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399 May 3, 2001

Reducing a Common Danger

Improving Russia’s Early-Warning System
by Geoffrey Forden

Executive Summary

During the past 20 years the world has sur- The Bush administration could help Russia
vived at least four false alerts for nuclear war. Each obtain and maintain an effective, economic, and
time, space-based early-warning systems played a reliable space-based early-warning system in
major role. In three of the four false alerts, two both the short and the long term. Such assis-
involving U.S. forces and one Russian forces, reli- tance would improve U.S. security by helping to
able space-based sensors assured leaders that they prevent Russia from mistakenly launching a
were not under attack when other systems indi- nuclear attack. The primary measure initiated by
cated that nuclear annihilation was imminent. In the Clinton administration—the Joint Data
the fourth, in 1983, a relatively new Soviet satellite Exchange Center—is inherently ineffective
system falsely indicated that the United States was because the Russians may not believe U.S. early-
launching a nuclear attack. All four cases show the warning data. Instead, U.S. assistance should be
importance of both sides’ having reliable space- focused on helping Russia to improve its own
based early-warning systems. space-based system. Only then will the Russians
Because of that need, Russia’s continuing eco- have confidence that no U.S. launches have
nomic difficulties pose a clear and increasing dan- occurred.
ger to itself, the world at large, and the United Joint early-warning centers can, however, have
States in particular. Russia no longer has the a stabilizing influence on the tensions among
working fleet of early-warning satellites that reas- China, India, and Pakistan. New nuclear states
sured its leaders that they were not under attack run a substantial risk that their nuclear weapons
during the most recent false alert—in 1995 when a may accidentally explode, perhaps triggering an
scientific research rocket launched from Norway inadvertent nuclear war. In that case, joint cen-
was, for a short time, mistaken for a U.S. nuclear ters—supplying information from the sensors of
launch. With decaying satellites, the possibility nations not involved in the conflict (Russia and
exists that, if a false alert occurs again, Russia the United States)—might prevent a tragic acci-
might launch its nuclear-tipped missiles. dent from escalating into a regional nuclear war.


Geoffrey Forden is a senior research fellow with the Security Studies Program at the Massachusetts Institute of
Reductions in its at approximately the same altitude and speed
military budget Introduction that a Trident would drop its expended first
stage and nose cone. Russia has, of course,
have prevented Six years ago, on January 25, 1995, the monitored Trident test flights and incorpo-
Russia from world lived through what some observers have rated those characteristics into its computer
launching called the most dangerous moments of the programs. Those programs now project the
nuclear missile age.1 Russian radars in Latvia future course of the missile to see if it repre-
replacements for and Lithuania detected a powerful rocket sents a possible threat.
its early-warning somewhere over the North Sea. The missile’s Although definitely heading away from
trajectory must have set off all the alarm bells Russia, the missile is heading along the same
satellites as they in the Russian nuclear command-and-control flight corridor that incoming missiles
age and die. center. The missile was following the same tra- launched from U.S. ICBM fields would take.
jectory that a U.S. Trident missile would take If the missile is a Trident, it could explode a
to mask a massive U.S. nuclear first strike by nuclear warhead in the upper atmosphere—
knocking out Russian detection systems with blinding Russia’s early-warning and tracking
a high-altitude nuclear airburst. Fortunately, radars. In the parlance of nuclear war, that is
Russian commanders had access to a constel- a precursor attack. At the start of an actual
lation of early-warning satellites that showed nuclear war, such a precursor attack would
that no U.S. intercontinental ballistic missiles prevent Russia from knowing which of its
(ICBMs) had been launched from the conti- nuclear forces were being targeted in the ini-
nental United States. In reality, what was tial attack and which U.S. missiles had been
detected was a harmless scientific rocket launched. Lacking those vital bits of infor-
launched from Norway. That early-warning mation, Russia could end up holding in
capability may very well have prevented reserve missiles that are targeted by the
nuclear annihilation. Unfortunately, if anoth- incoming wave of U.S. warheads. Therefore,
er benign event sets off the nuclear alarm, the if Russia believes that a precursor attack has
Russians no longer have that fleet of satellites been launched, a strong incentive exists for it
to reassure them. to launch its missiles as soon as possible.
The Clinton administration acknowledged Thus, distinguishing a precursor nuclear
the dangers the shortfalls in Russia’s early- attack from harmless events is paramount. Yet
warning system pose for the United States, but the same reductions in Russia’s military budget
the administration’s opening of a joint early- that may have contributed to the sinking of the
warning center in Moscow has failed to pro- submarine Kursk have prevented Russia from
vide Russia the confidence it needs to not launching replacements for its early-warning
launch a nuclear attack in error. Ukraine, satellites as they age and die. Russia has had to
Belarus, and Kazakhstan pose no such dan- prioritize its military spending, and such warn-
gers because they gave up the nuclear weapons ing systems—in today’s climate where the
on their soil after the Cold War ended. chance of nuclear war with the United States is
Consider what would hypothetically hap- believed to be considerably reduced—have been
pen if the same false alarm were to occur given a very low priority. Only two of the fleet of
today: Just after dawn, the single surviving nine early-warning satellites that existed in
Russian early-warning radar covering Europe 1995 are functioning now. For long periods
and the North Atlantic detects a powerful each day, Russia does not know whether or not
rocket launched from somewhere off the the United States has launched its land-based
Norwegian coast. The missile is heading ICBMs. Furthermore, the breakup of the Soviet
away from Russia toward the polar region, Union has placed most of Russia’s early-warn-
but it has a speed and an altitude similar to ing radars on what is now foreign soil. The
those of a Trident missile. Furthermore, sev- Latvians—for a variety of reasons, including a
eral objects have separated from the missile need to demonstrate national sovereignty—

