Russian Football (Part 3)

Tales from the Nuclear Age

Copyright © 2011 by Charles Glassmire


 Feb. 2, 2011

Russian  Football (part 3)

          Russia plays the game with three footballs, not just one. They are suitcases, code named Cheget. The ball carrier accompanies the President, Dimitri Medvedev twenty-four hours of every day. The other two are assigned to the Minister of Defense and the military Chief of the General Staff. The briefcases seem to not contain the nuclear war button, but rather to house an emergency communications link to keep the three officials in contact during an imminent attack. Any of these three may deem to issue the launch codes to start a nuclear onslaught against the United States without permission from anyone. So it has been from the days of the Soviet Union, when the military ruled all decisions about nuclear warfare.

          A prominent Russian intellectual and scholar, Alexei Arbatov, has recently raised serious questions about the launch protocols and command and control issues in the Russian government*. Arbatov points out that, when the Soviet Union dissolved, the new Russia chose to adopt a democratic form of government. The new Russian Constitution, adopted in 1993, appointed the President (now Medvedev) as the Commander in Chief of the military. It also states that should the President be disabled or incapable of command, all duties shall fall to the Russian Prime Minister (currently V. Putin). This would presumably include the duties in command of the military, and all military responsibilities and decisions to be made in the event of nuclear war. However, Arbatov points out, should the President be unavailable the Prime Minister does not have a Cheget suitcase to allow participation in nuclear war decisions. This, he observes, is a major flaw in the new system, and in addition, is a violation of the responsibilities outlined in the Russian Constitution.

          The American Missile Force can be mobilized into a launch condition within a time frame of four minutes. The Russian policy for a response to nuclear attack specifies a counter-launch on warning, within ten minutes, presumably before an enemy incoming missile can detonate.  In this incredibly short time frame, while the world hangs in the balance, it seems there could be a tug-of-war between high level officials over who has the authority to launch a nuclear war!  Need it be pointed out this is not the time for large egos to be engaged in a contest of wills.

          Our system was not without similar problems. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Soviets were determined to install intermediate range ballistic missiles in Cuba (actually had already done so.) Eventually the situation deteriorated into a confrontation at sea, where a Soviet transport force, carrying nuclear warheads bound for Cuba was interdicted by United States warships which were enforcing a blockade of the island.

          The prestigious civilian aviation journal Aviation Week later described what happened next. President Kennedy had raised the United States Military to the highest state of DEFCON alert as the two lead ships approached each other. Witnesses described how the U.S. ICBM force had actually opened the silos, and the missiles were elevated above ground, fueled and ready to launch. At the Pentagon war room, Robert MacNamara was standing with the naval Admiral in command of all US naval forces in theater. 

          The Admiral was in direct radio communication with the Captain of the U.S. ship heading towards the Russian transports, and was speaking to him via a microphone in real time. At the final moments when the two ships closed, MacNamara and the Admiral disagreed on the orders to be issued to the ship captain. The two men then actually engaged in a pushing and shoving match for control of the microphone, in order to issue commands and gain control of the American fleet actions! (Aviation Week  reported that the Admiral won the battle!)

Russian Topol on Carrier


          To make the situation even a little more complex, unknown to United States commanders, a Soviet submarine was lurking in the area below the surface, with the mission of supporting the naval transport fleet as the fleet approached Cuba. Unknown to all at that moment, was the fact that the Boat was armed with nuclear tipped torpedoes. When it became obvious the two ships were nearing collision, the Soviet Submarine Captain issued orders to load nuclear torpedoes into the tubes and make ready to shoot. Luckily, there was a high level Naval Commander also present on the submarine bridge, and he immediately countermanded the Captains order. The sub did not then participate further in the battle. As we all know, Premiere Kruschev, within the next few minutes, ordered the transport fleet forces to disengage from the action, come about, and set sail for home. The missiles already in place were later removed back to the Soviet Union.

          Arbatov points out the three officials with briefcases are not all equal. While the President is the commander in chief, the Minister of Defense reports to him, and the Chief of the General Staff reports to the Minister of Defense. Arbatov argues that in a democracy, the civilian authority should have final command over the military, and should control the decision to go to nuclear war (as is clearly done in the United States order of secession.) While a member of the Duma, Arbatov proposed legislation to remedy this problem, and give one of the briefcases to the Prime Minister. His proposal was ignored. He says, if the President of Russia were destroyed by a nuclear attack, there is no Russian law on the books to define a line of responsibility and secession, except for the Constitutional provision stating that the Prime Minister shall assume all duties of the incapacitated President …

 (to be continued …)


*His new book, published (in Russian) and released in Moscow in 2010, is entitled”The Security Equation”. Arbatov heads the Center for International Security of the Russian Academy of Sciences of (IMEMO) in Moscow, and served in the State Duma of the Russian Parliament as chairman of its Committee on Defense. His list of publications is long in the areas of security issues, international relations and nuclear terrorism.



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