Commission to Assess the Ballistic Missile Threat to the United States
Appendix III: Unclassified Working Papers
Bruce Blair 1: "The Plight of the Russian Military
and Nuclear Control"
Tight central control is a core value of Russian political and military
culture, and the designers of command systems in Russia have gone to
extraordinary lengths to ensure such strict central control over nuclear
weapons. During the Cold War, they built an impressive command system whose
safety features often exceeded U.S. standards.
Nevertheless, they failed to anticipate, understandably, a host of dangers
that would develop after the Soviet empire dissolved--coups, secession,
severe civil-military tensions, slashes in defense spending, dire working
and living conditions even for elite nuclear units, operational atrophy and
declining proficiency in the safe handling of weapons, widespread
corruption and incompetence within the senior ranks, and pervasive
demoralization among the rank and file officers and enlisted personnel. As
if these burdens were not enough, the nuclear control system needs
extensive repair and modernization.
All the trends pertinent to the functioning of the nuclear control system
are negative. It is steadily deteriorating in physical, organizational, and
However effective the safeguards have been to date, I seriously doubt
whether the system can endure the stress and strain indefinitely. The
susceptibility of Russian nuclear forces to accidental, unauthorized or
mistaken launch has been growing since the end of the Cold War.
In February 1997, the institute responsible for designing the sophisticated
command, control, and communications systems for Russia's Strategic Rocket
Forces (SRF) staged a one-day strike to protest pay arrears and the lack of
resources to upgrade their equipment. Three days later, Defense Minister
Igor Rodionov asserted that "if the shortage of funds persists ... Russia
may soon approach a threshold beyond which its missiles and nuclear systems
Rodionov's warning may have been in part a maneuver to muster support for
greater defense spending, but he emphatically repeated it after his
resignation and recent reports by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency
confirm the thrust of the prognosis. The SRF and other elite nuclear unites
have indeed fallen on hard times. These reports cite frequent malfunctions
of command and control equipment and intermittent spontaneous switching to
a combat mode for no apparent reason. Power to key nuclear weapons
installations has been cut off numerous times for nonpayment of bills and,
on seven occasions during the fall of 1996, operations at some nuclear
facilities were disrupted because thieves were "mining" communications
cables for valuable metals. Technical safeguards against unauthorized use
of nuclear weapons have weakened or become inoperable due to inadequate
maintenance. And although launch crews normally need special unlock codes
held by the General Staff, the highest echelon of military command, in
order to fire their missiles, the CIA report warned that these codes may be
distributed fairly widely to alternative command centers and that some
submarine crews may possess autonomous launch capability for the ballistic
missiles on board.
The Russian early warning network constructed by the former Soviet Union to
detect a ballistic missile attack is perhaps the most neglected component
of the strategic posture. Many ground radars no longer operate or routinely
suffer power outages and other afflictions; only three of its nine modern
radars (large phased-array radars) are working at all. Three have been
deactivated or never completed, and three are inoperable or barely
functional. Seven out of ten older, less capable Hen House radars sit
outside Russia in former Soviet republics, and some of them may be shut
down for political reasons. Two of the nine slots in Russia's constellation
of early warning satellites monitoring U.S. and Chinese ICBM fields are
empty, and Russia lacks satellite coverage of the oceans. So information
provided by these sensors is becoming increasingly unreliable.
The aging command system and communications networks that support nuclear
operations, including launch on warning, are also crumbling. These networks
are typically five or more years past due for overhaul and modernization;
some components are ten or more years past their design life. Their
performance is degrading, raising the question whether they will fail safe
or deadly. Even the famous nuclear suitcases that receive early warning
information and accompany the President, Defense Minister, and Chief of the
General Staff, are falling into disrepair.
The stress on Russia's nuclear control system appears to run even deeper.
Besides physical deterioration and technical difficulties, Russia's nuclear
weapons establishment suffers from a host of human and organizational
problems. Crews receive less training than they did formerly because of
broken equipment and budget-cutting, which translates into less adherence
to safety rules. Their motivation to follow the rules diligently can also
be doubted in view of their poor working conditions. Despite President
Yeltsin's promises to improve conditions, endemic housing and food
shortages have led to demoralization and disaffection within the elite
Strategic Rocket Forces, the strategic submarine fleet and the custodians
of Russia's vast stockpiles of nuclear weapons. As a result, the incidence
of desertion and suicide have increased, to a point that offices have been
established at SRF bases to prevent suicides. Also, the likelihood
increases that desperate low-level commanders would flaunt safety rules or,
worse still, that they might take unauthorized control of nuclear
weapons--something that a deteriorating central command system might be
unable to detect or counter.
