Doomsday machine's safety catch

February 02, 1994|By Valery Yarynich

MOSCOW — Last Oct. 11, Other Voices carried an article from the New York Times op-ed service by Bruce G. Blair of the Brookings Institution about the "doomsday machine," a secret computerized launching system that in theory would enable Russia to fire its nuclear arsenal even if its top commanders had been killed or incapacitated -- the so-called dead-hand system.

Valery Yarynich, a retired colonel in the Russian Strategic Rocket Forces who spent his career working on command and control systems, read Mr. Blair's article and responded with the following analysis.

It was translated from the Russian by Melanie Allen.

Moscow -- THE Russian system described by Bruce G. Blair for launching nuclear weapons in the event of a nuclear strike on Moscow really does exist.

On the whole, Mr. Blair correctly stated its purpose and principles of operation. But some of his points need sharpening -- in particular, his belief that the risk of accidentally activating the system increases during a nuclear crisis.

The underground radio station crucial to the operation of the system is designed to transmit coded messages that would eventually cause nuclear-armed missiles to be launched. But the station's crew is unable to transmit a launch order unless the three criteria set forth by Mr. Blair have been met: They must have received preliminary sanction for an attack from the Russian general staff; there must be a full loss of communication with top military commanders and there must be evidence of nuclear explosions.

Yet even if those criteria are met, an order to launch missiles can be transmitted only by the crew -- that is, an attack cannot be launched automatically.

The point of this "doomsday system" is that Russia's top military commanders will not be forced to launch nuclear missiles immediately after receiving a signal that Moscow is under attack.

On receiving such a signal -- which could turn out to be false -- the general staff can quickly transfer its capability to launch nuclear missiles to the equipment and crew in the radio station.

If the attack is real, the aggressor will not escape retaliation, even if Russia's military and governmental leadership is annihilated. If there is no attack, the doomsday system will return to its initial state.

From a purely technical point of view, this system is more likely to reduce the probability of a tragic mistake than to increase it.

I must admit, though, that my American colleague is correct that the danger of an accident is greater in a crisis than in peacetime.

Mr. Blair's call for greater openness about command and control in Russia and the United States is welcome.

Contrary to popular belief, the reduction of nuclear inventories has not decreased the danger of their use. The key to lowering the risk of accidental or unauthorized use lies in the systems of command and control.

But there can be no meaningful discussion of such issues as long as most information about these systems remains so tightly held within both governments and completely closed to the public.

Consider, for example, the issue of the delegation of nuclear authority. Mr. Blair is correct that American and Russian military commanders have the technical capability to launch nuclear missiles without presidential approval.

Without an open examination of the issue, it is difficult to judge the merits of giving top commanders this power. It is also difficult to determine whether the systems provide sufficient protection against the actions of a madman.

The lack of open discussion also perpetuates the dangerous hair trigger on our two command systems and defeats the purpose of elements such as the Russian "dead hand" that are meant exclusively to strengthen nuclear deterrence.

There must be open talks between Moscow and Washington on the wisdom of the Russian doomsday system, as well as other issues of nuclear command and control.

Just as crucial, independent experts must be involved fully in those discussions, because nuclear weapons are not only national property but also a grievous legacy for all mankind.

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