russian roulette

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interview: colonel robert bykov

He was an officer in Russia's Strategic Rocket Forces for over thirty years and was part of the elite 12th Main Directorate whose officers maintain the nuclear command and control system and guard strategic weapons.  Retired since 1991, he spends his time investigating problems in the Strategic Rocket Forces. He is concerned by the lack of safeguards in launching missiles and his reports, published in the Russian press, have made him unpopular.

Tell us what happened in January '95, the Norwegian incident.

There was a warning given by the Norwegians that there will be a training missile launch. And ... these people [on duty at the command post] go on shift every four days, and this warning did not make it to the second shift. So, to them, this launch was unexpected and surprised them. And there was some alarm at the command post. There were certain orders given that are aimed at enhancing the state-of-readiness in some of the forces. ...

What was the Russian mistake?

On the Russian part, the main mistake is that the shift did not pass on the information to the other shift, that's the most important mistake. They had to put it down in paper, but not just put it down in paper but verbally pass on this warning about the launch. And so, the third and the fourth shift would then function better and they would have been aware that there's a training launch, and would simply monitor the missile launch. Of course, we saw that the missile was not traveling in our direction, that it posed no threat to our territory, but that became clear only three or five minutes after the launch, but these first few minutes caused a lot of alarm and a lot of tension.

What is the history of the Russian missile force, the Strategic Missile Force?

The missile force was created in '59. From [the] Moscow Institute, the best 200 students were selected and were appointed to study at the Durinsky Missile Academy. ... This generation created the missile forces. And, from this group, people were selected to work on the missile bases, and they took part in developing these systems at the command post. ... They knew, very thoroughly, the functions of every button and what they do in combinations, these buttons. This generation provided for very high quality work on these control systems.

Americans never gave us money for anything good. If they give,they give money pursuing their own interests. ... They defend their own interests and we pursue our goals. As they say in Russia, friendship is friendship, but let's split the cash. ...... Gradually, this competent generation left, but before they left, as I said, they've studied the systems very thoroughly, in great detail, and they knew things about it that the engineers who built the systems didn't know, perhaps. And, as a result, some of these officers were able to do something without letting the command know. Any system has technological blocking, unsanctioned launch is blocked, technically, and on the other hand; [it can also be blocked] organizationally. ... Partially it's done through technology, and secondly, done through people and organization of people. You have two, three, or four people, and the procedure of launch is distributed between these people, say, one person is turning one key, the other person is turning another, the third is pressing a button and the fourth is doing something else, and only in combination, when three people are doing it, you can have a launch. ... And so, through that ... there would be a very, very small chance for [an unsanctioned launch].

But a man is only a man, so sometimes he may have certain alterations in his psyche, he may be depressed, he may be tired. And people's behavior is sometimes unpredictable. And there were incidents, in a difficult environment, on duty, you know, on these command posts, there's sometimes, in bunkers, or deep underneath the Earth's surface ... . There are a lot of factors affecting the behavior of people, and people sometimes get tired, and their morale worn out, so there may be alterations in people's psyches, which may lead to inadequate behavior of this particular operator. In our army, everything was fine at first, and a lot of money was given to the development of these systems ... . This field drew huge attention of the commanders, and the armed forces [and] the command posts were not limited in terms of personnel, nor in technology. The equipment was always modern and there was always plenty of personnel. And when Gorbachev arrived, only then, big cuts began to take place, sharp reductions. ... When you begin to reduce personnel at the command posts which are in charge of operating all the armed forces, then you have a certain degree of tension. ...

What mistakes are possible?

In general, the machinery is built in such a way as to prevent major mistakes. You know, it's built to be manned by a fool. If you do something wrong, it blocks itself. Inadequate functions of operators, in my memory, had led, only once, to [a problem] ... not a transfer to a high state-of-readiness mode ... just an alternative mode, it cause[d] alarm and leads to specific, very quick actions. ... That [was] because of a mistake, because of wrong actions. Sometimes there were malfunctions of equipment ... . On one of the command posts, we had to ban gold rings, because the equipment malfunctioned. But then this malfunction was eliminated and probably no one even remembers about this now. ...

Was the experience of working in the missile forces very different 10 years ago?

[Back then] people acknowledged the importance of work on these command posts. ... We were well off at the time, we were paid on time, and we earned enough, we were able to buy a car or a dacha. Our children went to normal schools. So, psychologically we were stable, and we were prepared to carry out these duties. ... A lot has changed now. An officer now, who is in charge of the nuclear button, ... an under-colonel, earns two hundred dollars a month. Two hundred dollars a month and irregularly. Sometimes he's not paid for a month, two months, sometimes three months. He is deprived of a number of other benefits and privileges. ... A lieutenant now, who works in this system, he gets ... probably less than a hundred dollars. Imagine it, when he's on active duty, all he's thinking about is where to get the money in order to feed his family. ... And thinking this, he's in charge of a nuclear button. And that is what's worrying us, the moral weariness of personnel. ...

What about the missile forces?

