Cato Policy Analysis No. 399 May 3, 2001

Policy Analysis

Reducing a Common Danger:
Improving Russia's Early-Warning System

by Geoffrey Forden

Geoffrey Forden is a senior research fellow with the Security Studies Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.


Executive Summary

During the past 20 years the world has survived at least four false alerts for nuclear war. Each time, space-based early-warning systems played a major role. In three of the four false alerts, two involving U.S. forces and one Russian forces, reliable space-based sensors assured leaders that they were not under attack when other systems indicated that nuclear annihilation was imminent. In the fourth, in 1983, a relatively new Soviet satellite system falsely indicated that the United States was launching a nuclear attack. All four cases show the importance of both sides' having reliable space-based early-warning systems.

Because of that need, Russia's continuing economic difficulties pose a clear and increasing danger to itself, the world at large, and the United States in particular. Russia no longer has the working fleet of early-warning satellites that reassured its leaders that they were not under attack during the most recent false alert—in 1995 when a scientific research rocket launched from Norway was, for a short time, mistaken for a U.S. nuclear launch. With decaying satellites, the possibility exists that, if a false alert occurs again, Russia might launch its nuclear-tipped missiles.

The Bush administration could help Russia obtain and maintain an effective, economic, and reliable space-based early-warning system in both the short and the long term. Such assistance would improve U.S. security by helping to prevent Russia from mistakenly launching a nuclear attack. The primary measure initiated by the Clinton administration—the Joint Data Exchange Center—is inherently ineffective because the Russians may not believe U.S. early-warning data. Instead, U.S. assistance should be focused on helping Russia to improve its own space-based system. Only then will the Russians have confidence that no U.S. launches have occurred.

Joint early-warning centers can, however, have a stabilizing influence on the tensions among China, India, and Pakistan. New nuclear states run a substantial risk that their nuclear weapons may accidentally explode, perhaps triggering an inadvertent nuclear war. In that case, joint centers— supplying information from the sensors of nations not involved in the conflict (Russia and the United States)—might prevent a tragic accident from escalating into a regional nuclear war.

Full Text of Policy Analysis No. 399 (PDF, 20 pgs, 738 Kb)

© 2001 The Cato Institute
Please send comments to webmaster