During the failed Soviet coup, the most deadly serious question being asked was: “Who has the football?”
The “football” is a small black satchel containing electronic codes needed for a stunning array of nuclear weapons. As it turns out, the coup plotters had the football, having snatched the satchel from Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev. They also had on their team Defense Minister Dmitri T. Yazov, who kept watch over other vital nuclear codes.
Control of the Soviet Union’s mighty nuclear arsenal seemingly had passed with ease.
Now, Gorbachev has his satchel back. But analysts are warily watching a new nuclear game unfold, leaving a world audience uneasy about the possible outcome. Is a new world order in nuclear weapons about to take shape--with three former Soviet republics, rather than one Soviet Union, as nuclear powers?
If the central government of the Soviet Union continues to disintegrate, experts ask, who will end up at the top of the command-and-control system that could launch an attack on the West?
And how well does the design of that system protect against unauthorized, improper use of a terrifying arsenal of missiles, nuclear submarines and bombers--as well as tens of thousands of tactical weapons?
A substantial number of the Soviet Union’s strategic nuclear missiles are located in rebellious republics, especially in Kazakhstan and the Ukraine. No one knows whether these missiles will remain under control of a central Soviet authority or whether some of the breakaway republics might choose to become nuclear superpowers themselves. If the latter should happen, by some calculations Kazakhstan and the Ukraine would become, respectively, the world’s third- and fourth-largest nuclear powers. Russia would rank as the world’s No. 2 nuclear power, after the United States.
To make matters worse, top U.S. officials fully expect mercenaries within the crumbling Soviet empire to attempt the sale of nuclear materials or devices on the international black market in their quest for hard currency, increasing the threat of nuclear proliferation.
For now, the danger of a bolt-from-the-blue intercontinental missile attack on the West is rated low. The greatest threat, U.S. officials warn, is to the Soviet people themselves from their own weapons of mass destruction.
Apart from the 12,000 Soviet nuclear warheads capable of reaching the United States and other Western nations, Moscow owns 15,000 short-range nuclear weapons scattered throughout Russia and several of the 14 other republics constituting the fractious Soviet Union.
The possibility of even relatively low-yield nuclear weapons being swept into the caldron of ethnic and regional conflicts is worrisome to U.S. officials. And some fear the possibility--however remote--that such devices could fall into terrorist hands.
The tactical nuclear weapons--artillery shells, gravity bombs, battlefield rockets, land mines and naval depth charges--are transportable, easily concealed and stored in hundreds of depots across the breadth of the Soviet empire. The explosion of even one such weapon in a populated area would have catastrophic effects and create long-term radiation problems.
Although American officials dismiss these dangers as far-fetched, the Soviets are not so sanguine. Yevgeny Velikhov, science adviser to Gorbachev, earlier this week invited an international delegation to monitor the security of Soviet weapons.
“If Velikhov is concerned, we should be concerned,” said a senior Soviet specialist in the U.S. military. “For the science adviser to Gorbachev to be calling for international supervision of the Soviet nuclear arsenal would have been unthinkable just a few weeks ago.”
The system for releasing tactical weapons is not well understood by Western analysts. Short-range weapons are stored apart from their delivery systems. The storage bunkers are guarded by specially trained, elite forces who report through a separate chain of command to the general staff.
The bunkers cannot be opened unless these custodians receive coded instructions from higher authority, but it is not clear whether the chief of the military general staff must approve the release of the weapons. A separate set of codes is required to unlock the “permissive action links” (PALs) that protect the weapons from accidental or unauthorized detonation.
Bruce Blair, a Brookings Institution analyst, said Soviet officials have told him that not all tactical nuclear weapons in the Soviet inventory have been fitted with these protective devices. Some analysts say a determined splinter group or terrorist cell could defeat the supposedly fail-safe mechanisms.
“The consensus of all knowledgeable authorities is that the PALs are very very good for a period of time, but sooner or later you can bypass them and arm the weapon, given enough time and some competence,” said retired Rear Adm. Eugene R. Carroll Jr. of the private Center for Defense Information in Washington.
In addition, U.S. government analysts worry about the ever-present danger of theft by profit-minded entrepreneurs.
