Where Will Soviet Nuclear Warriors Seek Work?

DANIEL S. GREENBERG

December 30, 1991|By DANIEL S. GREENBERG

WASHINGTON — Washington. -- In a nightmare scenario from the debris of the Soviet Union, jobless scientists from the old empire are drawn by undreamed-of pay to clandestine military laboratories in rogue nations.

The Cold War is thus succeeded by an appalling menace -- a proliferation of nuclear weapons and missiles to deliver them.

High-tech fiction? Not at all. Science and engineering, no less than other professions, possess a mercenary streak that's easily inflamed by hard times and professional opportunities.

After World War II, the United States and the Soviet Union competed for Hitler's weapons designers. Induced, self-propelled or dragged, German scientists and engineers went east and west by the thousands, with many of them finding successful careers with their former foes.

The best-known was a genius of rocketry, Werner Von Braun, a Nazi Party member who designed the V-2 missiles that battered London, killing over 2,500 civilians. Surrendering to U.S. forces, Von Braun went to work for the American rocket program, headed the group that put this nation's first satellite into orbit and went on to become the major architect of NASA's launch systems.

Throughout 45 years of the arms race, the Soviet Union gave top priority to military research, assigning many of its best graduates to weapons work and providing them with top-flight equipment and premium wages. Now, with the empire in ruins, thousands of them face a bleak future.

As the Soviet superstars emerge from the security veil, they are already being wooed for prestigious, well-paying jobs at universities and high-tech firms in the West. No need for them to go underground in the service of secret bomb-building in North Korea, Pakistan, Iran, a revived Iraq or any of the several other powers suspected of nuclear ambitions.

It's the rank and file, however, that pose the greatest risk of spreading the most dangerous weapons.

In rocketry as in nuclear weaponry, genius was the essential ingredient for making the first models. Once the pioneers demonstrated that it could be done, well-trained specialists with adequate resources have sufficed.

The menace from the breakup of the Soviet Union is that privation and lack of opportunity at home will drive unknown specialists from these ranks into rogue research.

Seasoned and sophisticated in the application of science to warfare, these newcomers to economic adversity would be a potent addition to any Third-World weapons program. Sure, most countries could eventually build the bomb with home-grown talent, but big-league players would enable them to make it faster and meaner.

The difficulties of redeploying these experts to peaceful research at home are daunting in the midst of economic collapse. Some employment for weapons specialists in the old U.S.S.R. will be created by agreements to disarm nuclear and chemical warheads.

Several U.S. government research agencies have set up special funds to support research by ex-Soviet scientists. But with American scientists clamoring for grants, and layoffs spreading through U.S. defense industries, there's a built-in resistance to a massive aid program for foreign scientists.

The danger posed by large pools of Soviet scientific and technical talent is sufficiently remote to deflect any sense of urgency. In the best of technical circumstances, several years would be required for their talents to show up in weaponry. The risk, nonetheless, is great, even if distant.

It's so great, in fact, that extraordinary means are in order to guard against it. With professional pay scales in the ex-Soviet Union at minuscule levels by Western standards, a small slice of the $43 billion that the U.S. spends on defense research could go a long way toward keeping many jobless weapons scientists there out of mischief.

But American funds for laboratories in Russia and the other new-born republics can never be sufficient to thwart all recruiting by nuclear aspirants.

To counter that, a hefty system of rewards for tip-offs about missing weapons scientists would be a bargain for pinpointing clandestine research. Science is an inbred and clubby profession in which it's difficult to fool one's colleagues.

A formal snitch system would be a novelty for the institutions of science. But the dangers of mass unemployment in the ranks of bomb makers demands a novel response.

Daniel S. Greenberg publishes the newsletter Science & Government Report.

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