"Who Will Repair the 'Nuclear Suitcase'?

Moscow Ogonek, Mar 97 No 9, pp 4-5
by Vladimir Umnov

On some fateful day, which could come as soon as tomorrow, Boris Yeltsin might be accompanied by a mockup of the nuclear "suitcase." It is quite probable that the president would not know that the most visible attribute of his power is not working. He might not be informed of this, and Boris Nikolayevich does not have the habit of periodically looking into the case to see if the "bulbs are still burning."

An operator--that is what they call the officers who are always within arm's reach of the president, day and night--will sometimes make a public appearance, so that watchful US spies can see the black Samsonite attache case. The spies then relay the prescribed message: The client is here with the "suitcase." This means that the Russian nuclear arsenal is under Yeltsin's control. Our president can then be as confident as ever in talks with other "suitcase carriers"--Clinton, Chirac, Major....

Actually, would it make any difference whether it was the real "suitcase" or simply a mockup being carried through the corridors of power?

This seditious thought probably did not occur to the defense minister when he publicly warned the president of the critical state of the country's nuclear security a month ago. The president reassured the worried minister and sent the prime minister on an inspection tour of the strategic missile forces. The prime minister, in turn, reported that the missile forces were in good hands!

A day later, however, the defense minister altered the seemingly favorable conclusion by repeating the warning that Russia could lose control of its nuclear weapons. Either the prime minister had embellished the facts or the minister was stirring up controversy.

Controversy Over the "Suitcase"

There is no question that Igor Rodionovich had reason to worry.

The "suitcase" has been on active duty since 1983. Actually, this applies not only to the "suitcase," but also to the automated "Kazbek" system for the command and control of Russia's strategic nuclear forces, of which the "suitcase" is a part. It reached the end of its service life in 10 years, in 1993, and that was when "Kazbek" started to require "patching up."

Of course, in line with Soviet tradition, certain safeguards were envisaged. There were even more than a dozen replacement "suitcases."

There are several important considerations, however. First of all, the older the item, the more frequently it needs repairs, and the more expensive these repairs become, but the money for these is not being allocated.

Second, the only people in evidence are wearing shoulder boards-- the men on duty at the nuclear "button," in silos and on missile ranges. With all due respect for their profession, they are only executors. Without underestimating the importance of each component of the nuclear shield, we have to agree with the defense minister that the most crucial element today is the system for the command and control of the nuclear forces. The "Kazbek" system was designed by civilian scientists in the nameless numbered research institutes, and they were also supposed to secure its reliable operation. The "suitcase" research institutes did not escape the fate of other Russian scientific research institutes in the last few years. The chronic shortage of money, the nonpayment of wages (for months--ever since fall), and the vast difference between the salaries of the top administrators (from the director to the department heads) and the actual scientists (who earn only a fraction as much) have led to a situation in which all of the people with a knowledge of the fine points of the "suitcase" business and, therefore, the ability to repair any breakdowns will simply be gone soon. The old masters are dying out, taking the secrets of the system with them, and young people are not applying for jobs in these institutes-- there is no future in them.

The third and final consideration is that the system inevitably will have to be replaced by a new and updated system. When will this moment arrive in Russia?

There was a fleeting report that the work on the design of a "new system" had started, but will it be confined to the modernization of only the "suitcase"? Logically, the replacement of one element should lead inevitably to the replacement of other elements.

Here is the most important question: How will the new "suitcase" be made? Everyone knows that all of the microelectronic production facilities turned out to be abroad after the breakup of the USSR. Should we really start making a Russian "suitcase" out of imported parts?

At one time the purchase of foreign computers was prohibited even for the personnel division of the Ministry of Defense: A potential adversary could install "bugs" and then use them to learn our secrets. Any computer expert would confirm the impossibility of knowing whether a manufacturer might have installed something in the tiny chip serving as the brain of the electronic machine. This "something" might be enough to arrest the whole system on the fateful day....

It is unlikely that Viktor Chernomyrdin was able to learn all of this during the few hours he spent at the headquarters of the strategic missile forces in the Moscow suburb of Vlasikha. At this point, I must state an elementary fact. The prime minister is not a "suitcase carrier," and it is odd that the president asked him to make the inspection tour. Viktor Chernomyrdin is not even supposed to know all of the intricacies of the "suitcase."

By long-standing tradition, the "nuclear" hierarchy does not include the prime minister, the second in command of the state, but the minister of defense (the second and third "suitcases," we should recall, are assigned permanently to Rodionov and Chief of General Staff Samsonov). Furthermore, we do not know whether the old decision of the USSR leadership is still in force: that execution requires an order and sanction transmitted from the first "suitcase." This means that the president must verify the absolute reliability of the system himself, and he must do this personally-- if, of course, he feels that this is necessary.

What Difference Would It Make How the Case Is Nailed Shut?

On the other hand, how much can Russia lose if it does not have the "suitcase"?

We have to remember that "Kazbek" was developed in the 1970s. At that time, according to Soviet military doctrine, we had to be ready at any time for a massive enemy nuclear attack. Do you remember that the flight time of the US "Pershings" was seven minutes?... During those seven minutes, our side had to ascertain the launching of the enemy missiles, make a decision, and still have time to inflict, with the aid of the nuclear "suitcase," an equally massive retaliatory strike on the enemy's territory. That was the purpose of the "suitcase." Since that time the presidential "button" has never been expected to do anything but sanction a retaliatory strike. In peacetime, as some have accurately pointed out, the case might as well be nailed shut....

Just think about this. It would seem that we no longer expect a nuclear attack from the other side of the ocean. In cases such as the unexpected launching of the meteorological rocket from the coast of Norway two years ago, when the "Kazbek" system was first switched over to the operating mode, the "suitcase," with its "massive" capabilities, is largely unnecessary: This is a job for the air defense forces. Today's "Kazbek" simply cannot monitor the state of our nuclear arsenal. It cannot detect the theft of a warhead, the breakdown of a missile, or the evil intentions of the officer on duty. Its designers were not expected to do this, and no one has ever suggested that this good idea will be implemented in the new "Kazbek."

Then why does the president need an "operable suitcase"? There are many arguments on both sides of this issue, and Yeltsin and his military advisers probably will have to consider all of them. They have not been considered yet, however, and the president has never indicated that he no longer needs the "suitcase," so we must support at least the "repairmen" before the whole species is extinct. In a numbered scientific research institute somewhere, they are bent over the latest fault with soldering iron in hand.
P.S. Discussions of the nuclear "suitcase" are such a sensitive issue that they occasionally invite the scrutiny of the special services, acting according to a line of reasoning unknown to us. We heard that the organizers of a legitimate scientific conference late last year reproduced the flow chart of the administrative structure of the Russian strategic nuclear forces we published in Ogonek in September (No. 39) on a large sheet of drafting paper. We had made certain changes in the diagram--some deliberately, and some by accident. Nevertheless, the "guardians of the regime" were up in arms: What was our source?