Loose Cannon

Bruce G. Blair

Whereas the principal aim of American nuclear policy during the Cold War was to deter a strong and aggressive Soviet Union, the nuclear risks we face today stem from Russian weakness. Russia’s conventional forces have declined to the point that they can no longer protect Russian territory, and into this vacuum has rushed a growing reliance on nuclear weapons-including the prospect of their first use early in any serious conventional conflict. To make matters worse, the nuclear forces themselves have become vulnerable. Budget shortages prevent Russia from dispersing its weapons into the sanctuaries of the oceans and forests, to the point that, in their present configuration, its strategic forces could not ride out a U.S. attack. Consequently, Russia today faces far stronger pressures to “use or lose” its nuclear arsenal than at any time since the early 1960s.

(This article is a review of the following books: Peter Pry, War Scare (Atlanta: Turner Publishing). Editor’s note: was originally taken under contract by Turner Books, which in 1997 distributed a few hundred galley copies of the manuscript. Turner Books went out of business after the Turner/Time Warner merger, and dropped its entire pending list. An updated manuscript of War Scare is awaiting publication. Bruce Blair has reviewed the 1997 galley here;  Graham T. Allison, Owen R. Coté, Jr., Richard A. Falkenrath, and Steven E. Miller, Avoiding Nuclear Anarchy: Containing the Threat of Loose Russian Nuclear Weapons and Fissile Material (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1996); Andrew and Leslie Cockburn, One Point Safe (New York: Anchor Doubleday, 1997)).

(Note: Compulsory reading for aficionados of this subject is Nuclear Successor States of the Soviet Union: Status Report on Nuclear Weapons, Fissile Material, and Export Controls, No. 5, March 1998, Monterey Institute of International Studies and Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Washington, DC.)

While Russia relies more on nuclear weapons and on launching them on warning, its nuclear control regime is steadily deteriorating in physical, organizational, and human terms. Soviet designers built an impressive command system to ensure strict central control over nuclear weapons-a core value of Soviet political and military culture-but they understandably overlooked a host of dangers that developed after the Soviet empire dissolved. The list is long: coups, rebellions, secession, severe civil-military tensions, huge cuts in defense spending, dire working and living conditions even for elite nuclear units, operational atrophy and declining proficiency in matters of operational safety, widespread corruption, and pervasive demoralization. All the trends pertinent to the functioning of Russia’s nuclear command and early warning system are negative, casting strong doubt on its ability to endure the stress and strain indefinitely. Russian nuclear forces are becoming more susceptible to accidental, unauthorized, or mistaken launch. This situation is worrisome enough even under normal conditions, and could become extremely dangerous if the Russian command system should come under heavy pressure during an internal or international crisis.

This is my view of the present state of affairs, and Peter Pry shares it. But he stretches the envelope too far, and thereby exposes this view to caricature and ridicule. He claims that practically every major and minor domestic and international crisis in Russia during the 1990s brought the world to the brink of Armageddon. Thus Pry argues that during the August 1991 coup, the Russian defense minister “almost certainly thought the coup, as an act of self-decapitation, would tempt the United States to consider a nuclear surprise attack.” Pry believes the Soviets raised their nuclear alert level during the coup in order to beat the Americans to the punch if necessary. His interpretation of this episode, as with numerous other alleged nuclear “close calls”, solidifies into the bald-faced assertion that “Soviet strategic nuclear forces had nearly launched a preemptive strike that would have taken the United States completely by surprise.”

A similar interpretation is offered for the parliamentary crisis of fall 1993, pitting Boris Yeltsin against Alexander Rutskoy in mortal political combat. Once again top defense officials and the General Staff allegedly feared that the United States would seize upon the internal crisis as “an opportunity for launching a surprise attack.” Pry details a Russian nuclear exercise conducted during the internal crisis, citing it as evidence that “the military girded for a possible U.S. surprise nuclear attack during the long anticipated showdown between Yeltsin and Rutskoy.” By “girding” Pry means that the Russian General Staff was seriously ready to unleash a massive pre-emptive salvo of nuclear missiles against the United States. He also finds ample evidence of Russian readiness to fire a nuclear weapon at a U.S. radar installation in Turkey if Turkey had directly entered the war between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

This litany of “war scares”-stretching from the early 1980s through the 1995 nuclear false alarm triggered by Norway’s launching of a scientific rocket-indicates to Pry that the Russian military’s paranoia about a sudden U.S. nuclear strike, combined with the country’s internal turmoil, has created a real nuclear risk about which we (himself apart) remain totally ignorant. Russia could easily miscalculate U.S. nuclear intentions and mount a nuclear attack, he says, “for no good reason.” This brief is sometimes persuasive, particularly in the case of the tense nuclear relations during the early 1980s. And although he stretches his thesis beyond its tinsel strength, the Russian defense establishment is more suspicious of the West than most observers imagine, the nuclear threshold is lower than commonly perceived, and the domestic and international context is a more pivotal factor in Russian threat assessment than is normally recognized. Worse, perhaps, the danger of Russian nuclear miscalculation is not as remote as many suppose, and the progressive deterioration of Russian early warning and control represents a more serious threat than either of our governments is willing to acknowledge. Pry stands on solid ground, too, when he advises the United States to weigh more carefully the potential for our security policies, military operations, and exercises to rattle the Russians, whose current military weakness increases their susceptibility to fear and panic.


