Officials worry panicked Russia could launch missles in error : LUSENET : TimeBomb 2000 (Y2000) : One Thread

Posted at 11:20 p.m. PST Sunday, January 9, 2000

Officials worry panicked Russia could launch missiles in error

BY JONATHAN S. LANDAY Mercury News Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- Russia's early warning system is so decayed that Moscow is unable to detect U.S. intercontinental ballistic missile launches for at least seven hours a day and no longer can spot missiles fired from American submarines at all, U.S. officials and experts say.

At most, only four of Russia's 21 early warning satellites are still working, according to experts on Moscow's space program. That gives Russian commanders no more than 17 hours -- and perhaps as little as 12 hours -- of daily coverage of the 550 nuclear-tipped ICBM silos in Colorado, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota and Wyoming.

``Against submarines, they basically have no warning,'' said Theodore Postol, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor who studies Russia's early warning system.

But because the logic of nuclear deterrence requires both sides to launch their missiles before a surprise attack obliterates them, Russia's semi-blindness is as dangerous to the United States as it is to Russia. The fear is that in the heat of a serious crisis, Russian military and civilian leaders could misread a non-threatening rocket launch or ambiguous data as a nuclear first strike and launch a salvo at the United States or Western Europe.

If Russia's early warning system ``cannot reassure Russian leaders that false alarms are indeed benign events, the danger for both countries could be significant,'' said an August report by the Congressional Budget Office, a research agency for Congress.

``I think the chances (of a nuclear mistake) are rising . . . from what I felt was a very, very low level,'' warned former Ambassador James Goodby, who negotiated the U.S.-funded destruction of Russian nuclear weapons. ``The effects of a glitch would be cataclysmic.''

While acknowledging that Russia's early warning system has deteriorated badly, Clinton administration officials say Russia retains considerable early warning capabilities and strong, centralized control of its nuclear forces. In addition, the United States and Russia now notify each other of rocket launches in advance.

Mutual benefit

Although U.S. officials insist there is little chance of an inadvertent nuclear war, the Clinton administration finds itself in the unusual position of offering to help the Russians detect an American missile attack. One proposal calls for establishing a joint early warning center in Moscow, another for helping to finance the rebuilding of Russia's early warning system.

Early warning radars and satellites remain important because, while the United States and Russia have agreed to ``de-target'' each other, both can reprogram their missiles in minutes. China, Britain and France also maintain ICBM forces. Other countries, including Iran, Iraq, Israel, India, North Korea and Pakistan, are pursuing long-range missile programs.

Russia still keeps an estimated 2,000 nuclear warheads on high alert, most of them atop silo-based SS-18 missiles. Experts say the United States has as many as 2,500 warheads on high alert, divided between Ohio-class submarines -- four of which are always poised to fire -- and 50 MX and 500 Minuteman III missiles in five northern states.

Because it no longer is able to keep a massive retaliatory capability hidden aboard expensive nuclear submarines, Russia is more dependent than the United States on launching its missiles at the first warning of incoming missiles. To make matters worse, Moscow's lack of money also has stranded much of its mobile land-based missile force in garrisons, where it is highly vulnerable.

Current system

Russia's early warning system consists of two ground-based radar networks and two networks of satellites that use infrared sensors to spot the hot exhaust of rocket engines against the cold backgrounds of Earth's atmosphere and space.

The older space-based network is made up of nine Oko satellites. No more than three are still providing data, said MIT's Postol and James Oberg, an expert on the Russian aerospace industry.

Philip Clark, a consultant in Hastings, England, who publishes an international newsletter on space launches, said in an interview that a new Oko was launched last month but is not yet operational.

The second Russian space-based network consisted of 11 Prognoz satellites, designed to detect both land- and submarine-based missile launches. The most recent Prognoz was lofted in 1998 but drifted out of orbit within a month or two when a fuel tank ruptured.

``In the Prognoz series, there are no satellites operating. They are drifting,'' said Clark, basing his conclusion on declassified data released by the U.S. Air Force Space Command.

