Russia's Myopic Missile Defense
By David Hoffman
MOSCOW – Russia's early-warning defense against missile attack, a key aspect of the hair-trigger doctrine of nuclear deterrence, is deteriorating because Moscow cannot replenish the array of satellites it needs to monitor U.S. missile silos and submarines, according to Russian and Western security analysts.
For several hours each day, Russian military commanders cannot see any of the U.S. missile fields, nor can they monitor the most dangerous threat to their own forces – U.S. Trident submarines submerged in the world's oceans, these specialists said.
Russia has not launched an early-warning satellite in nearly a year, they added, and U.S.-Russian plans for sharing early-warning data, announced last September by Presidents Clinton and Boris Yeltsin, have not been implemented. Such cooperation involves highly sophisticated equipment and the transfer of ultrasensitive defense information, analysts say, and a legacy of distrust persists on both sides.
Although the Cold War has ended, Russia and the United States remain on constant nuclear alert. Both sides say that if attacked they will unleash massive retaliation, even before enemy warheads arrive; the strategy is that such a stance will discourage any first strike.
But the threat of retaliation requires accurate early warning, and without it, Russian decision-makers are blindfolded. Some Western specialists believe the growing gaps in the area covered by Russia's early-warning satellites have increased the risks of a serious miscalculation, because Russian commanders will have less time to decide if a launch report is real.
There have been several close calls. In September 1983, the Soviet early-warning system sent a false signal to ground stations that a U.S. missile attack was underway. After a few anxious minutes deep in a Soviet defense bunker, the mistake was recognized by an officer on duty. In another case that highlights the early-warning risks, the launch of a Norwegian scientific rocket in 1995 triggered a false alarm that was reported all the way to Yeltsin.
At the time of the 1983 alarm, the Soviet satellites positioned to detect U.S. ballistic missile launches had been on station for only about a year. Launched into a high elliptical orbit, the satellites did not look directly down at Earth; rather, they peered at an angle, depending on infrared waves to identify the hot exhaust of a rocket against the black background of space.
To keep tabs on U.S. missile fields, an array of satellites was needed. Their space tracks followed one after another, sweeping over the known missile locations in the United States; but they were prone to drift from their orbits and had to be replaced often.
The full early-warning system of that era had nine satellites. On the day of the false alarm, there were seven in orbit, according to Paul Podvig, a research associate at the Center for Arms Control, Energy and Environmental Studies here. Podvig said the seven satellites were sufficient to cover all the U.S. missile fields because the full overlay of nine was designed with some overlap.
That same system is still in use, but because of its crippling financial problems, Russia has not put a single early-warning satellite into orbit since last April. Some existing satellites ceased working as recently as last year, and, according to Podvig, the system now has only three active satellites – less than half the number at the time of the 1983 alarm and just a third of the full constellation.
The Soviets created a second satellite system in the late 1980s – this one in geostationary orbit, meaning that these satellites remain fixed in one place above the Earth's surface. Two of these are still functioning, Podvig said, with one sited to cover some of the gaps in the original array of satellite.
But gaps remain, however. Every 24 hours, the high elliptical satellite system is blind during two periods; one is nearly six hours long, the other about an hour long, Podvig said. Even with the help of the geostationary satellite, there is a daily gap of about three hours, he said.
"Over the last five or six years, Russia kept the configuration working all the time," Podvig said. "But it started disintegrating at the beginning of 1998. The situation in the last six years wasn't good, but they had reserves. They kept it working. Now, they have used up those reserves. The problem is serious."
There is some uncertainty among Western and Russian experts about the capabilities of the satellites in geostationary orbit. At issue is whether one of these satellites, Cosmos-2224, is capable of looking directly down at the world's oceans, where the Trident submarines patrol.
Podvig said he believes it can look down at the North Atlantic – Tridents also patrol the Pacific – while Theodore A. Postol, a professor at MIT, has questioned whether it has look-down capability at any ocean. Without this capacity, Postol said, Russia would be blind to sea-launched missiles. "Russia has no space-based early warning against the most potent threat its land-based forces face, the U.S. Trident submarine-launched ballistic missiles," he said.
Postol noted that Russia's system of ground-based early-warning radar has also been degraded because many installations were built on the Soviet periphery – outside Russia – and are now in independent states. An important radar station in Latvia was closed last August and has not been replaced, and there are other gaps, as well. Postol has mapped "corridors" in which missiles could be launched at Russia that would not even show up on the existing radar screens. One such avenue runs from the Pacific, where most Tridents are based, into the heart of Russia from the Far East.
"There are large parts of the Russian forces that could be attacked from the Gulf of Alaska and would be destroyed without Russia even knowing an attack was underway," Postol said in an interview. "Moscow could be destroyed within four to five minutes of the radars seeing the incoming warheads."
The situation is risky, Postol said, in that it could drive Russia more and more toward making a quick decision to retaliate – one that would be based on less reliable information.
But Podvig said he is not as worried as Postol about Russia's early-warning problems. "If you consider Cold War scenarios, a lack of early warning is a really bad thing. You can come up with all kinds of first-strike scenarios. But I'm not that pessimistic. My view is that, even if Russia has no early-warning capability, no radars, no satellites, and still relies on intercontinental ballistic missiles and launch-on-warning, in any crisis, Russia will still have to be taken seriously," he said.
So far, little has been done to reduce the threat of nuclear miscalculation. Russia and the United States have pledged to re-target missiles away from each other, but that could be reversed quickly in a crisis. Bruce Blair, a security analyst at the Brookings Institution in Washington, has argued for "de-alerting" Russian and U.S. nuclear forces, effectively taking them off hair-trigger status, but the idea has yet to win official favor.
With reduced early-warning capability, Blair said, Russia "is losing its ability to distinguish between real and imaginary nuclear threats. The United States could be the big loser in this situation."
At a Moscow summit last September, Clinton and Yeltsin announced plans to share early-warning missile launch information. "It was a good first step," said Postol, "but the administration hasn't done anything to implement it, and they have no vision of follow-on steps."
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company