russian roulette

navigation, see below for text
frontline online

real or fictional events?
From a speech by former Secretary of Defense Sam Nunn June 12, 1998

My presentation today is aimed directly at those of you who are relaxed, happy and sleeping well. Let me begin by giving you a simple quiz: Are these scenarios real or fictional:

Scenario 1. An important region declares independence, claims ownership over the nuclear forces stationed on its territory, and requires nuclear commanders to swear allegiance to the new state. The Russian General Staff kicks into high gear, dispatching caravans of special trucks and trains to retrieve thousands of tactical nuclear weapons from the breakaway region and transporting them to storage facilities in a more secure region of Russia. It also prepares for the cumbersome task of deactivating strategic nuclear missiles in the new republic and moving their warheads back home.

The new state, however, thwarts the Russian effort. Its militia surrounds the nuclear weapons sites and blocks access to the highways and railways leading out of the country, preventing Russia's elite nuclear weapons custodians from moving their cargo.

Meanwhile, the new regime undertakes preparations for seizing control of strategic missile forces. The Russian General Staff alone holds the special unlock codes needed to fire the missiles, but the locking devices are actually built in the breakaway state, and given time, it could simply install and code its own devices. The Russian military estimates these steps could be completed in a few weeks, at which time it would lose launch control over these missiles unless it acted quickly to sabotage the installations or regain physical control through large-scale military intervention. Real or fiction? Real -- Ukraine, 1992.

Scenario 2. Disloyal political and military figures topple the existing Soviet regime placing the President under house arrest. The conspirators include the defense minister, head of the federal intelligence branch, chief of the General Staff, and a group of hard line nationalist politicians. The coup plotters declare a nuclear alert for all forces. The launch codes remain in the hands of the military, but the political turbulence splinters the military. The chain of nuclear command is broken, compromised, and confused. Real or fiction? Real -- August 1991 coup against President Gorbachev.

Scenario 3. Blips suddenly appear on the screens at radar sites across northern Russia. One or more missiles apparently have been launched form an area of the Norwegian Sea known to be routinely inhabited by U.S. and British strategic submarines capable of hitting Moscow with hundreds of nuclear warheads in 15 minutes.

The early warning center flashes a missile attack warning to the Russian president and his top nuclear advisors. The General Staff alerts the missile commanders across Russia to begin launch preparations. A countdown to impact begins as the radars and satellites continue to track the trajectory of the threatening objects. Russia's main retaliatory option calls for the president deciding whether or not to launch no later than ten minutes after an enemy missile attack.

Two minutes before the deadline for rendering the fateful decision, the senior duty officer at the warning center informs Russia's President that the missiles' flight path appears to pose no threat to Russia after all. Days later, the Russians find a misplaced U.S. notification of a satellite launch. Real or fiction? Real -- Unfolded June 25, 1995 when a U.S. scientific missile lifted off from an island off the coast of Norway to investigate the northern lights. The launch triggered a false alarm that activated President Yeltsin's nuclear suitcase and an emergency conference with his top military advisor to consider a nuclear response.

Scenario 4. A computer hacker who called himself the "Phantom Dialer" seizes control of important computer networks around the world -- at universities, corporations, banks, federal agencies and military facilities -- including top secret weapon research sites. As the FBI computer crime squad launches a major investigation, questions and speculation are rampant. Is the hacker a spy, a foreign agent, a saboteur or a thief?

When law enforcement finally burst into the Phantom Dialer's house in Portland, Oregon, they find a 20-year old youth, severely brain damaged by viral hepatitis. He lives with his father and his bedroom is littered with piles of paper, mounds of dirty laundry, rotting food and lumps of dog feces.

His fingers are gnarled like an old man from typing on the computer 20 hours a day. The lenses on his glasses are covered with fingerprints, oil and dirt, and by the pungent odor, it is clear that he had not taken a shower for weeks. It is clear to the arresting officer that no jury in the country would convict a socially, mentally and physically handicapped kid for sophisticated computer crimes. The decision is made by the FBI not to prosecute, but instead, to keep the story quiet. Real or fiction? Real.

Scenario 5. Libya decides after Desert Storm that the U.S. is too sophisticated and powerful to confront, even with chemical, nuclear or biological weapons. The Libyan Intelligence Agency begins a high priority interview process with young people who have computer skills. By early 1992, the Libyan Intelligence community has chosen 25 of their best and brightest computer geniuses and given them an assignment -- carefully and methodically analyze the critical components of the U.S. economy, including telecommunications, energy, finance, transportation and emergency services, for their vulnerability to cyber attack. Give us a quarterly report on your ability to plant computer germs, confuse, interrupt and/or bring down computers and key nodes controlling America's critical infrastructure by city or by region. You will be given all the resources you need. The future of Libya depends on your skills. You must be ready to implement your plan by the year 2000. Real or fiction? Fiction -- a figment of my imagination.

