Field Note

Russian-American Cooperation on Personnel Reliability

Nuclear Security Depends on People

Looking back on the Cooperative Threat Reduction program assistance in improving Russian personnel reliability programs provides valuable insights for today’s experts

Strong personnel reliability programs (PRP) are critical to vetting and monitoring the people who control and operate nuclear security systems. William M. Moon, former Global Nuclear Security Program Manager for Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) programs, describes how cooperative PRP assistance between the United States and Russia demonstrated two different approaches to personnel reliability. Moon argues that Russian and American nuclear security communities might be able to gain mutual benefits if they were to conduct such technical discussions today, while illustrating the extent of information sharing during the CTR PRP assistance program.

Nuclear security experts worry about many different things. That’s our job – think about what could plausibly go wrong, and work to prevent those things from happening. The earlier we can think of ways to prevent those things from going wrong, the better job we do. So, we focus on new technologies, equipment, procedures, and training. But sometimes we forget, or neglect to think much about the people who operate and control our nuclear security systems. When we do discuss “nuclear security culture,” “insider threats,” and “personnel reliability,” many times we treat the topic as less important than advanced technologies and hard science.

For some of the most sensitive nuclear security challenges, such as securing nuclear warheads, their components, and weapons-grade nuclear materials, organizations often establish personnel reliability programs (PRP)1DOE’s program is called the Human Reliability Program (HRP). that require all personnel with access to such material to be subjected to more comprehensive and intrusive measures monitoring their behavior. These measures go far beyond standard background investigations and often include regular and frequent drug and alcohol testing, psychological evaluation, polygraphs, and sometimes even restrictions and reporting requirements for personal travel.

In the early 1990s, when the Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) program began conducting nuclear security discussions with the Russian Ministry of Defense’s 12th Main Directorate (12th GUMO) on security of the Russian nuclear warhead stockpile, the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD), and the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) were concerned that 12th GUMO personnel were not getting paid2The Russian NTV show ‘Top Secret’ reported in August 2001 that the situation of the 12th Main Directorate became “catastrophic” in the mid 1990’s, and that “the wages of officers at the facilities [were] no more than $70 per month.” and could be vulnerable to exploitation by outside parties interested in breaching nuclear warhead security. In response to DoD and DOE concerns, the 12th GUMO reported that all their personnel are closely monitored through their PRP program while noting that current conditions might warrant cooperative assistance to implement PRP improvements.

Once the 12th GUMO expressed interest in improving their PRP program, the CTR program assembled experts from DoD and DOE to develop a cooperative PRP program with the 12th GUMO to focus on people and insider threats.

The PRP cooperation produced several interesting observations comparing the two sides’ approach to personnel reliability. With today’s rise in concerns regarding insider threats and former insider threats to nuclear security, a look back on this cooperation may provide some valuable insights for today’s experts to consider and should prompt interest in further nuclear security cooperation on insider threats.

It may be hard to imagine how two current strategic competitors could come together to share secrets on how to protect their nuclear stockpiles from their own insiders. Americans talking about our concerns with our most sensitive workforce responsible for nuclear weapons security with Russians talking about their biggest concerns with their own personnel seemed impossible. Why would we talk to each other about that? Wouldn’t that reveal our vulnerabilities or make us look weak? The answer is no, it doesn’t make either side look weak. In fact, willingness to talk about enhancing nuclear security – especially how to build a nuclear security culture that encourages protecting against insider threats – and personnel reliability demonstrates dedication and commitment to maintaining the strongest possible nuclear security. This is a responsibility the United States and Russia owe the rest of the world so long as they maintain the largest arsenals of the most destructive weapons ever created. That’s why the nuclear security experts from the United States and Russia began the cooperative PRP program. The CTR joint PRP program was a unique effort that demonstrated two different approaches to personnel reliability. 

Drug Testing Laboratories

The first initiative on PRP came from the 12th GUMO in 1997 when the Russians requested to include a personnel reliability laboratory for drug and alcohol testing in the design of the Security Assessment and Training Center (SATC). The SATC was one of the first initiatives to engage on nuclear security by providing a place for 12th GUMO personnel to train and a way for CTR personnel to engage without visiting an actual warhead storage site. Cooperation started the way many technical exchanges begin. Before agreeing to develop an expensive laboratory, CTR brought together DoD, DOE, and 12th GUMO experts to provide presentations on their respective programs. Before talking about how to make the programs better, we needed to understand each other’s programs and their effectiveness in preventing an insider from stealing a nuclear weapon. DoD and DOE talked about their two-person rule regarding access to nuclear weapons for maintenance and security operations. The 12th GUMO talked about their three-person rule in which a supervisor would monitor two persons conducting any warhead operation. We also discussed each country’s program on drug and alcohol testing and polygraph assessments. Based on these discussions, CTR agreed to build the PRP lab at the SATC.

