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  • Part I: Cold War Doctrines Refuse to Die
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  •   Shattered Shield
    Cold-War Doctrines Refuse to Die

    By David Hoffman
    Washington Post Foreign Service
    Sunday, March 15, 1998; Page A01

    First in a series of occasional articles

    MOSCOW — At dawn on the morning of Jan. 25, 1995, a four-stage Norwegian-U.S. joint research rocket, Black Brant XII, lifted off from an island off Norway's northwest coast. Ninety-three seconds after launch, the fourth stage burned out, hurling the rocket and its payload nearly straight up.

    The rocket was designed to study the Northern Lights, but when it rose above the horizon, it turned into another kind of experiment -- a test of the hair-trigger posture that still dominates the control of Russian and United States nuclear weapons.

    The rocket was spotted by Russian early-warning radars. The radar operators sent an alert to Moscow. Within minutes, President Boris Yeltsin was brought his black nuclear-command suitcase. For several tense minutes, while Yeltsin spoke with his defense minister by telephone, confusion reigned.

    Little is known about what Yeltsin said, but these may have been some of the most dangerous moments of the nuclear age. They offer a glimpse of how the high-alert nuclear-launch mechanism of the Cold War remains in place, and how it could go disastrously wrong, even though the great superpower rivalry has ended.

    Russia and the United States still rely on a doctrine that calls for making rapid-fire decisions about a possible nuclear attack. If a Russian president wants to retaliate before enemy missiles reach his soil, he has about eight minutes to decide what to do.

    Yet, in the Norway episode, the information needed for such a momentous decision was unclear. Although eventually the Norwegian rocket fell into the ocean, it triggered a heightened level of alert throughout the Russian strategic forces, according to testimony to the U.S. Congress, and other sources, and marked the first time a Russian leader had to use his nuclear briefcase in a real alert.

    Now that the superpower tensions have eased, so have the chances of a misunderstanding leading to nuclear war. But some Western experts say the Norway rocket episode may not be the last.

    The reason is that Russia's system of early warning of a possible attack, and command and control of nuclear forces, is suffering many of the same problems plaguing the entire military. Russia inherited from the Soviet Union a system of radars and satellites, but after the Soviet break-up, many are no longer on Russian soil. Russia's six-year economic depression has led to hardship for many officers, including many who work in nuclear command installations, who receive low pay and lack permanent housing. The radar-and-satellite system is vulnerable because there are gaps in the network, which will grow more serious this year as yet another Russian radar station is closed in Latvia.

    The prospect of a mistake "has become particularly dangerous since the end of the Cold War," Vladimir Belous, a retired general and leading Russian strategist, wrote recently. He added that "a fateful accident could plunge the world into the chaos of a thermonuclear catastrophe, contrary to political leaders' wishes."

    The degradation of Russia's early-warning system comes as its strategic forces are also shrinking. The forces made up of nuclear-armed submarines, long-range bombers and intercontinental ballistic missiles built by the Soviets during the Cold War are declining dramatically in both numbers and quality. Within a decade, experts predict, Russia will have a nuclear arsenal just one-tenth the size of the Soviet Union's at the peak of the superpower rivalry, because of arms control treaties, looming obsolescence and Russia's economic depression.

    The process is posing painful questions for Russia's political and military elite. They want to preserve Russia's place as a global power but cannot support the colossal forces and intricate systems that made up the Soviet nuclear deterrent.

    What makes the radar and satellite gaps worrisome is that Russia still adheres to nuclear doctrines of the Soviet era. The overall deterrence concept is known as Mutual Assured Destruction, under which each side is held in check by the threat of annihilation by the other. One part of this cocked-pistols approach is "launch-on-warning," in which both sides threaten that if attacked they will unleash massive retaliation, even before the enemy warheads arrive. The idea is that such a hair-trigger stance will discourage either from attempting to strike first.

    Russia also inherited from the Soviet Union a second, related approach, which is to preserve the ability to launch a retaliatory strike even after the enemy's warheads have hit. This is called "launch-on-attack." In Moscow, massive underground bunkers and a secret subway were built to protect the Soviet leadership so they could launch a retaliatory strike.

    Lost in the Bureaucracy

    The message from the Norwegian Foreign Ministry was routine. On Dec. 21, 1994, it sent out a letter to neighboring countries, including Russia, about the impending launch of the Black Brant XII, a four-stage research rocket, between Jan. 15 and Feb. 10, depending on weather conditions.

    But the letter got lost in the Russian bureaucracy and never made it to the radar crews, as had past notifications. Norway had launched 607 scientific rockets since 1962. But the Black Brant XII was bigger than any of those. The rocket was a cooperative effort with the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and was built with surplus U.S. rocket engines.

    According to Peter Pry, a former CIA official who chronicles the episode in a coming book, "War Scare," the rocket "resembled a U.S. submarine-launched, multiple-stage ballistic missile." Theodore A. Postol, a professor at MIT, said that the Norwegian rocket may well have looked to the radar operators like a multistage missile launched from a Trident submarine. The launch occurred in a region considered, during the Cold War, to be a likely corridor for an incoming ballistic missile attack.

