Growing Nuclear Blindness

Last week, the launch of a military communications satellite from the Plesetsk Cosmodrome in the Archangelsk region ended in a crash six minutes into the flight. This disaster has put additional strain on a military space program that was already in deep trouble.

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Russia's military sputniks have traditionally been less sophisticated and reliable than their U.S. counterparts. Russian satellites continue to be operational in orbit for smaller time spans. Spy satellites drop exposed film containers to earth to be developed. To compensate for lower quality, during the Cold War, Russia generally launched 10 times more military satellites into orbit than the United States.

After the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the number of military space launches began to dwindle and with it, the number of operational military sputniks in orbit. The decline in space capability was not abrupt because during the Soviet era a substantial emergency stockpile of military communication, early warning and spy satellites were accumulated, along with dozens of extra space launch rockets. According to Soviet battle plans for World War III, as many as 100 new military satellites would have been launched in the immediate run-up to global nuclear hostilities.

The Cold War stockpile has been partially depleted by now, while the newly built military sputniks and rockets tend to be of inferior quality. There have been fewer space launches as well as a higher percentage of accidents and failures, while satellites already in orbit have often stopped functioning prematurely.

Taken together, these realities deprive the Defense Ministry of vital capabilities.

Operational, high-altitude early warning satellites must be constantly maneuvered in orbit and aimed at particular areas on the earth's surface. When a satellite goes out of control, it begins to drift unchecked, so an operational sputnik is easy to distinguish from a faulty one.

According to Western intelligence sources, of the six high-altitude, elliptical orbit Oko satellites that detect possible U.S. intercontinental ballistic missile launches using infrared boost period detectors, four are apparently out of control at present. Of the early warning satellites that are designed to detect ICBM launches from U.S. Trident submarines at sea, only one is operational, and it is watching the mid-Atlantic.

The U.S. Pacific Trident deployments are currently not being watched by nuclear attack early warning satellites at all, while the observation of the Atlantic Ocean is partial. The two still-operational Oko sputniks observe the United States for six hours a day each. The rest of the time, the Russian Defense Ministry is blind and would only know of an attack when the incoming warheads were detected by land-based early warning radars.

Four of the eight early warning radars Russia operates today are based abroad in CIS countries such as Ukraine, Azerbaijan and Belarus. CIS nations exploit Moscow's eagerness to use these radars as a bargaining chip to press for various political and economic concessions. The two radars in Ukraine and the one in Azerbaijan are legally the property of those nations and provide Moscow with online data on contract, which means their continued use is constantly in question.

If the present deficiencies of the Russian early warning system continue and there is a sudden emergency, military and political leaders in Moscow would have just a couple of minutes to decide if an ICBM attack is indeed in progress and Russia should launch its own ICBMs in response before the U.S. warheads hit Russian bases. A mistake in judgment could cause a global nuclear war, which makes a Russia with nuclear warheads but without satellites the worst nightmare Western military planners could imagine.

In Moscow, partial nuclear blindness has caused much less tension. The satellite early warning system is less sophisticated than the American one. In the Soviet era, it issued false ICBM attack warnings several times. Russian generals never really believed that a sudden global nuclear war was possible and took any early warning panic signals with a pinch of salt. The pragmatism and professionalism of our military decision-makers kept us all alive during the Cold War and continue to do so today. But as the crisis of the unreformed military deepens, early warning devices are decaying and the competence of our military decision-makers is declining. The time when nightmares come true may indeed be approaching.

Pavel Felgenhauer is an independent defense analyst based in Moscow.