Five years ago next month, the world came within two and a half minutes of accidental nuclear war. Now experts are gathering in Colorado to prevent a repetition. But, asks Steve Crawshaw, will they stay sober?

ON THE Arctic-freezing night of 25 January, 1995, a military technician in northern Russia noticed an unexplained blip on his radar screen. Within moments, the pattern seemed clear. A rocket, launched from off the Norwegian coast, was rising rapidly through the sky. It appeared to have been launched from a US nuclear submarine - capable of detonating eight nuclear bombs over Moscow within 15 minutes. Urgent messages were relayed to Moscow; within three minutes, the military leadership was considering a retaliatory attack. President Yeltsin was briefed. For the first time in history, the chemodanchik - the "little suitcase" containing a laptop computer, with several "nuclear option" buttons, in direct communication with military high command - was activated. It was up to Yeltsin to decide whether the situation warranted the annihilation of western civilisation. As the radar showed the separation of multiple rocket stages, it began to look like an attack by not just one, but several missiles.

On the face of it, there was no reason for nuclear panic five years ago. There was no Cuban-style international crisis which had brought us to the brink. The Cold War had been over for several years. The only international event of any significance was a brutal little war that Moscow had just launched against a rebellious Caucasian republic called Chechnya. (Fifty thousand Chechens, mostly civilians, died in the Russian assault. The West bleated occasionally, but took little serious notice. Plus ca change.)

Compared with today - when Boris Yeltsin has just reminded the West, in connection with Moscow's continuing adventure in Chechnya, that "Russia is a great power that possesses a nuclear arsenal" - the international atmosphere was relaxed. There was no scary rhetoric, no escalating confrontations between nuclear powers. Yet we still came within a whisker of the ultimate drama. As in the best thrillers, the doomsday clock continued to tick until the apocalypse was seconds away. But this was for real.

Ten minutes is the procedural deadline for responding in such circumstances. Halfway through the eighth minute, the Russian military decided that their country was not under nuclear attack. The rocket was headed out to sea and no longer posed a threat. It later turned out that it had been a scientific probe, sent up to investigate the northern lights. The Russians had in fact been informed of the probe two weeks earlier, but the message had got lost in the post. Moscow now says that "the wrong department" was informed. Of such slips are potential nuclear confrontations made.

By the time details of the incident leaked out, the moment for panic had long since passed, and the world's nearest flirtation with nuclear apocalypse to date has never really lodged itself in the public consciousness. But today, as the wired world braces itself for the unquantifiable tribulations of the Millennium Bug, the prospect of accidental nuclear war has never seemed more real.

It is therefore ostensibly reassuring to know that, at some point in the next few days, a clutch of around 20 Russian military officers will be arriving at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs, where they are due to spend New Year at the Centre for Strategic Stability and Y2K - CSSY2K, to its friends. The sole purpose of their mission: to ensure that nobody blows the world up by mistake. They will work in three eight- hour shifts, 24 hours a day. On the computer screens in front of them, and on a set of huge television screens around them, a specially devised software package will allow them to monitor - more or less alongside their American counterparts - the movement of missiles and suspected missiles anywhere in the world. These will appear as dots on a world map. A double- click will make it possible to find out more information about any given dot. What sort of missile? (The missile's heat signature tells the computer all it needs to know.) At what speed is it travelling? What are the nearest and farthest possible targets? How large is the "threat fan" - the area that might be hit? And, crucially: how many minutes until Armageddon?

CSSY2K is down the road from the Cheyenne Mountain command centre: a complex that ought by rights to have Pierce Brosnan (or at least Austin Powers) striding through its corridors. Buried deep inside the mountain, behind 25-tonne security doors which could withstand a blast of 1.5m tonnes of TNT, the centre is at the heart of the North American Aerospace Defence Command (Norad). On a previous occasion, the Russians were allowed on a brief guided tour of Norad; this time, they will be kept at arm's length, working at CSSY2K itself. But they will be constantly supplied with data from inside the mountain. A dedicated hotline to Moscow has also been installed.