Pry also accurately describes the Russian nuclear early warning and command system, and gives an excellent account of the 1995 false alarm that activated Yeltsin’s famous nuclear suitcase and initiated an emergency conference to decide whether to launch Russian missiles in retaliation. Still, some of the descriptive material is wrong or highly debatable on fairly important matters. For instance, he suggests that the Russian command system was designed mainly to guarantee nuclear strike execution, not to prevent unauthorized launch. In reality, the Soviet Union went to extraordinary lengths to prevent an illicit launch; in many respects its safeguards were, and Russia’s remain, designed to be even more stringent than those within the present U.S. system. Alas, they were not designed to handle power surges on the scale of a coup, or to function in the absence of proper maintenance and operation.

Pry maintains, too, that the codes needed to unlock Russian weapons are widely distributed down the chain of command, even down to the level of individual submarines. To me, however, the preponderance of evidence suggests that, under normal peacetime conditions, the launch authorization and unlock codes are held in the exclusive custody of the General Staff. All current Russian strategic forces are locked and the firing crews require special unlock codes from the General Staff in order to launch them. Pry is probably correct in saying that the General Staff, from their war rooms at Chekhov and elsewhere, possess all the codes needed to initiate a strategic missile attack. But he should take to heart his own indictment of the U.S. intelligence community for its many failures to detect and comprehend Russian nuclear operations. A well-placed Russian has told me that through 1991 the unlock codes were kept in a safe in the General Staff war room, and that two combinations were needed to unlock it. One combination was known only to the senior General Staff officer on duty, and the other was known only to an officer assigned by the KGB. Admittedly, the picture is still somewhat fuzzy, and it may be impossible to peel every layer off this onion.

Despite his occasional rashness in going beyond the evidence, Pry’s technical expertise is extensive, reflecting his work in this area for some ten years as a senior CIA analyst (1985-95). It is his interpretations of the motives, attitudes, and beliefs of the Russian military that are often suspect. For example, he cites the case of Colonel Gennady Pavlov as evidence of the Russian General Staff’s effort to cover up its preparations for launching a pre-emptive nuclear strike during the 1991 coup. Pry asserts that in order to downplay this threat, right after the coup the General Staff dispatched Col. Pavlov to testify before the U.S. Congress, without any invitation from the United States. Not so; I invited Col. Pavlov. I had met him months before the coup, and had arranged for him to testify before Les Aspin’s committee a year earlier, a plan that collapsed because of Soviet heavy-handedness in the Baltics. (I was slated to testify before the Soviet parliament, and that fell through as well.) After the 1991 coup, I asked Senator Joseph Biden whether he would like to receive testimony about Soviet nuclear safeguards during the coup from a real Soviet expert, and the Senator responded with the invitation. No deep dark scheme here.

Pry’s tendency to infer conspiracy where none exists is exhibited in another section of the book to which my name is linked, and that concerns the automated launch system known as the “dead hand.” In the event of an attack that decapitates the top leadership in Moscow, the “dead hand” provides for quasi-automatic missile retaliation. I disclosed the existence of this project in a 1993 New York Times article. I learned about it through sources whose reliability and sincerity had long been established to my satisfaction. The U.S. intelligence community was initially incredulous, but most intelligence agencies no longer doubt the existence and function of the “dead hand”, code-named “Perimetr.” Pry, on the other hand, suggests that it may be disinformation. “Paranoid Russian military officers may have concocted it to dissuade the United States from attempting a surprise nuclear attack.” I disagree.

Pry’s provocative book nonetheless contains a rewarding amount of new information and insight into Russia’s nuclear netherworld. It is a disturbing work that, for all its overblown conjecture, hits upon real and critical issues, not least the paramount need to understand better Russia’s point of view. Pry seriously attempts to put himself into the shoes of Russian nuclear planners to understand their mindset, and the reader gains a degree of understanding and even sympathy for their security dilemmas as a result. That effort is both rare and admirable.

