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Russia Has 'Doomsday' Machine, U.S. Expert Says
By WILLIAM J. BROAD
Published: Friday, October 8, 1993
Russia has a computerized system that can automatically fire its nuclear arsenal in wartime if military commanders are dead or unable to direct the battle, a leading American expert on the Russian military says.
The Russians call it the "dead hand," according to the expert, who personally characterizes it as a doomsday machine. If the system in fact exists -- and some American intelligence analysts say it is unlikely but possible -- it would mark the first known time in the nuclear era that a machine has been readied to press the button.
The expert, Bruce G. Blair, a senior fellow with the Brookings Institution, in recent years has conducted scores of lengthy interviews with officers in charge of the Russian arsenal and its ancillary gear. He said in an interview today that they eventually told him of the system.
Dr. Blair describes it today on the Op-Ed page of The New York Times. [ Page A35. ] Belief and Skepticism
Reactions among experts range from belief to skepticism. Some American intelligence officials doubt the report's veracity, saying it is unsupported by available evidence.
But other experts say Dr. Blair's stature and Russian access give it credibility and that Federal officials might be downplaying what could be an intelligence failure.
"He's a very cautious individual," said Stephen M. Meyer, an expert on the Russian military at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who has advised the Central Intelligence Agency. "He requires of himself a much higher standard of evidence than many people in the intelligence community."
The report, Dr. Meyer added, is "quite credible. Lots of the pieces have been known for some time. What was missing was the link that tied them together."
Robert M. Gates, Director of Central Intelligence during the Bush Administration, said the dead hand was conceivable in light of other recent surprises about Russia and its military machinery. Implausible But Not Impossible
"My instinctive reaction is that they wouldn't do that," he said. "But when you look at the things that people said they wouldn't do, and we later learned they did, we ought to be cautious about ruling it out."
Mr. Gates added that the United States should ask Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin if the system still exists, since if it does, "it's terribly uncivilized."
William E. Odom, former head of the National Security Agency, which helps develop codes to launch American missiles, said the dead-hand system was implausible but not impossible since the Russian military in respects was blinded to technical reality because of an obsession with fighting and winning a nuclear war.
"If they did it," he said, "it's because the guys at the top didn't understand" the system's deadly implications.
He added: "We've seen this before" in the Russian military. "It's a machine out of control."
David Christian, a spokesman for the Central Intelligence Agency, said it would have no comment on the report. The Pentagon also declined comment, and Russian officials could not be reached for comment in Moscow. Prone to Error
Dr. Blair says the Russian system is designed to be switched on by military commanders in a crisis, and in theory would initiate action only if its sensors detected a nuclear attack on Moscow.
He says the system works with little or no human oversight, can send coded messages over thousands of miles to military forces and can launch nuclear-armed missiles with no human assistance. Dr. Blair adds that it is, by nature, prone to error.
The system would seem to bring to life one of the darkest fears of the nuclear era -- that machines could instigate a nuclear holocaust, a idea satirized in the movie "Dr. Strangelove."
All nations that prepare for nuclear war have elaborate systems of early-warning sensors and computers that can and do make mistakes. False alerts in practice are fairly common but are routinely disregarded as humans sift through evidence to see if a real nuclear attack is underway. Rising Risk of a Misstep
Dr. Blair says the automated nature of the Russian system makes it inherently dangerous. Moreover, he says, Russia's early-warning system is now limping after the fall of the Soviet empire, increasing the risk of a mechanical misstep.
More generally, the specter of civil war in Russia has heightened worries about the safety of military command posts, although Moscow is said to take extreme precautions to guard its nuclear arsenal and related control gear.
Dr. Blair is a respected scholar on military command and control who has written extensively on the subject, most recently "The Logic of Accidental Nuclear War," a Brookings book published in March.
Born in Iowa in 1947, he joined the Air Force in 1970 and was a launch-control officer for Minuteman intercontinental missiles between 1972 and 1974. He has worked in Washington since 1987 for the Brookings Institution, and before that for the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment and the Department of Defense, where he analyzed systems for controlling nuclear arms.
As the Soviet Union weakened and collapsed, and Moscow relaxed its grip on military secrets, Dr. Blair extended his work on American systems to Russian ones as well. What he found was often at odds with the nuclear doctrine preached by conservatives in the 1980's -- that Moscow's forces were designed to strike a first, devastating blow. In the conservative view, the Soviet nuclear arsenal was basically offensive, with little or no capacity to react to the West or adopt a retaliatory posture. Russia's Defensive Strategies
But Dr. Blair found that Moscow had many systems and strategies that were inherently defensive, some of which are documented in 364 pages of "The Logic of Accidental Nuclear War." Dr. Blair's Russian sources are not named in the book, nor would he identify them now, except to say they were military and nuclear experts.
The dead-hand system he describes today takes this defensive trend to its logical, if chilling, conclusion. The automated system in theory would allow Moscow to respond to a Western attack even if top military commanders had been killed and the capitol incinerated.
The heart of the system is said to lie in deep underground bunkers south of Moscow and at backup locations. In a crisis, military officials would send a coded message to the bunkers, switching on the dead hand. If nearby ground-level senors detected a nuclear attack on Moscow, and if a break was detected in communications links with top military commanders, the system would send low-frequency signals over underground antennas to special rockets.
Flying high over missile fields and other military sites, these rockets in turn would broadcast attack orders to missiles, bombers and, via radio relays, submarines at sea. Contrary to some Western beliefs, Dr. Blair says, many of Russia's nuclear-armed missiles in underground silos and on mobile launchers can be fired automatically. Danger Since Soviet Breakup
"This system is all the more dangerous since the breakup of the Soviet Union because of the loss of coherence in their missile early-warning system, which does not perform at anything like it's former level," Dr. Blair said in an interview.
A false alert during an international crisis, he added, thus might result in the activation of the dead hand. Dr. Blair said he doubted that the system had ever been switched on in anticipation of war, but that since the 1970's it had been exercised thoroughly in war games.
William T. Lee, who retired last year as a senior intelligence analyst for the Defense Intelligence Agency, said he doubted the existence of the dead hand but added that it was not beyond the realm of possibility.
"Knowing what I know," he said, "I would be very skeptical that people were taken out of the loop entirely. On the other hand, they put an enormous amount of effort into providing backup systems to insure that they could launch under the worst possible conditions. They put in much more effort than anybody ever imagined."
Dr. Meyer of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who knows Dr. Blair's work thoroughly, said he put more stock in the Brookings scholar than in Federal intelligence experts.
Dr. Meyer added that he trusted Dr. Blair "to be careful and cautious, more than I trust anybody else on these issues, including the intelligence community. It has a number of strong, competing perspectives. Analysts spend more time trying to defend their perspectives than in trying to find out what's going on."