Even at the top, control over nuclear weapons could splinter along various
political fault lines. Authority in Moscow depends far more on personal
allegiances than on institutional bonds, and bitter relations between the
politicians and military leaders cast a shadow over their loyalty. Cohesion
at the apex may be difficult to maintain during periods of political
turmoil, and physical control of the unlock and launch authorization codes
resides with the military. The General Staff's direct access to these codes
enable them to initiate a missile attack with or without the permission of
political authorities. Thus, the authority to fire ballistic missiles could
be usurped by military commanders during an internal crisis. In fact,
during the August 1991 coup against President Mikhail S. Gorbachev,
top-level allegiances suddenly shifted, and the normal chain of command for
Russia's nuclear weapons was broken. For three days, the power to launch
nuclear weapons rested in the hands of Defense Minister Dimitriy Yazov and
the chief of the General Staff, Mikhail Moiseyev.
Nuclear command might splinter down other political fault lines. For
instance, the CIA report considered the possibility that the Far East
region of Russia, or the Military District or Pacific Fleet located there,
might secede along with the nuclear weapons stationed there. (Ukraine's
secession and temptation to seize control over nuclear weapons on its
territory represent an instructive precedent.)
The list of possible scenarios for a breakdown of nuclear control, leading
to a mistaken or illicit launch, is long and growing. Although the risks
cannot be precisely measured, and the timing and form of a command failure
cannot be reliably predicted, it is not unreasonable to anticipate a
serious, even catastrophic, failure of Russian nuclear control. All the
trends are adverse. What remains uncertain is how close to the precipice
Russia has come, and how much if any margin of safety exists today.
The Nuclear Hair Trigger
While Russian control erodes, both countries try to maintain the bulk of
their strategic missile forces on hair-trigger alert. Two to three thousand
warheads on each side are poised for immediate launch, and both the United
States and Russia stand ready to launch on warning--launch a massive
retaliatory missile salvo after detecting an enemy missile attack but
before the incoming warheads arrive 15 to 30 minutes later.
Russia relies more heavily on this quick-draw option than does the United
States. The General Staff evidently fears that if their strategic forces
are not launched immediately, then only a small number, perhaps only tens
of them, would be able to respond after absorbing a systematic attack. This
estimate partially reflects the vulnerability of Russian command posts, and
of silos housing most of their land-based missiles, to attack by U.S.
missiles with pinpoint accuracy--the U.S. MX land-based missile as well as
the Trident II submarine missile armed with high-yield W88 warheads.
Russia's current inability to deploy many of its most survivable
forces--submarines at sea and mobile land-based rockets in the
field--amplifies this worry. A lack of resources and qualified personnel
have forced the Russian Navy to cut back operations considerably. At
present, it typically keeps only two of its 26 ballistic missile submarines
at sea on combat patrol at sea at any time--typically, a Delta-IV submarine
in the Northern Fleet, and a Delta-III in the Pacific. Similar constraints
prevent Russia from hiding more than one or two regiments of its
truck-mobile missiles by dispersing in the field. The remaining 40 or so
regiments, each controlling nine single-warhead missiles, keep their trucks
parked in garages. These missiles are more exposed to attack than those
housed in underground silos. Russia also has 36 10-warhead nuclear missiles
carried on railway cars, which were designed to be hidden along Russia's
vast rail network. But these railcars have been confined to fixed
vulnerable garrisons in keeping with a pledge made then by President
Gorbachev to President Bush in 1991.
In fact Russia today faces stronger pressures to "use or lose" its
strategic arsenal than at any time since the early 1960s. Since it cannot
ride out an attack, Russia keeps some of its submarines in port and mobile
missiles in garages ready to launch on warning, along with the missiles in
silos. The time available for deciding to launch these weapons is shortened
by the presence of American, British, and French submarines cruising in the
North Atlantic, only about 2,000 miles from Moscow. This proximity means
that the nuclear-release procedures require a response time of less than 15
minutes from the time of enemy missile detection to the lift-off of
friendly missile forces. The Russian command system is thoroughly geared to
operate within this time frame, getting a release decision from the
president within 10 minutes, and the procedures are regularly exercised
with drills. The crews onboard docked submarines, for example, have
demonstrated the ability to fire while surfaced at pier-side within 9 to 15
minutes after receiving the order.
The Russian General Staff, after receiving permission from the President,
the Defense Minister, or the Chief of the General Staff, through one of
their famous nuclear suitcase ("Cheget"), would attempt to exercise launch
on warning in either of two ways. One is by sending unlock and launch
authorization codes held by the General Staff at their war rooms, directly
to individual weapons commanders, who then perform the launch procedures.
