President Medvedev with Cheget Officer-Operator (photo: RIA Novosti)
A retired colonel (probably with some firsthand experience though none is noted) used yesterday’s Komsomolskaya pravda to add to the still fairly small public body of knowledge on Soviet and Russian nuclear command and control.
Colonel Mikhail Timoshenko writes that the Soviet nuclear ‘suitcase’ was created 20 years after the U.S. developed its ‘briefcase.’ Developed in the 1970s under Brezhnev, the Soviet system came in response to the short flight-time of U.S. missiles and fears of a surprise strike. Short-tenured CPSU General Secretary Chernenko (1984-85) was the first Soviet leader to be accompanied by the ‘suitcase’ and officers responsible for operating it.
According to Timoshenko, the ‘suitcase’ (codenamed Cheget) is part of the Kazbek automated command and control system for strategic nuclear forces and was actually introduced in 1983. It answered the threat of a sudden nuclear attack in which the Soviet NCA might not reach the command post, or might not be able to send orders over ordinary communication lines. The system had to have conference-call capabilities so the General Secretary, Defense Minister, and General Staff Chief could all use it. And it had to be simple for elderly men trying to think and decide under extraordinary stress and time constraints.
Timoshenko paints a little scenario of how it would work. The silence of the missile attack warning center is broken by an alert signal. The launch warning puts probable targets and time-to-target information on display screens. The duty officer asks himself, is it a system malfunction or is it war? He decides to send the alert signal to the duty general in the Genshtab’s Central Command Post (ЦКП). The seconds are flying.
The duty general sends the alert signal to the Gensek, Defense Minister, and NGSh as well as the duty officers of the armed services. The three not-so-young people constituting the NCA have to decide if everyone lives or dies. Some kind of mistake is possible. Try the hotline, but the president is playing golf and can’t come to the line. Or maybe he isn’t playing golf, and he’s really hidden in his bunker. There are only seconds left to think.
Finally, the codes are entered and the Gensek (or one of the three in the NCA) presses the button. And in front of the duty crews the indicator panel says, “Order. Conduct Launch.” The crews turn their keys and press their launch buttons. Nuclear war has begun.
Timoshenko says people may wonder whether the Russian nuclear ‘suitcase’ is fundamentally different from the Soviet one. He answers by saying it’s different in the way it’s put together.
In 1993, the Kazbek system’s service life expired. ‘Holes’ in Cheget and Kazbek had to be patched. Only Soviet parts were used in its development, but he USSR’s collapse left almost all microelectronics production ‘abroad.’ It was forbidden to use imported elements that might have ‘bugs.’ And there were practically no specialists remaining who knew all the intricacies of the system and terminal. But naval officers continued to follow in the RF President’s shadow the way they had the Gensek. And they were inseparable, practically part of his family, in the next room or behind a wall, checking the system, testing comms channels.
Timoshenko says the next problem was what if the Gensek or President, Defense Minister, and NGSh were spread out all over the country or abroad, and they still needed to be connected instantly. Can you imagine a Soviet-era Defense Minister being ‘temporarily inaccessible’ for even an hour?
So, Timoshenko says, we had to create the Kavkaz mobile communications system, the signal of which cannot be decoded or jammed. With such a channel, the three special subscribers could quickly get information on a nuclear attack regardless of their location, the repeater is always with the special subscriber.
But what if somehow the comms didn’t work, Kazbek or the missile attack warning system didn’t work, or all three people with the Cheget were killed? There’d be no one to make decisions or give orders. Even more improbable–what if missile duty crews can’t launch. What to do? A safey net, some insurance was needed.
Simultaneously with Kazbek, development work on the Perimeter system began at Experimental-Design Bureau (ОКБ) Leningrad Polytech. Perimeter was intended for the assured retaliatory launch of ICBMs and SLBMs, if the enemy has destroyed all command levels. But the main thing is the system evaluated the situation and made decisions independently.
In Perimeter, there was a component with the name ‘Dead Hand.’ If its sensors reliably confirmed a mass nuclear strike, and the system itself lost comms with the RVSN’s main command nodes, several command missiles with powerful radio transmitters would launch. Flying over Russian territory, these missiles would repeat a signal and launch codes to Russia’s missile forces. Having gotten the signal, launch systems would work in automatic mode, giving a guaranteed retaliatory blow to the enemy.
But how can a machine know when it’s time, not too early or too late. Creating a reliable system with such parameters is highly difficult. Timoshenko says there were lots of conditions that could block the system’s operation.
Testing was conducted from 1979 to 1982. According to Timoshenko, the U.S. learned of Perimeter from one of its developers in 1993. And the New York Times published an article entitled, “Russia Has ‘Doomsday’ Machine” on October 3, 1993.
Timoshenko says, at the insistence of its American ‘friends,’ the system was taken off combat duty in June 1995 as part of START I [?].
He goes on to note that naval officers with the nuclear ‘suitcase’ are not so visible these days. They’ve probably been ordered to keep a low profile. He relates how Yeltsin handed over his beloved ‘suitcase’ to Putin on the day of his resignation. But Gorbachev didn’t personally hand his over to Yeltsin. A general carried it to the new Russian President’s office.
Timoshenko tells one last story. In 2000, NII AA [presumably the Moscow-based Scientific-Research Institute for Automated Equipment named for Akademik V. S. Semenikhin] was competing the job of chief designer and one candidate was from a Russian-American computer and electronics firm called RAMEK-VS. Timoshenko says imagine how much would have been paid in Soviet days to get close to the nuclear button and C2 systems.