Both the Cockburns’ One Point Safe and the Avoiding Nuclear Anarchy volume from Harvard worry less about a nuclear missile attack than about the security of Russian weapons and fissile materials against theft and diversion to rogue states and terrorists. Allison’s scholarly tome and the Cockburns’ highly readable, fascinating exposé carry the same message: Vast stockpiles of weapons and bomb-making plutonium and uranium in Russia are insecure and could easily leak onto the black market, and neither Russia nor the United States has tried hard enough to prevent this from happening.

The Harvard study exudes passion on the subject without sacrificing analytical rigor. It mixes dry exposition with jolting rhetoric that inevitably drops the big one, the dreaded “worst-case” specter of a full collapse of the Russian nuclear custodial system, opening the floodgates for weapons, materials, and design expertise to pour out. Not only rogue states but also terrorist groups “would be able to shop at the Russian nuclear bazaar.” The study reviews past smuggling incidents that may be harbingers of the nightmare scenario, and outlines the many flaws in Russian security. It explains in great detail how and why the Russian, U.S., and international response to this threat has been inadequate, and what needs to be done about it.

Allison and his fellow authors realize that, while essential, averting the disaster of a full collapse of Russian security is in itself not good enough. We must prevent even a trickle. We cannot afford the theft of even one nuclear weapon, or the leakage of even a small amount of raw fissile material. Most states (for example, Iraq) and many terrorist groups would find it relatively easy to build a nuclear weapon once the fissile material was acquired. The book explains this in detail, though it fails to explain that, by nuclear weapons standards, any bomb fashioned by the usual suspect states and terrorist organizations would almost certainly be crude and relatively low yield. A leading authority on this issue, Tom Cochran, estimates that the terrorist variant would likely fall into the range of tens to hundreds of tons of explosive power (the Oklahoma City bomb was several tons), while the rogue state variant would likely range from perhaps a kiloton to a Hiroshima-class yield (13 kilotons). There is at least a modicum of consolation in these limitations.

Despite its scholarly approach, the reader sometimes feels pushed around by the authors’ unwavering convictions. The rhetoric is somewhat intimidating for those who might disagree with, or simply wish to question, the categorical positions taken. If one harbors any doubt about, say, the existence of terrorist demand for fissile materials-even minute quantities of odd batches of isotopes of uneven purity-one is practically branded a wrong-headed heretic whose thoughts would be deeply pernicious if allowed to infiltrate national security policy; this despite the authors’ admission that “so far, there is little hard evidence to prove the existence of [such demand].” Likewise, the notion that it is far from easy for terrorist groups to fashion a nuclear bomb from stolen fissile materials invites a scowling reproach. The authors’ assertions are probably close to the mark, but they leave too little room for intellectual curiosity. And after all, the historical record has not exactly vindicated the authors’ positions on some key points in the past.

If their argument were to be judged according to scientific standards, which require an argument to carry the burden of demonstrating its validity, then it would be contemptuously dismissed. The book would, in my view, stand on firmer ground if it were to say that in this case this is not an acceptable standard-that because of the destructive potential involved, the argument that nuclear leakage is an immediate and urgent problem demands evaluation before it is proved right or wrong by decisive experience. There is good reason to impose the burden of proof on anyone who would deny the more somber implications of their analysis; but shifting the burden of proof should not stifle the inquiry.

This reservation apart, the book’s “anti-leakage agenda” is solid and creative, though of course its success depends ultimately on Russian cooperation, a precarious commodity that cannot be taken for granted. Indeed, the lack of such cooperation is cited as the factor most responsible for slow progress. Allison and company also blame the U.S. government for devoting too little attention and resources to preventing leakage, and they allude to other impediments such as bureaucratic in-fighting over the “loose nukes” portfolio. But they are less interested in pointing accusatory fingers than in building momentum for their anti-leakage agenda. One appreciates the constructive spirit of this comprehensive book.

For those readers with an appetite for the gory details of the political and bureaucratic battles waged by missionaries inside the government in order to advance the anti-leakage agenda, the Cockburns’ account performs the necessary vivisection. The book reveals an heroic struggle by a handful of Clinton appointees and civil servants to overcome bureaucratic apathy, resistance, and internecine turf warfare.

In telling the story, the authors provide riveting accounts of then-secret government sorties into remote locales-into Kazakhstan, to evacuate a large stockpile of weapons-usable material from a virtually unguarded warehouse; and into Chechnya, to investigate the rebel leader Dudayev’s claim that he had acquired two Soviet nuclear weapons and might offer them to Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi. The Cockburns’ investigations uncover many other pieces of the nuclear leakage puzzle, too, including strong circumstantial evidence pointing to the smuggling of nuclear weapons-related materials to Iran, Iraq, and North Korea through a Vienna-based front company named Nordex, headed by a former KGB officer. The Cockburns also reveal the wheeling and dealing of Russia’s nuclear weapons czar Victor Mikhailov (recently deposed by Yeltsin) to build nuclear power plants for Iran, thereby enhancing Tehran’s prospects for acquiring a nuclear bomb. All this and more-including the controversial revelation by General Alexander Lebed that, as head of the Russian Security Council, he tried and failed to locate many scores of portable nuclear weapons in the Russian inventory-surfaced during extensive research and many interviews with the key players conducted by the authors. The book thus rests firmly on first-hand accounts as well as on interviews with outside experts and other documentation.

