“Suitcase Nukes:” Permanently Lost Luggage

Nikolai Sokov
February 13, 2004

View “Suitcase Nukes:” A Reassessment

On February 8, a London-based Arab newspaper, Al-Hayat, reported that in 1998, in Kandahar, Afghanistan, al-Qaeda had bought nuclear weapons from Ukraine using the services of a Ukrainian scientist, whose first name was Viktor. Multiple news sources immediately linked this story to the 1997 statement by the late General Alexander Lebed, who claimed that a special commission established by the Russian government in 1996 could not account for about 100 portable nuclear devices (commonly known as “nuclear suitcases”).

These allegations are not new. In 1998 another London-based Arab daily, Al-Watan Al-Arabi, reported that 20 “suitcase nukes” had been acquired by Chechen separatists, who then sold them to al-Qaeda for cash, arms, and drugs. Another similar story, also from Arab sources, surfaced in 2000, but this time it pointed at Kazakhstan.[1]

As in earlier cases, the Al-Hayat story was immediately and firmly denied by both Ukrainian and Russian officials, all of whom declared that all nuclear weapons had been removed from Ukraine by 1996, and consequently there simply were no weapons to sell. The Foreign Ministry of Ukraine further stated that “the so-called ‘suitcase weapons’ had never been kept in the territory of Ukraine and had never fallen under its control.”[2]

Official denials closely coincide with the findings of a study conducted by CNS in 2002: “‘Suitcase Nukes:’ A Reassessment.” That study concluded that the loss of any nuclear weapons, including portable devices, during the withdrawal of nuclear weapons from Ukraine and other former Soviet republics was highly unlikely (that report was quoted on February 10 by ITAR-TASS along with the statement of Deputy Chief of the General Staff Yuri Baluevski to the same effect[3]).

The relevant findings of the CNS report include the following:

  • First, portable nuclear devices did, indeed, exist in the Soviet Union, notwithstanding the many denials made by Russian officials in the mid-1990s.
  • Second, these weapons most likely remained in the custody of the Ministry of Defense’s 12th GUMO – the department charged with handling nuclear devices, which also oversaw the withdrawal of these weapons from the newly independent states in 1992-96. Consequently, that department was in a position to ascertain that no weapons remained outside Russia (following Lebed’s allegations, a well-known Russian ecologist, Academician Alexei Yablokov, claimed that “suitcase nukes” had been under the control of the KGB, and consequently the records of the Ministry of Defense were incomplete).
  • Third, these devices, if any had been located outside Russia, were most likely removed to the territory of Russia in 1992. Although the withdrawal of all nuclear weapons was completed only in 1996, tactical weapons were withdrawn by May 1992.
  • Fourth, the withdrawal from Ukraine was conducted according to a special procedure, which made the loss of any weapons even less likely than in the case of other former republics. Namely, after a temporary freeze on the withdrawal, Ukraine and Russia concluded a special agreement in April 1992, which established strict accounting rules.

One is left to speculate about the reason for publishing yet another story about “al-Qaeda suitcase nukes.” Judging by Al Hayat‘s claim that its source was in Pakistan, the goal of that source might have been to shift attention from the ongoing scandal over secret sales of nuclear equipment and technologies by that country’s nuclear scientists.

An unexpected benefit of that story is the availability of additional information about Soviet portable nuclear devices, which allows us to verify and augment the data contained in the CNS 2002 report.

Two years ago, based on scanty information, CNS concluded that such weapons (a) existed and (b) were intended for special forces of the Ministry of Defense (Spetsnaz). We also tentatively sketched the likely characteristics of these weapons. Newly available information confirms and expands these conclusions. It has been disclosed that these weapons were indeed intended for Spetsnaz. Two versions of these devices were created – RA-155 for the army and RA-115-01 for the navy (to be used under water). The weight of one device was 30 kilograms and it could be armed by a single operator in just 10 minutes.[4] These weapons, which were called “nuclear backpacks” (“yadernyi ranets“), had a yield of 0.5 to 2 kilotons and could contaminate areas of up to 10 square kilometers. They were kept at only two secret storage facilities and had never been released to troops.[5]

