Pentagon drops nuclear conflict survival plans

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THE PENTAGON is to abandon as a relic of the Cold War its plan to enable the United States government to go on functioning in secret bunkers for six months into the nuclear war that was expected to destroy Washington. Some dollars 8bn ( pounds 5.4bn) has been spent to protect surviving government leaders and link them through communications equipment housed in convoys of lead-lined trucks.

Since the Fifties, the US government has had two underground caverns available near Washington in case of nuclear conflict. One was hollowed out beneath Raven Rock Mountain near the presidential weekend retreat at Camp David in Maryland. The second is a little further away below Mount Weather in the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia, two hours' drive west of Washington.

In the Eighties, US planners came to believe that the purpose and location of these vast shelters was well-known to the Soviet Union and they would certainly be targeted in the early stages of a nuclear exchange. According to the New York Times, Ronald Reagan initiated a new plan in 1983 which was to guarantee 'continuity of government' during and after such a war.

It was thought that such a conflict might involve a limited exchange of nuclear missiles rather than Armageddon, so government leaders would have to survive for six months. 'That was the requirement: six months,' said Bruce Blair, a former air force officer in charge of examining nuclear war plans in the Eighties. 'And at the end we had to have a cohesive chain of command, with control over our remaining nuclear forces, that would give us leverage over the Soviets.'

Although highly secret, the plan enabling Mr Reagan and his successors to survive a war involved many new bunkers. A Presidential Survivability Support System was created with 200 special operations commandos in charge of looking after the surviving military and civilian leaders. Communications would be maintained by means of satellites linked to lead-lined tractor-trailer trucks with sophisticated radio equipment on board.

Under the command of a colonel, convoys of 16 such trucks would use their mobility to avoid destruction by incoming Soviet missiles. Much of the dollars 8bn was spent on equipment such as these trucks, which are all now in storage. A blow to the plan came last year when the Pentagon was forced to drop a dollars 27.4bn military satellite project - intended to guarantee communications during a nuclear war - known as Milstar. It was linked with, but separate from, the Doomsday Project.

In the late Eighties, some information about the plan had already leaked to Congress because of disputes within the armed services about the feasibility of the whole scheme. Whistle-blowers said that its secrecy had allowed corruption, whereby no-bid contracts were awarded to companies run by former officers. A House Armed Services report in 1989 said senior officers had tried to quash rumours of corruption by getting a soldier with a record of drug-taking and black-marketeering to smear the whistle-blowers as Soviet agents.