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Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 20, November 1997

Russian Nuclear Security:
Briefing by US Strategic Commander

Press Conference by General Habiger, Commander-in-Chief, Strategic Command, Department of Defense transcript, 4 November 1997

Editor's note: see News Review for background and further details of General Habiger's visit to Russia.


"I've just experienced something that I never thought possible, because as a Cold War warrior, I spent most of my adult life sitting alert with B-52 bombers, and for a period of five days last week, the Russians showed me a great deal about specifically their strategic rocket forces from their command and control to allowing me to be the first, as I understand it, non-Russian to ever go into a nuclear weapons storage area and to see how they keep their nuclear weapons secure and safe.

... I first met General Sergeyev [then my counterpart] in October of last year, when Dr. Perry, then Secretary of Defense, asked me to accompany him to Moscow for some high-level talks. I met General Sergeyev privately for about one hour before the meeting with the principals. ... I extended an invitation to him to come visit me at Strategic Command at Offutt Air Force Base, Nebraska, and in late-March, early April of this year he did come. ... I showed him a missile base. I showed him my headquarters in some depth, and I took him to one of our nuclear weapons storage facilities at F.E. Warren Air Force Base in Cheyenne, Wyoming.

That was the first time that a Russian has ever been in one of our weapons storage areas, and he saw first-hand the procedures and the processes we go through to ensure that our nuclear weapons are safe and secure. He was impressed. During the ministerials a few weeks ago at Maastricht, Secretary of Defense Cohen and now Minister of Defense Sergeyev met, and Secretary Cohen asked what General Sergeyev's view was of the safety and security of their nuclear weapons; and, as I recall, General Sergeyev said that his nuclear weapons were as safe and secure as those in the United States. Secretary Cohen said, Well, General Habiger is going to be visiting you here within the next few weeks. Could you perhaps show him how you go about doing that? and General Sergeyev said yes.

I was already scheduled to be in Russia to do some visits, not expecting at that time to actually go into a nuclear weapons storage site. On Friday, two weeks ago, that's exactly what I did. I went to a nuclear weapons storage site at a road-mobile SS-24, rail-mobile SS-24 missile base at Kostroma, which is a little over 300 kilometers northeast of Moscow. I was taken in the facility. I was shown the security.

I went into a nuclear weapons storage bunker and saw an operational nuclear weapon. Actually, there were eight of them on an SS-24 missile, upper-stage missile. I went in to talk to the security people who were guarding the facility, as a matter of fact, and every one of my questions was answered. And I was shown a lot of things that I was impressed with. For example, in the United States we have a two-person policy involving nuclear weapons. In other words, you have to have a minimum of two people in order to get close to a nuclear weapon. In Russia it's a three-person policy.

In the United States we have a thing called a personnel reliability program, where we monitor our people medically for any kind of abnormal behavior that would make them unstable around nuclear weapons. The Russians do not have a program that's exactly like ours, but they have a similar program. Before missile crew members or before security personnel go on their alert tours, which are three- or four-day cycles, they are personally interviewed by a medical doctor and a psychologist.

I actually saw a demonstration of the capability of their security forces. It was not something that was planned; it was something that I asked for at the spur of the moment, and I was very impressed with these nine young men, the security force that was tasked with guarding this particular facility. The detachment of nine individuals was commanded by a senior lieutenant, all very professional. They knew what they were doing.

Now, the caveat I would give you is that I saw one facility. Was it representative? I'd like to think so. They made it very clear that the facility I was in at Kostroma was very representative of the missile bases in Russia. As a result of what I saw, I had further discussions with General Colonel Yakoulev, who is the Commander-in-Chief of the Rocket Forces, who replaced General Sergeyev, and we agreed to exchange security specialists from our respective commands; and hopefully within the next few weeks a team of four or five of his security people will come to one of our missile bases and see in depth the procedures and the technical applications we use in our nuclear weapons storage areas, and he has agreed that he would host a similar team from my headquarters to do exactly the same thing. We also agreed that we would establish a shadow program where we would take the equivalent of a wing commander, and squadron commander, a flight commander, and a missile crew member from one of his missile bases to come to the United States and shadow their respective counterparts for a one-week period - meetings, fitness center, dining facilities, everything - and then he would reciprocate with a team from my command.

...on the down side, we tend to use high-technology devices much more than the Russians do. For example, we use television sensors, low-light television cameras to monitor certain areas. The Russians have not made that capital investment. Manpower is relatively inexpensive for them, and they use more eyeballs, if you will. ...

We have a lot more work to do, a lot more transparency, a lot more details, but from my observations I was impressed and have confidence that the Russians, from what I saw at that one base, have a program which is ensuring the safe, secure processes involved regarding nuclear weapons.

... Every question I asked was answered in depth, and the thing that struck me about going into their command and control center is that they are very much geared to a fail-safe mode. And what I mean by that is that any one of the command centers, from the national level down to the unit level, can inhibit the launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile."

© 1998 The Acronym Institute.

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