The Russo-American get-together in Colorado was organised by the two countries' respective defence secretaries because the US is so worried about what may happen in the chaos of Russia on New Year's Eve. The Americans are determined to stay both politically and literally sober as the new millennium dawns. They insist that CSSY2K will be "an alcohol-free operation" - and, yes, they will be searching the Russians' bags. This may be diplomatically tricky, since a Russian New Year with neither vodka nor shampanskoe scarcely counts as New Year, let alone New Millennium. As one Russian noted: "Russians not having a drink on New Year's Eve - that's ridiculous. The Russians even had alcohol in space."

But those who know about such things insist that this is no laughing matter. While the Russians are less dependent on computers than the Americans, and are thus in theory less vulnerable to Millennium glitches, the risks associated with split-second decisions are a constant threat, and the continuing disintegration of the old Soviet systems means that sober heads are needed more than ever. "All the trends are negative ," says Bruce Blair, an analyst at the Brookings Institution in Washington. "The system has deteriorated, and people are demoralised. If they applied the same standards as in the US, their nuclear forces would have to be stood down."

Already, much of the Russian system is in post-Soviet chaos. Oliver Meier, director of Vertic, a respected disarmament research institute in London, argues that greater co-operation is "urgently needed". When seven existing US-Russian direct communications lines were recently examined, six of the hotlines were found to have problems. Russian computers sometimes switch to combat mode for no apparent reason. Bruce Blair argues: "The systems built to control Russian nuclear weapons are crumbling."

There is human chaos, too. A few years ago, Pavel Felgenhauer, a leading Russian defence analyst, accompanied Pavel Grachev, then the Russian defence minister, on a trip around the former Soviet Union. Because of a lack of facilities and money, Grachev could not take his ministerial plane from the Caucasian region of Abkhazia to his next destination, the Crimean resort of Sochi; he travelled by helicopter instead. There was no room in the helicopter for the staff officer carrying the chemodanchik, who found himself stranded, together with Felgenhauer, on the tarmac. Felgenhauer and the aide stayed behind for a day or two ("We took the briefcase to the beach"), then took a bus to catch up with the rest of the delegation. Could an enterprising gunman have helped himself to the briefcase? "Absolutely," says Felgenhauer.

At the moment, the official line in the West is that nothing has gone wrong yet - and therefore that it never will. In the inimitable language of a Pentagon spokesman, "They came pretty close [in January 1995], but finally, fortunately, they made the right determination. We didn't cross that line." But the Russians will return home from Colorado in three weeks' time. After that, we are back to the unstable status quo. Dale Bumpers, Director of the Centre for Defense Information in Washington, says that this "is like walking along a cliff performing for your girlfriend and saying: `Look how close I can get to the edge and not fall off.'"

The Pentagon insists that the Colorado initiative proves that mutual trust is the order of the day: "It's a clearcut example of both countries taking their responsibilities seriously." In reality, mutual suspicions persist. The Americans would like a permanent presence at the Russian missile early-warning headquarters near Moscow. The Russians are wary, though, of attempts to send what some see as a group of licensed spies. As the barring and bolting of the Cheyenne Mountain command centre makes clear, the Americans are equally wary of letting the Russians get too close to too much knowledge. If Russia continues to degenerate into chaos (not, most analysts would argue, a very implausible if), the potential for accidental conflict will be greater than ever before.

There is a way to reduce the risk. "De-alerting" means, in effect, that a safety-catch is put on nuclear missiles. This creates an enforced delay - for example, if the mechanisms that open missile silo covers are removed - before missiles can be launched. But proposals along these lines have met with official alarm. According to Washington, de-alerting would be "more destabilising than stabilising".

Earlier this month, Bruce Blair and others launched a campaign called Back from the Brink, which calls for de-alerting to become official policy. The European parliament has called on the US and Russia to de-alert their nuclear arsenals. Admiral Sir James Eberle, a former commander of Britain's Polaris nuclear force, is among many distinguished figures who have argued that "de-alerting can be done and should be done". But Blair, who himself served for four years at US Air Force Strategic Air Command, admits that there is little sign that anybody in Washington or Moscow is convinced. "I feel like I'm whistling in the dark," he says, dismissing the precautions currently being taken as "only Band-aids".

Perhaps it doesn't matter. After all, if politicians take only measured decisions; if Russian technology is up to scratch; if drunkenness on duty in the armed forces is not a problem - then everything will turn out fine. In which case, we can all relax - and enjoy a happy and safe new Millennium.

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