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Russia's Lost Suitcase Nukes

by Eric Margolis

on Russia's suitcase bombs
Call it the ultimate missing luggage story.

Last year, Gen. Alexander Lebed, Russia's former National Security Advisor, claimed more than 100 suitcase-sized nuclear weapons had 'disappeared.' Another senior Russian security official, Alexei Yablokov, backed Lebed's allegations.

Lebed, now a presidential candidate, asserted Russia's military had lost track of the portable nuclear weapons, each of which can produce a 1 kiloton explosion, equivalent to 1,000 tons of TNT. A single suitcase nuke, placed in an urban area, could kill up to 100,000 people and cause enormous physical damage.

Russian security officials scoffed at Lebed's claims, blaming poor record keeping rather than theft or diversion. US officials claimed Libya, Iraq and Iran were the real nuclear danger, not mini-nukes. In fact, these nations pose a potential threat only to Israel. By contrast, Russia's missing nukes are a very real menace to US security.

Two months ago, the highest ranking officer ever to defect from GRU, Russia's military intelligence service, testified in closed hearings before Congress. The former GRU colonel, who defected in 1992, said he had personally identified locations in the US for suitcase nuclear devices that would be used in case of war.

The colonel admitted he had no knowledge any devices had actually been smuggled into the US, but said 'it was possible,' because many of the weapons had disappeared from Russia's inventory. Meaning the mini-nukes are either missing -- and possibly in the hands of terrorists -- or secreted in the United States, Canada, and Europe.

The Soviet mini-nukes, described as the size of a golf club bag, were designed to destroy vital targets, such as military command and control centers, air defense headquarters, missile bases, communications nodes, power stations, bridges, dams, airports, and the St. Lawrence Seaway.

If one such weapon, hidden in the back of a delivery van, were detonated outside the Pentagon, America's military leadership would be decapitated.

The GRU colonel explained the mini-nukes were to be smuggled into the US the same way drugs were -- by speedboat, light aircraft, or landed on the coast by Soviet subs. Soviet special force 'Spetsnaz' units would retrieve the weapons and conceal them close to their intended targets. One key hiding place was Northern Virginia's beautiful Shenandoah Valley, located a short drive from Washington.

The colonel also revealed that during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, the Soviets stockpiled suitcase nuclear weapons in Cuba without the knowledge of Castro, ready for use by special forces troops.

KGB sources also recently told me that at the height of the crisis, Soviet commanders in Cuba were authorized to launch intermediate range ballistic missiles against the US and Canada if communications links with Moscow were broken or jammed.

The US also developed a 1-kiloton nuclear suitcase bomb designed for the same tactical demolition role as the Soviet version. If the Warsaw Pact attacked westward, US Special Forces were tasked to employ the mini-nukes for behind-the- lines sabotage of Soviet command, logistics and communications. US Army field commanders were given release authority over hundreds of tactical mini-nukes in Europe, independent of NATO.

Some House Republicans claim the Soviets may have actually hidden a number of nuclear devices near Washington and New York City, where they remain. Some could still be active. Such simple, pure-fission nuclear devices may have a shelf- life of up to 8-10 years without refurbishing.

US security officials, who have been nonchalant about hidden suitcase nukes, should bear in mind the stranger- than-fiction case of a GRU 'sleeper' agent who settled in Edmonton, Canada, the late 1940's as a supposed refugee from Ukraine. A decade ago, he turned himself into the RCMP, and showed them a large, trunk-bomb he had hidden in his basement. His orders: when a coded signal comes in from GRU, transport the conventional bomb in his truck to a main oil pumping station north of Edmonton, and destroy it. He had been waiting nearly 40 years.

How many other such sleepers are out there? How many have nuclear devices? This is pretty scary stuff. Not just for North America, either. Rumors have circulated for years that Israeli agents may have hidden suitcase nukes in Moscow, St. Petersburg, Kiev, Odessa, Sevastapol, and Kharkov, not to mention Arab capitols, Tehran, even Pakistan.

The danger of terrorists getting their hands on a suitcase bomb is real, but lower. Arming the mini-nukes takes 30 minutes, the colonel revealed, and can only be done by trained specialists. The weapons are designed to self- destruct if improperly opened.

Unless, of course, terrorists or the Russian mafia manage to buy a nuclear specialist, or open the weapon's locks.A suitcase nuke attached to a drum of anthrax or botulism would be a hellish terror weapon, ideal for political fanatics or blackmailers. Defenses against such weapons are currently minimal, though the US is trying to develop senors that will detect hidden nuclear weapons.

We shouldn't panic about reds under our beds with suitcase nukes, but we shouldn't ignore this very real threat, either. Given the number of Soviet suitcase nukes still hidden, or unaccounted for, it seems probable at least one will eventually be used somewhere.

© Eric Margolis
Eric Margolis is a syndicated columnist and broadcaster whose "Foreign Correspondent" column appears twice weekly.
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Albion Monitor November 10, 1998 (

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