December 20, 2012

David E. Hoffman is a contributing editor to The Post and the author of “The Dead Hand: The Untold Story of the Cold War Arms Race and Its Dangerous Legacy” and “The Oligarchs: Wealth and Power in the New Russia.”

In November 1983, during an autumn of Cold War tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union, a skilled Soviet military communications specialist struggled in secret for 10 days to send a radio signal from a waterlogged tunnel deep inside a mountain in the Urals. The code name of the redoubt was “Grot,” or grotto. Around him, construction crews blasted away at the rock, building a hardened command post for the Soviet Strategic Rocket Forces. The specialist’s goal was to find out if a radio signal could penetrate the mountain and reach the outside. If so, it would be from there that Soviet rocket commanders might manage a nuclear war.

The specialist was Col. Valery E. Yarynich, and he proved the radio would work. The next year, he got another difficult assignment: to perfect a troubled system, partially automatic, that would launch Soviet intercontinental ballistic missiles in a retaliatory strike if the Kremlin leadership were decapitated in a nuclear attack. One of the most creative, astonishing and dangerous projects of the Cold War, it was named Perimeter, although known informally as the Dead Hand. Yarynich succeeded at that assignment, too. Perimeter was put on combat duty in 1985.

Then Yarynich went to a think tank in the Soviet general staff. There, using modeling with new computer capabilities, he showed the critical importance of command-and-control systems in nuclear deterrence. He realized that, more than rockets and warheads, the brains of nuclear forces were most vulnerable and most important.

Yarynich was a son of the nuclear age. He served in the first Soviet ICBM division, carving a rocket base out of the forest north of Kirov. Later, he was on duty when Soviet forces went on alert over the Cuban missile crisis. In the early 1980s, he visited the deeply buried spherical concrete bunkers of Perimeter, where a handful of duty officers might someday make a doomsday decision about whether to launch a retaliatory nuclear strike.

In later years, Yarynich expressed grave doubts about the very systems of annihilation he had devoted his career to perfecting. He once told me it was utter stupidity to keep the Dead Hand secret; such a retaliatory system was useful as a deterrent only if your adversary knew about it. More broadly, he came to doubt the wisdom of maintaining the cocked-pistols approach to nuclear deterrence, the so-called hair-trigger alert, especially after the Cold War ended. He feared it could lead to an accidental or mistaken launch. Yarynich did not keep quiet. He decided to share his insights and worries with the world.

This took courage. Even after the Soviet collapse, discussion of such topics remained guarded in Russia. In the early 1990s, Yarynich cautiously shared key details about Perimeter with an inquiring Bruce Blair, then of the Brookings Institution, who revealed the existence of the quasi-automatic system in a New York Times op-ed. In 2003, Yarynich authored a book, “C3: Nuclear Command, Control, Cooperation,” which laid out more startling details. It was published not in Moscow but by Blair’s organization, the Center for Defense Information.

Yarynich harbored a dream that someday both the United States and Russia might share the secrets of command-and-control. He was certain it could lead to deterrence with far fewer nuclear warheads. He also favored taking missiles off launch-ready alert. He tirelessly expounded his logic, yet governments were not interested. The high priests of nuclear command-and-control could not envision opening up to each other, not here, nor in Russia.

In fact, the United States and Russia bickered for a decade over a plan to establish a joint early-warning and data-sharing center and failed to do so. Barack Obama promised in his 2008 campaign to take nuclear missiles off launch-ready alert but has failed to do so since his election. Many times while researching a book on the Cold War arms race, I witnessed reactions of disbelief and uncertainty to Yarynich’s entreaties. It was remarkable enough for a veteran of the Soviet rocket forces to speak so candidly, and doubly so that he would broach openness in a field that had long been closed.

Yarynich died Dec. 13 at age 75 in Moscow from complications following cancer surgery. His dream was unfulfilled. Nuclear-armed missiles are still ready to launch in both the United States and Russia within minutes after an order is given. Yarynich took personal risks to break down walls of secrecy and point out the dangers. He wanted to share a lifetime of experience in the shadow of nuclear war. He worked on the most frightening inventions of the Cold War and hoped to retire them, peacefully.

hoffmand@washpost.com