Publication: Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 30

A recent article in the Western press has refocused public attention on an old problem: the steady deterioration of Russia’s nuclear command and control infrastructure. The article reported significant gaps in the satellite portion of the Russian Missile Attack Warning System (MAWS), to the extent that U.S. missile fields were out of the satellites’ view for as many as seven hours each day (Washington Post, February 10). Yuri Koptev, director of the Russian Space Agency, revealed yesterday that the early warning satellites are not the only ones in trouble. Three-quarters of all satellites in orbit, he said, both civilian and military, are either nearing or at the end of their service lives (Russian agencies, February 11).

Russian satellite sensor technology has lagged behind that of the U.S. by some twenty years. Initially Russia had hoped to establish a network of geostationary satellites to monitor potential U.S. missile launch sites around the clock, but has never been able to get the necessary five working satellites in orbit at the same time. The last such satellite placed into orbit–in April 1998–failed soon after launch. Three older geostationary satellites are in orbit, but it is possible that none of them are working properly. To augment them, the Russians have fallen back on the older “Oko” system. Oko satellites have a highly elliptical orbit, vacillating between 500 and 40,000 kilometers from the earth. Because their primitive sensors cannot pick out a missile launch plume from overhead, they are positioned to take a side view of the missile fields and thus detect hot missile gases against the cold background of space. The last Oko satellite was launched in May 1998. Of the nine satellites planned for this network only five are in orbit. Western analysts suspect that some of these may also be inoperative.

Like the United States, Russia backs up its early warning satellites with a ground-based radar system. Here, too, there are significant gaps. Last year Latvia insisted that Russia dismantle an older Soviet MAWS radar on its territory. One of the more modern phased-array warning radars is located in Azerbaijan. Azeri leaders–annoyed at the Russians for providing weapons to Armenia–have threatened to close it down (Russian media, February 5). Ground-based radars alone cannot provide adequate warning. In January 1995, a long-range phased-array warning radar at Olenegorsk on the northern Kola Peninsula mistook the launch of a Norwegian research rocket for an American Trident submarine-launched nuclear missile (see the Monitor, January 22). Had the satellite portion of the MAWS been at full strength it is far less likely that this potentially disastrous mistake would have been made.

The incomplete Russian warning system is not the only Western concern. A related worry is Moscow’s rather cavalier attitude toward the Y2K computer problem (see the Monitor, February 4). The Defense Ministry has only recently finished its preliminary survey of its computers and has reported that four out of five Russian computers will be affected. The ministry has selected those computers to receive priority attention. American officials expect and hope that these include computers connected with nuclear command and control. To help in this matter, a team from the Pentagon will visit Moscow next week (Russian media, February 11).