(This is how the United States would exercise its launch-on-warning
option.) Or, the General Staff can personally push the launch button from
war rooms in the Moscow vicinity or alternative facilities at Chekhov,
Penza, and elsewhere. This is a remote, robotic-like launch of land-based
strategic missiles that would totally bypass the subordinate commanders and
missile launch crews down the chain of command.
It is obvious that the rushed nature of this process, from warning to
decision to action, risks causing a catastrophic mistake. The danger is
compounded by the erosion of Russia's ability to distinguish reliably
between natural phenomena or peaceful ventures into space and a true
A quick launch decision today would thus draw on less reliable information
than would have been available during the Cold War. This fact is not lost
on Russian planners. They well recognize the increasing difficulty of
launching on true warning as well as the danger of launching on false
The most serious incident demonstrating the acute pressure on the command
system under the short time constraints and the system's susceptibility to
false warning occurred only three years ago. In January 1995, Russian
radars detected and began tracking one or more apparent missiles fired from
a spot near the coast of Norway. Interpreted as a possible attack by a
Western missile submarine, the nuclear command system started the countdown
to a launch decision for the first time in its history. The event activated
President Yeltsin's nuclear suitcase and triggered an emergency
teleconference between him and his nuclear advisors. About eight minutes
elapsed, only a couple of minutes short of the procedural deadline for
reaching a decision to launch on warning, before determining that the
missile posed no threat to Russia. As it turned out, the missile was a U.S.
scientific rocket launched from an island off the Norwegian coast to study
the Northern Lights.
The end of the Cold War undoubtedly helped to moderate the Russian response
to this false alarm in particular and generally alleviates the danger of
mistaken launch caused by the decline in Russian technical capabilities.
Given the milder political climate, decisionmakers on both sides should be
more inclined to doubt the validity of any reports they receive of an
impending missile strike. Nevertheless, the close coupling of two arsenals
geared for rapid response carries the inherent danger of producing a
mistaken launch and an escalating volley of missiles in return. The
possibility of such an apocalyptic accident cannot be ruled out even under
normal conditions. And if the Russian command system ever comes under any
stress from an internal or international crisis, the danger could suddenly
become much more acute. To underscore the point, Russian security policy
continues to shift toward an exclusive emphasis on nuclear weapons to
compensate for conventional inferiority following the collapse of its
regular army. Russian planners rely more than ever on these weapons, on
their widespread dispersal, and on their first use of launch on warning in
Beyond the danger of launching on false warning, keeping thousands of
warheads poised for immediate launch increases the susceptibility of
nuclear weapons to other types of accidents or unauthorized acts.
During the Cold War, such risks were subordinated to the overriding
requirement to deter an enemy believed to be willing to mount a
cold-blooded nuclear strike. This rationalization is no longer defensible,
if ever it was. Today, when both countries seek normal economic relations
and cooperative security arrangements, perpetuating the readiness to launch
nuclear weapons on the mere warning of an attack constitutes reckless
behavior. Yet this thinking and planning are so entrenched that they will
yield only to steady pressure from the public on political
leaders--especially presidents--to substitute a safer policy.
"De-Alerting" Strategic Forces
A range of remedies of varying effectiveness are available to improve the
operational safety of the nuclear postures. In principle, both countries
could spend more to upgrade their command and early warning networks and
increase their resilience to attack. This would allow them to reduce their
reliance on prompt launch and strengthen their capability to retaliate
after riding out an attack. To this end, Russia in fact is investing scarce
resources to excavate deep underground command posts and upgrade an unusual
second-strike command instrument formally called 'Perimeter' and
colloquially known as the "dead hand." If top Russian leaders do not get a
clear picture of an apparent missile attack, or if for any reason they fail
to give timely authorization to retaliate, the General Staff can activate
this system to ensure quasi-automatic retaliation in the event of their
decapitation. Once activated, special radio nodes, underground radio
antennae, and command rockets would form and disseminate launch signals to
the strategic forces if the nodes register nuclear detonations on Russian
territory and lose contact with the General Staff. The launch signals sent
by command rockets can fire missiles out of silos and off mobile launchers
without any participation on the part of launch crews in the field.
Russia of course cannot afford such remedies. A less expensive way to
enhance the operational safety of the nuclear arsenals is through
traditional arms control--namely, the START nuclear-reductions process.
Under the START III framework endorsed at Helsinki this spring by
Presidents Clinton and Yeltsin, the strategic arsenals would shrink to
2,000-2,500 on each side by the year 2007. These reductions promote safety,
but the improvements will come only gradually. If current alert practices
are not revised, ten years from now many hundreds of warheads on each side
could still remain ready to launch on a few minutes' notice.
