We Could Launch an Accidental Nuclear Strike at the Enemy!

Moscow Komsomolskaya Pravda, 15 Mar 97 pp1, 2

[Article by Colonel Robert Bykov under the "Verbatim" rubric: Professional Missile Specialist Confirms Defense Minister's Prediction of Catastrophe That President Described as the Words of a `Jeremiah'"]

Let us introduce the author. From 1959 Colonel Robert Bykov served in a Strategic Missile Forces subunit. He participated in the launch of strategic missiles and the testing of operational-tactical missiles. For around 10 years he controlled satellites. From 1976 through 1992 he served on the General Staff and the defense minister's staff, thereafter in the CIS Joint Armed Forces High Command. At present he is an assistant to a Russian Federation State Duma deputy and a consultant on military- political questions for the director of a major industrial association. [end of introduction]

The press disparagingly called Igor Rodionov's alarming statements on the reduced reliability and stability of the strategic nuclear forces' command and control system as "hysterical." The minister's "jeremiad" became a powerful argument for those demanding his dismissal. But without being falsely modest, my great experience permits me to assert that Rodionov is absolutely correct. We could launch an accidental nuclear strike on the United States in the matter of seconds it takes you to read these lines.

In what respect is the defense minister absolutely right when he talks about a reduction in the reliability of the ground-based nuclear forces' command and control system? First, this system was put in service back in the seventies (I participated in its testing when the system was installed for alert duty).

The radio equipment was left on continuously in stuffy rooms -- which are not the most favorable operating conditions for it. Already after 10 years' operation the assembly was gradually beginning to fall apart and components were starting to malfunction. Even during my period of service, the equipment ceased functioning properly [teryala rezhim] on more than one occasion, or certain parts of it spontaneously went into "combat mode." You can imagine what is happening now.

The designers who developed this system are now nowhere to be found, yet it continues to be the Strategic Missile Forces' main command and control system. Second, the missile attack warning system is on its last legs.

On 9 December 1991 representatives of the USSR Armed Forces General Staff Central Command Post made the statement: The strategic nuclear forces command and control system can only be changed from alert duty mode to combat mode on one condition: that it has been reliably established that a nuclear attack on our state is taking place. Under any other circumstances it will not operate.

The warning system must "spot" the moment when an enemy missile takes off from any point on the globe. For this purpose there were radar stations along the former Soviet border and satellites in orbit. But then, after the USSR's collapse, we lost the missile attack early warning systems in Ukraine, Latvia, Azerbaijan, and Belarus and the one near Krasnoyarsk. Maybe half the satellite command and control facilities have remained in Ukraine, Georgia, and Kazakhstan. And some of the ship-based tracking facilities [nauchno-izmeritelnyy punkt] which control satellites have fallen into decay and are now at permanent moorings. Then there was a brief mention in the press of officers from the Shelkovo tracking facility (controlling a group of 156 satellites in space) buying radio components... at a market to put their combat satellite radio command and control systems back in working order!

Of course, if satellites are replaced in time and things are in good working order on the ground, these space systems are capable of locating an enemy launch vehicle one to two minutes after a launch and sending a signal back to earth. But, as we remember, the minister brought one more phenomenal fact to the attention of correspondents: "Owing to a shortage of satellites, there are several hours at a time when we are unable to carry out tracking work outside the Russian borders." The missile attack early warning system is disintegrating not on a daily but an hourly basis. But the person who states this openly is condemned. Third, the "psychological weariness of the corps of officers is increasing."

When the defense minister said this, few people took notice. Because very few people can imagine the danger presented by the unstable psychological state of the duty- shift personnel of a strategic nuclear forces command and control center.

In the wake of the radical cuts in personnel, in a command and control room (which has no partitions whatsoever) there are often only two or three officer operators on duty. I will venture to say that all the General Staff's assurances that it is impossible to go from alert duty mode to combat mode without establishing whether an attack has been made on Russia is bluff. In practice everything is much simpler. Even in Yazov's day, if a man was on alert duty with one other person or on his own (one guy takes a rest and the other goes off to the toilet), he certainly could independently launch strategic missiles without any sanction from the supreme commander in chief. There was a case of a "smart aleck" in a missile regiment who found a way of bringing the launch contact points together [zamykat kontaktnyye tseli puska] without a "password." Most likely such opportunities no longer exist. But who knows what might happen: Maybe some even smarter alecks have since been born?

At the command and control centers there have already been cases of food being poisoned during duty shifts. Once a duty officer was poisoned by a reagent that got into an air duct: The officer was close to madness, and he was urgently hospitalized in a special department of the I. Burdenko military hospital. At least in the past there were no problems, at least among officers, with regard to finance and psychological stability. Today even General Staff Central Command Post operators have not received their pay for three months now. "Officers are working on the side in order to earn money to feed themselves, and we are closing our eyes to this. This is destroying the Army!" Viktor Prudnikov, commander in chief of Air Defense, said this February. I do not think that these words should be regarded as empty.

Officers manning control desks are also people, and their patience is not infinite. Which is why we have no guarantee today that some Herostratos [who set fire to the temple at Ephesus in order to perpetuate his own name] will not turn up in Russia's missile forces.