Increased risk of nuclear missile launch from Russian submarines

Publish date: May 5, 1998

Written by: Thomas Nilsen

The risk of accidental nuclear missile launch from a Russian submarine has increased since the end of the Cold War, according to a recent study, writes New England Journal of Medicine. A CIA report leaked to the press warned that some Russian submarine crews might already be capable of authorising a launch.

The study is made by Massachusetts Medical Society and looks into both a possible missile launch activated by false warning, and a accidental missile launch by a Delta-IV submarine, which the Northern fleet has seven of. The safeguards against the unauthorised launch of Delta-IV missiles are weaker than those against either silo-based or mobile land-based rockets, because the Russian general staff cannot continuously monitor the status of the crew and missiles or use electronic links to override unauthorised launches by the crews.

The study says that Russia’s nuclear command system has steadily deteriorated. Aging nuclear communications and computer networks are malfunctioning more frequently, and deficient early-warning satellites and ground radar are more prone to reporting false alarms. In addition, budget cuts have reduced the training of nuclear commanders and thus their proficiency in operating nuclear weapons safely. Elite nuclear units suffer pay arrears and housing and food shortages, which might contribute to low moral and disaffection.

-No one today can guarantee the reliability of our control systems…Russia might soon reach the threshold beyond which its rockets and nuclear systems cannot be controlled, said Russia’s former Defence Minister Igor Rodionov in an interview with Washington Post.

On January 25, 1995, a warning related to a Norwegian scientific rocket launched from Andoya in Northern Norway led to activation of the nuclear suitcase carried by the top Russian leaders and initiated an emergency nuclear-decision-making conference involving the leaders and their top nuclear advisors. It took eight minutes to conclude that the launch was not a surprise nuclear strike by Western submarines outside the Norwegian coast. This was less than four minutes before the deadline for ordering a nuclear response under standard Russian launch-on-warning.