A Top-Secret Exchange Program

U.S. Generals Visit Russian Command

On March 15, 1998, a top-secret flight arrived at America's nuclear command center in Omaha, Neb. A month earlier, Boris Yeltsin had threatened World War III if President Clinton bombed Iraq.

The head of the U.S. nuclear forces, four-star general Eugene Habiger, had begun a different brand of secret diplomacy; he had brought Russia's nuclear commander, General Yakovlev, into America's nuclear war room. 60 Minutes II Producer George Crile was watching.
The scene was extraordinary. "Welcome to my command center," Habiger told Yakovlev.

"This is where we would convene in the event of a crisis. I think you will agree it's very much like yours," he continued. "I'm going to put you in my chair just as you put me in your chair. And I give you the same warning: Please do not touch anything." Both men laughed.

Habiger then took his visitor to the Air Room, where the targets in Russia are chosen. There were no restrictions, Habiger says: "I felt like there are nine commanders in chief in the United States' military structure; we're big boys. If we can't figure out what we can say, and what we can't say, maybe we have no business being in that job."

Habiger also showed Yakovlev the "TACAMO" plane, an elaborate flying command post, built to direct the final battle, even if America has already been decimated. TACAMO stands for take charge and move out.

The crew of TACAMO prepares for the final battle every single day, as if it might happen at any moment. "Right out of high school, 18 years old, the first question right before I started my job is 'Do you have a problem launching a nuclear-loaded aircraft that could cause the destruction of the world?'" remembers one crewman. "I said, 'No sir.'"

For five days General Habiger led General Yakovlev on a sweep across the country, from the missile fields of Nebraska and Wyoming to the ballistic submarine base in Washington state - even to the NORAD Early Warning Command in Cheyenne Mountain, Colo., where the nerve center of America's nuclear empire is built deep into a mountain.

Why show the Russian everything? To gain his trust and to remind him that America's Cold War fighting machine is in good working order. The specific objective was to persuade the Russian legislature to ratify a nuclear arms reduction treaty.

The Start Arms Reduction Treaty II, which would reduce warheads to 3,000 to 3,500 per side, was signed by President Bush and Yeltsin in 1993. But five years later, in 1998, the Russian Duma had not yet ratified the treaty. With a vote due to come up, the Russian and American military leaders decided to try to help the process along.

That treaty would eliminate America's most lethal weapon: the Peacekeeper. Each Peacekeeper has 10 warheads and is 20 times more powerful than the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima.

Says Habiger, who retired a year and a half ago: "We have reached the point where he senior military generals responsible for nuclear forces are advocating, more vocally, more vehemently, than our politicians, to get down to lower and lower weapons."

By the end of the tour, that mission seemed to be accomplished. At a farewell celebration, Yakovlev said that he now would be able to make a case for the passage of the missile reduction treaty.

Two months after that tour, the Russian commander gave Habiger a look at Russia's nuclear empire. The tour started in distinct Russian style with vodka toasts. Across the vast expanse of Russia, General Habiger saw the weapons built with America in mind: a Typhoon ballistic submarine able to take out a continent in less than an hour; a train, with hidden missiles, capable of launching 30 warheads on the move; and a massive nuclear warhead storage facility.

Habiger also saw General Yakovlov's secret underground war room on the edge of Moscow. The Russians did a drill to show Habiger their mobile Topol launch system. "To see those missiles come out, I'll tell you, that ran chills up and down my back," he remembers.

At the end of the tour, Habiger challenged the Russians to engage in an old bomber pilot ritual - as if they were all members of the same fraternity. The ingredients? A raw egg and a bottle of Jeremiah Weed bourbon. "When you complete this ritual, you will be a warrior, on a higher level," Habiger told his erstwhile enemies.

Habiger brought along his heir apparent, Admiral Richard Miese, to participate in the bonding experience with the Russians. Says Habiger: "It's confidence building, and how do you build confidence? You build friendship. When you build confidence, good things happen."

The goal of all this good feeling never came to pass, however.

On Dec. 16, 1998, the United States bombed Iraq. The attacks came three days before the Russian parliament was to vote on the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty II. Once again, the treaty was expected to pass.

But because of the bombing, the treaty was shelved. And in the months that followed, U.S.-Russian relations went from bad to worse as NATO, with Washington leading the way, expanded by adding three former Eastern European countries to its ranks.

Habiger says that these moves confused his new friends. "The Russians continue to shake their heads," he says. "They would ask me, 'Now let me get this right, NATO is a Cold War organization? The Cold War's over. Why in the world do you still have NATO?' I didn't have a very good answer for them."

"We're doing a heck of a lot of harm to the Russians - or with the Russians - by continuing to poke this NATO stick in their eye," says Habiger.

The Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty II came up for another vote in the Russian parliament on March 16, 1999. Once again, it didn't pass. The night before the vote, NATO began bombing Kosovo. Had that not happened, the treaty would probably have passed, Habiger says.

Shrtly after the war in Kosovo began, General Yakovlev deployed 10 new Topol missiles and mounted the largest nuclear exercise since the end of the Cold War.

At the same time, the Russian missilers were ordered to break all contact with their American friends. Habiger says that he is worried.

"It doesn't take a brain surgeon to figure out that when you shut off that kind of a relationship, you're going down a path that's not pleasant," Habiger says. "And (it's) not conducive to progress."

The Cold War nuclear arsenals are still here. President George W. Bush says he now intends to change all that. For starters he indicates that he will unilaterally cut America's nuclear arsenal from 6,000 warheads to as low as 2,000. Whether or not Russia smiles on this and reciprocates with equal cuts all depends on how they react to Bush's second main nuclear proposal - a Space Based Missile defense that so far seems only to terrify the Russians and to cause them to warn that it may well provoke a new arms race.

Go back to Part I: The Missiliers.



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  • CBSNews.com staff CBSNews.com staff

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