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Russia’s Antiquated Nuclear Warning System Jeopardizes Us All

As the war in Ukraine’s pits Russia against the West, it’s time to look at Moscow’s weak satellite systems, which raise the chances of nuclear conflict. by David K. Shipler

Since Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a heightened nuclear alert level, much of the world has worried that he might go nuclear in his war against Ukraine. But there is another concern: a false alarm from Russian early-warning systems, which experts believe are dangerously vulnerable to errors.

The risk of a catastrophic mistake has been a threat since the outset of the nuclear age, but miscalculation becomes more likely in a period of heightened Russian-American tension. Leaders would have only minutes to make fateful decisions, so each side needs to be able to “see” clearly whether the other has launched missiles before retaliating. Ambiguity in a moment of “crisis perception,” the Rand Corporation has noted, can spark “conflict when one nation misinterprets an event (such as a training exercise, a weather phenomenon, or a malfunction) as an indicator of a nuclear attack.”     

Russia and the United States are the most heavily armed of the nine nuclear powers, which include China, France, the United Kingdom, North Korea, Pakistan, India, and Israel. (Iran is poised to join the club.) But only the U.S. has comprehensive surveillance of the globe, provided by three active geosynchronous satellites, with two in reserve, whose infrared receptors can spot missile plumes. That data is supplemented by radar, which gives the U.S. the capacity to double-check that a launch has actually occurred.

Specialists call this verification by both satellite and radar “dual phenomenology.” The Russians don’t have it, at least not reliably. They lack adequate space-based monitoring to supplement their radar.

What they have is a “terrible and dangerous technology shortfall,” according to Theodore Postol, a professor of science, technology, and national security policy at MIT and a former scientific adviser to the chief of naval operations………………………


April 30, 2022 - Posted by | Russia, safety

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