Despite this impressive effort, One Point Safe has been the target of scathing attacks by a number of respected experts. For the significant part of the book that overlaps my specialization-particularly the chapter devoted mainly to Russia’s system of control over missiles on alert-I found a few minor errors (partly my own fault because I advised the authors on this material), but on the whole they meet high standards of accuracy. Indeed, I have not read a better treatment.

To evaluate the rest of the book, I spoke with many of the people mentioned therein, prominently or otherwise, and investigated the major accusations levied by the book’s critics. One of the harshest criticisms has come from William Arkin, a weapons expert who was serving as a U.S. Army intelligence analyst in West Berlin and concentrating on terrorism at the time of the 1977 terrorist attack, whose recounting opens the Cockburns’ book: a midnight raid on a U.S. base housing nuclear weapons in Germany. The Cockburns assert that the terrorists were trying to steal a nuclear weapon. Arkin claims that the commandos never attacked the area of the base where the weapons were stored, and that there is no evidence that they knew or cared about nuclear weapons. Arkin excoriates not only the Cockburns’ “miserable” book and its “exaggeration”, but all “loose nukes ambulance chasers” for lacking his real sense of how Russia actually guards its nuclear storage sites-a sense acquired in his case from visiting ex-Soviet sites in East Germany and Hungary after Russia’s nuclear weapons security unit, the 12th Directorate, vacated the premises and returned the stockpiles to Russia. The physical security measures in Eastern Europe impressed him deeply.

In checking out the terrorist incident, I obtained authoritative first-hand information that confirmed the Cockburns’ account. The nuclear storage area was fired upon and the defenders of the area returned fire. That it was an open secret that the site housed nuclear weapons lends no credence to Arkin’s suggestion that the commandos had no prior knowledge of their existence at the site. Moreover, the commandos’ trial was orchestrated to avoid all discussion of nuclear weapons matters, so it is no wonder that evidence of the terrorists’ nuclear intentions, if they existed, never surfaced. True, the Cockburn book does not prove the view that stealing a weapon was the terrorists’ objective. But it remains a plausible conjecture, and the rest of the account withstands scrutiny.

Furthermore, the Cockburns may be forgiven for not sharing Arkin’s enthusiasm for Russian nuclear weapons security, even at the depots in East Germany that Arkin found so impressively protected. After all, while a staff member of Greenpeace, Arkin negotiated for months to acquire a nuclear warhead from a Russian security officer in the 12th Directorate responsible for guarding weapons at one of those depots. By his own account at the time (he told me about the deal just after it fell through), an exchange was nearly consummated, and the book accurately relates the story.

The major weakness of One Point Safe is that it misses big chunks of the policy history and misallocates credit and blame among key players-too much magnification here and foreshortening there. Some of the bureaucratic villains (mostly at the Defense Department) escape nearly unscathed in the book, while some of the “white hats” receive either too much or too little glory. It is not clear whether the book distorts the fuller politico-bureaucratic history of U.S. anti-leakage efforts; although none of the real-world players holds it up as the definitive account, most acknowledge that the Cockburns accurately recount a major portion of this history, including the poignant story of how a handful of inspired men and women outflanked the bureaucracy to create the most successful of all the anti-leakage projects-the fruitful link forged between scientists from U.S. and Russian nuclear weapons laboratories. This illumination, combined with its engrossing examination of the nuclear scene in Russia and elsewhere, suggests that its merits much outweigh its debits.

Finally, One Point Safe has managed a feat that no other book about nuclear safety has ever come close to matching: it was the basis for a screenplay that became a major adventure movie, The Peacemaker. The Cockburns originally planned to write an article on “loose nukes” for a popular magazine, but in the course of interviewing Jessica Stern, the holder of this portfolio at the National Security Council, they conceived a movie treatment with a Ms. Stern character playing the protagonist. They pitched it to DreamWorks Pictures, and the rest is history-except that the plot thickened. The article grew into One Point Safe with Ms. Stern as real-life protagonist. Ongoing research for One Point Safe fed into the script of The Peacemaker, for which the Cockburns were co-producers. The research was also spun off into two segments aired on 60 Minutes, one about missing Russian suitcase bombs, the other about the danger of keeping U.S. and Russian nuclear missiles on hair-trigger alert. Leslie Cockburn produced both segments.

Some wit described the Cockburns’ creative process as art imitating life imitating art. But it’s not even that simple.


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