dynamited the early-warning radar on their ter- financial aid to Russia’s military, freeing scarce
ritory in September 1999. That action left in resources Russia could then use for other mili-
Russia’s coverage a gap that Trident missiles tary programs that the United States would
can fly through undetected until they explode find undesirable. However, it appears that
over Moscow. If U.S.-Russian relations contin- Russia is not devoting any resources to improv-
ue to worsen, the United States could be ing its strategic early-warning systems. If U.S.
attacked because of those deficiencies in aid could be directed solely to improving
Russia’s early-warning system. Russia’s early-warning system, the money
With many of its strategic early-warning would strengthen U.S. security in much the
systems out of commission, Russia is left in same way as does U.S. financing of the
the dark except for information from the joint Cooperative Threat Reduction program (U.S.
early-warning center in Moscow. Today assistance in securing or dismantling Russian
Russian commanders would need to call a nuclear weapons that could be stolen or sold to
Russian officer manning that center and ask terrorists or “rogue” states).
him to look over the shoulder of his American
counterpart to see whether the American’s
computer screen showed any missile launches. A Brief History of Avoiding The United States
But the data shown on the U.S. computer Unintended Nuclear Wars
screen—transmitted on a dedicated telephone could be attacked
line directly from the U.S. early-warning center The Cuban missile crisis is the best-known because of defi-
in Cheyenne Mountain—have already been fil- example of narrowly avoiding nuclear war.
tered to prevent them from indicating any However, there are at least four other less well- ciencies in
possible vulnerability in the U.S. early-warning known incidents in which the superpowers Russia’s early-
system. The data could just as easily be altered geared up for nuclear annihilation. Those inci- warning system.
to mask any U.S. ICBM launches. dents differed from the Cuban missile crisis in
Would U.S. computer screens showing no a significant way: they occurred when either
evidence of a massive U.S. first strike be U.S. or Soviet or Russian leaders had to
enough to convince Russian leaders that they respond to false alarms from nuclear warning
were not under attack? We can only hope so. systems that malfunctioned or misinterpreted
But there are measures the United States benign events.
could take that would allow Russia access to All four incidents were very brief, probably
reliable early-warning information entirely lasting less than 10 minutes each.
under its own control. First, the United States Professional military officers managed most
might pay for the launch of early-warning of them. Those officers had to decide
satellites that Russia has constructed but whether or not to recommend launching a
apparently cannot afford to put into space. “retaliatory” strike before possibly losing
Another possibility would be for the their own nuclear forces to apparent surpise
United States to cooperate with Russia in nuclear first strikes. In three of the four inci-
developing the next generation of early-warn- dents, the decision not to respond to the
ing satellites. New sensors developed and test- alarm was made when space-based early-
ed during the joint research project could warning sensors failed to show signs of mas-
allow Russia to deploy far fewer satellites that sive nuclear attacks. The fourth incident was
had much broader coverage than does the cur- caused by an inadequate early-warning satel-
rent constellation. The Clinton administra- lite system that was fooled into thinking that
tion, after years of trying to tie that joint ven- reflected sunlight was the flames from a
ture explicitly to Russian concessions on the handful of ICBMs.
Anti–Ballistic Missile Treaty, finally removed As the brief history of those four incidents
that restriction and let the project begin. makes clear, space-based early-warning sys-
Both of those measures involve some sort of tems played a major role in avoiding nuclear

war. During the 1980s, a few specialized arti- board.2 It was later determined that a realistic
cles in the media hinted at the presence of training tape had been inadvertently inserted
those systems. However, it was only during into the computer running the nation’s
the Gulf War that the American public truly early-warning programs.
became aware of U.S. capability to detect mis- However, within minutes of the original
sile launches using space-based assets. alert, the officers had reviewed the raw data
During that crisis, U.S. Defense Support from the DSP satellites and checked with the
Program satellites, first orbited in 1970, early-warning radars ringing the country.
detected the launch of every Iraqi Scud mis- The radars were capable of spotting missiles
sile. The satellites made the detections from launched from submarines close to the U.S.
their orbits by “seeing” the infrared light that shores and ICBM warheads that had traveled
the missiles’ motors gave off during powered far enough along their trajectories to rise
flight. The warning of launches was trans- above the curvature of the earth. The DSP
mitted to Patriot air defense missile batteries satellites were capable of detecting the
in Israel and Saudi Arabia to support launches of Soviet missiles almost anywhere
attempts to shoot down the incoming war- on the earth’s surface. Neither system
heads. The association with the fighting of showed any signs that the country was under
conventional war has obscured the more attack, so the alert was canceled.
important strategic role those systems have
played: reassuring leaders of the United The Computer Chip Incident
States and Russia that they were not under On June 3, 1980, less than a year after the
nuclear attack. A review of the four nuclear incident involving the training tape, U.S.
crises will better highlight that role. command posts received another warning
that the Soviet Union had launched a nuclear
The Training Tape Incident strike.3 As in the earlier episode, launch crews
Shortly before 9 a.m. on November 9, for Minuteman missiles were given prelimi-
1979, the computers at North American nary launch warnings, and bomber crews
Aerospace Defense Command’s Cheyenne manned their aircraft. This time, however,
Mountain site, the Pentagon’s National the displays did not present a recognizable or
Military Command Center, and the Alternate even a consistent attack pattern as they had
National Military Command Center in Fort during the training tape episode. Instead, the
Ritchie, Maryland, all showed what the displays showed a seemingly random num-
United States feared most—a massive Soviet ber of attacking missiles. The displays would
Early-warning nuclear strike aimed at destroying the U.S. show that two missiles had been launched,
command system and nuclear forces. A then zero missiles, and then 200 missiles.
systems have reas- threat assessment conference, involving Furthermore, the numbers of attacking mis-
sured leaders of senior officers at all three command posts, siles displayed in the different command
the United States was convened immediately. Launch control posts did not always agree.
centers for Minuteman missiles, buried deep Although many officers did not take this
and Russia that below the prairie grass in the American West, event as seriously as the incident of the previ-
they were not received preliminary warning that the United ous November, the threat assessment confer-
States was under a massive nuclear attack. ence still convened to evaluate the possibility
under nuclear The alert did not stop with the U.S. ICBM that the attack was real. Again the committee
attack. force. The entire continental air defense reviewed the raw data from the early-warning
interceptor force was put on alert, and at systems and found that no missiles had been
least 10 fighters took off. Furthermore, the launched. Later investigations showed that a
National Emergency Airborne Command single computer chip failure had caused ran-
Post, the president’s “doomsday plane,” was dom numbers of attacking missiles to be dis-
also launched, but without the president on played.

The Autumn Equinox Incident against the black of space. To get that view, the That Norwegian
On September 26, 1983, the newly inau- Soviet Union picked a special type of orbit that scientific rocket
gurated Soviet early-warning satellite system it had used for its communications satellites.
caused a nuclear false alarm. Like the United Those orbits, known as Molnyia orbits, come incident caused a
States, the Soviet Union realized the impor- very close to the earth in the Southern dangerous
tance of monitoring the actual launch of Hemisphere but extend nearly a tenth of the
ICBMs. However, the Soviets chose a differ- distance to the moon as the satellite passes over
moment in the
ent method of spotting missile launches. the Northern Hemisphere. From that position nuclear age.
Instead of looking down on the entire earth’s high above northern Europe, the Soviet
surface the way U.S. DSP satellites do, Soviet Union’s Oko (or Eye) early-warning satellites
satellites looked at the edge of the earth— spend a large fraction of their time viewing the
thus reducing the chance that naturally continental U.S. missile fields at just the right
occurring phenomena would look like mis- glancing angle. However, shortly after midnight
sile launches. Missiles, when they had risen 5 Moscow time on September 26, 1983, the sun,
or 10 miles, would appear silhouetted against the satellite, and U.S. missile fields all lined up
the black background of space. Furthermore, in such a way as to maximize the sunlight
when the edge of the earth is viewed, light reflected from high-altitude clouds (Figure 1).
reflected from clouds or snow banks has to Whether that effect was a totally unex-
pass through a considerable amount of the pected phenomenon is hard to know. That
atmosphere. That view reduces the chances may have been the first time this rare align-
that clouds and snow may cause false alarms. ment had occurred since the system became
A satellite has to be in a unique position to operational the previous year. Press inter-
view a recently launched missile silhouetted views with Lt. Col. Stanislav Petrov, the offi-