As technical discussions progressed over the next 10 years, we discovered that we were able to share information on almost all aspects of the respective programs. We shared what blood alcohol levels we tested for and what drugs we detected through our testing. We even shared sample questions that could be used during polygraph examinations. By 2009, the CTR program set up a two-day “Vendor Fair” and invited U.S. and Russian contractors to display and present various PRP technologies and processes for the sides to consider for the cooperative program. By this timeframe, cooperation progressed so far that CTR sought and received permission to release the U.S. DoD Directive 5210.42 “Nuclear Weapon Personnel Reliability Program,” which described in detail the DoD program with very few redactions. The 12th GUMO used this to develop their own directive that established their detailed procedures and requirements within their overall governance system.

Both sides talked about their respective drug and alcohol testing programs. The Russians had heard a lot about drug problems in the United States, so the 12th GUMO was very interested in what drugs the U.S. PRP program tested for and how precise the American blood testing programs were. So, we hosted Russian delegation visits to two different labs used by DOE and DoD to test blood samples and showed them our processes, procedures, and standards for testing, and showed off our laboratory information systems. CTR enabled us to design and construct a similar lab for the 12th GUMO at the SATC in Sergiev Posad, north of Moscow, to meet Russian standards. Later we added a second lab in the Russian Far East. We even purchased 30,000 plastic test cups with test strips that screened for five types of drugs,3Cocaine, Opiates, Amphetamines, Methamphetamines, THC and these cups were also used to transport samples from nuclear weapons storage sites to the labs for further testing and evaluation. Before the program ended, CTR provided 92,200 test cups for 12th GUMO security personnel at nuclear warhead storage sites including bunkers at Strategic Rocket Force, Navy, and Air Force bases.

The effort to establish the drug testing laboratories also provides an interesting anecdote illustrating the critically important role that interpreters play in cooperative programs and how a seemingly small misunderstanding about language can have significant consequences on program implementation. During government-to-government technical talks and negotiations, CTR relied on its incredibly talented in-house interpreters. Once agreements are reached, however, sometimes the contractors implementing those agreements would hire local interpreters to save money and avoid travel costs for American interpreters. After construction of the PRP lab was complete, the implementing team used local interpreters to work out the details and provide supplies to operate the lab. In this case, in order for the laboratory to be certified to test for certain drugs, the lab needed “standards” which are carefully calibrated dilutions of specified drugs. This is necessary so the equipment can be tested against a pre-measured solution so the results can be certified when testing for drug levels in urine samples. The Russians needed to import these standards to obtain certification and begin operations. This should have been a relatively simple task to accomplish, but to the frustration of the government teams, the effort languished for over a year. Finally, the government leads intervened, using our in-house expert interpreters and we discovered that the contract interpreters had translated the English word for “standards” with the Russian word for “sample” because they were not familiar with the technology and how drug laboratories worked. Instead of importing “standards,” the Russians were trying to get approval to import small samples of undiluted drugs to test the equipment. Even small samples of undiluted drugs are strictly prohibited by export control laws. Even though the government teams had also used the word “reagents” to describe the “standards” required, the contract interpreters had also mis-translated that term as chemical or drug “agents.” Once we discovered the errors, the standards were shipped immediately thereafter, but a year of operations was lost.

The discussions with the Russians on blood alcohol testing were both interesting and revealing. While the 12th GUMO was interested in our procedures for blood alcohol testing, but what they were more curious about was whether we had a test for a hangover. We don’t. Unlike the American system, the Russians weren’t concerned with trying to restrict the drinking habits of their workforce. Instead, they were focused on identifying potential impairment that could impact an upcoming operation. Our discussions revealed a profound difference in our approaches and philosophy on alcohol use and impairment. The DoD and DOE systems were designed to conduct random testing on troops and personnel within our PRP programs in an effort to detect and weed out potential alcoholics and personnel with drinking problems. American personnel detected with problems face removal and potential criminal charges for violating drug laws or operating equipment with excessive blood alcohol content. Russian personnel who were detected with alcohol or drugs in the system were simply removed from the upcoming operation and were not faced with more serious legal proceedings unless the problems became more serious.