Scenario 6. With help from insiders, a criminal organization breaches the physical security for small tactical nuclear weapons and spirits them out of Russia selling them to terrorists supported by Libya and Iran. Meanwhile, unpaid personnel within Russia's sprawling complex of facilities run by the Ministry of Atomic Energy succumb to temptation and sell weapons-grade fissile materials to a criminal organization. A nuclear bomb is smuggled into a U.S. city and another one is on the way. Real or fiction? Fiction -- a figment of my imagination.

Scenario 7. Two countries, with extreme religious and historical animosity, who have fought three recent wars, explode nuclear tests within days of each other. Neither has weapons which could survive a nuclear first strike. Neither has a sophisticated warning system. Neither has fail safe procedures or PAL devices. Neither has adequate command control or communications. They have a low level civil war going on over disputed territory. Both frequently accuse the other of terrorist attacks. A bomb goes off in a train killing many innocent people

During this period of increased tension, a top General reports to the Prime Minister, "Our human sources tell us an attack against our nuclear facilities is imminent. Our top military leaders are unanimous, Mr. Prime Minister. We must launch a defensive nuclear attack against them now or lose our weapons and our nation." Real or fiction? Real. Unfolding daily.

The United States, indeed the world, is currently undergoing not only a military revolution, but a threat revolution. Both are related to the information revolution which poses an extraordinary set of new opportunities and challenges.

The biggest threat to U.S. fundamental security interest is not based on Russia's strength, but on Russia's weakness now combined with their missiles and their nuclear, chemical and biological arsenals, materials and know how.

Consider: Russia's loss of empire, their demoralized conventional military forces, their humiliations in Afghanistan and Chechnya, their lack of pay and housing for their troops, their eroding warning systems, including radar and satellites, and their increased reliance on nuclear forces and early launch -- all add up to an entirely different kind of threat to the U.S. and to them.

Before closing, let me throw out a few more difficult questions for our experts and our citizens to ponder:

1. Is the operational soundness of Russia's warning system as important to America's security as our own? Should we propose a cooperative program with Russia for a joint ballistic missile and aircraft warning and tracking system providing world wide coverage not only of U.S. or Russian launches, but also third country missile launches? Should we visualize including China, Britain and France at some point down the road?

2. Should we offer to both India and Pakistan a jointly manned center or early warning of missile launch using our detection satellites and our radars on Aegis-equipped ships in the Indian Ocean? Should this proposal, if made, be conditioned on both countries pledging to take verifiable steps to assure the world that nuclear weapons are not being deployed? Should we ask Russia to join in this proposal with Russia's own missile warning radar providing partial coverage of both India and Pakistan? Should we design this concept so that it could include China in the future?

3. Should we propose to Russia joint/mutual and verifiable measures to de-alert warheads to reduce the danger or accidental or unauthorized launch? Can we develop de-alerting measures that are affordable to Russia and that can be used as interim measures while we are both building down to Start II and hopefully Start III levels? As confidence develops over a period of time, can we go further by de-alerting most warheads on both sides, so that any large launch would require days of preparation?

4. Does Russia have a Year 2000 problem? Does it affect their missiles or the safety of their nuclear arsenal? Does it affect their energy producing nuclear power plants? Are they addressing these problems? Do they need help? How is our national security affected? The same questions should be posed for China, Britain and France and indeed for all commercial reactors.

5. Can Russia today accurately detect the origin of a third country or terrorist use of a nuclear weapon against its territory? Can we? Will the Russians know that the attack did not come from the U.S.? Should we consider expanding the present (primarily data exchange) risk reduction centers to include a team of U.S. and Russian military experts working together full-time to prevent proliferation and to prepare and plan for a coordinated reaction to third countries or terrorist use or threats to use nuclear, chemical or biological weapons?

6. Should we develop a parallel U.S./Russian law enforcement center to develop ways and means of cooperating on criminal and terrorist attempts to acquire or sell weapons of mass destruction?

7. What is our assessment of the risk of Russia's weapon grade plutonium stockpile and highly enriched uranium? Given Russia's economic distress, is the stockpile at high risk? If so, do our national leaders and Russia's leaders fully understand the third country and terrorist dangers? Should a joint program to bury, burn or buy plutonium taken from weapons assume a much higher priority in terms of our focus and our resources, as well as the expenditure of political capital by our elected leaders?

8. How can we link up international law enforcement to deal with the cyber threat? How do we deal with the "instruction manuals" increasingly available on the Internet, providing "how to" lists on construction weapons of mass destruction and carrying out cyber attacks? How do we use market forces like liability insurance to give our private sector the incentive to pursue vigorous information security efforts? How do we share classified threat assessments with those in the private sector who need to know?

You will undoubtedly think of many more profound and productive questions. I conclude where I began -- we must think out of the box -- we must think anew.

home . atomic suitcase bombs . a close call? . a nuclear smuggling scenario . russia's nuclear complex . debating the future . interviews . readings
join the discussion . synopsis . links . press . tapes & transcripts
frontline online . pbs online

web site copyright 1995-2014 WGBH educational foundation