The claim was advanced yesterday in the New York Times by Bruce Blair, a former launch-control officer for Minuteman inter-continental missiles and Pentagon official who is now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution here. And the consensus of other specialists consulted by the paper is that his theory, although unlikely, is by no means impossible.
According to Dr Blair, the nerve centre of the system, known to Russian commanders as the 'dead hand', is an underground bunker south of Moscow. It would be activated by a coded instruction from the Kremlin, called 'fail deadly'. Sensors would pick up signs of a nuclear attack and automatically activate special communications rockets. Those, in turn, would fly over Russian nuclear bases and submarines, broadcasting the order to attack.
Dr Blair says his conclusions are based on interviews with Russian scientists who developed the system, key details of which were 'corroborated' by US officials. It was apparently devised during the 1970s and tested at least once: on 13 November 1984, when US intelligence monitored two long-range Soviet missile launches 40 minutes apart. One was a communications rocket, the other an SS-18 missile fired by remote control from its base in Kazakhstan to a test target on the Kamchatka peninsula in the far north-east of Russia.
'In a real nuclear crisis,' writes Dr Blair, 'communications rockets . . . would relay fire orders to nuclear missiles in Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Ukraine. The Doomsday machine provides for a massive salvo of these forces without any participation by local crews. Weapons commanders in the field may be completely by-passed. Even mobile missiles on trucks would fire automatically.'
Yesterday the Pentagon had no comment on Dr Blair's article. But it appears amid growing unease among other US nuclear specialists at the true state of Russia's nuclear arsenal, despite the official assurances here that all was in safe hands during last weekend's convulsions in Moscow.
In little-noticed congressional testimony recently, senior administration officials cast great doubt on Russia's progress in dismantling warheads under existing arms control agreements. Other experts have warned that Russia's nuclear arsenal is far larger than publicly admitted. The uncertainty has only been compounded by two years of political turmoil after the break-up of the old Soviet Union, fraying the command structure.
But the possible existence of a Doomsday machine raises an additional fear, that all-out nuclear war could be triggered by accident. Both in the US and Russia, low-level nuclear false alarms are nothing new. If Dr Blair is right, no human hand in Russia could reverse a sensor's mistake - as in Stanley Kubrick's film.
Russia, he says, is still a prisoner of 'nuclear dependency'. The Cold War may be over but the country continues to build underground command posts and still conducts nuclear war games, with the US as the enemy.Reuse content