“Now, you have a situation where individuals are looking to the market, where the first thing that happens is that entrepreneurs try to get rich by converting what they have in their own hands to their benefit, like the weapons,” say IBM fellow Richard Garwin.
In the West, some government officials also are questioning whether nuclear missiles in republics seeking independence from the Soviet Union might be seized by the newly formed governments.
Although more than 80% of the Soviet nuclear arsenal is deployed on Russian soil, the republics of Kazakhstan and the Ukraine each have about 1,000 nuclear warheads on intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs)--making them nuclear powers of similar magnitude to Great Britain and France. Tactical nuclear systems are scattered throughout the 15 republics.
Thus far, it appears the breakaway republics are more eager to get rid of the nuclear weapons than to take control of them. So far, U.S. officials note, most of these republics are seeking authority to veto the use of nuclear weapons within their borders.
The Ukraine, for example, which has declared itself a nuclear-free zone, has arranged within the last week to have its missiles shifted onto Russian soil. But U.S. analysts have yet seen no signs that the movement of missiles from the Ukraine has begun.
Edward L. Warner III, an analyst for RAND Corp., predicts that most of the missiles in the breakaway republics will eventually be moved to Russia under a peaceful breakup of the union. He questioned what good these carefully protected missiles would be to the republic leaders in a battle over national sovereignty.
“It’s conceivable a wacky republican government could surround a depot and claim them,” says Stephen Meyer, an arms-control expert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “But it would be kind of like a group of 3-year-olds attacking and surrounding an automobile. Now that you’ve got it, what are you going to do with it?”
The failed coup is also cause for serious reflection on the magnitude of the risks that faced the West in the three days that the junta held power.
It Takes Two
There is little doubt among U.S. analysts that the anti-Gorbachev conspirators had the technical ability to launch a nuclear strike on the West during the coup attempt.
Not only was Gorbachev’s satchel wrested away from him by the coup leaders, but Defense Minister Yazov--one of the eight men who seized the reigns of power--retained control of a similar bag that also would have been needed to launch nuclear missiles.
Under the Soviet nuclear-launch system, both the top political leader and the chief military commander must independently transmit individual codes to a special headquarters, where the codes are combined, encrypted and transmitted down the chain of command.
This system is different from that of the United States, where the President alone is entrusted with control of the codes.
The conspirators made no effort to use their nuclear authority but held it instead as a mark of legitimacy--something like wearing the emperor’s crown. “If nothing else,” says MIT’s Meyer, “it was a sign of their authority.”
Most analysts emphasize that the coup plotters had no provocation to launch nuclear missiles during their tenure. On the contrary, U.S. officials made every effort to keep from taking any action that the Kremlin might have viewed as threatening.
In fact, U.S. government officials say the idea of using their nuclear capability apparently never even crossed the minds of the plotters, who had their hands full coping with domestic resistance.
“When you are trying to take power, you don’t start a war with somebody else,” says Warren L. Nelson, defense analyst for the House Armed Services Committee. “The only reason to attack the United States would have been if they thought we were going to intervene.”
As the coup began to disintegrate, so did the ability of the plotters to flex their nuclear muscle. It soon became clear that they could not rely upon the military chain of command to carry out orders to use force against the coup resisters in the streets, let alone launch a disastrous nuclear strike.
“Even though they had both black bags, those bags don’t launch anything,” Meyer cautions. “All those bags do is they get you to the code that gets you to another code that gets you to another code. It takes a long time to get to the guy who actually pushes the button. A lot of people in between have to agree.”
In fact, Gen. Y. P. Maksimov, commander of the Soviet Strategic Rocket Forces, defied the coup leaders by withdrawing SS-25 mobile nuclear missiles into their garrisons, according to knowledgeable sources.
The move, observed by U.S. spy satellites, persuaded Bush Administration officials that the Soviet military had no intention of threatening the West.
As a result, U.S. officials were impressed by what they described as “the very responsible behavior” of the second-tier Soviet leadership in securing the nuclear arsenal during the coup attempt--actions they viewed as consistent with efforts by Gorbachev over the last few years to improve the Soviet nuclear fail-safe mechanisms in the event of civil unrest.
