Pavel Podvig Profile picture
Mar 5 16 tweets 4 min read
Can Russia's president launch nuclear weapons alone? The honest answer is "we don't know." A short answer is "probably." A longer answer is "it's complicated." A longish thread that may (or may not) help clarify things 1/
Most of what we know about the Russian launch authorization procedures is based on what is known about the Soviet command and control (C2) system. There is not much there, but not too little either 2/
A fairly compact description of the procedures is in the Russian Forces book. Here is the excerpt: russianforces.org/RussianStrateg…. Igor Sutyagin, who wrote most of it, used the work of Bruce Blair and Valery Yarynich but also did his own research, combing through all kind of sources 3/ Image
I was told that this is a fair description of the system. Note that Yarynich was quite direct - "Russia's SNF C3 system ... completely excludes the possibility of a launch performed by one person" (p. 152 in scribd.com/doc/282622838/…, citing this catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/0076084…). 4/
It appears that the procedure implies that the order must be authenticated by the minister of defense and the command center of the General Staff must accept the order as valid. A first strike seems possible, although it would bring more people in the loop 5/
One way to think about it is that the designers of the system, the first version of which was built in the 1970s, certainly did not want to give the General Secretary the sole authority to launch, especially when it comes to a first strike 6/
Of course, with the presidential power what it is in Russia today this may have changed, but I would guess that people other than the president have a way to influence the decision even if they don't have a veto power. 7/
There are also some checks that protect the system from issuing a launch order in response to a false alarm - waiting for signs of actual nuclear detonations is one of them. But in the end all these checks can be overriden, especially if there is time to do so. 8/
All that, of course, deals with a command to launch a _strategic_ strike. The procedure for non-strategic weapons might be a bit different as it is likely to include some additional steps. One is the actual deployment of weapons. 9/
In normal time, there are no non-strategic weapons that are kept in a constant high degree of readiness. No Iskanders are roaming around with nuclear warheads on top of their missiles, no aircraft are sitting on tarmac with bombs or ALCMs loaded in their bomb bays. 10/
These weapons are in storage, most of them reasonably far from their delivery systems (see russianforces.org/blog/2017/08/w…). They would have to be taken out of storage, mated to missiles, loaded on aircraft, or otherwise deployed. 11/ Image
Presumably, the president can issue an order to do so, but it would probably be done as part of a (pre-)planned military operation. This would give the military, who will be developing and executing the plan, an opportunity to take part in the decision. 12/
While I doubt they would have the veto power, this is a deliberative (and rather slow) process. In the end, the order (or pre-delegation of authority) would still come from the president. 13/
The authenticating process might be the same as in the case of strategic forces, with a call through dedicated terminals and all that. More likely, the president would be physically at one of the command centers and/or authentication would be done at some earlier stage. 14/
It's possible that whoever is in the authentication loop (eg the minister of defense) would balk at issuing the actual order, but it seems unlikely at that stage. And the president would have an opportunity to remove that person if necessary. 15/
So, the bottom line is probably that if we are talking about a retaliatory launch, the C2 system does provide some safeguards against a false alarm or a rash action of a single person. But when it comes to a deliberate first use, these safeguards could be circumvented. 16/16

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More from @russianforces

Jun 28
There is a popular notion that the closer we are to nuclear disarmament the more stringent must be verification arrangements. This notion shapes most of the current work on disarmament verification. But should it? Our report unidir.org/VerifyTPNW takes a look. A thread 1/
Verification is more than a set of technical tools and procedures; it is also a political concept that shapes our views of what is possible in nuclear disarmament. There is also a political question, and a hotly contested one at that - is nuclear disarmament possible at all? 2/
Shouldn't we first develop airtight verification procedures and find ways to protect secret information? Well, not really. Yes, technical tools are important and some information needs to be protected. But the disarmament context (in TPNW or otherwise) changes many things. 3/
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Jun 26
My take is that the probability of nuclear weapons deployed in Belarus is about zero. But there are options. Russia promised to modernize BY Su-25(?) aircraft and give BY Iskander missiles that "can be used with conventional as well as nuclear payload" kremlin.ru/events/preside… 1/
It is possible that the the aircraft and missiles will indeed be deployed in BY, crews will be trained, exercises held, etc. But it is very unlikely (in my view impossible) that actual nuclear weapons will be moved to Belarus 2/
Weapons could be stored in Russia, e.g. at the Bryansk-18 national-level site or maybe at smaller base-level facilities in Shatalovo and Shaykovka. As I understand it, if a decision is made to bring forces to the level of high readiness that includes deployment of weapons... 3/
Read 7 tweets
Jun 17
This is a good example of propaganda in the guise of analysis.
It drew my attention to a few gems from Celeste Wallander's testimony back in March armedservices.house.gov/_cache/files/8… It's interesting to see how this "laundering" of various claims works 2/
Wallander: "a military doctrine that emphasizes the coercive military value of nuclear weapons, including limited nuclear first-use in conventional regional conflict, at multiple levels of the conflict spectrum." The thing is, the doctrine doesn't say anything like that. 3/
Read 8 tweets
May 12
In a hypothetical Russia-NATO conflict, Russia would be fighting several Ukraines (and more capable ones at that). Why would anyone think that it would perform better? The key difference is that in a conflict with NATO nuclear weapons would play a somewhat different role. 1/
In the context of the war in Ukraine, the only way nuclear weapons could be used would be to hit cities Hiroshima/Nagasaki style in order to shock the opponent into a surrender. The threshold for this kind of use is actually very high (as it should be). 2/
Would the threshold be as high in a Russia-NATO conflict? Not necessarily. Since NATO declares itself a nuclear alliance, it could respond in kind. Which means that a use of nuclear weapons against NATO would not be to shock it into a surrender. 3/
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Apr 27
There seems to be quite a bit of confusion about 'tactical' nuclear weapons, their potential use, 'lower nuclear threshold,' etc. That's my strong impression from the kinds of questions that I've been getting. I don't claim to have all answers, but here is my take 1/
'Tactical' is a misnomer, of course. Nuclear weapon is a nuclear weapon. It's not the yield or the range of the delivery vehicle that counts. It's the mission. 'Tactical' normally means a weapon that is used to achieve a 'tactical' military goal 2/
Say, to stop an advancing tank column or to attack an aircraft carrier group. 'Strategic' would mean a weapon/mission that is intended to change the strategic outcome of a war. (It is a bit more complicated, but I hope my colleagues will forgive me) 3/
Read 17 tweets
Mar 30
I'm sorry, colleagues, but this is exactly the wrong way to talk about nuclear weapons in the context of the war in Ukraine. The fact is that no matter if you call them tactical or strategic, low- or high-yield, there are absolutely no military missions for them in this war 1/
The only mission for nuclear weapons, definitely in this war, is to either kill a lot of people or to show that you are willing to escalate and kill a lot of people. Period. There is nothing else. 2/
Why does it matter that a 5-kt weapon kills everyone inside a 2.5-mile circle and a 16-kt one - inside a 5-mile one? Why does it matter that Russia may have 1644 'tactical' weapons and US - 130? Do you expect a shootout? 3/
Read 4 tweets

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