(Komsomolskaya Pravda, March 15. Abridged.)

A professional missile specialist confirms the catastrophic forecasts of the defence minister which have been described by the president as "lamentations".

Introducing the author:

Colonel Robert Bykov had served in one of the units of the Soviet strategic missile forces since 1959 and taken part in numerous strategic launches and tests involving tactical missiles. For about 10 years he supervised the Soviet military satellite programme. Since 1976 till 1992 he worked in the General Staff and on the defence minister's staff and then in the Main Defence Committee of the CIS Joint Armed Forces. Today, he is an aide to a member of the State Duma and a consultant on politico-military issues to the director of a big industrial association.

The alarming statements by Igor Rodionov concerning the decrease in the reliability and stability of control over the strategic nuclear forces have been dismissed as "hysterical" by the press. The "lamentations" of the minister have become a strong argument for those who are demanding his resignation. My extensive experience, however, allows me to state in all certainty that Rodionov is right!

An accidental nuclear strike at the United States by Russia may happen even as you are reading these lines.

What makes the minister absolutely right when he speaks of a reduction of reliability of the system of control over the ground-based nuclear forces.

First, this system was commissioned way back in the 70s (I took part in its testing before it was put on active duty).

Uninterrupted operation in stuffy premises is not the best kind of conditions for the work of telecommunications equipment. As early as 10 years since the start of operation some of the assemblies started falling apart and the element base losing the preset parameters. When I was still in the forces our equipment many times went out of the stand-by mode or spontaneously went to "full alert" in some sections. One can only imagine what is happening now.

The designers of this system are long retired or worse, but the system remains the principal element of control over the strategic missile forces.

Second, the missile attack alert system is close to a total collapse.

On December 9, 1991 representatives of the Central Command Station of the General Staff of the Soviet Armed Forces made the statement that the control system of the strategic nuclear forces could be transferred from the routine to combat mode only under the condition that the fact of a nuclear attack on our country had been verified. In any other case, they said, it simply wouldn't work off.

The alert system is meant to detect the moment of any launch of a hostile missile in any part of the world. For this, we had radar stations along the entire former Soviet borders and satellites permanently cruising aloft. After the break-up of the Soviet Union we have lost our radar stations in Ukraine, Latvia, Azerbaijan, Byelorussia and near Krasnoyarsk. Half of our satellite control stations have also ended up abroad: in Ukraine, Georgia and Kazakstan, while a good share of the sea-based satellite-controlled instrumentation stations have simply grown hopelessly outdated.

Of course, if satellite systems are regularly updated and the ground control system is in order, satellite system are capable of detecting a launch of a hostile missile within one to two minutes and relay the signal to earth. But, as you may remember, the minister has presented another fantastic fact: "Because of the shortage of satellites we sometimes cannot conduct the necessary observations outside Russia for hours". The system of missile alert is falling apart by the hour, but the blame for this has been placed on the man who has openly stated this.

Third, "the psychological fatigue of the officers of the strategic missile forces is building up".

Few people have paid attention to these words by the minister for the simple reason that very few realize the danger of the unstable psychological state of the officers on routine duty at strategic nuclear control stations.

After the radical reductions, up to three officers sit on duty in the control room (a cubicle without even partitions). Let me assure you that all the statements by members of the General Staff about the impossibility of converting the control system from the routine to full-alert or combat mode without the verification of the fact of attack on Russia are sheer bluff. It was still during Yazov's days that while on combat duty in a pair or alone (the second operator is resting and has gone to the toilet), a man could easily launch strategic missiles without any authorization from the Supreme Commander.

There was a case in a missile regiment when a "wizzo" found a way of linking up the launch contact chains without any code. I hope that today such cases are impossible, but who knows, maybe there are some new, even more skilful "hackers" around?

In the past, at least in the officers' case, everything regarding their psychological state and financial status was all right. Today, even operators of the Main Control Post of the General Staff go unpaid for up to three months. "Officers are working on the side to get money for their families and we knowingly keep a blind eye on this. This destroys the army!" - said the Supreme Commander of the Air Defence Forces, Viktor Prudnikov, last month. I don't think that these words should be ignored as insignificant.

Officers at the control panels are humans like everyone else and their patience cannot be stretched indefinitely. That is why we have no guarantee that a new Herostratus will not appear one day in the strategic missile forces of Russia.