Figure 1
A Russian Oko Early-Warning Satellite’s Hypothesized View of the U.S. Missile Fields
at the Time of the Autumn Equinox Incident

Source: The satellite’s position was determined using orbital parameters supplied by the National Aeronautics
and Space Administration.

cer in charge of Serpukhov-15, the secret Norwegian scientists and their American col-
bunker from which the Soviet Union moni- leagues launched the largest sounding rocket
tored its early-warning satellites, indicated ever from Andoya Island off the coast of
that the new system reported the launch of Norway. Designed to study the northern
several missiles from the U.S. continental lights, the rocket followed a trajectory to
missile fields.4 Petrov had been told repeated- nearly 1,500 kilometers altitude but away
ly that the United States would launch a mas- from the Russian Federation (Figure 2). As
sive nuclear strike designed to overwhelm discussed above, the flight appeared similar
Soviet forces in a single strike. to one that a U.S. Trident missile would take
Why did that false alarm fail to trigger a to blind Russian radars by detonating a
nuclear war? Perhaps the Russian command nuclear warhead high in the atmosphere.
Russia was did not want to start a war on the basis of That scientific rocket caused a dangerous
data from a new and unique system. On the moment in the nuclear age. Russia was
poised, for a few other hand, if the sun glint had caused the poised, for a few moments at least, to launch
moments at least, system to report hundreds of missile launch- a full-scale nuclear attack on the United
to launch a full- es, then the Soviet Union might have mistak- States. In fact, President Boris Yeltsin stated
enly launched its missiles. Petrov said that he the next day that he had activated his
scale nuclear refused to pass the alert to his superiors “nuclear football”—a device that allows the
attack on the because “when people start a war, they don’t Russian president to communicate with his
start it with only five missiles. You can do lit- top military advisers and review the situation
United States. tle damage with just five missiles.”5 online—for the first time.
However, we can be fairly confident that
The Norwegian Rocket Incident Yeltsin’s football showed that Russia was not
Early on the morning of January 25, 1995, under attack and that the Russian early-

Figure 2
Trajectory of the Black Brant XII Sounding Rocket, Which Set Off the Norwegian
Missile Incident

Source: Author’s calculations of the trajectory from radar tracking information supplied by the National
Aeronautics and Space Administration.

warning system was functioning perfectly. In dent) to see that complex organizations, rely-
addition to the string of radars surrounding ing on even more complex machinery, can
the border of the former Soviet Union, find new and unexpected ways to fail. In fact,
Russia had inherited a complete fleet of a comprehensive study of nuclear accidents
early-warning satellites that, even by 1995, has shown convincing historical evidence that,
still maintained continuous 24-hour cover- despite measures taken to prevent them, such
age of the U.S. continental missile fields. In accidents are inevitable.6
the early 1990s Russia had still managed to The most recent example of solving the
launch replacement satellites for its early- “last problem” was the Clinton administra-
warning system as the previous ones died tion’s initiative to share early-warning data
out—thereby retaining continuous coverage. with Russia. The jointly manned center has
Because of those satellites, Yeltsin’s display been presented by the American side as a
must have shown that no massive attack was solution to the decline of Russia’s early-warn-
lurking just below the horizon. ing facilities. Russians familiar with the
negotiations, however, maintain that the cen-
ter has no military significance. That view is
Reliable Early-Warning underscored by the choice of the site for the
Coverage Benefits center: an old schoolhouse nearly an hour
away from downtown Moscow. In fact, U.S.
Both Countries Department of Defense officials familiar
The danger posed by those incidents was with the Joint Data Exchange Center admit
not the unauthorized or accidental launch of that, even if the center had been active during
a handful of nuclear-tipped missiles but the the Norwegian rocket incident, its only effect
possibility that either country might misin- would have been to facilitate the launch noti-
terpret a benign event—a computer training fication issued before the NASA launch.
tape mistakenly inserted into an operational Any assistance the United States provides
computer or sunlight glinting off clouds must increase Russia’s confidence in the valid-
during a rare lineup of the sun, earth, and ity of its own early-warning systems. The
satellite—and decide to launch a full-scale JDEC fails that test. Russia would never
nuclear attack. believe that the United States would pass
Each incident caused officials to take along launch indications if a U.S. nuclear
steps to solve a specific problem. After the attack had been launched. However, to deter-
training tape incident, the U.S. Department mine what U.S. assistance would actually help
of Defense constructed a separate facility to improve the Russian early-warning system, an Despite measures
train operators so that a training tape could understanding of the system itself is needed.
not again be inserted into the computer run-
taken to prevent
ning the nation’s early-warning system. them, accidents
Apparently, the Soviet Union launched a new An Overview of the Russian are inevitable.
fleet of early-warning satellites in geostation- Early-Warning System
ary orbit simply to provide a second angle
from which to view U.S. missile fields. That As they raced for primacy in ballistic mis-
expensive and redundant system ensured siles, both sides of the Cold War sought reliable,
that at least one satellite could search for long-range early-warning systems. Prior to the
missile launches free from sun glint. missile age, the Soviet Union’s ground-based air
After three of the four incidents, the U.S. defense radars, with ranges of around 550 kilo-
government maintained that steps were taken meters, provided sufficient warning of the rela-
that would prevent any future false alarms. tively slow-moving strategic bombers deployed
However, it had to wait only seven months by both sides in the 1950s. Those radars were
after the first incident (the computer tape inci- capable of giving several hours warning of