The differences between the Russian and American approaches to alcohol abuse reflected the overall variation in the two personnel screening programs. The Russian system focused on procedures to evaluate personnel just prior to conducting a mission. They targeted the mission first, encouraging the removal of personnel from an operation without necessarily facing immediate law enforcement actions. (e.g., if a person takes leave and is away for a month, when they return, they go through screening/testing). They wanted to screen for any sign of alcohol, drugs, stress, or psychological instability before they would be cleared to serve on a crew transporting nuclear warheads, or before pulling a nuclear security shift. The Russian side was focused on more immediate concerns with personnel on a mission and would remove a person from a mission at the slightest concern, but such a removal would not necessarily lead to a personnel action unless issues were discovered during a follow-up investigation.

The American programs were more concerned with workforce monitoring, using random testing and evaluation, and the legal ramifications associated with the removal of personnel from the workforce. This approach was designed to deter misbehavior across the workforce. Both programs used similar equipment and procedures, however, the American programs were more focused on using random testing to monitor the entire population of the program while the other was more tactically directed on upcoming missions and operations. The American approach concentrated on maintaining a reliable workforce, while the 12th GUMO focused on individual mission reliability. We learned from each other, but neither side was willing nor interested in combining approaches in a way that would make both programs even more effective. Even after each side described their approaches, neither side considered combining a deterrent approach with a mission-specific focus.


Differences in approaches to polygraphs were another element in the American and Russian personnel reliability programs. Both sides approached polygraphs as a tool to help recruiting and screening candidates to enter their respective programs. It was interesting that within the U.S. government, concerns were raised that if we provided polygraphs to the Russians that they would use them for counterintelligence purposes to seek out Americans or other spies. CTR staff overcame that concern by providing commercially available polygraphs that did not have all the capabilities and sensitivities of those used for counterintelligence systems. The Russians had no problem with that solution since their purpose was for recruiting and screening candidates to enter the 12th GUMO. CTR provided 15 American-made Lafayette polygraphs during the first phase of the program, which were later replaced by 15 Russian-made KRIS systems. These were selected instead of the more sophisticated Russian-made Barier-14 systems because they tested for more reaction factors (facial movements, temperature changes, etc.), and we were concerned they could be used for counterintelligence operations for non-12th GUMO personnel. 33 polygraph systems were provided over the lifetime of the program.

Using audit and examination procedures contained in the CTR agreement, the use of the polygraph systems was monitored by verifying that all systems were located at designated 12th GUMO locations, a method that was also used for portable alcohol testing equipment. The drug lab was monitored during visits to the SATC. In addition, CTR provided sustainment support, including maintenance and spare parts for all the PRP programs until the CTR agreement expired in 2013.

Our CTR technical exchanges revealed that the Russian and American programs use psychologists to provide personnel screening and support, but they are used in slightly different ways. When the Russians requested the CTR program to purchase what they called a stress test computer program, our immediate reaction was to question their judgment. We thought they were looking for some magical test to assess a person’s mental stability. It wasn’t until we were invited to observe a 12th GUMO exercise in the field that we were able to understand their reasoning behind its use. During the exercise, and we were told this applied to all operations as well, they had set up a “relaxation” tent for their personnel. They would use a computer test to measure reaction time to simple questions that could reveal stress when compared to an average reaction. Personnel were permitted to sleep and listen to calming music in a quiet atmosphere until they were ready to re-take the test and return to duty. The American system of psychological assessment was much more legalistic at the time in the early 2000s, conducted in response to a security background check or a referral from a superior. The Russians were not interested in American offers on how to write the legislation and penalties to be assessed to personnel under duress. They were much more concerned with the immediate well-being of their personnel just prior to or while conducting an operation.

Training Programs

The PRP program went beyond providing equipment. CTR provided extensive training to support the long-term sustainment of PRP. Under the CTR program, DOE, and the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) trained 99 experts on alcohol testing, 74 polygraph operators, 116 on psychological stability analysts, and six laboratory experts. These training efforts were critical to enabling the 12th GUMO to assume full responsibility to sustain the PRP program beyond CTR cooperation. The 12th GUMO expanded its workforce to include these trainees who maintained the PRP program beyond 2013.

In order to fully understand the Russian system of guarding against insider threats, one also needs to look at their overall recruitment and retention procedures. Unlike the American military system that encourages and even requires personnel to receive a new assignment – usually at a different location – the Russian assignment system within the 12th GUMO discourages lateral mobility. Personnel recruited and assigned to a base generally spend the bulk of their career at that base. Since their housing is tied to their positions, they will generally stay in the same house or community even after retirement, especially since they will remain in the reserves well after leaving active service. Officers and their families lived in close-knit communities, so they knew each other very well and they would quickly detect strange or unusual behavior or if there were a stranger in their midst. The 12th GUMO sites are also located at remote locations and there were minimal interactions with civilians in nearby cities. This more holistic approach to insider threats is also in contrast to the U.S. system.