Although they are not remedies from an American perspective, Russia might
consider two other responses. First, it could shift toward a policy of
preemptive strike, a first-strike strategy for the strategic forces that
would complement the ongoing gravitation of Russian military doctrine
toward the first use of tactical nuclear forces. This preemptive option is
a cheap way to avoid the difficulties of launch on warning, but it would
only make matters worse in terms of operational safety.
Second, Russia might try to repair its early warning network and streamline
the procedures for quick launch to improve its reliability and feasibility.
However, this expensive alternative would scarcely reduce the risks
associated with hair-trigger alert. It would be folly if, for example,
Russia adopts the kinds of extraordinary measures considered during the
early 1980s to cope with the perceived threat of decapitation posed by
Pershing II missiles slated for deployment in Western Europe. At that time,
the Soviets developed and tested a command link meant to give the top
political leadership push-button launch control over a portion of their
land-based rocket force, bypassing even the General Staff, in order to
shave off a few minutes of launch reaction time. Such short-cuts are
obviously dangerous in the extreme.
Vast improvements in operational safety could be made much more rapidly by
"de-alerting" the missile forces--increasing the amount of time needed to
prepare them for launch. The United States and Russia could move
independently down this path, preferably taking quick strides in parallel.
President George Bush set a notable precedent for de-alerting nuclear
weapons at the end of September 1991, when the Soviet Union began to split
apart in the wake of the August coup attempt, and as the Soviet nuclear
weapons establishment threatened to disintegrate with it. On the advice of
General George L. Butler, then commander of the Strategic Air Command, Bush
ordered an immediate stand-down of U.S. strategic bombers that for decades
had stood ready for takeoff within 15 minutes. Nuclear weapons on them were
unloaded and put in storage. In addition, Bush took off alert a large
number of land- and sea-based strategic missiles slated for elimination
under START I--450 Minuteman II missiles along with the missiles on ten
Poseidon submarines. These measures were implemented in a matter of days,
and they encouraged comparable actions by Russia.
President Gorbachev reciprocated a week later by ordering the deactivation
of more than 500 land-based rockets and six strategic submarines, by
promising to keep his strategic bombers at a low level of readiness and by
putting the rail-based missiles in garrison. In subsequent months, both
countries also withdrew many thousands of shorter-range tactical nuclear
weapons deployed with their armies and surface navies and placed these
weapons in central storage depots.
Presidents Clinton and Yeltsin took a further step together in 1994, when
they pledged to stop aiming strategic missiles at each other's country.
This change, though a welcome gesture, has little military significance.
Missile commanders can reload target coordinates into guidance computers
within seconds. Retargeting in this fashion is in fact a standard procedure
for launching missiles in wartime and hence the accord did not extend the
launch preparation time by even a single solitary second. In the case of
Russia, the General Staff, from their wartime command bunkers at Moscow,
Chekhov, Penza and elsewhere, can use a computer network called Signal-A to
override the agreement and re-aim all their silo-based missiles at the
United States in 10 seconds.
Moreover, the pact had no significant effect on the risk or consequences of
an accidental or unauthorized Russian launch. To fulfill their obligations,
the Russian military set their intercontinental missiles on what they call
a "zero flight plan." This setting does not reduce the danger of illicit
launch, and an unprogrammed missile launched illicitly or accidentally
automatically would switch back to its primary wartime target, which might
be a Minuteman silo in Montana or a command center in Washington, London,
Paris, or Beijing.
Having taken these real and cosmetic steps during the past six years, the
United States and Russia reached the present situation described earlier:
5,000 strategic warheads remain poised for launch at a moment's notice. The
de-alerting process has stalled.
