This paper revisits open-source information about suitcase nukes to assess the level of threat stemming from the possibility that a number of them could have ended in the hands of terrorists or states that support them. It seeks to achieve that task by concentrating on the following objectives:
- reassess information from publicly available sources about portable nuclear devices and try to determine, in particular, whether these weapons actually existed;
- analyze the scenarios of their loss that were offered by the special commission charged with the accounting for portable nuclear devices in the mid-1990s; and
- based on these scenarios, assess the probability that portable nuclear devices could have fallen into the hands of international terrorist organizations or states that support them, as well as the probability that such devices could be used for terrorist purposes.
First, the probability that any portable nuclear devices were lost prior to or after the breakup of the Soviet Union appears low; the scenarios of loss offered by the special commission in 1996 are actually the least plausible among other possible scenarios. This does not mean that the threat does not exist, but rather that at this moment, it is probably not the most immediate threat to the home security of the United States or to U.S. armed forces abroad.
The paper reaches two main conclusions:
Second, even if any devices were lost, their effectiveness should be very low or maybe even non-existent, especially if the loss occurred during the period of the greatest risk, in the early 1990s. Without scheduled maintenance, these devices apparently can produce only minimal yield and eventually possibly no yield at all, and can only serve as a source of small amounts of weapons-grade fissile materials.
That being said, open-source information has limited usefulness and can only yield probabilistic analysis instead of definitive answers. Consequently, it is necessary to continue efforts aimed at acquiring better and more reliable information about the status of Soviet/Russian portable nuclear devices, as well as about the parameters of threat they might pose in the hands of terrorists.
Information on Portable Nuclear Devices from Russian Open Sources
In a recent interview, the deputy chairman of the Duma Defense Committee, Alexei Arbatov, noted that complete silence had surrounded the subject of portable nuclear devices since the debate of the mid-1990s. Indeed, suitcase nukes often seem a matter of fiction rather than that of fact.
The "mythological" qualities of suitcase nukes derive not only from limited information--this is a common feature in almost everything concerning Russian nuclear weapons--but primarily from the fact that almost all available information dates to a very brief period (the second half of 1997 and early 1998) and is not very reliable. Comments about suitcase nukes are conspicuously absent in open sources prior to 1997. For example, one of the most authoritative Russian treatises on nonstrategic nuclear weapons published by the Institute of World Economy and International Relations does not mention them.
There are only two stories in which references to them could be suspected, and then only in hindsight. The first is a statement in 1995 by the director of the Ministry of Defense Ecological Center, Col. Boris Alexeev, about nuclear devices that weighed 90 kilograms (kg). The other was made by Anton Surikov, an outspoken nationalist expert on defense issues and son of a leading figure in the Soviet military-industrial establishment, who said in an interview with the Estonian newspaper Postimees in 1996 that in a scenario of NATO landing on the Russian Baltic Sea shores, Russia would resort to "miniature" nuclear weapons. Both statements are not conclusive proof; however, as it is not entirely clear whether the authors meant portable nuclear weapons or some other types of weapons.
Scarcity of information notwithstanding, hindsight has its advantages, and a reassessment of available data can yield tangible results, especially utilizing new information about the state of the Russian nuclear weapons complex that has become available in the last five years.
The "suitcase nukes saga" began in the fall of 1997, when General (Ret.) Alexander Lebed made several statements to the effect that during his short tenure as the Secretary of the Security Council in 1996, he received information that the separatist government in Chechnya possessed small nuclear devices.
In an attempt to clarify the situation, he created a special commission under the chairmanship of his assistant, Vladimir Denisov. According to Lebed, the commission was only able to locate 48 such munitions of a total of 132, an indication that 84 were lost (subsequently Lebed changed the total number of suitcase nukes several times, stating in the end that the number was between 100 and 500, but probably closer to 100).
It should be noted that almost nothing is known about the methods of the commission's work: for example, whether it checked only records or was able to compare the actual inventory to records as well (if only records were checked, it cannot be said with certainty whether more warheads were missing or whether any warheads were missing at all). Since the commission was disbanded before it was able to complete its work, it has remained unclear whether it was able to confirm the alleged loss of warheads (i.e., it looked everywhere and failed) or simply did not have time to clarify the situation (Denisov's statement seems to imply the latter). It is not even known who the members of the commission were.
A well-known leader of the Russian ecological movement, academician Alexei Yablokov, immediately confirmed and expanded on Lebed's statements. He announced that 700 such devices, which he called "nuclear mines," had existed in the Soviet Union. Responding to statements from Ministry of Defense (MOD) officials that there were no portable nuclear devices in the records, Yablokov announced that these devices had been in the hands of the KGB, and thus, by definition, MOD records could not include them.
