U.S. Military Helps Russia Drawdown Nukes
By Linda D. Kozaryn
American Forces Press Service
MOSCOW, Mar. 31, 1998 A handful of American service members working here have an unusual task: helping the Russians safeguard nuclear warheads as they are dismantled, transported and stored.
Cold War arms control initiatives such as START I resulted in large numbers of warhead shipments, said Navy Cdr. Mike DeMeo, a special assistant for arms control assistance at the Pentagon. As the Soviet Union collapsed, Russia suddenly had to bring nuclear weapons home across international borders, he said.
DoD spends about $400 million a year on the Cooperative Threat Reduction program, which began in 1992. In fiscal 1998, defense officials allocated $381 million. They seek $442 million for fiscal 1999.
The program began with three main goals: First it helped Belarus, Kazakhstan and Ukraine become non-nuclear weapons states. Second, it helped Russia accelerate its strategic arms reductions to START levels and to eliminate weapons of mass destruction. Third, the program strives to enhance nuclear weapons safety and prevent their proliferation.
Today, most new projects involve Russia. Of the estimated $1 billion allocated since the program began, for instance, $295.8 million is for projects to eliminate strategic arms and about $116 million is for weapons security projects.
DeMeo, a 26-year Navy veteran and native of Newton, Mass., has worked with the former Soviet states on the Cooperative Threat Reduction program since it began. "The biggest challenge was right at the beginning when [the Russians] didn't trust us an ounce," he recalled.
"At first, it was hard to give away money," DeMeo said. "They saw a nefarious American scheme behind everything we did. In 1992 we sat across the table and sort of glared at each other. They finally gave us a list of equipment they wanted us to provide."
As time went on, U.S. officials convinced their Russian counterparts they wanted to help. As one-on-one relationships developed, attitudes changed and cooperation improved. Both sides had a large force of strategic weapons to downsize, DeMeo said. "After a couple of years, they saw we really were sincere, we delivered and our word was good. They saw we both were military professionals with common challenges to face."
DeMeo usually travels to Russia twice a month. He's logged at least 50 trips to the Russian capital and other former Soviet states in the last five years. He recalled his first trip to a Russian submarine base at Archangel near the Arctic circle.
"I spent my Navy career flying P-3s chasing Russian submarines and here I was, the first American ever, on this base. I went up and crawled on a Yankee-class strategic ballistic missile submarine and it was almost a spiritual experience being on the thing."
DeMeo said he's come to respect Russia's strategic force officials. "I'm very impressed with their professionalism and their positive attitude toward Americans," he said. "They are very grateful for this assistance we've given them."
As Russia began meeting its START I deadlines, the United States could do the same, DeMeo said. "If we know their systems are coming down, we can bring ours down. In the end, it saves money for both governments, because we don't have to maintain those systems at a ready state. It also will be helpful for future arms reduction programs under START II, START III."
In 1995, U.S. officials signed two more agreements in the area of transportation and storage security that are the basis for today's ongoing cooperation, DeMeo said. Newer projects include security, training and equipment to better protect nuclear storage sites, and the creation of a computerized inventory system and integrated network that will allow the Russian defense ministry to track weapon movements and locations.
U.S. and Russian officials meet periodically in Moscow or Washington. American technical teams travel to Moscow every few weeks to discuss project details or view equipment being delivered. Three U.S. service members are stationed at the U.S. Embassy to provide in-country administrative and logistical support for the program.
Air Force Col. Bob Boudreau, a native of Seekonk, Mass., heads the Defense Cooperation Programs Office at the embassy. "You measure differences in six months, not in a day," he explained. "Sometimes both sides get very frustrated. But six months go by and we go, 'Wow, look what we did here -- buildings have gone up, or American contractors have workers out in areas where Americans or other foreigners would never have been allowed.'"
Army Sgt. 1st Class John Newcomb, a native of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., helps coordinate the 28 ongoing Cooperative Threat Reduction projects. He said he regularly interacts with three Russian ministries -- defense, economics and atomic energy.
"Sometimes we may have 20 delegations in town at the same time," he said. "We have to keep track of all of them at once. It's very challenging work. We're always busy."
The job is hard, but rewarding, Newcomb said. "Disarmament is good for both sides [the United States and Russia], and for the world," he said. "There are way too many weapons, and if we can get both sides to bring that level down and maybe keep nuclear weapons out of bad guy's hands, that's a good thing."