Russia in Dangerous Transition, as Military and Political Tensions Mount

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 11 Issue: 198

National Defense Management Center in Moscow (Source: RIA Novosti)

Russia’s central strategic nuclear command authority is being fully overhauled this year, organizationally as well as technically. Last January, Russia’s defense minister, Army-General Sergei Shoigu, announced that a brand new National Defense Management Center (NTsUO) would be built on the premises of the army command headquarters on the Moscow River’s Frunzenskaya embankment, close to Moscow’s downtown. The NTsUO is a top national security priority. Its creation was authorized by President Vladimir Putin’s decree (ukaz) and more than a billion dollars have been allocated to complete it in 2014. The NTsUO is designed to control, in real time, Russia’s nuclear and conventional armed forces. It will also coordinate the activities of multiple militarized departments, ministries and civilian authorities in Moscow and the provinces in peacetime as well as during national defense emergencies (see EDM, November 4; Interfax. January 20).

Last April, the NTsUO began working around the clock in test mode, with a staff of more than a thousand officers and civilian specialists divided into four shifts—each working 24 hours and then resting/preparing for 48 hours before once again taking over responsibility for Russia’s defense (Rossiyskaya Gazeta, October 27). Previously, the Russian strategic nuclear forces were under operational online command and control (C2) of the Central Command Post (TsKP) of the General Staff. The TsKP, the nerve center of the Main Operational Directorate of the General Staff of the Armed Forces, has been positioned in the General Staff building in downtown Moscow between Arbatskaya Square and Znamenka Street. The TsKP receives online information of a possible nuclear missile attack from the Russian early warning system (SPRN) and has a computerized launch command network, designed in the 1970s and turned fully operational in the 1980s, which can launch in minutes an all-out or limited nuclear attack. The information-providing part of the TsKP uses foreign-made computer equipment and components. Whereas, the launch command network runs on Russian-made aged mainframe computers—cloned copies of ancient IBM mainframes (AIF, September 26, 2012).

The shabby corridors and offices as well as the rundown computers of the TsKP—a clear illustration of the Soviet nuclear superpower’s decay—needed a major overhaul. In 2011, the TsKP received a facelift in the form of a large situation center with flashy plasma screens on the walls, established in the General Staff building on Znamenka Street. Although, this room was actually located on a different floor from the real TsKP—which lacked the extra space needed for the upgrade. The new demonstration-situation room could be used for public relations and to entertain journalists. In June 2013, President Putin invited his journalist pool to visit the TsKP’s situation center, and Shoigu made quite a show of using the huge monitors to demonstrate the inauguration of an SPRN radar in Armavir in the North Caucasus and the deployment of Russian warships in the Mediterranean (, June 6, 2013).

The new NTsUO facility houses an array of much more grandiose halls with even larger plasma screens and press galleries, where Shoigu, always mindful of PR opportunities, may play military supreme commander in front of the cameras. This summer, during the Vostok-2014 military exercises, the halls of the newly built NTsUO on the Frunzenskaya embankment were engaged by Shoigu to run a multi-frame show of long-distance C2. According to General Andrei Kartapolov, chief of the Main Operational Directorate and deputy chief of the General Staff, the TsKP was disbanded last April and its functions were transferred to the newly formed NTsUO. But this change was organizational: The TsKP and its computerized C2 system continued to physically function from Znamenka Street as part of the new NTsUO. Yet, Kartapolov announced, that “by December 1, all the NTsUO structures must move to the Frunzenskaya embankment from Znamenka Street.” Shoigu and his office, as well as the entire General Staff of the Armed Forces, must also move to Frunzenskaya. The present defense ministry and general staff buildings on Znamenka Street will house the army and air force commands and other departments (Rossiyskaya Gazeta, October 27).

The December 1 deadline to move operational strategic nuclear control to a new location and to establish the new computerized command and control network is indeed important. According to Kartapolov, “the NTsUO will use the most modern hardware and software—all 100 percent Russian-made.” The NTsUO has been running in test mode for several months, and after December 1, the final transition begins. According to Kartapolov, “after the New Year, the NTsUO will be fully operational” (Rossiyskaya Gazeta, October 27). The coming transition period—while the old TsKP is fully closed down on December 1, and as the new NTsUO struggles to overcome its inevitable organizational and computer glitches—could be a dangerous time for Russia and the world. Of course, Russia has backup nuclear command centers, like the Strategic Rocket Forces (RVSN) command bunker in Odyntsovo in Moscow’s suburbs. But the danger is that the NTsUO might bypass or overrule other command centers. With Russian forces increasingly engaged in Cold War–style “brinkmanship” to frighten the West into easing sanctions imposed because of the Ukrainian crisis, any possible computer glitch could lead to disaster (see EDM, October 30).

Shoigu recently announced the creation of a new early warning system of satellites and radars, which will replace the old SPRN. The defense minister also boasted that it would be as good or better than the United States’ early warning system. A new early warning satellite known as “Tundra,” the first of its kind, is being prepared for launch before January 1. A network of ground radars and command centers must also be integrated into a global missile launch control system. At present, Russia has only two leftover early warning satellites of the “Oko-1” system, but these do not provide reliable information about possible hostile ballistic missile launches (Interfax, October 9). Furthermore, Russian ground radars do not cover all possible directions, and they provide a reliable warhead attack pattern only 15 or so minutes before nuclear impact.

For security reasons, the Frunzenskaya embankment neighborhood is now being completely cleared out: Long-established floating restaurants have been forcefully removed and convenience stores and cafés closed. The NTsUO complex will have two helicopter escape pads and, reportedly, a high-speed hovercraft ready to launch into the Moscow River as an alternative nuclear attack escape vehicle (Sovershenno Sekretno, November 25, 2013). So if the “Tundra” satellite is lost in a faulty launch, if the aging SPRN system malfunctions during another “brinkmanship” demonstration, or if the new NTsUO computers fail during the transition period, Shoigu and Putin will still be able to run for cover.