More recent reporting has indicated that actual humans, who could be pre-authorized in a crisis to launch nuclear strikes if certain conditions were met, were still very much involved in the operation of Perimeter and operated its central components from within the Kosvinsky Kamen complex. That being said, reports still indicate that this main Perimeter bunker was like something you’d find in a villain’s lair in a James Bond movie.
Its main control system was, at least “briefly” situated in “a deep hardened underground bunker in the shape of a sphere, very deep and very hardened, probably the most secure place of all time in the Cold War,” a David Hoffman, a longtime journalist and author of the 2009 book Dead Hand: The Untold Story of the Cold War Arms Race and Its Dangerous Legacy, explained in a podcast in 2015. Duty officers at their posts inside this structure would wait out their shifts watching for three lights to come on.
One would come on when they had received their “predelegation” of authority. The next would confirm a complete “decapitation” of senior Soviet leadership. The last one would become illuminated after confirmation of an incoming nuclear strike. If all three became lit, they would begin initiating the ICBM launches via a secure communications network that included ballistic missile-like rockets carrying transmitters to broadcast launch codes remotely to personnel in silo complexes down below. An actual fully-automated doomsday system was reportedly also considered, but ultimately rejected.
It’s also worth noting that the construction of Kosvinsky Kamen, which is often compared in form and function to the U.S. Air Force’s famous Cheyenne Mountain complex, was not declared to be totally finished until 1996. This was notably followed the next year by the U.S. military’s introduction of the B61-11 nuclear bunker buster bomb. The timing of the introduction of that weapon was widely seen as a direct response to the completion of the Russian bunker complex. You can read more about that bomb and the rest of the B61 series in greater detail in this past War Zone piece.
“Kosvinsky is regarded by U.S. targeteers as the crown jewel of the Russian wartime nuclear command system, because it can communicate through the granite mountain to far-flung Russian strategic forces using very-low-frequency (VLF) radio signals that can burn through a nuclear war environment,” Bruce Blair, who had previously served as an ICBM launch control officer and had worked on communications issues regarding strategic nuclear forces as part of the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment, wrote in The Washington Post in 2003. “Kosvinsky restores Russia’s confidence in its ability to carry out a retaliatory strike.”
Blair, who died in July, had been first to publicly reveal details about Perimeter in 1993 and had gone on to work in the think tank and advocacy communities, including co-founding Global Zero, which advocates for the total elimination of nuclear weapons worldwide.
Less is known about the facility at Mount Yamantau, which reportedly lies, at least in part, under some 3,000 feet of rock, primarily made up of quartz, and has been said to be absolutely massive, encompassing an area “as big as the Washington area inside the Beltway,” or around 400 square miles. The complex is situated within Mezhgorye, which is what is known in Russia as a closed town, where only authorized individuals are allowed to live and work.
This facility is believed to be primarily a so-called continuity of government site for Russia’s top leadership to relocate to during any kind of major crisis, similar to the U.S. military’s Raven Rock Mountain Complex, or Site R, as well as the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) Mount Weather Emergency Operations Center. Raven Rock is generally described as an underground Pentagon, while Mount Weather is meant to provide a hardened location for the U.S. government’s top civilian leadership to operate from.
“It is more a shelter than a command post, because the facility’s communications links are relatively fragile,” Blair had written in 2003. “As it turned out, the quartz interferes with radio signals broadcast from inside the mountain.”
The Russians have been very tight-lipped about this complex, construction of which was still ongoing, at least on some level, as of 1996. “The project has been variously described by present and former Russian officials as a mining site, a repository for Russian treasures, a food storage area, a dump for nuclear materials and a bunker for Russia’s leaders in case of nuclear war,” according to a report that year from The New York Times.
Two years later, it was reported to be abandoned. This raises the question about whether work there subsequently resumed, if any technical issues regarding communications links to the outside world were resolved, and if this is the facility Putin may have been referring to in his remarks today.
Of course, Putin may well be describing another previously unknown site that is now close to being completed. Inc
No matter what, it’s not necessarily surprising that there has been a revival of interest in at least a new-ish, deeply buried nuclear command and control bunker in Russia. For years now, the United States has been pushing ahead with a broad nuclear modernization effort, which includes the new B61-12 nuclear gravity bomb. This is the first variant in that series to feature precision guidance and reportedly has its own bunker-busting capabilities, though it’s unclear how it compares to the more specialized B61-11. The U.S. government has said that it will retain the B61-11 until it had confidence that the B61-12 can supplant it in this role.