International nuclear security cooperation is a key element of reducing nuclear terrorism risks. Stories about this cooperation help to educate nuclear security policymakers and practitioners of its value. The video, below, includes exclusive footage of a Russian Ministry of Defense Nuclear security exercise. The article describes the exercise in more detail and draws lessons from the incident.
When the Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) Program began between the United States and Russia, policymakers in both countries were gravely concerned about the security of Russian nuclear weapons. Among the many benefits of this cooperation was the program’s success in protecting thousands of Russian nuclear warheads from terrorist threats. None of that would have been possible without the trust that was steadily developed over two decades of cooperative technical exchanges. One of the most important aspects of the cooperation was this trust, and what both countries learned from the other as a result of it. This unique video, never previously released to the public, of a Russian nuclear weapons security exercise conducted with CTR equipment and training, displays evidence of that trust.
In 2002, for the first time ever for Americans, we had a unique opportunity to participate in a live nuclear security exercise to learn how Russia would respond if there was an attack against its nuclear weapons. We gained insight into what they would do, how they would respond, how they would use equipment the CTR program provided, and even what kinds of Russian equipment they would use if such an incident occurred. This was only possible because of the extensive technical level cooperation between the U.S. Department of Defense and the 12th Main Directorate (12th GUMO)—the name of Russia’s professional force that guards its nuclear weapons— of the Russian Ministry of Defense (MOD) under the Cooperative Threat Reduction program. Two CTR nuclear weapons security agreements with MOD were established in 1995 to provide the Russians with equipment, training, and services to enhance the security of their nuclear weapons. The program started slowly by providing security fencing and sensors for storage sites and security protection for their transport railcars, then grew to include equipment and training to respond to an attack on nuclear weapons during storage or transportation.
This exercise was not a one-off invitation from the Russian MOD, and it didn’t result from a senior-level summit. In fact, U.S. participation was seven years in the making – 10 years if you go back to the very first equipment delivery of armored blankets we made to the Russians in 1992. It took years of technical talks and millions of dollars of equipment purchased by CTR and the 12th GUMO to develop the trust that led to this unique exchange.
Here’s how it happened. After the Nunn-Lugar CTR program was established in 1992, it took three years before the Russian MOD agreed to cooperate on the safe storage and transportation of their nuclear warheads. By 1995, the Russian MOD couldn’t count on its longstanding reliance on secrecy to maintain security of their warheads during storage and shipment. Over the first couple of years of technical negotiations, the United States provided 100 “supercontainers” to store and transport nuclear warheads. They provided fire protection and ballistic protection against small arms while preventing the scenario of having a nuclear weapon stolen from a railcar as was depicted in an old 1997 movie, “The Peacemaker.” The warheads can’t be removed from a train without pulling out a tray, removing the tie-down devices, and using a huge crane to lift the one-ton lid off the supercontainer, thanks to CTR assistance.
The Russians also needed transport trucks and vehicles and equipment for the convoys in order to take the older warheads out of storage and send them to be dismantled and eliminated. So we provided fire trucks and “Pomoshniks” (named after the Russian word for ‘helper’) loaded with emergency response gear in case of an accident or attack. The gear included all kinds of jacks, tools, detection, and typical “jaws of life” equipment. We provided Russian-built equipment to the maximum extent possible to enable the MOD to maintain and sustain the equipment on their own. We listened to their requirements and used their preferred suppliers as much as we could. We were careful not to try and tell them how to conduct their shipments, we asked them what they needed to make their operations safer and more secure.
The Russians also purchased equipment on their own to complete the suite of gear installed in the trucks. Over seven years, we delivered enough of this equipment to outfit a response group for each of 16 geographic regions across Russia. We provided training and the Russians established the military units to support the warhead movements. We worked together to do a demonstration of the equipment to Senator Lugar, the “Lugar” in “Nunn-Lugar” Cooperation Threat Reduction, and General Colonel Igor Valynkin, Chief of the 12th GUMO in St. Petersburg in 2002.
The Russians were proud of what they accomplished through our cooperative work and we were anxious to see how it all came together. By 2002, U.S.-Russian relations had made great strides: The Treaty of Moscow on strategic arms reductions was signed, and the NATO-Russia Council and the G8 Global Partnership were established — even while the U.S. was withdrawing from long-standing Anti-Ballistic Missile arms control treaty. Under the CTR agreement we negotiated in 1995, we had the right to go look at the equipment to see that it was being used as intended under our “audit and examination” protocol. Instead of allowing us to go see the equipment parked somewhere in a garage, the Russian MOD decided they would invite a small, select, U.S. team to actually see the equipment in action and we were invited to “Accident 2002.”
We learned that the 12th GUMO conducted—and still does— these large-scale nuclear security exercises every other year in a different geographic location within Russia. The teams and crews conducting the exercise were selected by location as well. With my interpreter, Mike Skidan, my project manager Lt. Col. Tom Neff, a technical expert from the Defense Threat Reduction Agency’s U.S. nuclear security program, and a representative from the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, we traveled to the remote area of Komsomolsk-Na-Amure in the Russian Far East.
