Russia's nuclear arsenal may far exceed estimates Moscow official speaks of vast stockpile

September 26, 1993|By New York Times News Service

A top Russian official says Moscow's nuclear arsenal peaked seven years ago at 45,000 warheads -- 12,000 more than generally believed, twice the number held by the United States at the time and exceeding all estimates save those of the most hawkish analysts.

The official, Viktor N. Mikhailov, head of Russia's Ministry of Atomic Energy, also says the national stockpile of highly enriched uranium is more than twice as large as commonly believed. Uranium in this form is a principal component of most nuclear weapons.

The Russian inventory of bomb-grade uranium is now said to be more than 1,200 metric tons. President George Bush a year ago announced a multibillion-dollar deal in which the United States would buy 500 metric tons of the Russian material, apparently thinking that this was most of Moscow's supply. The Clinton administration is now considering whether to expand that purchase.

The new comments being made by Mr. Mikhailov are scattered among recent interviews, conferences and public statements, some of which have appeared in the Russian press.

Surprised analysts say the remarks could rewrite significant parts of the Cold War's history, with one suggesting that the West's blindness to the arsenal's size was an intelligence failure that might have had disastrous consequences.

"The large numbers lead you to worry that some of the planners may have had a first strike in mind -- using large numbers of weapons and having large numbers in reserve," said Bobby Ray Inman, a retired admiral and former head of the National Security Agency.

A more benign explanation, Mr. Inman said, was that the arsenal's vast size reflected a bureaucracy run amok and was unconnected to military strategy. "You just produce any number you can," he said in an interview.

Experts agree that the existence of a much larger uranium stockpile gives new urgency to tracking Russian bomb materials and guarding them against accident and theft amid political turmoil, a job the West is trying to aid.

Moreover, some warn that a large surplus of unregulated bomb-grade uranium might thwart new East-West arms accords darken the estimates of military threats to the West if an unfriendly government came to power.

The large stocks of newly disclosed Russian weapons and bomb material never violated an East-West arms accord, all of which set limits on large and verifiable objects like delivery systems rather than warheads. The logic was that a foe's missiles, bombers and submarines could be monitored by spy satellites, while nuclear arms and their constituents were too small and easily hidden to be checked for treaty compliance.

Nonetheless, analysts are surprised by the new numbers since the West spent so much time, money, material and even lives trying to track the most dangerous of all armaments.

"It's alarming that we have this discrepancy, but in some ways, it parallels the problems we had with assessing Iraq," said Fred C. Ikle, undersecretary of defense for policy in the Reagan administration.

"These things don't take that much space," he said. "It's conceivable that we could have missed them, as we did many other things in Russia, like the big fissures in their economy."

In 1989 the Natural Resources Defense Council, a private group that monitors Russian nuclear affairs, published a summary of Washington's views in "Soviet Nuclear Weapons," a 443-page volume in its Nuclear Weapons Databook series.

The book's analysis of federal estimates characterized three as credible and one as wildly inflated -- that of Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger, who held that Moscow's arsenal peaked at 46,000 warheads. The research council's own estimate was 33,000 weapons, which was in line with the CIA.

But in an update to its volume, published this month, the research council notes that Mr. Mikhailov has now said the arsenal crested in 1986 at 45,000 warheads, almost exactly as Mr. Weinberger had estimated. Mr. Mikhailov's remarks were originally made in private Washington briefings and, less precisely, in Russian press reports.

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