It is time to revive it with a large step toward standing down the
strategic missiles in the U.S. and Russian arsenals. Possessing the most
robust forces and cohesive command system, the United States should take
the lead in a new round of voluntary actions by announcing that it will
withdraw from active deployment the U.S weapons that most threaten Russia's
nuclear deterrent (particularly those capable of hitting Russia's missile
silos and underground command posts). The most menacing warheads are those
deployed on the 50 MX silo-based missiles, which are armed with ten
warheads each, and the 400 high-yield W88 warheads fitted atop some of the
missiles on Trident submarines. We also recommend immobilizing all 500
Minuteman III land-based missiles, which are armed with three warheads
apiece, halving the number of submarines deployed at sea in peacetime and
cutting the number of warheads on each submarine-borne missile from eight
to four. the operations of ballistic missile submarines should also be
altered so that crews would require about one day to ready missiles for
Nuclear Weapon and Ballistic Missile Threat: Russia
A. Current Wartime Posture:
* Growing reliance on early first use
* 2-3 thousands alert strategic warheads (incl. pier-side SSBN and
-- Targeting/firing in minutes
* LOW main option; "use or lose" pressures
-- But coverage gaps; single or zero sensor
* LUA/Rideout: 'Perimetr'
* 3-4 thousand tactical nuclear weapons (non-alert)
-- ~15 thousand in dismantling queue
B. Future Wartime Posture:
* Economic Depression
* Aging forces and modest new production (NIE)
* Deteriorating warning/command: LUA or Preemption
-- Kosvinski and Yamantau
* Tactical weapons inventory: 0-hundreds by 2003
C. Accidental/Unauthorized/Mistaken Launch Risks
C1. Launch on False Warning
--Short timeline and Unreliable Warning
--1995 Norwegian incident (how serious?)
--Kazbek activated; confusion; ICR alert
--SRF/Early Warning under same organization
--Threats: defcon dependent
C2. Unauthorized Launch
C2a. Risks at Apex
--Authority (Pres.; Def.Min.; CGS)
--Tradition/Architecture for Control
--Code Distribution (GS/Alternates; defcon)
--Code Control (KGB?)
--Threats: coup; weak institutions; military splits;
C2b. Risks at Intermediate/Low Levels
--PALs (Blocking devices; defcon dependent)
--Continuous control: ICBMs in silos
--Threats: disaffection; splits (Far East); by-pass safeguards
(esp. SSBNs or tactical nuclear weapons); blackmail/use; loss of
C3. Accidental Launch
--1994 De-targeting Agreement--No effect
--Threats; C3 physical deterioration; decline in handling proficiency;
negligence; fail-safe or deadly?
D. Theft/Diversion Risks
--Consolidation to 50 depots strengthens security
--12th Gumo; 6th department; 8th MVD;3rd/2nd FSK
--Threats: Insider corruption; defcon dependent; succession
Future Russian Strategic Launchers and Warheads 1997-2013
Future Russian Strategic Warheads 1990-2013
1. National Academy of Sciences, Committee on International Security and
Arms Control The Future of U.S. Nuclear Weapons Policy (Washington D.C.:
National Academy Press). 1997. p. 72.
2. Blair BG. "Russian Nuclear Control: Risks and Solutions." Paper
presented to Foreign and Defense Ministry Officials of Finland, Helsinki,
August 26, 1997.
3. Blair BG. "Where Would All the Missiles Go?" Washington Post, Oct. 15,
1996, p. A15.
4. Blair BG. "Russian Nuclear Policy and the Status of Detargeting,"
Testimony before the Subcommittee on Military Research and Development,
House Committee on National Security, March 13, 1997.
5. Nunn S and Blair BG. "From Nuclear Deterrence to Mutual Safety."
Washington Post June 22, 1997, p. C1.
6. Blair BG. Global Zero Alert for Nuclear Forces (Washington, D.C:
7. Prepared Statement and Testimony of Bruce Blair before the Senate
Foreign Relations Committee, August 22, 1995. In: U.S. Congress, Senate
Subcommittee on European Affairs, Committee on Foreign Relations. Loose
Nukes, Nuclear Smuggling and the Fissile-Material Problem in Russian and
the NIS (Washington, D.C.: GPO, 1995), Hearings, 104 Cong. 1st Sess. pp.
8. Gertz B. "Mishaps put Russian missiles in `combat mode'." Washington
Times, May 12, 1997, p. A1.
9. Hoffman D. "Cold-War Doctrines Refuse to Die." Washington Post, March
15, 1998, p. A1.
10. Gertz B. "Russian renegades pose nuke danger." Washington Times, Oct.
22, 1996, p. A1.
11. Blair BG. "Who's Got the Button?" Washington Post, Sept. 29, 1996, p.
12. Blair BG, Feiveson HA, von Hippel FN. "Taking Nuclear Weapons off
Hair-Trigger Alert." Scientific American, November 1997, pp 74-81.
13. Ballistic Missile Defense Organization, National Missile Defense
Options. Unpublished report, July 31, 1995. esp. pp. 3-4.
14. Blair BG. The Logic of Accidental Nuclear War (Washington, D.C:
15. Blair BG. De-Alerting Strategic Forces (Washington, D.C.: Brookings,
1. Dr. Bruce Blair is a Senior Fellow, Foreign Policy Studies Program,
Brookings Institution. Expertise in U.S. nuclear security policy, U.S. and
foreign nuclear forces, command and control, and safeguards; Russian
proliferation; ballistic missile defense.