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Nuclear shadow

PART 4

Russia's scattered tactical arms a temptation for terrorists

By David Filipov, Globe Staff, 6/18/2002

   
A series of occasional articles on the most worrisome threat in an age of terror.
 THE SERIES

Part 1
Russia may be boosting Iran's nuclear aims

Part 2
Russia has loose grip on nuclear stockpiles

Part 3
Mobile teams on hunt for atomic threats

Part 4
Russia's scattered tactical arms a temptation for terrorists

Part 5
Anti-American mood poses a security risk

 GRAPHICS

How Iran's new reactor would breed plutonium

How NEST searches for radioactive material

Russia's sprawling nuclear arsenal

Tracking Russia's nuclear capability

MOSCOW - The US-Russian arms treaty signed in Moscow last month did nothing to eliminate the greatest fear in an age of terror: that one of Russia's thousands of tactical nuclear devices left over from the Cold War could fall into the wrong hands.

Spread out across the crumbling facilities of Russia's underfunded military, these are the weapons - nuclear warheads designed to be fitted on short-range missiles, aircraft bombs, artillery shells, and land mines - that military specialists and US officials believe present the worst proliferation threat of any country's atomic arsenal.

Small and in some cases light enough for two people to carry, they are capable of delivering a charge up to 60 times more powerful than the atom bombs that leveled Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan.

''These are the nuclear weapons most attractive to terrorists - even more valuable to them than fissile material and much more portable than strategic warheads,'' former US senator Sam Nunn said at a recent Moscow conference on preventing nuclear terrorism.

President Bush has stated that Al Qaeda is seeking nuclear weapons and ways to deliver them against the United States, a concern that was heightened by last week's announcement of the arrest of suspected ''dirty bomb'' plotter Abdullah al-Muhajir, an American with alleged Al Qaeda links.

Some unconfirmed reports have suggested that Osama bin Laden's group already has attempted to acquire warheads from the Russian arsenal. Once strictly the domain of plot lines for Tom Clancy's blockbusters, such as ''The Sum of All Fears,'' such news items are taken seriously by weapons specialists in the post-Sept. 11 world.

''Could terrorists acquire a lost nuclear bomb, smuggle it into the United States, and detonate it on American soil?'' said Jon Wolfstahl of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. ''The short answer is yes.''

Arms treaties don't cover tactical nuclear weapons

Russian military commanders insist that all their tactical nuclear weapons are safely stored and accounted for. But far from everyone is willing to take the Russian generals' assurances at face value. Russia, like the United States, offers little information about the status, location, and size of its tactical nuclear weapons, because there are no treaties that oblige either side to divulge those secrets. Some Russian military planners, aware that the Pentagon in March said it might need to develop a new class of small ''bunker-buster'' nuclear weapons, argue that Russia needs to maintain and upgrade its own tactical arsenal.

The Russian weapons are likely to be found in depots at dozens of far-flung military bases of varying stages of dilapidation, from the Kola Peninsula to the Urals to Eastern Siberia.

''Tactical nuclear weapons have never been covered in arms control treaties,'' Nunn said. ''We can only guess at the numbers in each other's inventories.''

The United States and the Soviet Union deployed thousands of tactical nuclear weapons close to the front lines of the Cold War in Europe. They were for use against forces at relatively close range rather than against cities or nuclear weapons sites, the presumed targets of strategic missiles.

Strategic nuclear weapons have received most of the attention in US-Russian arms control negotiations, partly because they posed the greatest immediate threat, but mainly because these long-range weapons were the easiest to count.

But tactical nuclear weapons are far more susceptible to unauthorized or accidental use, because they are designed for front-line troops and without the elaborate safeguards built into strategic weapons.

At the end of the Cold War, President George H. W. Bush announced a unilateral reduction of US tactical nuclear arsenals. Former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev and, later, former Russian president Boris Yeltsin pledged to reciprocate. Since then, Russia has officially stated that it has pulled all of its short-range nuclear weapons out of the former Soviet republics, placed them in storage facilities in Russia, and begun destroying thousands of short-range nuclear missiles and artillery shells.

In April, Russia announced that it would conclude the destruction of its land-based tactical arsenal by 2004. But Russia's reductions have been conducted in secret, raising questions about the extent to which Moscow has disarmed, how many tactical nuclear weapons remain, and how securely they are stored.

''Officially, all Russian tactical nuclear weapons are in storage,'' said Yuri Fyodorov, a specialist on Russia's nuclear arsenal with the PIR Center, a think tank in Moscow. ''What is the reality? Unfortunately, Russian military authorities do not give information about this.''

Among these weapons, the most frightening and controversial are two devices known for the relatively small containers that carry them, ''suitcase'' nukes and ''backpack'' nukes, designed to be delivered by Russian commandos in wartime and exploded well behind enemy lines.

Yeltsin adviser says bombs secretly made

In 1996, the late Alexander Lebed, Russia's former chief of national security, asserted that Russia may have ''lost'' up to 100 one-kiloton ''suitcase-sized'' bombs, which he called ''ideal weapons to conduct nuclear terrorism.''

