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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Can Missiles Get Through to Moscow?

DMITROV, Russia - Deep in a bunker near Moscow a tiny blip appears on a radar screen, closing quickly from the chaotic rim of what was once the Soviet Union.

Russian fighter planes rise, too late, to meet it and minutes later a lone missile slams into bustling Moscow streets.

This "nightmare scenario" haunts commanders of Russia's elite Air Defense Force as, piece by piece, the formidable air shield that once screened Russia is dismantled.

First, East European bases were lost. Now, newly independent states are taking control of outposts from Ukraine to the Baltic and Caucasus.

"Suddenly Moscow District has become the front line", says Colonel Valery Nikitin at an air defense unit nestled in snowy birch forests north of Moscow. The district stretches from Russia's western frontiers to the Ural Mountains.

"Our officers understand that though the frontier isn't right outside the camp fence, they do have less time to react", Nikitin said. "They have to be very alert. If there is a reaction time of, let's say, 20 minutes, then we know it can be done in 15. This is our job and this is the cross we bear, of our free will".

Unit Commander Viktor Feoktistov, huddled in a heavy military greatcoat against icy winds, surveys four S300 air defense missiles rising on their launcher. He insists that Moscow and other strategic targets, including atomic power stations, are safe.

"No one can get by. Best not to try", he says with a smile.

But the old network has crumbled, despite the agreement of the Commonwealth states to maintain links between bases scattered through the former Soviet Union. A loss of advance warning where minutes or seconds are crucial is compounded by other problems.

It is not only in troubled Transcaucasia or Central Asia that bases have become targets for intruders. Last year, guards in Moscow District opened fire 108 times, and killed three men. Most intrusions were incidents of drunkenness or attempted theft.

Colonel Feoktistov's unit should have 47 soldiers.

But today only five, plus two drivers and a cook, are left to guard a virtual "ghost" camp. Dormitories have been emptied by mass draft evasion plaguing the entire armed forces.

Air Defense Commander General Viktor Prudnikov said recently that 25 percent of reinforcements sent in were ill-trained or unfit.

"Many were sent away", he told parliament.

Officers have taken over guard duty at Dmitrov, pacing the six-kilometer perimeter barbed wire fence night and day. The grey figure in the watchtower is also an officer who belongs below in the command bunker with other overworked specialists.

Western experts say spare parts are in short supply and maintenance work is suffering.

Recently, television reporters prompted a top-level inquiry when they crept under Dmitrov's barbed wire and were filmed playing with the missiles and joking about carrying one off.

Colonel Alexander Naidenko expresses sentiments widespread among servicemen who feel neglected and held up to ridicule.

"They suggested anyone can come along here and just launch a rocket or carry one off. That's just plain daft", he said.

Military analysts agree that Soviet air defenses, built up at the height of the Cold War, were unrivaled.

According to a recent account by a General Grigory Kisunko, Stalin proposed the force to commanders one summer evening in 1950, sitting on a divan in the Kremlin dressed in his pajamas.

The air defense force scored a dramatic early success in 1960 with the downing of an American spy plane piloted by Gary Powers.

By the 1970s it had grown to a unified complex of 500, 000 troops, radar stations, fighter-interceptor aircraft, antiaircraft artillery and surface-to-air missiles.

Ironically, the system is withering at a time when it is arguably of most use. In Cold War days, conventional bombers played little part in Western attack scenarios while a nuclear strike was unlikely or would have been too devastating to parry.

But Charles Dick, head of the Soviet Studies Research Center at Sandhurst Military Academy in England, said recent experience in the Gulf showed that an enemy could be crippled with strikes using high-precision conventional rather than nuclear missiles.

"Modem cruise missiles allow a force to conduct strategic strikes - knock out bridges, command centers or industry - with conventional explosives", he said.

"For aircraft with cruise missiles, Moscow is in close striking range of the Barents Sea and the Baltic Sea".

The loss of Baltic and southern ground stations robs Moscow of precious minutes to spot cruise missiles coming low over the sea.

Colonel Igor Demedyuk of Air Defense command cited an example of a "nightmare scenario" in the post-Cold War world.

One rogue aircraft, he said, could wreak havoc with a conventional missile attack on the Volga-Don dam, a monument to Stalin's gigantism in densely populated southern Russia.

"Our experts calculate such an attack would send a wall of water three meters high across Krasnodar region sweeping away everything in its path", he told a newspaper. "After that, you won't need tanks or cannon. That's it. The end".