Ultimately, both incoming bombers but could give only one or radars sacrifice the ability to measure distances
the United States two minutes warning of incoming ballistic mis- accurately and are more susceptible than regu-
siles—if the radars saw the missiles at all. The lar radars to atmospheric disturbances such as
and the Soviet next decades saw both countries make rapid the northern lights. In 1973, to try to compen-
Union turned to improvements in the range and resolution of sate for those deficiencies, the Soviets con-
space-based sen- radars and undertake expensive programs to structed a second over-the-horizon radar on the
increase their numbers. But, ultimately, both eastern edge of their country. They obviously
sors to give the the United States and the Soviet Union turned hoped that one or the other radar could always
maximum to space-based sensors to give the maximum look around the electronic noise associated
amount of warning time. with the polar region. However, by 1990 that
amount of warn- system proved inadequate and the Soviet
ing time. Soviet Early-Warning Radars Union abandoned over-the-horizon radar for
In 1957 the West first became aware of the long-range missile surveillance.
Soviet Union’s long-range radars when a U2 By then, the Soviet Union had already start-
spy plane photographed the Sary Shagan ed to move its warning systems into space.
missile test range in Kazakhstan.7 The radar However, the Soviets still had a use for powerful
facility photographed on that flight was the strategic radars. But by 1978 the Soviets were
prototype for the “Hen House” radar, which more interested in the resolution of the radars
had a range of 6,000 kilometers. (The West and were willing to sacrifice distance for
referred to this system as Hen House pre- improved tracking ability. In that year they
sumably because the long buildings that sup- started to replace the aging Hen House radars
ported the antennas were reminiscent of with a newer design. Those high-resolution
chicken coops.) By 1964 the Soviet Union tracking radars became known in the West as
had added four more Hen House radars—two Pechora-type radars—named after the Russian
looking toward China and the Pacific and town near which the first one appeared.
two scanning the attack corridors of U.S. Pechora-type radars operate in a range of the
ICBMs and submarine-launched ballistic radio spectrum ideal for detecting and tracking
missiles (SLBMs). Those systems could spot incoming warheads. An unintended conse-
SLBMs soon after launch but would have to quence of that choice of radio frequency is that
wait until the warhead from an ICBM the radars are unusually susceptible to being
appeared above the horizon. That time peri- blinded by nuclear bombs exploded high in the
od could be anywhere from 10 to 15 min- upper atmosphere—the “precursor” attack that
utes—vital decisionmaking time that either must have been a principal concern during the
country lost when using that type of radar Norwegian rocket incident in 1995. But the
from within its own borders. In 1960 the improved tracking capability of those radars,
United States started positioning its radars— which the Soviet Union intended to install in a
the Ballistic Missile Early-Warning Systems— ring around the country, has two important
in Canada, Greenland, and England, an applications. First, it can be used for ballistic
option not available to the Soviet Union. missile defense. In fact, the United States
Both sides launched high-priority research protested vigorously when the Soviet Union
and development projects to try to increase started to construct a Pechora-type radar in
their warning time of missile launches. One Krasnoyarsk province. The Krasnoyarsk site
avenue for extending the range of radars is to was a considerable distance inside Soviet bor-
use special radio frequencies that bend around ders—a clear violation of the 1972 ABM treaty.
the earth’s surface.8 That type of radar is known The other nine Pechora-type radars were con-
as “over-the-horizon” radar. In 1971, when it structed on the periphery of the Soviet Union
opened a facility in Belarus, the Soviet Union and were permissible under the ABM treaty.
started operating its first over-the-horizon The original planned coverage of the Soviet
radar aimed at the U.S. ICBM fields. Such Union’s Pechora-type radars and the actual cov-

Figure 3
Planned and Actual Coverage of the Soviet Union’s Pechora-Type Radar Stations

Source: Theodore Postol, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, personal communication.

The atmospheric
erage today are shown in Figure 3. that were constructed on the periphery of the
Second, the improved tracking capabilities Soviet Union are now situated in the newly difficulties
of the Pechora-type radars gave the Soviets the independent states. That situation has been a encountered by
ability to assess an actual attack. That assess- source of conflict been the Russian Federation
ment involves projecting the paths of the and those new nations. In fact, Latvia dyna- the over-the-hori-
incoming warheads toward their intended tar- mited the early-warning radar facilities on its zon radars
gets and backtracking the missiles’ flight to territory on September 1, 1998—creating a sec- helped drive both
their launch silos. Such projecting allows mil- ond large gap in Russia’s radar fence. Russia
itary commanders to know which of their own must worry that the gap could serve as a new countries to
nuclear missiles are in danger from the first attack corridor for U.S. Trident II missiles. The investigate space-
wave of incoming warheads. Backtracking the gap also contributes to the imperative to
incoming warheads could, in principle, allow respond quickly to perceived threats.
based systems.
the Soviets to re-aim warheads previously
aimed at now-empty U.S. silos. Thus the Early-Warning Systems Move into Space
Soviets could avoid wasting missiles on those The atmospheric difficulties encountered
silos. However, even Pechora-type radars by the over-the-horizon radars helped drive
would not be very accurate at backtracking the both countries to investigate space-based sys-
warheads because of uncertainties in missile tems. For instance, in 1970 the United States
maneuvers below the radar’s horizon. abandoned its over-the-horizon radar efforts
The Soviets’ chain of Pechora-type radars when it started to deploy geostationary early-
was never completed. Protests by the United warning satellites. Those DSP satellites were
States had the effect of halting the construction actually the second generation of U.S. space-
of the Krasnoyarsk radar. In fact, since the fall based missile detection systems. The United
of communism, Russian leaders have admitted States first attempted in 1960 to orbit an
that its construction was a violation of the infrared-sensitive missile launch detection
ABM treaty. satellite, named the Missile Detection and
Adding to Russia’s problems with early Alarm System. Those satellites in low orbit
warning, several of the Pechora-type radars reportedly used infrared-sensitive television-

Producing style cameras. However, because those cam- gling with all those processes. Russian expatri-
space-qualified, eras had very serious difficulties distinguish- ates familiar with the Soviet early-warning
ing actual missile launches from naturally satellite programs have stated that the solid-
solid-state detec- occurring phenomena, the program was state sensors tested on those early flights were
tors requires a abandoned in 1962. about 50 pixels long. In contrast, some experts
In the 1970s the Soviet Union also started believe that the first U.S. DSP satellites had
number of well- research on space-based early-warning satel- infrared sensors nearly 1,000 pixels long.
developed high- lites. Initial efforts were focused both on tele- Those relative detector sizes have had an
tech industries. vision-style cameras similar to the failed extraordinary effect on how each country has
MIDAS satellites and on primitive solid-state used its satellites and on their ultimate capa-
detectors along the lines of those used in the bilities. With detectors 1,000 pixels long, the
DSP program. However, the Soviet television- United States was able to scan the earth’s
style detectors were abandoned before the sys- entire visible surface from geostationary
tem was operationally deployed. But produc- orbit and segment it into squares one kilo-
ing space-qualified, solid-state detectors meter on a side. Thus, the system had to dis-
requires a number of well-developed high-tech tinguish the light of a missile’s plume only
industries, such as producers of high-purity from the light reflected from clouds, ice, or
silicon wafers and high-precision photolithog- snow in one square kilometer. If the Soviets
raphy, and proficient microassembly indus- had tried to view the entire surface of the
tries. At the time, the Soviet Union was strug- earth, they would have needed to distinguish

Figure 4
Satellites Launched into Highly Elliptical Orbit

Source: Paul Podvig, Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology, personal communication.

Note: The first three launches are believed to have been satellites without operational sensors.

the missile’s plume from light reflected from reduced chance of false alarms. (Of course, The autumn
more than 14,000 square kilometers of the autumn equinox incident discussed equinox incident
clouds—clearly a more difficult problem. above showed that there was still room for
Faced with that problem, the Soviet error.) To accomplish that objective, the showed that there
Union traded global coverage, with a high Soviets positioned their satellites in so-called was still room for
chance of false alarms, for very limited cover- Molnyia orbits so that they viewed the areas
age of highly sensitive areas—the U.S. conti- of interest at a glancing angle. Thus, a U.S.
nental missile fields—with a significantly missile would appear to be silhouetted

Figure 5
Orbits of Russia’s Early-Warning Satellites in 1995 (top) and Today (bottom)

Source: The author calculated these ground traces using orbital parameters supplied by the National Aeronautics
and Space Administration.