The Russian government immediately denied the weapons ever existed, but Alexei Yablokov, a former senior adviser to Yeltsin, told a US congressional hearing that the weapons had been developed by the KGB in a project kept secret from the Russian military. Thus the ''suitcase'' bombs, Yablokov contended, were never included in the official inventory.

The US State Department officially denied Yablokov's contention of secret nukes. US specialists do not doubt the systems were once produced, but they question assertions about the portability of the devices. Rose Gottemoeller, a former Defense Department official who oversaw the US-funded removal of Soviet nuclear arms from Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan in the early 1990s, described the Soviet ''suitcase bomb'' as a system that ''actually required three footlockers and a team of several people to detonate.''

''It was not something you could toss in your shoulder bag and carry on a plane or bus,'' said Gottemoeller, now a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment.

The whereabouts of these weapons, if they still exist, remain a mystery. In 1997, two Lithuanian arms brokers were apprehended after offering to sell Russian tactical nuclear weapons to undercover US agents. But it was never clear that the brokers had access to weapons.

Since the Sept. 11 attacks, reports have surfaced that bin Laden had acquired Russian tactical nuclear weapons, or their components. The newsmagazine Al-Watan Al-Arabi reported that bin Laden had obtained 20 nuclear warheads from Chechen separatists in return for $30 million and two tons of Afghan opium.

There was no way to confirm such reports, Wolfstahl said. ''My best evidence that nothing's gone missing is that nothing's been blown up,'' he said.

Arms may be vulnerable to theft, insider schemes

In 1996, Colonel General Yevgeni Maslin, at the time the commander of the Russian Army's 12th Main Department, which is responsible for the country's nuclear arsenal, contended that theft from Russian nuclear weapons facilities was ''impossible.'' But Maslin acknowledged that during transport the weapons could be vulnerable to theft, and raised the possibility that disgruntled insiders could help.

''What if such acts were to be undertaken by people who have worked with nuclear weapons in the past?'' Maslin asked. ''For example, by people dismissed from our structures, social malcontents, embittered individuals?''

A February 2002 report by the CIA, quoted in a recent issue of Arms Control Today, suggested that Russia's security system ''may not be sufficient to meet today's challenge of a knowledgeable insider collaborating with a criminal or terrorist group.''

The 12th Department forces that guard the weapons sites are believed to be better motivated than other Russian military units. But even officers in these units earn only $70 to $110 a month. Morale among the ranks is low, former officers say, and attrition is high.

''The fundamental disparity between officers' low salaries and the extraordinarily valuable matter for which they are responsible must be the stuff of every security man's worst nightmare,'' said Joshua Handler, a specialist on Russian nuclear weapons at Princeton University's Program on Science and Global Security.

But Handler played down the idea that weapons stored on military bases were unsafe or that the Russian military had lost count. ''Just because we don't know doesn't mean the Russians don't have a handle on it,'' he said.

Handler has estimated that Russia maintains about 3,400 weapons, mostly aviation bombs and surface-to-air missiles, at about 45 active weapons depots. The rest of some 20,000 decommissioned tactical warheads are in various stages of storage, probably half of them partially or fully dismantled, he says.

It is during transportation and storage of decommissioned warheads that the possibility of security breaches is greatest, said Pavel Baev, a Russian military specialist at the International Peace Research Institute in Oslo.

''Unlike strategic warheads, such munitions as artillery shells and land mines - that are now outside the responsibility of the Ministry of Defense but could hardly all be dismantled - are essentially `user-friendly' and can be made operational without that much difficulty if disabled,'' Baev said.

Since 1995, the United States has provided hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of equipment and support under the Cooperative Threat Reduction program to upgrade security at 123 nuclear weapons and material storage sites throughout Russia. Wolfstahl, who helped oversee the program for the Department of Energy from 1995 to 1999, said about 60 of the site upgrades have been completed and certified, but some repairs need to be updated.

One nuclear materials storage site was getting so many false alarms from its American-financed security system that it simply turned it off, Wolfstahl said. Other sites have had their electricity turned off because the military has failed to pay the bills.

Igor Valynkin, who succeeded Maslin as commander of the 12th Department, has dismissed the possibility that Russia had lost control of its vast arsenal.

''Every last warhead is accounted for, their quantity and quality are rigorously checked during storage, active duty, and planned destruction,'' Valynkin said in a 1999 interview with the military newspaper Krasnaya Zvezda.

American analysts say there are grounds to question Valynkin. The United States has lost several nuclear devices, including one left in the Sea of Japan after an A-4 fighter-bomber accidentally rolled off the aircraft carrier Ticonderoga in 1965, Wolfstahl said.

Wolfstahl said Russia may have also lost nuclear weapons.

''It's fair to assume that some have gone missing,'' he said. ''Any time you have 10,000 or 20,000 of anything, the odds that something can go missing are pretty good.''

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 6/18/2002.
© Copyright 2002 Boston Globe Electronic Publishing LLC.