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Strategic Command and Control

Until the disintegration of the Soviet Union its C3 system was built on the principle of launch-on-warning [LOW]. This posture remains in effect, and procedures are regularly exercised. The Russian command system is poised to obtain nuclear weapons release authority within 10 minutes from the President, the Defense Minister, or the Chief of the General Staff, through the Cheget nuclear suitcase. Physical control of the unlock and launch authorization codes resides with the military, the General Staff has direct access to these codes, and can initiate a missile attack with or without the permission of political authorities.

The Russian General Staff has two methods for launching nuclear weapons. Following the American pattern, the unlock and launch authorization codes held by the General Staff at their command centers can be sent directly to individual weapons commanders, who would execute the launch procedures. The crews onboard docked submarines, have demonstrated the ability to fire while surfaced at pier-side within 9 to 15 minutes after receiving the order. Or, the General Staff could direct missile launches directly from command centers in the Moscow vicinity or alternative facilities at Chekhov, Penza, and elsewhere. This is a remote launch of land-based strategic missiles would bypass the subordinate chain of command and missile launch crews.

The Russian early warning system is clearly not as robust as the system that the Soviets had. There has been deterioration in the system since the end of the Cold War, both the number of satellites, operational satellites on orbit, and in the radars that are operational. The Russian early warning system has deteriorated badly since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Only four satellites remain of more than a dozen that once watched the globe with their sensors. Some vital radar stations that once protected the Soviet Union are now closed because they are on territory no longer controlled by Moscow. The Russian system does provide them with adequate warning, but Russian early warning operators may not be able to tell the difference between a peaceful rocket and a military rocket from their computer screens.

Command and control problems could lead to incorrect information being transmitted, received, displayed, or complete early-warning system failures. This was demonstrated by the convulsions the Russian command and control system endured on 25 January 1995 when a Norwegian sounding rocket launch activated President Yeltsin's nuclear briefcase. During this major malfunction in their early warning system, for a few minutes the Russians mistakenly thought the scientific sounding rocket was in fact a missile launched from a US submarine headed in their direction.

Radar operators issued an alert that it was an unidentified missile, with an unknown destination. The alert went to a general on duty, who received his information from the radar operator on a special notification terminal, Krokus. The duty general decided to send the alert to the highest levels. One factor might have been fear that even a lone missile would trigger a debilitating electromagnetic pulse explosion to disrupt Russia's command-and-control system, as a prelude to a broader onslaught. At that point, the Russian electronic command-and-control network known as Kazbek, had come into play. Kavkaz is a complex network of cables, radio signals, satellites and relays that is the heart of the Russian command and control.

From there, it caused an alert to go off on each of the three Chegets nuclear `footballs': one with Yeltsin, one with then-Defense Minister Pavel Grachev and a third with the chief of the General Staff, then Mikhail Kolesnikov. For the first time ever, the nuclear command system started the countdown to a launch decision, and President Yeltsin and his nuclear advisors began an emergency teleconference. Yeltsin and the others holding the black suitcases monitored the rocket's flight on their terminals. A signal was sent to the Russian strategic forces to increase their combat readiness, but the crisis then ended. After some eight minutes, perhaps two minutes short of the deadline for a decision to launch a response, the Russians realized their mistake. Russian officials later brushed aside questions about the incident, saying it had been overblown in the West.

In January 1997 Defense Minister Igor Rodionov wrote an alarming letter to Yeltsin. He said the command-and-control systems for Russia's nuclear forces--including the deep underground bunkers and the early-warning system--were falling apart. "No one today can guarantee the reliability of our control systems," Rodionov said. "Russia might soon reach the threshold beyond which its rockets and nuclear systems cannot be controlled."

As of the late 1990s the command system and communications networks support nuclear operations, including launch on warning, were typically five or more years past due for overhaul and modernization, with some components ten or more years past their design life. The nuclear suitcases that receive early warning information and accompany the President, Defense Minister, and Chief of the General Staff, were falling into disrepair. Periodically the central command system would go into a "loss of regime" mode, which is a neutral position where it could not send out commands. There were also a few incidents in which individual missile silos or regiments would report to the center that they were in "combat mode" -- but the main system could prevent any accidental launch. Russian officials have repeatedly denied that the strategic forces command system is weakening. They say it has rigid controls against an accidental launch.

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Updated Thursday, October 05, 2000 12:26:00 PM