Since 1995 the against the black background of space. Russian scientists working on this project
constellation of Pioneered by the Soviets, the Molnyia orbit have indicated that that type of satellite now
is a highly elongated trajectory with a point has a lifetime of around three years.
Russian early- closest to the earth just 2,000 kilometers over Since 1995, however, the constellation of
warning satellites the Southern Hemisphere. But the orbit’s Russian early-warning satellites has deteriorat-
highest point—where a satellite spends most of ed significantly. Russia had a full complement
has deteriorated its time—is more than 36,000 kilometers above of those satellites during the 1995 Norwegian
significantly. northern Europe. Soviet communication satel- rocket incident. Since then, Russia has not
lites, by contrast, had their highest points over replaced satellites often enough to maintain
the Soviet Union to facilitate ground-to-satel- complete 24-hour coverage. In fact, assuming
lite-to-ground communications. every satellite—even those that have drifted far
In 1984 the launches of early-warning from their optimal orbits—is still working,
satellites into those highly elliptical orbits Russian coverage has dropped to less than 17
reached a peak of eight in one year (Figure 4). hours per day. In reality, the coverage is proba-
A modest decrease in numbers of launches bly considerably less. After all, Russia, and the
per year subsequently occurred. However, in Soviet Union before it, went to considerable
1995 the Soviets were still managing to main- effort to almost daily realign their early-warn-
tain nine working satellites in orbit. ing satellites into a very precise formation to
Presumably, an increase in satellite lifetime maintain the best surveillance of U.S. nuclear
meant that fewer launches were needed. forces. Today, the satellites have been allowed

Figure 6
History of Russia’s Geostationary Early-Warning Satellites’ Longitude

Source: The author derived this plot from orbital parameters supplied by the National Aeronautics and Space

Note: The Soviets, and then the Russians, occasionally moved satellites. They did this most often to keep the posi-
tion over the mid-Atlantic occupied. When a satellite stops actively keeping station, it is removed from this plot.

to drift far from those optimal orbits, presum- es, but it has not used them all. An analysis by
ably because they no longer function. (See Theodore Postol of the Massachusetts
Figure 5, which shows the orbits of Russia’s Institute of Technology showed that all of
early-warning satellites in 1995 and today.) those slots were situated so that satellites in
them could view important regions, such as
Early-Warning Satellites in Geostationary Western Europe, China, or the United States,
Orbit at glancing angles.9 None of them is directly
The Soviet Union was very aware of the over the United States—indicating that the
advantages of putting sensors in geostation- Soviets did not give a high priority to looking
ary orbit. Such orbits are so high that satel- directly down on the earth’s surface.
lites in them take 24 hours to circle the
earth—appearing fixed over the same spot on Did Technology Drive Doctrine, or Did
the earth’s surface. Placing an early-warning Doctrine Drive Technology?
satellite over the mid-Atlantic would allow a Why did the Soviet Union, and now
single satellite to constantly observe U.S. con- Russia, place such a high priority on geosta-
tinental missile fields at a glancing angle—as tionary satellites over the mid-Atlantic when
opposed to the nine satellites the Soviet they had another fleet of early-warning satel-
Union planned for the highly elliptical orbits lites also viewing the United States? The tim- If another false
previously discussed. ing of the first operational launch of a satel- alarm occurs,
Reportedly, the Soviet Union first tested lite into geostationary orbit gives an impor- Russia will be less
an early-warning satellite in geostationary tant clue. The first launch was just a year
orbit in 1975. However, that Soviet satellite after the autumn equinox incident—when confident that it
lasted only a few months and then drifted off sunlight reflecting off high-altitude clouds is not under
orbit because of the natural perturbations in caused a false alarm. A reasonable inference is
the earth’s gravitational field. that the Soviet early-warning establishment
When the Soviets launched another satel- was concerned about repeats of such an inci-
lite in 1984, they again placed it over the mid- dent and decided to place a satellite in an
Atlantic. In fact, that position was the Soviet orbit that provided a view of the U.S. missile
Union’s, and is now the Russian Federation’s, fields from a totally different angle. Sunlight
highest priority position. The Russians have could affect only one of the two satellite con-
kept this slot nearly continuously occupied stellations at any given time. That might
since that time. Furthermore, they have explain why the Russians have kept such an
moved working early-warning satellites from expensive duplicate system running. This
other slots to the one over the mid-Atlantic theory is bolstered by reports in the West that
when the satellite occupying that slot failed. the first Soviet early-warning satellite in geo-
(See Figure 6 for evidence of that movement.) stationary orbit had exactly the same design
“Slots” in geostationary orbits are regulat- as the ones already in highly elliptical orbits.
ed by the International Telecommunications There have been reports that a second gen-
Union. Otherwise, radio interference would eration of early-warning satellites, designed to
occur between satellites if they were too close be capable of looking down on the surface of
together and used the same radio frequen- the earth, is now being launched into orbit.
cies. Also, command signals might be sent to However, conversations with Russian space
the wrong satellite. To avoid that problem, scientists familiar with those satellites indicate
geostationary satellites are spread out in that the satellites have only a very restricted
space. Furthermore, radio frequency bands view. In fact, some Western analyses have esti-
are allocated to different purposes—from mated that a single new-generation satellite
civilian communications to astrophysics might be able to view an area only the size of
research to military uses. The Soviet Union the North Atlantic. In discussions with the
claimed eight slots for early-warning purpos- author, the Russian scientists maintained that