When we arrived, we learned that the city was established by the Soviet government personnel that used to run the gulags in the Far East, so needless to say, our presence at a small hotel in the city aroused strange looks from the locals. We didn’t know what to expect in terms of observing the exercise. At that time, the Russian government had not yet agreed on any kind of site visits to nuclear weapons storage sites—that would come shortly thereafter, so we were curious if we might get a first glimpse of such a site. Unfortunately, the answer was no. Instead of driving to a nuclear weapons storage site, we were driven through the forest and down a dirt road to an open field where we observed the exercise. That explained why the Russians were able to host us for the exercise, because we weren’t at a nuclear weapons site or even a military base.
When we arrived at the camps set up for this exercise, we witnessed something the Russians can do that can’t be done in the United States, or in any Western nation. They conducted the exercise in the middle of a forest in the region. There was no infrastructure of any kind before the exercise. They moved in 1,000 troops, cut down trees and set up three different camps covering over 20 square miles for a full month. The 12th GUMO simply contacted the regional governor, who we later met on the trip, and told him that they would be conducting the exercise in his region for over four weeks. When we arrived, the camps were already established, all the tents and portable generators were up and running, and they had been working through the exercise scenarios for three weeks. Our U.S. nuclear security expert was impressed by the base camp, in particular by the Russian’s attention to small details in designing the camp, such as locating the generators down wind and away from the personnel tents. The Russians also gave us a tour of the camp were we saw areas set up for the troops to train and exercise, as well as some very interesting tents that were set up with “mood” music that were designed for troops to de-stress, and computerized games to test their stress with memory tests that measured reaction times, and other areas where they could receive mental health counseling as needed. These were all part of their camp set up just for this exercise – something we might consider for our own troops under stressful circumstances.
The Russians were exercising four scenarios, three of which are partially captured on the video segment they provided us. The first was a terrorist attack on a road convoy that involved blowing up the truck and causing a fire to an actual supercontainer. We wondered if they were testing whether the supercontainer we provided would actually provide fire protection – it did. The teams were impressive in how quickly and effectively they moved in to put out the fire, assess the damage to the simulated warhead inside the supercontainer, raise the truck from its side, and pull it all away to safety. The second scenario simulated a truck that was blown up over a bridge and fell underwater into a small lake. When they put the truck in the water, the crews didn’t know how deep it was and had no visibility through the mud. The first time they ran the scenario must have been difficult just to find where the truck had settled. Again, we were impressed how they used divers and detection equipment to assess the damage underwater and then tow the truck, and its 1-ton supercontainer, to safety. Next was a simulated capture of a nuclear weapon storage bunker. The scenario included negotiations with the terrorists that yielded a conventional bomb exploding and spreading nuclear radiation from the weapon across the area. The Russian team set up tents and wash down areas to clean and care for survivors played by some of the troops. The last scenario involved a terrorist group intercepting a nuclear convoy and capturing the nuclear weapon. The “recapture” exercise involved helicopters, tanks, and a full response team that defeated the terrorists to regain control of the warhead. You won’t see any of that on the video because active duty response forces and their military equipment were used, including an impressive display of warfighting using tracer bullets similar to what I’ve seen at a public showing by U.S. troops.
We reciprocated the Russian invitation to demonstrate their capabilities with an invitation for the Russians to partake in one of our exercises at FE Warren the next year. After the exercise, our team was inspired by the possibilities of future cooperation with the Russians. Given the capabilities they built with our cooperation, we envisioned cooperating on such things as responding to a potential nuclear accident or incident in North Korea. The Russians had a well-equipped and well-exercised unit in the Far East that could respond more quickly, and just as effectively, as any U.S. team could. In fact, our program was subject to some criticism for providing more gear to the 16 Russian response teams than existed in the entire U.S. inventory at the time. Fortunately, our senior leadership remained committed to providing the Russians with what was needed to keep the warhead inventory safe and secure.
The CTR cooperative program with Russia expired in June 2013 despite a series of negotiations that sought to evolve the program from assistance to more of a focus on mutually beneficial technical exchanges. The U.S. may have had an opportunity to develop a long-term reciprocal arrangement with Russia to participate in each other’s exercises, but some in the U.S. nuclear security community did not see the value of such efforts, thinking they have nothing to learn from the Russians. By 2018, with U.S.-Russian relations at a standstill, the Russians invited the Chinese to participate in their exercise, “Vostok” (Russian for “East’), setting off alarm bells in Washington. The few of us who were able to see the Russian capabilities in person over the course of over 20 years building trust and confidence, came away with a strong sense that both of our countries would benefit from more nuclear security cooperation, not less. We are now faced with the question whether we can ever re-establish that trust, and if so, how. You can judge for yourself whether you think this trust was valuable, and whether you think we should try to re-engage today when you watch this video clip.