Reducing a Common Danger: Improving Russia’s Early‐​Warning System

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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.

Geoffrey Forden

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