the satellites do not have to view the entire ing a nuclear war. Therefore, the common
earth’s surface. Instead, they state that interest of both the United States and Russia
Russian doctrine is to view only those areas is to ensure that the other has access to reli-
from which the Russians believe a U.S. missile able early-warning information.
might be launched. Today Russia’s early-warning system is
Those areas of interest include the conti- falling apart. The system provides far less
nental United States and parts of the Pacific than 24-hour coverage of the continental
and Atlantic known to be Trident submarine U.S. missile fields. If some benign event trig-
patrol areas. However, Trident submarines gers a Russian nuclear alert, Russia’s leaders
are capable of launching attacks on Moscow will not have the same confidence that they
and elsewhere in Russia almost as soon as had during the 1995 Norwegian rocket inci-
they leave port. That capability makes the dent that a real attack is not under way.
needed surveillance area far wider than the During some possible future period of ten-
area the Russian early-warning satellites can sion between the United States and Russia,
view at any given time. they might launch a nuclear attack if an
The doctrine of expecting only massive equally benign event caused them to go on
nuclear attacks, which would include attacks alert. In fact, the expansion of NATO and
The history of by U.S. land-based ICBMs, was possibly valid U.S. plans to deploy national missile defense
nuclear false during much of the Cold War. However, the systems has ratcheted tensions higher than
alerts shows that doctrine is becoming increasingly untenable they were in 1995. It is possible that just
as submarine-launched missiles make up a helping the Russians overcome their early-
either Russia or large fraction of U.S. nuclear forces. Under warning problems might ease tensions
the United States the START II framework, the number of U.S. somewhat.
land-based warheads will decline because A number of alternatives are available for
can be tricked by multiple warheads on land-based missiles improving Russia’s access to early-warning
a benign event have been eliminated. Furthermore, U.S. information. Economic difficulties that
into suspecting improvements in conventional precision- Russia has faced over the last decade prevent it
guided weapons also reduce the need for the from having a reliable early-warning system.
that the other United States to launch its ICBMs during a Short-term solutions should focus on over-
nation has nuclear attack. coming those financial difficulties. However,
launched a If another false alarm occurs, all those fac- technological difficulties drove the Soviet
tors will make Russia less confident that it is Union, and now Russia, to choose methods
nuclear attack. not under attack. that reduced false alarms at the price of limit-
ing coverage. The choices the Soviet Union
made in overcoming those technological
Potential U.S. Assistance shortcomings have produced a system that is
for the Russian inefficient and expensive to maintain and
lacks global coverage. Because global coverage
Early-Warning System will become increasingly important, long-
term solutions should focus on technological
The history of nuclear false alerts shows cooperation that produces cost-effective sys-
that either Russia or the United States can be tems to provide such coverage.
tricked by a benign event into suspecting that
the other nation has launched a nuclear Joint Data Exchange Centers Do Not
attack. So far, global space-based missile sur- Address the Problem
veillance systems have boosted the confi- During a presidential summit in
dence of military leaders that they were not September 1998, the Clinton administration
under attack. Without that confidence, they initiated cooperation with the Russian gov-
might have mistakenly recommended start- ernment on a program of shared early warn-

ing. The program that has evolved, however, scientists note that the Russian government
does not address Russia’s need for reliable cannot afford to launch those satellites
early-warning information. Instead, the pro- because many other military programs have
gram provides a room in which filtered early- higher priority.
warning data from both countries’ warning The U.S. government could pay for the
systems can be displayed on computer launching of those satellites. The launch ser-
screens. Members of the Russian team can vices for five additional satellites—the mini-
look over the shoulders of their American mum needed to give Russia 24-hour coverage
counterparts to see what is being shown on of the continental U.S. missile fields—would
U.S. computer screens. The U.S. participants cost roughly $160 million.1 2 This option has
can do the same to see what is on the Russian the advantage of using Russia’s own satel-
computer screens. Because Russia would not lites—in which Russia has complete confi-
have confidence that an attack was not under dence. Also, no risk exists of revealing any
way during periods of tension, that method information about the U.S. early-warning
of cooperation is the least satisfactory. system that the U.S. government might con-
As noted earlier, the Russians believe that sider sensitive.
the joint center has no direct military value. Unfortunately, this option does not
More important, the JDEC does not have a address Russia’s long-term early-warning
direct input into Russia’s command-and- problem. Russia’s existing satellites—even if
control system. they are launched and do reestablish 24-hour
coverage—can only detect missiles launched
Pay for Launching Russia’s Existing from a small part of the earth’s surface. In the
Satellites future, as a larger fraction of the U.S. nuclear
Russia has undergone at least a decade of force is deployed on submarines, Russia will
financial difficulties. Some economic ana- need a more global system.
lysts argue that Russia is functioning in a Also, some observers might consider it
“virtual economy.” The only companies mak- inappropriate for the United States to fund a
ing a profit are those that can sell natural Russian military project. They could argue
resources for hard cash to foreign buyers.11 that Russia has enough resources to launch
Internal economies are run on a barter sys- those satellites if only a higher priority were
tem, and most businesses avoid paying taxes assigned to doing so. Furthermore, as evi-
whenever they can. The reduced tax base has dence that enough resources exist, they could
produced shrinking military budgets and an point to the continuing development of
obvious reordering of priorities in military advanced Russian ICBMs, such as the SS-27. The United States
programs. For instance, during the recent cri- The Casey Institute of the Center for Security
sis surrounding the sinking of the Kursk sub- Policy insists that no U.S. tax dollars be made
has an interest in
marine, it became known that Russia had available to Russia as long as it is moderniz- Russia’s having
phased out its submarine rescue operations. ing its strategic forces.1 3 complete 24-hour
Also, some analysts suspect that reduced However, the advantage to the United
operating funds led directly or indirectly to States of improving Russia’s access to early- coverage regard-
the sinking itself. warning information—reducing the likeli- less of whether
The Russian early-warning system has hood of an inadvertent nuclear war—out-
also suffered during this prolonged econom- weighs any assistance it might give to Russia’s
Russia makes
ic crisis. The fleet of early-warning satellites war-fighting capabilities. The satellite systems concessions on
has been allowed to fall far below the number in question simply do not have the precision the ABM treaty.
needed to maintain complete 24-hour cover- tracking needed to make a quantitative differ-
age. According to Russian space scientists, six ence in a nuclear war. (This is precisely the rea-
completed early-warning satellites sit on the son that helping to rebuild Russia’s early-
ground waiting for launch into space. The warning radar fence is not recommended.)