On the ground, Russia operates at least 18 so-called Hen House and Pechora-type phased-array radars. They can detect incoming missiles only after they have traveled about one-third of the way to their targets, which leaves Russian leaders 20 minutes or less to determine whether an alarm is real or false.

Spotty coverage

The Kremlin cannot afford to put into orbit the six replacement satellites it needs to resume 24-hour surveillance of American missile silos, experts say. Nor can the Russians pay to activate replacements for two land-based early warning radars. One was demolished by the former Soviet republic of Latvia in August 1998; the other was dismantled in 1991, after years of American complaints, because it violated the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty.

As a result, experts in and outside the U.S. government say, Russian radars are blind in the northern areas of the Atlantic and Pacific oceans where U.S. ballistic missile submarines operate, each loaded with 24 Trident missiles tipped with up to eight nuclear warheads apiece.

However, a U.S. official said, the Russians ``are committed to ensuring that their part of command-and-control works,'' or, if it fails, does not result in an accidental missile launch.

``It is hard for me to imagine that this degradation is making them more hair-triggered. It's making them more cautious,'' the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Although Russia is believed to have tightened the already strict controls on its nuclear arsenal, experts say there have been several close calls.

The most recent was in January 1995, when Russian officers, despite prior notification, mistook the launch of a U.S.-Norwegian science rocket for a U.S. nuclear strike. They alerted the Kremlin, where former President Boris Yeltsin was brought the briefcase containing the launch codes for a retaliatory Russian attack. The error was caught just in time because Russian satellites detected no launches from U.S. missile silos, experts say.

In 1995, however, those satellites still had 24-hour surveillance capability. Today they do not.

U.S. officials are sufficiently concerned that President Clinton signed a September 1998 accord proposing a center in Moscow where the Russian military could review data from American early warning satellites and radars. In return, U.S. officers would be able to view Russian early warning data.

Until Jan. 15, a temporary U.S.-Russian center established to ensure against Y2K problems in the Russian early warning system is serving as a prototype for the Moscow facility. Russia has selected a site for the permanent early warning center, according to Gen. Richard Myers, commander in chief of the U.S. Space Command.

Other ideas

The Clinton administration is pursuing other initiatives. These include RAMOS, a joint early warning research project for which Russia and the United States are each building a prototype satellite. Washington also has offered to help put Russia's new early warning radars into operation if Moscow agrees to changes in the 1972 ABM treaty that would permit the United States to develop and field a limited missile defense system.

The administration also would be ``receptive to discussions'' about footing Russia's $200 million bill for lofting new satellites to restore 24-hour surveillance of U.S. missile silos, said a senior U.S. defense official, who asked not to be identified.

``We deal with small probabilities,'' said the official. ``So we would like to make whatever probabilities that an accident could occur or there could be an accidental unauthorized launch even smaller. I don't want to say I'm completely at comfort because we are always trying to drive these small probabilities even lower.''

-- Homer Beanfang (, January 10, 2000


So now we pay to launch satellites for Russia that are in OUR interest. The same Russia that is deploying new Topol-M and putting them on alert because they don't like the talk emminating from Washington. The sam Russia that continues to prepare a city sized bunker to provide infrastructure in the event of Nuclear War. The same Russia who has a deployed anti ballistic missile system. The same Russia who has squandered millions/billions in aid and swept this into pirvate swiss bank accounts. The same Russia that is leveling Grozny because they want to control the oil in the Caspian.

Sounds about typical, Hey I got a brilliant idea why don't we take it out of our defense budget. Maybe scrap our ballistic missile subs as being destabilizing.

-- Squid (, January 10, 2000.

We could just make the Russian presence at NORAD permanent, and gradually hand over the control of the facility to them.

Ultimately, when they're in charge of issuing the actual launch orders, we should have complete security.

Got KI? [g]

-- Ron Schwarz (, January 10, 2000.

Ron'Der Obergrupenfuhrer will probably announce it as his closing foreign policy masterpiece later this spring...

-- Jay Urban (, January 10, 2000.

