SCMP Thursday, August 17, 2000


Nuclear nightmare

The Russian military's most urgent mission is to do whatever necessary to rescue those 118 sailors stranded at the bottom of the Barents Sea in the crippled nuclear submarine Kursk. And a pressing task for the British and Americans is convincing Moscow to abandon false pride and out-of-date secrecy so outsiders can help bring those men to the surface.

But beyond that, the tragic accident illustrates once again that both Russian and NATO share an even broader common goal - that of restoring some order and quality control to the decrepit Russian military, especially to its dangerous nuclear forces.

This would be no act of charity for the West. Nor would it represent some perverse desire to upgrade the Russian military for selfish reasons, such as justifying bigger arms budgets. Rather, the issue is one of common safety, that of reducing the nuclear risks from the deteriorating remnants of what was once a mighty Soviet force.

The state of the Russian military is appalling. The disarray and incompetence of its conventional forces shows up daily as the long war in Chechnya drags on, where a huge army is lumbered with its own failures of discipline, command and supply.

But the crucial issues are nuclear, especially since the decline of regular forces has caused Moscow to place ever greater reliance on atomic weapons for self-defence.

In 1985, the Soviet Union had 10,000 nuclear warheads. Today the number is 6,000 and in 10 years' time it may be down to 1,000. In itself that is a good thing, especially if other nations cut back accordingly. But there are enormous problems of maintenance, security and control of the weapons which remain, and safe disposal of those to be scrapped. Overall, the Russian record is terrible.

According to a study by the Brookings Institution, a respected Washington think-tank, Russian strategic weapons are reaching the end of their shelf life but Moscow cannot afford replacements. Neither does it have facilities to make safe the nuclear reactors and warheads it discards, nor the money to repair those left on active duty.

For example, locking devices on some weapons cannot be repaired for lack of spare parts. Command systems designed to prevent accidental firing are increasingly vulnerable. Underpaid security guards sometimes leave their posts to scrounge for food or escape harsh weather. More than 100 decommissioned subs, reactors still aboard, are rusting away because they can't be disposed of safely. The scenarios for nuclear disaster seem endless and little is being done to prevent them.

It seems bizarre to suggest the West should help upgrade Russian forces. But it could be cheaper and safer to find ways of financing both major nuclear force reductions and improved controls over those which remain than to spend even more on new weapons. Likewise, providing funds to scrap old models properly and prevent nuclear pollution would offer worldwide benefits.