Official and semi-official Russian sources immediately denied Lebed's and Yablokov's stories, but their testimonies gradually revealed bits and pieces of information, raising suspicion that small nuclear devices did exist and even providing a glimpse of their properties. For example, the press secretary of Minatom, Georgi Kaurov, stated that, like the United States, the Soviet Union produced "very small nuclear weapons," and that "the ability to manufacture miniature nuclear weapons demonstrates a state's high level of technology and its ability to create multipurpose and even aesthetically attractive nuclear weapons."
Another official said that these devices did not exist, but that if they had existed, their production and maintenance would have been very expensive.
"The Portrait of a Mini-Nuke"
In hindsight, it is clear that statements made by both sides in the 1997-98 debate could have referred to different classes of nuclear devices. One class mentioned was nuclear mines, while another was the portable nuclear devices for Special Forces, which were the subject of Lebed's statement. Even if portable devices did not exist, one can suspect that some types of nuclear mines were sufficiently small to generate "suspicious" statements by officials. Indeed, statements by MOD and Minatom representatives were worded very carefully and denied the existence of "nuclear suitcases," but not necessarily the existence of other small nuclear devices. They could thus claim that they were telling the truth even if they knew all along that other small nuclear devices could be portable. The uncertainty about classification could also explain the silence of non-governmental experts.
Nuclear mines are a well-known class of nuclear weapons. They were used by the Engineering troops and deployed along Soviet borders, primarily along the border with China. Nuclear mines were intended to create obstacles in the path of advancing enemy troops by altering the landscape and creating areas with high levels of radioactive contamination. The total stockpile was 700--incidentally, the number Yablokov claimed represented the stockpile of suitcase nukes (and, potentially, evidence that Yablokov did not have adequate knowledge of the subject).
Russian official sources reported that, in accordance with the 1991 Presidential Nuclear Initiatives (PNIs), all nuclear mines had been withdrawn to central storage facilities, and their elimination was "almost complete." Judging from the available information, including from official and semi-official Russian sources, some of these devices were relatively small and could be portable. The often-cited weight was 90 kilograms (kg), and they could have low yield (0.02 to 1 kt).
On the other hand, the existence of smaller devices custom-designed for Special Forces, probably analogous to American small atomic demolition munitions (SADMs), should not be ruled out either. Lebed apparently referred to such munitions in his statements (some sources, including himself, mentioned the weight of 30 kg). Several broad considerations suggest that the story about portable nuclear devices should be taken seriously, with a caveat that their existence cannot be viewed as an established fact.
First and foremost, the very fact that the United States possessed such munitions makes it feasible that the Soviet Union produced them as well, if only to replicate the American experience (the habit of Soviet designers to duplicate American weapons systems or use them to justify their own research is well known from other major projects, such as development of solid-fueled missiles or MIRVed ICBMs).
Furthermore, Soviet scientists are known for their propensity to explore every possible avenue, including the most powerful nuclear device; it is only logical to assume that they tried miniaturization as well. An artillery shell for 152-mm howitzers (which, in the Chelyabinsk-70 museum, is advertised as the smallest nuclear munition in the world) testifies to the ability to create a reasonably small and light nuclear explosive device.
According to one Russian expert, the size of these shells (15 cm in diameter and 50 cm in length) apparently represents the smallest size of the nuclear device Russian designers were able to achieve (the 130-mm naval guns did not have nuclear shells.18]
Sifting through available evidence, one can conclude that if such devices existed, they likely had the following characteristics:
- Small size (60x40x20 cm) and relatively light weight (probably upward of 30 kg). These parameters are generally insistent with available information about Soviet 152-mm artillery shells, as well as with the U.S. SADM.19]
- Low yield (less than 1 kt, maybe as low as 0.1 kt).
Remained under control of the 12th GUMO (the Main Department at MOD in charge of handling all nuclear devices), were kept at or near MOD Special Forces (Spetsnaz) bases, as well as at central storage facilities, and were intended for transfer to Spetsnaz at short notice.
- Short life span between scheduled maintenance. According to the chief of the 12th GUMO, Igor Valynkin, small munitions required replacement of components every several months (other sources mentioned six months.
Valynkin's statement is the most direct corroboration of the allegations about the existence of portable nuclear devices. Stationary nuclear mines with such a short warranty period simply did not make sense, while portable devices for use behind enemy lines could still be acceptable.
Were likely equipped with reasonably sophisticated permissive action links (PALs), which should preclude unauthorized use. Also, there is unconfirmed information that some small nuclear devices (munitions for 152-mm howitzers) were kept during peacetime in "half-assembled" state, i.e., parts were kept separately, although quick assembly in the case of war was possible.
If you ask me, it appears from this report that "suitcase nukes" do exist. However, I have serious doubts that Al Qaeda has anyone with the technological knowhow to maintain them.
Iran does, more than likely, and it could be that the A.Q. Khan network may have supplied brains. We can't know the answer, can we?