    Anatoly Sokolov, the commander of the Russian radar forces, recalled shortly afterward that "what happened was an unscheduled training exercise. . . . We all found ourselves under stress." He said, "An officer on duty reported detecting a ballistic missile which started from the Norwegian territory. What kind of missile is it? What is its target? We were not informed. . . . If it had been launched on an optimal trajectory, its range would have been extended to 3,500 kilometers [2,175 miles], which, in fact, is the distance to Moscow."

    "The thing is," he added, "the start of a civilian missile and a nuclear missile, especially at the initial stage of the flight trajectory, look practically the same."

    The Black Brant XII triggered a tense chain reaction in Russia. According to Nikolai Devyanin, chief designer of the Russian nuclear "suitcase," the radar operators were under crushing pressure. They remembered how Mathias Rust, a German youth, flew a small plane through Soviet air defenses in 1987 and landed it in Red Square, shaking the Soviet hierarchy to its foundations. Moreover, in five or six minutes, the Norwegian missile could hit the Kola Peninsula, where Russia's nuclear-armed submarines are based.

    Devyanin has said the radar operators could be reprimanded for sending out a false, panicky signal. But they also feared it was a real threat. So they decided to issue an alert that it was an unidentified missile, with an unknown destination.

    The alert went to a general on duty. He, too, decided that it was better to send on the alert to the highest levels, than to be blamed for a disaster. One factor, Western officials said later, might have been fear that the lone missile would release a huge, debilitating electromagnetic pulse explosion to disarm Russia's command-and-control system, as a prelude to a broader onslaught.

    At that point, the Russian electronic command-and-control network, known as Kazbek, had come to life.

    The duty general received his information from the radar operator on a special notification terminal, Krokus. He then passed it to the Kavkaz, a complex network of cables, radio signals, satellites and relays that is at the heart of the Russian command and control. From there, it caused an alert to go off on each of the three nuclear "footballs" in the Russian system: one with Yeltsin, one with then-Defense Minister Pavel Grachev and a third with the chief of the General Staff, then Mikhail Kolesnikov. The black suitcases were nicknamed Cheget.

    The command-and-control system "was now operating in combat mode," Devyanin said. Yeltsin immediately got on the telephone with the others holding the black suitcases, and they monitored the rocket's flight on their terminals. (The actual launch orders are not given from the suitcase, only the permission to fire. The launching process, including ciphers, is controlled by the military's General Staff, which, in some circumstances, is authorized to act on its own.)

    Devyanin noted a strange irony. The Cheget suitcase was a product of the final phase of the Cold War, during the tense early 1980s, when Soviet leaders feared a sudden attack launched from Europe or nearby oceans. They needed a remote command system to cut down reaction time.

    The suitcases were put into service just as Mikhail Gorbachev took office. Gorbachev, however, never used them in a real-time alert, officials said. The first serious alert came only after the end of the Cold War, on Yeltsin's watch.

    Devyanin said that at the time he was disturbed by the way a misplaced document led to such high-level confusion. "The safety of mankind should not depend on anyone's carelessness," he said.

    The day after the incident, Yeltsin announced that he had used the nuclear briefcase for the first time. Many in Russia dismissed his comment as a bit of bravado intended to divert attention from the debacle of the Chechen war, then just beginning to unfold.

    Even today, Russian officials brush aside questions about the incident, saying it has been overblown in the West. Vladimir Dvorkin, director of the 4th Central Research Institute, a leading military think tank, said he saw no danger from the Norwegian alert, "none at all."

    He added, "It's very difficult to make a decision" to launch, "maybe even impossible for civilized leaders. Even when a warning system gives you a signal about a massive attack, no one is ever going to make a decision, even an irrational leader alarmed that one missile has been fired. I think this is an empty alarm."

    But the incident did set off alarms. Former CIA director R. James Woolsey told Congress in 1996 that the Russians went on "some sort of" alert, "not a full strategic alert, but, at least, a greater degree of strategic inquisitiveness."

    Bruce Blair, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington who has written extensively on the Soviet and Russian command-and-control systems, said a signal was sent to the Russian strategic forces to increase their combat readiness, but the crisis then ended. Blair said the significance of the episode was the confusion that marked the period during which Yeltsin would have had to make a real "launch-on-warning" decision. Blair pointed out that the Soviet Union and Russia have been through coup, rebellion and collapse over the last decade, and a leader may well be called on to make crucial decisions at a time of enormous upheaval.

    Postol said, "The Norwegian rocket launch is an important indicator of a serious underlying problem. It tells us something very important: People are on a high state of alert, when there is not a crisis. You can imagine what it would be like in a high state of tension."

    Pry said that there have been other false alarms in the nuclear age, but none went as far as Jan. 25, 1995, which he described as "the single most dangerous moment of the nuclear missile age."

    Page Two | Printable full text

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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