The benefits to The Clinton administration also longer sensitive to reflected light, so the
the United States appeared reluctant to provide financial assis- Russians will no longer need early-warning
tance for launching Russia’s existing satel- satellites in highly elliptical orbits. Instead, a
of Russia’s having lites. After the Congressional Budget Office’s single satellite in geostationary orbit over the
a complete second report to Sen. Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) Atlantic would give them all the ability that
outlining that option, the Clinton adminis- 10 do today. Relying on three such satellites
ground-based tration did offer to pay for the launch of would result in global coverage, considerable
radar system do those satellites. When the administration did cost savings, and presumably allow Russia to
not justify the so, it made U.S. financial assistance contin- better maintain its own satellites.
gent on Russia’s acceptance of modifications About $340 million would be needed to
costs. of the ABM treaty. Russia, however, has complete the RAMOS project. However, the
demonstrated that other projects have a United States gets considerably more than
higher priority than continuous early warn- just the vital improvement in Russia’s early-
ing. Russia is unlikely to decide to reverse its warning system. The research being done by
objections to the U.S. national missile RAMOS could directly contribute to
defense simply to get those satellites improvements in the troubled Space-Based
launched. On the other hand, the United Infrared System—a low-satellite program
States has an interest in Russia’s having com- that is a component of the U.S. national mis-
plete 24-hour coverage regardless of whether sile defense system. Furthermore, Russia has
Russia makes concessions on the ABM treaty. agreed to launch some tactical missiles for
RAMOS satellites to observe; those observa-
Assistance for Long-Term Improvement tions should provide valuable data that the
Future Russian early-warning systems United States can use for its theater missile
must both be cost effective and provide glob- defenses.
al coverage. Those requirements suggest a After several years of tying U.S. assistance
system of three geostationary satellites, each on RAMOS to Russian concessions on the
of which is capable of scanning the entire vis- ABM treaty, the Clinton administration wise-
ible surface of the earth from its orbit. Each ly decided to remove that requirement.
satellite, however, must also avoid being Unfortunately, the administration viewed
blinded or tricked by reflected sunlight—the the project as little more than foreign aid.
reason for Russia’s expensive and seemingly RAMOS can contribute significantly to alle-
redundant early-warning satellite fleets. viating the common danger only if its scien-
U.S. assistance to Russia’s future early- tific results are fully exploited. But scientific
warning system should focus on two aspects. exploitation funds for the RAMOS program
First, we should continue our joint research have been cut drastically. The funding is less
effort with Russia—known as the Russian- than a sixth of what a previous space-based
American Observation Satellites project. sensor research program spent on science-
RAMOS has had a long and stormy history. related activities. For instance, millions were
The program started out in 1992 as an effort spent on collecting data during a preliminary
to engage Russia in missile defense research— RAMOS aircraft experiment, but no money
a goal to which it continues to contribute. has been allocated for analyzing those data. If
But some of the research also has significant the trend continues, the United States will
implications for reducing the costs of have squandered hundreds of millions of
Russia’s early-warning system. dollars for RAMOS and an excellent chance
One goal of RAMOS is to test a new way to improve its own long-term security.
of filtering out reflected sunlight. If that line A second way to help Russia’s next-genera-
of inquiry is fruitful, as many scientists tion early-warning system would be to allow
believe it will be, Russia and the United States Russia to import sensors and other compo-
will be able to deploy satellites that are no nents for its satellites from the West. Those

components do not need to be state of the art. needed to justify U.S. assistance in the long
In 1970 the United States was able to scan the term. Nor would it provide the narrowly
earth’s surface with large, solid-state infrared focused coverage of U.S. ICBM fields needed
detectors that were sensitive enough. Since in the short term. Finally, the Russian radar
then, U.S. satellites have progressed to more systems have too much of a war-fighting
sophisticated technologies. Nevertheless, capability to warrant U.S. assistance.
Russia would still benefit from importing a Instead, the Bush administration should
limited number of sensors with older technol- assist Russia in launching its existing early-
ogy. But to allow such sales, Western export warning satellites in order to fill Russia’s
control laws would have to be modified to per- short-term early-warning gap. Also, the
mit the transfer of that technology. United States should engage Russia in devel-
Russia already has the scientific and tech- oping a next-generation early-warning satel-
nological know-how to manufacture those lite, one that would be more cost-effective to
older components. What the Russians lack is operate. These steps would improve U.S. secu-
the industrial base needed to make space- rity by reducing the chances of an inadvertent
qualified components. Western exports of the nuclear war without significantly improving
components would not increase Russia’s man- Russia’s nuclear war-fighting abilities.
ufacturing capabilities, which might then be The unique geo-
used for other less-desirable military purposes. graphical, politi-
Instead, allowing Russia to import a limited Multilateral Shared cal, and nuclear
number of solid-state detectors and space- Early Warning status of China,
qualified computers would merely bypass
Russia’s decaying industrial base. In other The Clinton proposals to include addi- India, and
words, both of the suggested avenues of assis- tional countries in the JDEC either focused
tance are basically financial assistance. on countries with early-warning technologies
Pakistan means
or were general proposals to include any that they could
country in the world. But international benefit from
Why We Should Not Help agreements should be entered into only
Rebuild Russia’s Radars when they solve real problems. Including shared early-
most third-party countries would not solve warning informa-
Some observers might argue that the any security problems either they or the
United States should assist Russia in rebuild- United States face. However, the unique geo-
ing its ground-based early-warning radar sys- graphical, political, and nuclear status of
tems. That perimeter of radars has an China, India, and Pakistan means that they
increasing number of gaps and will probably could benefit from shared early-warning
deteriorate further if more of the newly inde- information. Such sharing would add to
pendent states decide they will no longer U.S.-Russian bilateral nuclear stability as
host a Russian presence on their soil. well.
Although proponents of U.S. assistance for China, India, and Pakistan, the most
such an undertaking could argue that the aid recent nations to acknowledge the acquisi-
would provide additional confidence that tion of nuclear weapons, are too close to each
Russia was not under attack, the benefits to other for early warning to be meaningful in
the United States of Russia’a having a com- their war-fighting plans. For instance, it
plete ground-based radar system do not jus- would take about six minutes for a Scud-type
tify the costs. missile to fly the 425 miles between
Completing the radar system would pro- Islamabad and New Delhi—about the time
vide Russia with a marginal increase in confi- the Pentagon’s threat assessment confer-
dence that no nuclear attack was under way, ences took during the false alarms of 1979
but it would not give the global coverage and 1980. In fact, real-time early warning

might prove destabilizing. If any of those is possible, and some observers might argue,
countries decided to adopt a policy of even likely, that a partial nuclear explosion
launching its weapons on warning of an could result. And in the heat of the moment,
attack, it would not have enough time to it might not be obvious that a subkiloton
properly consider and eliminate the accident was not a several kiloton attack.
inevitable false alarms. Of course, either India or Pakistan, and
Surveillance of other nations’ missiles, certainly China, might object that its own
however, can give those nations confidence nuclear weapons were safe. But each country
that they are not being attacked (as it does cannot be sure that all the nuclear weapons
the United States and Russia)—especially in the other countries in the region are safely
when an accidental detonation of one of its deployed. For instance, if a nuclear explosion
own nuclear weapons occurs.1 4 occurs in Pakistan, India’s vital security inter-
India and Pakistan are relative newcomers est requires that Pakistan realize that an acci-
to the problems associated with owning dental detonation has occurred on its soil
nuclear weapons. It is realistic for the three and was not the result of an Indian nuclear
nuclear powers in the region, and in fact all attack. Otherwise, Pakistan might mistaken-
countries of the world, to worry that one or ly launch a “retaliatory” strike on India.
the other country’s nuclear weapons are not China’s interests are also served by India’s
sufficiently safe to be continuously deployed knowing that a nuclear explosion on Indian
for extended periods of time. The nearly 60 territory was not the result of an attack.
years of U.S. nuclear weapons management Similarly, Pakistan is well served if India
has shown that deploying nuclear weapons is knows that it was not attacked.
a dangerous undertaking. There have been a Russia and the United States could miti-
number of accidents that have strained the gate this danger on the Asian subcontinent
safety features on U.S. nuclear weapons and by jointly providing missile surveillance
U.S. command and control to the limit. That information to joint centers in all three coun-
no nuclear explosions occurred and that the tries. The joint centers would not have to
accidents involving command and control routinely provide raw data, which might
did not cause an inadvertent nuclear war do reveal sensitive information about early-
not dispel the danger. Those incidents warning technology. Instead they could nor-
should make the world more aware of the mally provide the type of analyzed informa-
dangers posed by deployed nuclear weapons. tion the JDEC plans to exchange between
The cause of an accidental nuclear explo- Russia and the United States. Only after an
The United States sion would not have to be design problems, accidental nuclear explosion, as explained
though those too are possible. (It is known, below, would a limited amount of raw data
has a vital interest for instance, that Iraq’s designs for nuclear have to be provided.
in helping Russia weapons would have proved very unstable. Establishing confidence in the informa-
maintain an Some UN arms inspectors stated that if the tion provided is still key to the success of
weapon had been constructed it could have this measure, and that is harder than it
early-warning sys- exploded if it had been hit by a bullet or even might appear. For instance, any of those
tem that covers dropped off a table.)1 5 Perhaps even more countries might argue that, in the case of
likely are accidents associated with deploy- an actual nuclear attack, both Russia and
the entire globe. ment. For instance, the United States has had the United States have an interest in not
airplanes carrying nuclear weapons crash or providing confirmation. Instead, they
accidentally drop them. Such accidents would argue, it would be in the U.S. and
severely stress any weapons safety features. In Russian interests to try to slow down the
at least two accidents associated with B-52s, escalation by not showing a missile attack
the conventional high explosives—used to in the hopes that the countries could reach
initiate the nuclear explosion—detonated. It an agreement before an all-out nuclear war.