Most of the officers live in the one small town, closed. And they live in one part, there is no place for their wives to work, because it's a small remote town far from other cities. And so there's competition between the wives to work as store attendant or a garbage collector. ... One irregularly paid wage is not enough to provide for an officer, and the prices there are quite high, because the local population raise the prices because they know that these Army people have no option but to buy things there. And local authorities often switch off electricity and heating because the rent's not been paid, and sometimes there were riots because of this. ...

[There's intense] psychological impact [on the] people at the command centers. They're on duty for three days and then there's four days off, they're on duty for four days again. Of course, a lot depends on how he gets on with his family, but in current conditions, when children are often underfed, when they shut off electricity, people are tense, they're like a trigger. He keeps on thinking about his family when he is on duty, the family is all that's on his mind. So, it distracts people at the command centers when they're on duty. ...

What is the status of the satellite warning system?

... We had about 200 satellites in orbit that were surveying the territory of the U.S., Britain and France, all our potential enemies, and we had an absolutely crystal clear picture of what was going on at your launching sites, so we could monitor the missile launches. We had the machinery to pinpoint the missile traveling in our direction. We would be able to monitor its movement and we would see that, for example, it's falling into the ocean, so that's fine. When you see your enemy, when you're not blinded, you're not afraid, because you know that he means no harm. But the break-up of the Soviet Union and perestroika led to us losing one third of the satellites we had in orbit. Even the Minister of Defense, Igor Radionev, said, "... these satellites ... [lose] four hours a day [out of 24, for four hours we can't see] what's going on ... ." Our surveillance systems in the now CIS states, like in Armenia or Ukraine or Belarus, Lithuania, Kazakhstan, we've lost these surveillance systems. Some of them are still functioning, but they're approaching their end. We're unable to see what our potential enemy is doing, and that enhances nervousness. ... It takes six to nine minutes for a missile to travel ... from the Mediterranean, or 25 minutes from the United States, and I cannot see, for four hours a day, what is going on, so you can imagine my psychological state. If I'm in control of this button, I have to be 100% sure, then, in my commanding officers and my president. But there is no trust in the armed forces, there is no faith in the president ... because the president is unable to provide the simplest living conditions, simply the conditions where you're at least not hungry and your family is provided for. ...

Have you ever seen a portable nuclear bomb?

In 32 years, I was in many countries. I have never seen portable nuclear devices, back-pack nuclear devices. I've traveled around the world and I know my army well, but I've never seen anything like that. ... Of course, theoretically, you could make a back-pack nuclear device, but I do not see any logical point in creating such an instrument.

Could one person in the missile forces launch a nuclear weapon?

I don't know about today, but 10 years ago technically one person was capable of sending a launch command. ... But now, I suppose, measures were taken to prevent this from happening. But, previously, one person, yes, could send a signal for launch, but whether this command will be carried out on the ground level, maybe people would not carry out the program, they would wait for confirmation, but, in principle, one person could send a command for the system to go into combat mode. ...

Do you think the Cold War is over?

A military person would not say that [the Cold War is] ended. Because confrontation arises. You see current examples in Serbia, in Kosovo, we're taking different positions than the United States. Iraq, again, our position is different to the United States. And the United States are very active and they use arms wherever they feel that it's their sphere of interest .. . So we cannot be weak, we have a big territory, and the surrounding countries on all sides have certain territorial ambitions. So, in this respect, the early warning system for stability and peace on earth is very important, it has to be restored, we cannot trust Americans all the time, or France or Germany or Britain, because they're pursuing their own goals and their own political interests, and we have to be able to see what they're doing in this particular time. ...

If you dismantle a certain amount of silos, missiles, you can't say the world has become safer. The safety lies within the trust that can be obtained by transparency of your enemy, when you know everything about your potential enemy, when you see what he's doing ... . Even if there is only a thousand nuclear warheads left, the level of safety, even then, will only be high as a result of trust, not because of a lesser quantity of missiles. ...

Is it better to de-target the missiles--set their flight mission to zero--than to focus efforts on destroying them?

Unsanctioned launch has to be ruled out. ... If the flight mission is zero, no matter what cataclysms there may be, the missile will not go anywhere, it will self-destruct itself at a certain height ... . What if the missile is targeted and someone launches it? Then it will reach this target, you see. How would you feel if I'd be pointing a gun at you? You'd probably feel better if the gun is on the table rather than if I'm pointing the gun at you, even if I'm not shooting. So, the important thing is that the mission is set to zero on a missile. When a missile is targeted, it can be launched within two or three minutes, when it's not targeted, it will take extra time to target the missile, and perhaps this extra time can be used for our leaders to sort out their differences and come to some sort of agreement. The less time it takes to launch a missile, the less chance there is for a peaceful resolution. ...

What do you think about the programs Russian and American leaders are developing to use American money and resources to help secure the Russian nuclear arsenal?

We'll have to think about this. Americans never gave us money for anything good. If they give money, they give money while pursuing their own interests. This issue needs a detailed study, we need to establish what, exactly, they want from us. They defend their own interests and we pursue our goals. As they say in Russia, friendship is friendship, but let's split the cash. ...

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