Indeed, in a country where virtually nothing works the way it is supposed to, the Soviet technology designed to prevent an accidental nuclear launch is believed to be the rare exception.
Meyer says the Soviet nuclear command-and-control system’s many redundancies reflect a lack of trust within the Soviet hierarchy, which he described as “a conspiratorial, power-oriented culture where you do everything to check the other guy.”
As for the black bags--the footballs--experts disagree on exactly what is contained within the mysterious satchels that have been entrusted to Gorbachev and the Soviet defense minister.
While many believe that the bags contain the technical apparatus to transmit the codes that would be needed to launch a nuclear strike, the Brookings Institution’s Blair doubts that a nuclear strike could actually be launched with only the contents of the bag.
“It’s partially symbolic,” he insists.
Further, Blair suggests that Gorbachev may have memorized a personal code--much like a “pin number” needed to activate an automated teller machine--without which the Soviet president’s black bag would have been useless to the coup plotters.
In the Soviet Union, not only must both the president and defense minister generate codes to launch a nuclear strike, but a third component is also required: The Soviet national-command authorities must provide information that is necessary to pass it down the chain of command.
At each ICBM command post, launch crews must first receive a special preliminary command through a technical channel that is separate from all other military combat command channels. Such commands cannot even be received in peace time, when the special channel is unavailable.
The unlock codes allow a single weapon or a small group of weapons to be fired but not the entire arsenal, experts say. The launch crews must enter the 12-digit codes correctly within three attempts, and no more than a few seconds can elapse between attempts. If they fail to do so, the crews are unable to initiate the launch.
In addition, headquarters commanders can monitor and override launch orders by subordinates. And sensors at the unmanned ICBM launchers are designed to disable the launch mechanism whenever they detect forced entry.
Aboard Soviet nuclear submarines, even though the fail-safe system is less sophisticated, the captain shares responsibility for verifying and implementing the nuclear launch codes with a political officer and the executive officer, experts say. Unlike under the U.S. system, a Soviet submarine cannot launch a long-range nuclear missile without coded authorization from a central command.
On long-range Soviet nuclear bombers, there is said to be a blocking device that must be lifted in order for bombs to be dropped on enemy targets, and pilots cannot deviate from pre-programmed flight plans. In addition, the bombers are not kept on combat alert and the bombs are routinely stored separately in arsenals under a different command structure.
Despite all these safeguards on Soviet strategic nuclear weapons, U.S. officials concede that a nuclear attack on the United States could still be launched by Soviet officials who seize power during a period of civil unrest in the country--especially if they have the support of top-echelon officials.
“It doesn’t mean there’s no danger at all,” a top government official cautioned.
Blair says the danger posed by the recent coup was exacerbated by the unstable emotional condition of some of the coup plotters. “We were dealing with a group of people who were not entirely rational or competent,” he says.
But Meyer noted that U.S. officials have always had reason to be concerned about the intentions of the proprietors of the Soviet nuclear command-and-control system, particularly after the death of former Soviet leader Leonid I. Brezhnev, whose successor was not selected immediately. He also noted that the coup plotters have long had influence over Soviet nuclear policy.
“Even if the coup leaders did gain control of both briefcases, so what?” he asked. “They have had control of two briefcases for the past 40 years. Why should we be all upset now?”
Times staff writer Robert Scheer contributed to this story.
Nuclear Weapons in the Soviet Union
The rapid disintegration of the Soviet central government since the coup collapsed has raised questions about who controls the estimated 27,000 Soviet nuclear weapons. More than one-third of the missiles are aimed at the United States.
A look at the Soviet Union’s safeguards for its nuclear missile arsenal:
Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev
Defense Minister Yevgeny I. Shaposhnikov
Soviet president and defense official must form one code
Chief of Army General Staff Vladimir Lobov
Army chief’s code electronically unlocks weapons
both codes needed to launch nuclear weapon
President has the codes to launch nuclear weapons.
* Nuclear Submarine Base
* Silo-based ICBM Base
* Mobile ICBM Base
* Bomber Base
Source: Soviet Military Power 1990
** Part of the Russian Federation