However, if the United States judges that sor technology and Russian launch services. Concentrating on
the dangers of an inadvertent nuclear war in Costs to operate the satellite should run assistance that
the region are greater than those of confirm- about $12 million each year. Providing dedi-
ing an unprovoked attack, it must accept the cated landlines for communication from a emphasizes sys-
responsibility of providing valid data even in joint U.S.-Russian downlink and satellite tems built and
the advent of a real nuclear war. Fortunately, control center in Far Eastern Russia to the
there are technical means that could provide three centers—one each in China, Pakistan,
operated by
the countries with the reassurances they and India—might cost about $1 million each Russians ensures
need. One possible approach would involve year. that they will
granting India, China, and Pakistan access to
raw data in the event of an actual nuclear have confidence
explosion. The data coming down from the Conclusion in the early-warn-
satellite could be encrypted with codes that
the three countries created to validate the Almost inevitably, some future benign
ing information.
data’s authenticity. Because of the need to event will be misinterpreted by Russian mili-
show raw data to the countries in the region, tary leaders as a possible nuclear attack—
the JDEC will not be enough. Hence the ded- especially if the incident happens during a
icated satellite. period of increased political tension with the
How would those joint centers improve United States. When that happens, early-
U.S.-Russian nuclear stability? The centers in warning systems can play a vital role in pre-
regional nations could be used to build con- venting escalation into a nuclear holocaust.
fidence in U.S. and Russian missile identifi- Therefore, Russia’s deteriorating early-warn-
cation software without revealing sensitive ing system poses a real threat to U.S. security.
information about the algorithms that either The United States has a vital interest in
country uses to identify the other’s missiles. helping Russia maintain an early-warning
In the original collaboration, U.S. and system that covers the entire globe. Such a
Russian space scientists working on RAMOS system could provide Russia with the confi-
exchanged satellite images but carefully dence that no attacks have been launched.
avoided exchanging algorithms for identify- U.S. assistance, however, should be narrowly
ing missiles. A follow-on experiment could focused on solving real problems.
use the information derived from the current The Bush administration could take a
experiment to build a single, advanced-tech- series of phased steps to help Russia build up
nology early-warning geostationary satellite its own space-based early-warning systems.
that would be positioned over the Indian Concentrating on assistance that emphasizes
Ocean. (That satellite could have a field of systems built and operated by Russians
view restricted to China, India, and Pakistan ensures that they will have confidence in the
and would not provide the United States early-warning information. Furthermore, the
with additional early-warning information steps outlined in this paper do not risk
on Russia’s missile fields.) In the new experi- revealing information about current or
ment, the two teams of scientists—each with future U.S. early-warning systems.
close ties to their own country’s early-warn- Washington should not help to rebuild
ing establishments but independent of Russia’s radar fence, which could pose a secu-
them—could jointly develop software that rity threat to the United States, but should
would recognize Indian, Chinese, and work, with Russia, toward a system for shar-
Pakistani missiles. ing early-warning information with India,
Building and launching such a geosta- Pakistan, and China. Such a system would
tionary satellite should cost about $240 mil- not only guard against false alerts in those
lion—assuming the program, as the current newly nuclear countries; it would also pro-
RAMOS experiment does, uses Western sen- mote U.S.-Russian bilateral nuclear stability.

Early Warning Technology Programs,” Center for
International Studies, MIT, Research Report no.
Notes 86-1, 1986, p. 38.
1. Peter Vincent Pry, War Scare: Russia and America
on the Nuclear Brink (Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 9. Theodore Postol, Massachusetts Institute of
1999), p. 236. Technology, personal communication.

2. Scott D. Sagan, The Limits of Safety: Organiza- 10. Ibid.

tions, Accidents, and Nuclear Weapons (Princeton,
N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1995), pp. 228–31. 11. Clifford Gaddy and Barry Ickes, “Russia’s
Virtual Economy,” Foreign Affairs 77, no. 5
3. Much of the description of this incident comes (September–October 1998): 53–67.
from ibid., p. 231, and from Gary Hart and Barry
Goldwater, “Recent False Alerts from the Nation’s 12. Geoffrey Forden, “Letter to the Honorable Tom
Missile Attack Warning System,” Report to the Daschle on Further Options to Improve Russia’s
Senate Committee on Armed Services, October 9, Access to Early Warning Information,” Congres-
1980, pp. 5–9. sional Budget Office, August 1998, pp. 1–14.

4. David Hoffman, “Russia’s Myopic Missile 13. Casey Institute of the Center for Security
Defense,” Washington Post, February 10, 1999, p. A1. Policy, “As Expected, Russia Gets a Bail-Out—But
It Won’t Get Moscow through Next Year, or
5. David Hoffman, “I Had a Funny Feeling in My Protect U.S. Security Interests,” Perspective, no. 98-
Gut,” Washington Post, February 10, 1999, p. A19. C 128 (July 1998): 1–3.

6. Sagan, p. 267. 14. Scott D. Sagan and Kenneth N. Waltz, The

Spread of Nuclear Weapons, 2d ed. (New York: W. W.
7. Steven J. Zaloga, Soviet Air Defense Missiles: Design, Norton, forthcoming 2001).
Development, and Tactics (London: Jane’s Informa-
tion Group, 1989), p. 125. 15. Gary Milhollin, “Building Saddam Hussein’s
Bomb,” New York Times Magazine, March 8, 1992,
8. Matthew Partan, “Soviet Assessments of U.S. p. 32.

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