- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 20, 2001

Twice in the past month accidents involving Russian missiles and missile warning systems have served to remind us that the possibility of a nuclear accident still exists.

In the most recent incident a surface-to-air missile complex in the Moscow region´s Ramenskoye district exploded on June 8, destroying three S-300 missile launchers and 12 missiles. Eyewitnesses said they saw what appeared to be a missile launch following the explosion and Moscow television reported two missiles were launched. But a Russian Air Force spokesman said there were no launches. Whether a missile was launched or not, one or more might have been.

A short-circuit in a missile engine is believed to have caused the explosion and resulting fire. Windows were broken in a nearby town, where witnesses said they counted six loud explosions and saw a mushroom cloud rising over the forest.

But it was not a nuclear explosion these missiles normally are not nuclear-armed. The S-300 is Russia´s counterpart to America´s Patriot, a solid-fuel missile designed to intercept aircraft, cruise missiles, and short-range ballistic missiles. It is in widespread service in Russia, and Moscow is eagerly trying to sell it abroad.

Less than a month earlier, on May 10, a major fire broke out at a mission control center of Russia´s military space forces near Kurilovo, some 60 miles southwest of Moscow, causing a loss of contact with four military satellites. The fire, reportedly caused by a short-circuit in a power cable, broke out at 2:30 in the morning and was so severe that the three-story command center was still burning at noon.

The function of the military satellites that were out of service was not reported. Whether missile early warning satellites or military communications satellites, they could play an important role in Russia´s ability to maintain control of its nuclear missiles. Remember 1995, when a sounding rocket launched from Norway caused Russian nuclear missile forces to go on alert and President Boris Yeltsin´s nuclear briefcase was activated, ready to launch a missile attack on the U.S.? Even a brief, unexpected interruption in the functioning of Moscow´s early warning satellites could be dangerous.

These two recent incidents are only the latest in a string of accidents that reflect Russia´s declining infrastructure, diminishing military effectiveness, and lack of funds. Last August, the explosion and sinking of the Kursk nuclear submarine was followed by a major fire in the Ostankino TV tower that knocked out Moscow television.

With infrastructure that has not been modernized for 20 to 30 years, more disasters are waiting to happen. The Russian economy has been buoyed this year by the high price of oil on the world market, but the next downturn in price could produce an acceleration of Russia´s infrastructure decline.

Last year an article in the paper Komsomolskaya Pravda claimed that the unnatural Soviet economy had forced technological expansion beyond the country´s means. Now, with few resources to modernize the aging infrastructure the chance of a nuclear disaster or crisis involving Russia´s huge stockpile of nuclear weapons will increase. All of Russia´s intercontinental and sea-launched ballistic missiles, except for the 26 new SS-27s produced over the past three years, will be obsolete by 2010 and should be retired.

Since Russia is not an enemy, there has been a tendency to forget its nuclear-armed missiles. The main reason for a national missile defense is to prevent missile-armed countries from using their weapons to blackmail or intimidate, and to stop any missile that a rogue state may launch. But another important reason is to stop an accidental or unauthorized launch from any country.

The main concern in this regard has to be the 736 intercontinental ballistic missiles and hundreds of submarine-launched missiles still operational in Russia and carrying some 6,000 aging nuclear warheads. The decline of Russia´s command and control network, with equipment that tends to have "short-circuits," is sending us a warning.

The time is short to deploy at least an initial missile defense to deal with an accidental launch, and to accelerate the disassembly of nuclear weapons, both here and in Russia.

President Bush is on the right track in seeking a new strategic framework that moves away from mutual suicide, toward deep reductions in nuclear weapons, and deployment of a national missile defense. The plan to put even a handful of interceptors in silos in Alaska by 2004 or 2005 should be pursued with vigor. Moscow´s deteriorating missile control system may not wait.

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