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Washington Post
April 30, 2004
The Ultimate Terrorism
By Valery E. Yarynich
The writer, a retired army colonel, is a professor at the Russian Academy for Military Sciences and is a visiting senior fellow at the Center for Defense Information. He is the author of "C: Nuclear Command, Control Cooperation." He will be online to discuss this article at 11 a.m. today on www.washingtonpost.com.

With terrorists having struck in New York, Washington, Bali, Moscow, Madrid and the Middle East, many people seem to have reconciled themselves to such attacks as inevitable and to hoping only that they don't strike near them. This passivity is dangerous: It could lead to an even worse, almost unimaginable, level of terrorism.

The danger stems from the ballistic missiles deployed for combat by nuclear nations and from the command, control and communications systems that go with them. Not just one or two, but dozens and even hundreds of nuclear missiles can be launched with such systems.

The United States and Russia announced an agreement in 1994 to step back from targeting each other. But the practical effect of the agreement is limited, because missiles can be re-aimed at their combat targets in minutes. The idea of going further and making drastic, bilateral reductions in the combat readiness of nuclear forces is a good one, but in a crisis high combat readiness could easily be restored -- and probably would be.

Both the United States and Russia have a wealth of experience in protecting systems against accidents and terrorism. But uncertainties remain. Would it be possible for terrorists to force the crew of a Russian mobile launcher that had, say, been seized in a forest, to launch a Topol intercontinental ballistic missile? Could a U.S. Minuteman missile be launched without authorization? How do we defend the cable, radio and satellite communications channels on both sides from interception that could lead to the cracking of key launch codes? Have we adequately isolated control of nuclear weapons from both military and civilian computer networks, so that hackers cannot penetrate them? There already have been cases in which military networks were compromised.

The peculiar logic of this threat means that it's not enough for all nations with nuclear weapons and missiles to simply declare that all is well. An unauthorized missile salvo would be catastrophic on a scale far beyond the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. What is needed is an entirely different kind of safety mechanism. The nuclear powers cannot just take one another's word for it; each must have direct information about how well command systems on the other side of this partnership are protected. Today, they do not have this information.

It is far more important for the United States to know how well the command systems of China or Russia are protected from terrorists than it is to know about the reliability of its own systems in Omaha and the Pentagon. By the same token, Russia needs to know more about such protective measures in the United States and China.

Only with constant cooperation between experts on protection of command systems against unauthorized missile launches can the nuclear club keep track of the true state of affairs. This is called negative control. Such sharing touches upon some of the most sensitive secrets any country holds. So far, the field has been completely closed. Clearly there are good reasons why details cannot be made public. But more cooperation among official experts of the nuclear states in command and control is needed.

Much has been said and written about this, but little has been done. In August 1997, U.S. and Russian experts in nuclear command and control met; they suggested to their leaderships that they start cooperating in this area, but no action has been taken.

Presidents Vladimir Putin and George W. Bush have acted to make considerable reductions in nuclear arsenals, but considering the seriousness of the threat of terrorist acts, a decrease in the number of warheads isn't enough. It matters, of course, whether hundreds or just dozens of nuclear missiles are launched without authorization, but only in the degree of horror that would ensue.

U.S. and Russian leaders must summon the courage to begin cooperating on this problem. Let the experts conduct a preliminary round of joint studies and report to their leaderships about what's possible and what's practical. The experts could look at the dilemma of how to cooperate in protecting nuclear command systems against sabotage while preserving their readiness to deliver a retaliatory strike. It's one of the most difficult arms control issues ever addressed, but we must try.