Myth of the Suitcase Nukes

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In the Wall Street Journal yesterday, Richard Miniter kicked around what he calls the “myth” of the “suitcase nukes.” Most likely, he says, the Russians never made any such thing, and what sort-of-portable nukes did exist have almost certainly been destroyed. Good news if he’s right, of course, though some of his points seem less than airtight. For example, here’s Miniter’s account of the Denisov investigation in 1996, which looked into allegations by Alexander Lebed, a Russian general, that anywhere from 50-100 Rissoam “suitcase nukes” were unaccounted for:

Lebed’s onetime deputy, Vladimir Denisov, said he headed a special investigation in July 1996–almost a year before Lebed made his charges–and found that no army field units had portable nuclear weapons of any kind. All portable nuclear devices–which are much bigger than a suitcase–were stored at a central facility under heavy guard.

Well there we have it. Or do we? Here’s a less-glossy account from the Center for Non-Proliferation Studies in late 2002:

It should be noted that almost nothing is known about the methods of the [Denisov] 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.

Not quite as comforting. Also, some scientists have claimed that any suitcase nukes would have been controlled by the KGB, and so not listed in the records Denisov looked at, although this seems unlikely. In the end, people have said all sorts of things about “suitcase nukes,” and it’s truly hard to separate fact from bluster. The CNS report concludes, persusasively, that “the existence of smaller devices custom-designed for [Russian] Special Forces, probably analogous to American small atomic demolition munitions (SADMs), should not be ruled out… with a caveat that their existence should not be taken as fact.” Fair and balanced, that one. But there is evidence, for instance, based on artillery shell designs, that the Russians engineers could have created such a weapon. And the records are too patchy to prove that they didn’t.

Whether any of these theoretical weapons actually could have been stolen after the crack-up of the Soviet Union, meanwhile, is “impossible to say,” and I don’t think Miniter refutes the concerns of CNS conclusively. But. One very encouraging point, which Miniter hammers on, is that any truly portable nuclear device—weighing around 60 lbs.—would have had a very short maintenance period, like most Soviet weaponry, and would probably have deteriorated by now. Another point: the most likely time and place for a stolen nuclear suitcase bomb would have been in or around Chechnya in the early 1990s. The Chechens, certainly, have had ample reason to threaten or actually use such a device. But they haven’t. Huh. So the balance of hunches definitely favors Miniter’s thesis, no doubt, although this is also the sort of thing we really, really don’t want to get wrong, and it would be nice to get some more solid information on this.

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