During this period of cooperation, the 12th GUMO was led by General Colonel Igor Valynkin. General Valynkin was known as a hardliner and was described as an intimidating presence by his staff. They noted that General Valynkin considered personnel recruitment as one of the most important functions for the organization responsible for security of the Russian nuclear warhead stockpile.  He was said to interview all new candidates for the 12th GUMO, which was considered a prestigious assignment within the Russian Ministry of Defense. He would recruit the top students and subject them to an interview which he supplemented with a rigorous drug, alcohol, and polygraph screening program. Only the best, and those that could endure such scrutiny, were invited into the 12th GUMO. His methods were recognized by the Americans as reminiscent of Admiral Rickover’s early recruitment methods for the U.S. nuclear Navy.

Access Control

In addition to the PRP programs of the two country’s nuclear weapons security forces, the Russian and American systems also differed in how they used access control restrictions to guard against insider threats. The CTR program learned about these differences as we worked together to design the nuclear security guard force building for the nuclear weapons Rail Transfer Points where warheads are transferred to and from railcars and then, from warhead transport trucks for shipments to and from warhead storage sites. We could not understand why the 12th GUMO insisted on installing bulletproof glass inside the operations center. We understood why such protections were needed at access control points, but not for inside an operations center. The 12th GUMO explained that it was designed to maintain separation between the railcar security crews and the on-site security personnel. Even though both groups had the same clearances and the same access to nuclear warheads, the Russian system used access control procedures to prevent any collusion between the groups and went so far as to install bulletproof glass between the groups when they were required to exchange change of custody documents. The American system also included access control restrictions, but not to the extent of separating groups within sites that perform different functions. The 12th GUMO employed much more restricted access control procedures within their sites.

Not all interactions related to insider threats netted positive results. In January 2001, the 12th GUMO sought to demonstrate the importance of personnel reliability during a visit to the U.S. Navy base at Kings Bay, Georgia, but they did so in a way that ended up hurting relations. The intent of the visit was to demonstrate to the Russian delegation the procedures governing access control at a nuclear warhead storage site. The delegation was instructed that the procedures they observed would be exactly the same as with any personnel requiring access. The last step in the process included a guard who checked the picture ID cards of all personnel just prior to entering the perimeter of a nuclear weapons storage facility. To show that technology can’t guarantee security and that systems must still rely on people, two of the Russians in the delegation switched their ID tags. The American contractor who was responsible for granting access did not detect the switch and permitted both to enter. When the Russians revealed their ruse, the Navy personnel and Marine guards were alarmed. Machine guns were drawn and the demonstration was abruptly stopped. Later, the American contractor received a reprimand.

The incident did point out a key difference in the Russian and American systems in terms of their use of contractors. As nuclear security cooperation under CTR grew, the 12th GUMO expanded their use of contractors to support their nuclear security efforts. The contractors, however, were exclusively led by personnel that recently retired from active duty with the 12th GUMO, and their access was not permitted to the nuclear warheads or during active operations. The American system requires contractors to undergo high-level security clearance procedures, but over the course of time, numerous contractor personnel may be involved in highly sensitive operations.

The 12th GUMO delegation lead General Kochigan made his point, but as a result of this incident, the 12th GUMO was never invited back to a U.S. Navy nuclear weapons base. When President Putin decided not to extend the CTR agreement in 2013, he noted that the Americans had not reciprocated CTR site visits as one of the reasons for allowing CTR cooperation to expire. This incident was one of the reasons why CTR did not expand invitations for Russian visits to DoD sites.

Future Focus? Detecting Extremism

Another interesting topic of the CTR technical exchanges involved Russian inquiries on detecting extremist religious beliefs. These discussions preceded September 11, 2001, and while the Russian concerns with potential Chechen terrorist threats were acknowledged, the American programs had not developed techniques or procedures for detecting religious fervency or extremism. No further discussions were conducted on this topic. It may be time to reconsider whether the Russian and American nuclear security communities might be able to gain mutual benefits from conducting such technical discussions today. No matter your political views, all of us should be concerned about the potential threats posed by extremist infiltration into nuclear weapons security communities anywhere in the world.

As long as nuclear weapons and materials exist, nuclear security experts will need to promote continuous improvement in the performance of nuclear security systems. No technology, process, or procedure will be more important than supporting the nuclear security workforce and guarding against insider threats and the potential for extremist views to penetrate the workforce. Those who work on personnel reliability programs around the world should work cooperatively to consider different approaches and techniques to improve their effectiveness.

Share on twitter
Share on facebook
Share on linkedin
Share on email
Choose Your Subscription Topics
* indicates required
I'm interested in...
38 North: News and Analysis on North Korea
South Asian Voices