In the event of a nuclear missile attack on Russia, three hard-shell briefcases filled with electronics are set to alert their holders simultaneously. Inside each is a portable terminal, linked to the command and control network for Russia's strategic nuclear forces. One of them accompanies the Russian president, Dmitry Medvedev, wherever he goes. It is known as the Cheget, and allows the president to monitor a missile crisis, make decisions, and transmit those decisions to the military. It's similar to the nuclear "football" that accompanies the American president.
But a new book by a leading Russian security analyst points to a surprising disconnect in the system, a potential flaw that has not been widely understood. Under Russia's 1993 Constitution, the president is the commander in chief, and if incapacitated in any way, all of his duties fall to the prime minister. Yet the prime minister does not have a nuclear briefcase at his disposal. The other two Cheget briefcases are actually held by the defense minister and the chief of the general staff, as was the case in Soviet times. The resulting ambiguity, warns Alexei Arbatov, could be dangerous in the event of a nuclear crisis. In today's Russia, neither of the military men has the constitutional or legal responsibility to make a decision about how or whether to launch a nuclear attack. Certainly, they would be among the top advisors to the president at a time of crisis, but they are not decision-makers.
Why the danger? The United States and Russia still maintain nuclear-tipped missiles on alert for rapid launch. The land-based U.S. missiles can be ready to launch in four minutes. Warning of an imminent attack might require a president to make very rapid decisions with limited information. In such an emergency, whether in the White House or the Kremlin, you'd want very precise roles for each decision-maker, without ambiguity or uncertainty.
But it seems like there is still some uncertainty in Russia, where the command-and-control system is shrouded in secrecy, as it was in Soviet times. This makes it all the more interesting that Arbatov is airing his concerns in public. His critique is included in his new book, Uravnenie Bezopasnosti, or The Security Equation, just published in Moscow. The volume, in Russian, covers a wide range of security issues, from Europe to Iran, from nuclear terrorism to tactical nuclear weapons. His comments on the nuclear command and control system come in a chapter titled "Democracy, the military and nuclear weapons."
Arbatov, who heads the Center for International Security at the Institute of World Economy and International Relations in Moscow, is also a scholar in residence at the Carnegie Moscow Center and one of the foremost Russian analysts of strategic weapons and security issues. He has been a long-time member of the liberal Yabloko bloc, and in earlier years served in the lower house of parliament, the State Duma, where he was deputy chairman of the Duma defense committee.
Arbatov wants Russia to bring the nuclear weapons launch procedure -- the three briefcases -- in synch with the Russian Constitution. He wants to make sure it is the president and the prime minister who are making the big decision. He is a strong believer in the idea that democracy means civilian control over military affairs.
The Soviet Union created the current command and control system at the peak of the Cold War in the early 1980s. The three nuclear briefcases were put on duty just as Mikhail Gorbachev became Soviet leader in 1985. They are linked to a redundant network, called Kavkaz, made of cables, radio transmissions, and satellites. The three briefcases are essentially communications terminals to give those using them information about a possible attack, and allowing them to consult with each other. Initially, they were given to the Soviet general secretary, defense minister, and chief of the general staff because, in the Soviet system, the military has historically played a larger role in decisions about nuclear war. If a nuclear launch were ordered, it would go from the Cheget to a receiving terminal called Baksan, located at the command posts of the General Staff, rocket forces, navy, and air force. The overall communications network is called Kazbek.