear arsenal have spontaneously switched nuclear
missiles to "combat mode" on several occasions, increasing the
risk of unauthorized attack on the United States, The
Washington Times has learned. 

These equipment failures are due to a "deteriorating"
nuclear command and control system that is dangerously
outdated and poorly maintained, according to a classified CIA
report.

"Command and control equipment often malfunctions and
on more than one occasion has switched spontaneously to
combat mode," the CIA report, labeled "secret," says in
quoting a former Russian officer in the Strategic Rocket Forces
(SRF), the service in charge of nuclear missiles.

The report explained that switching the missiles to combat
status "would not necessarily result in an unauthorized missile
launch." Other required steps include using codes to release
locks on weapons and supplying targeting data to the missile.

The nuclear-control problems were highlighted by the
CIA following warnings from Russian Defense Minister Igor
Rodionov in February that control of the Russian nuclear
arsenal is breaking down due to lack of funding. 

Disclosure of the CIA report comes as Mr. Rodionov is
scheduled to meet for the first time with Defense Secretary
William S. Cohen at the Pentagon tomorrow. The Russian
minister is set to arrive in Washington today.

A CIA spokesman had no comment.

Experts say combat mode could involve such steps as
activating guidance gyroscopes, components and on-board
computers that may be capable of automatically loading
targeting data from nearby fire-control computers in
preparation for launch.

The report did not specify when the incidents occurred or
how many missiles accidentally went on alert.

The 13-page report, "Rodionov's Concerns about
Nuclear Command and Control," was produced in March by
the CIA's Office of Russian and Eurasian Analysis. It presents
further proof of Moscow's declining nuclear control system that
was first revealed in a similar "top-secret" CIA report of
September 1996 on the prospects for unauthorized nuclear use
in Russia.

However, like the September report, the CIA rates the
chance of unauthorized nuclear missile launch as low under
"normal circumstances" since "many safeguards" are still in
place."

"However, if that system and its safeguards continue to
degrade because of lack of funding and maintenance, our
concern will increase, especially if a crisis arose that splintered
the armed forces," the CIA report says.

The CIA believes there are serious problems that cause
Mr. Rodionov to be "most worried about the ability of the
command system, including its associated warning functions, to
respond quickly in a crisis."

Other recent evidence outlined by the report relating to
problems with nuclear command and control includes:

Sensitive strategic missile facilities have suffered
repeated power cutoffs in recent months because
electric bills were not paid. "In addition, during the
autumn of 1996, thieves disrupted communications to
operational SRF units on seven occasions by 'mining'
copper and other nonferrous metals in communications
cables," the report states.

A Russian strategic forces officer stated in March that
"we could launch an accidental nuclear strike on the
United States in seconds" and poorly treated SRF
officers are psychologically weary and "potentially
dangerous."

Troop reliability is in question. Mr. Rodionov is worried
that a Russian pilot will steal a warplane and "launch a
kamikaze attack against the Kremlin or otherwise do
something stupid." "Russia's officer corps could be
dangerous to Russia," the report notes. According to the
report, one Russian officer recently remarked that "only
God and a lot of effort by the current leadership could
keep the army under control." "It was the good luck of
Russia and the rest of the world that nothing had blown
up and that nuclear materials had not been stolen," the
unidentified officer said.

Command and control equipment is "unreliable", even
when purchased new, and there is a lack of funds for
replacing old equipment produced in Ukraine and
Moldova.

Communications lines used by SRF forces are only
slightly better than Russia's archaic and unreliable
telephone system.

Russia's automated "Kazbek" nuclear warning and
retaliation system, including the three "Cheget" nuclear
suitcases held by Moscow leaders are operating four
years beyond their 10-year service life. "Funding
constraints prevent system upgrade and have driven out
most of the civilian scientists who built and understood
the existing system, making even simple repairs
problematical."

According to the CIA report, Mr. Rodionov is worried
the Russian nuclear system, with some 30,000 strategic and
tactical nuclear warheads, will not work in a crisis. "He is also
worried about unauthorized nuclear use, but this is of lesser
concern," the report says.

"Fearing system decapitation, Soviet and Russian military
leaders traditionally have been more concerned with
maintaining a robust launch capability over negative control to
exclude an accidental or unauthorized launch," the report says.

President Boris Yeltsin has promised to improve funding
and food supplies for the military, the report says. "None of
these proposals are likely to reassure hard-pressed military
leaders," the report says, noting that "more outbursts [by Mr.
Rodionov] are likely because the military's basic problems
remain unresolved."

Prime Minister Victor Chernomyrdin ordered a "simulated
nuclear strike in an exercise" and later said Russia's "nuclear
missiles will not take off by themselves," the report states.

Copyright  1997 News World Communications, Inc.