Information vital for the assessment of the threat presented by these weapons if they had fallen into the wrong hands has also been confirmed, namely that “nuclear suitcases” have a very short shelf-life and have protection against unauthorized use. The former director of Research Institute No. 4 (the research arm of the Strategic Rocket Forces) General (ret.) Vladimir Dvorkin confirmed that portable nuclear devices were designed in such a way that they could not remain in the ready-to-use status for a long time because certain components had to be periodically replaced by experts[6] (sources quoted in the CNS report mentioned regular maintenance at six-month intervals). In addition to some type of permissive action link (PAL) device, they were also protected against attempts to forcibly remove electronic locks. In the event of such an attempt, the weapon automatically switched into a “non-use” mode and would not explode.[7]

Finally, the CNS report concluded that the sensational statement by General Lebed was based on an incomplete study. That study was launched in 1996 in response to reports that several portable nuclear devices had been stolen and landed in the hands of Chechen separatists, but it was not completed by the time Lebed was forced to resign from the position of the Secretary of the Security Council. It remained unknown whether the study was completed and which methods were used, specifically, whether the commission only checked records or also matched records to actual weapons.

The chairman of the commission established by Lebed, Vladimir Denisov, has now come forward to say that the commission was able to complete its job. Furthermore, he disclosed that its members were able to match records to actual weapons or, as he put it, “counted them on fingers.”[8] The latter statement also implies that at least in the mid-1990s, a number of portable nuclear devices still existed, contrary to the common belief that they had been eliminated years before.

Thus, even though the Al-Hayat allegations are apparently groundless, it still seems advisable to continue closely monitoring the situation surrounding portable nuclear devices. The most intriguing question remains open: whether such weapons still exist or have been eliminated? Russia was supposed to have eliminated all “nuclear mines” – the category, into which “nuclear suitcases” should fall – according to the 1991 unilateral statements by Presidents George Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev, but implementation of these initiatives has not yet been completed. In 2002, Russia announced that the deadline for completion was extended from 2000 to 2004 due to insufficient funds. To date, there has been no official update on the status of this work.

[1] “Report Links Bin-Ladin, Nuclear Weapons,” Al-Watan Al-Arabi, November 13, 1998 (FBIS FTS19981113001081); Emil Torabi, “Bin Laden’s Nuclear Weapons,” Muslim Magazine (Winter 1998), www.muslimmag.org (accessed on July 13, 1999, no longer available); Michael Binyon, “Osama Bin Laden Said to Have Acquired Tactical Nuclear Weapons,” Times (London), October 7, 1998; “Arab Security Sources Speak of a New Scenario in Afghanistan: Secret Roaming Networks that Exchange Nuclear Weapons for Drugs,” Al-Sharq al-Awsat, December 24, 2000, www.asharqalawsat.com.
[2] “MID Ukrainy: Obvineniya Ukrainy v Postavkakh Yadernogo Oruzhiya ‘Al Kaide’ Bezosnovatelny,” (The Foreign Ministry of Ukraine: Allegations that Ukraine Sold Nuclear Weapons to al-Qaeda are Groundless) February 9, 2004, www.strana.ru.
[3]”Ni Odin yadernyi Boezaryad Sovetskogo Proizvodstva Ne Mog Popast’ v Ruki ‘Al Kaidy’, Zayavlyauyt Rossiiskie Kompetentnye Litsa,” ITAR-TASS, February 11, 2004.
[4] “‘Al-Kaida’ Grozit Yadernym Oruzhiem,” (Al-Qaeda Threatens With Nuclear Weapons) Moskovskii Komsomolets, February 10, 2004.
[5] Viktor Myasnikov, “Eto Byl He hash ‘Chemodanchik’,” (This Wasn’t Our Suitcase) Nezavisimaya Gazeta, February 11, 2004.
[6] Yuri Gavrilov, “A Nu-Ka Uberi Svoi Chemodanchik,” (Put Your Suitcase Away), Moskovskii Komsomolets, February 10, 2004.
[7] Gennadi Nechaev, “Smelye Vyvody,” (Bold Conclusions), Novye Izvestiya, February 10, 2004.
[8] Yuri Gavrilov, “A Nu-Ka Uberi Svoi Chemodanchik,” (Put Your Suitcase Away), Moskovskii Komsomolets, February 10, 2004.

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