JONATHAN S. LANDAY (The author) states:
"Russia still keeps an estimated 2,000 nuclear warheads on high alert, most of them atop silo-based SS-18 missiles. Experts say the United States has as many as 2,500 warheads on high alert, divided between Ohio-class submarines -- four of which are always poised to fire -- and 50 MX and 500 Minuteman III missiles in five northern states"

Official Navy website says: Link
Ohio-class/Trident ballistic missile submarines provide the sea- based "leg" of the triad of U.S. strategic deterrent forces. The 18 Trident SSBNs (each carrying 24 missiles), carry 50 percent of the total U.S. strategic warheads. Although the missiles have no pre- set targets when the submarine goes on patrol, the SSBNs are capable of rapidly targeting their missiles should the need arise, using secure and constant at-sea communications links.

50 MX and 500 MMIII = 550
2500 - 550 = 1950
18 total subs x 24 missiles per sub = 432 total missiles on all Ohio class subs.
so 1950 - 432 = 1518 missing missiles?

Also, if the 432 Trident nukes = "50 percent of the total U.S. strategic warheads" are the rest "Tactical Nukes"?

He didn't mention any cruise missiles or bomber based nukes, but there seems to be a question on the numbers.

Anyone have any thoughts and/or facts?

-- Possible Impact (, January 10, 2000.

Possible Impact, Do not confuse missiles and warheads. It is likely that the Tridents (and some of the other platforms) are MIRV'ed (Multiple Independant Re-Entry Vehicles). That is a fancy word to state that they carry more than one targetable warhead.

-- Chris Tisone (, January 10, 2000.

Someone posted an article under one of the old nuclear war threads here last year that said the Trident subs now carry only 12 missiles each, the empty silos having been filled with an equal weight of concrete as ballast, and that the remaining missiles had been cut down to one warhead each in accordance with the SALT II treaty, which has never been ratified. I used to have that article archived in my documents, but my computer crashed in October and I lost it. The 200 missile figure for the Russians is also very misleading, as they actually have in excess of 5000 missiles deployed, but only the "red alert" birds are countedhere. The others are liquid fueled heavy missiles, and it takes about twenty minutes to fuel them up and get them ready to fly. These big boosters typically carry warheads in the 25 to 100 megaton range, and just one of them will totally devastate a small state. Actually this red alert status is the Soviet norm, they have been operating in this mode for several years due to the gaping holes in their radar and satelite coverage, and will continue to do so into the foreseeable future.

-- Nikoli Krushev (, January 10, 2000.

Ditto to all, sounds like Klinton's protesting against our military again...Oh, wait, that was 'Nam, huh? My bad.

-- Hokie (, January 10, 2000.

SSBN-726 Ohio-Class FBM Submarines

Ohio-class/Trident ballistic missile submarines provide the sea-based "leg" of the triad of U.S. strategic offensive forces. By the turn of the century, the 18 Trident SSBNs (each carrying 24 missiles), will carry 50 percent of the total U.S. strategic warheads. Although the missiles have no pre-set targets when the submarine goes on patrol, the SSBNs are capable of rapidly targeting their missiles should the need arise, using secure and constant at-sea communications links.

The Clinton Administration's Nuclear Posture Review was chartered in October 1993, and the President approved the recommendations of the NPR on September 18, 1994. As a result of the NPR, US strategic nuclear force structure will be adjusted to 14 Trident submarines -- four fewer than previously planned -- carrying 24 D-5 missiles, each with five warheads, per submarine. This will require backfitting four Trident SSBNs, currently carrying the Trident I (C- 4) missile, with the more modern and capable D-5 missile system. Under current plans, following START II's entry into force, the other four SSBNs will either be converted into special-purpose submarines or be retired.

-- hiding in plain (sight@edge of.nowhere), January 10, 2000.

For more correct information on the deployment of nuclear weapons in the world's arsenal, please research the materials available through the following link:

Federation of American Scientists - Nuclear Forces Guide

-- hiding in plain (sight@edge of.nowhere), January 10, 2000.

Thanks for providing the links and gentle hints, the numbers look a little better now.

-- Possible Impact (, January 11, 2000.

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