By David K. Shipler
Since President Vladimir Putin of Russia announced a heightened nuclear alert level and threatened Western nations with “consequences greater than any you have faced in history,” much of the world has worried that he might go nuclear in his war against Ukraine. But even if he does not, there is another concern: an unintentional, massive nuclear war triggered by a false alarm from Russian early-warning systems, which some experts believe are vulnerable to errors.
The risk of a catastrophic mistake has been a threat since the outset of the nuclear age, and several near misses have been recorded. But miscalculation becomes more likely in a period of Russian-American tension when leaders are immersed in mutual suspicion. They would have only minutes to make fateful decisions. So each side needs to “see” clearly whether the other has launched missiles before retaliating with hundreds of nuclear warheads. Ambiguity in a moment of “crisis perception,” the Rand Corporation has noted, can spark an inadvertent “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 also include China, France, the United Kingdom, North Korea, Pakistan, India, and Israel — with Iran poised to join the club. But only the U.S. has surveillance coverage of the entire globe, provided by three active geosynchronous satellites, with two in reserve, whose infrared receptors can spot plumes of missiles launched anywhere from sea, air, or ground. That data is supplemented by radar on the ground, giving the U.S. the capacity to double-check that a launch has actually occurred.
Specialists in the field call this verification by both satellite and radar “dual phenomenology,” and the Russians don’t have it 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.
He believes that Russian satellites are handicapped by their inability to look straight down and distinguish the infrared signature of a missile launch against the Earth’s terrain.
Courtesy of Theodore Postol
“Imagine that you took a photograph of a complex and rocky area of ground,” he explained in an email. To pick out an ant, you’d need to find it in “some very small pixel in a vast array of pixels.” In the infrared part of the spectrum, you need multiple high-quality sensors, each with a small enough field of view to discriminate between the background and a rocket plume, and to avoid a false detection from reflected sunlight or extraneous interference.
American satellites can look down with sophisticated sensors, so they orbit in fixed positions relative to the Earth’s surface. By contrast, Postol says, Russian satellites have to look sideways, along a line that forms a tangent across the edge of the Earth, over American ICBM missile fields in Wyoming, Montana, and North Dakota. Nine Russian satellites in elliptical orbits take turns observing small areas, looking horizontally for missiles that rise above the horizon to spot their plumes against the dark background of space.
The slanted perspective is less reliable, Postol said. First, it covers only a miniscule segment of North America. Second, it won’t see missiles until they reach higher altitudes, where the rocket plumes are dimmer and harder to define. Third, “luminosity from atmospheric phenomena causes background effects that can lead to false detections.” The halo effect can be seen in a current image from a newer Russian satellite. Finally, he explained, if a missile is not launched exactly where the satellite’s tangent of sight meets the Earth’s surface, the rocket might never rise above the horizon.
That might seem to give the U.S. an advantage of surprise attack. But if Russian radar picks up a missile later, the time before impact will shrink dangerously — to just over 10 minutes from a U.S. submarine near Norway, about 17 minutes from Wyoming — with little chance to double-check that the launch is authentic. Without global coverage, Russian satellites cannot see launches from the 14 U.S. Trident submarines (each carrying up to 20 ballistic missiles with multiple warheads) until the missiles enter Russian radar. Knowing that time limitation, Moscow might let lower officials make the call.
“There is not adequate decision-making time for leaders in Moscow to understand what might be happening if it looked like there was a general attack on Russia,” Postol observed. “They would have no ability to assess the situation. If they want to have the option to assure that that they can retaliate, they will have to pre-delegate launch authority to people in the field. If you do that, you run the risk of a gigantic, spasmodic launch of all your nuclear forces.”
Another specialist, Pavel Podvig, agrees on the time problem but argues that geography is the main obstacle to double verification. He is a Moscow-trained physicist and arms control specialist who heads a Geneva-based project analyzing Moscow’s nuclear forces. “The radar warning comes too late to provide a useful check of the satellite information,” he wrote — although radar did exactly that in 1983.
In the early morning of Sept. 26, 1983, a Soviet satellite signaled that five ICBMs had been launched from an American base. Officers in Serpukhov-15, a secret command bunker near Moscow, watched in horror as electronic maps pulsated and lights flashed. “For fifteen seconds, we were in a state of shock,” Lieut. Col. Stanislav Petrov said years later. He had to evaluate the data for his superiors, who would pass his assessment to the general staff, which would convey it to Soviet leader Yuri Andropov for a decision on whether to order a nuclear retaliation.
For five minutes, a phone in one hand and an intercom in the other, Petrov tried to make sense of the cascade of warnings. Two things didn’t add up. One, “when people start a war, they don’t start it with only five missiles,” he told Washington Post reporter David Hoffman. Two, Soviet radar didn’t see any missiles flying. Through a veil of high tension, “I had a funny feeling in my gut,” Petrov recalled. Balancing the odds at 50–50, he came down on the side of a false alarm. An investigation later found that the warnings had been triggered by sunlight reflecting off clouds.
Since then, and following the early-warning system’s decline during Russia’s economic crisis in the early 1990s, the country has surely advanced. But how far? Podvig and Postol disagree on the state of satellite technology. Podvig told me in several email exchanges that the newer Tundra satellites “appear” to have lookdown capability, and that he was “fairly confident” of his assessment. However, he stopped well short of backing up his assertion with hard information. Much of that is probably classified and inaccessible.
For his part, Postol of MIT cites circumstantial evidence of continued shortfalls. “If the new Tundra satellites were able to look down at the Earth,” he said, “only two or three of such satellites would be needed.” The Russians have nine. They orbit through staggered observation slots lasting two and a half hours each, consistent with less reliable tangential lines of observation. A tenth satellite is stationed in a geosynchronous orbit over South Asia, also seemingly aimed at the horizon in North America.
So Russia relies heavily on radar, a line-of-sight instrument that cannot detect anything over the horizon. Each of the stations on the country’s periphery projects a fan of surveillance that picks up nothing until a missile passes rapidly through it. That adds another minute for tracking a target, defining it, and calculating its trajectory.
Also, radar can be blinded by a deliberate high-altitude nuclear detonation to create ionized air obscuring transmission and reception. (Russia could do the same against the U.S.) Radar disruption from another cause might be mistaken for a prelude to an imminent nuclear attack.
Russia’s system raises two big questions: Who decides, and on what basis? Postol imagines that short warning times and technical shortcomings support a worrisome “pre-delegation” posture that would decentralize or automate Russia’s launch authority — and heighten the likelihood of error. And what would the trigger be? Podvig argued in 2016 that under Moscow’s doctrine dating from Soviet days, Russian commanders would delay a retaliatory launch until after “signs of the actual attack (such as nuclear explosions).”
If that wait-and-see doctrine existed, it appears to have been revised. The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists reported recently that in June 2020 Putin updated the nuclear deterrence procedures, which permit a launch only under certain conditions. The first of those reads: “arrival of reliable data on a launch of ballistic missiles attacking the territory of the Russian Federation and/or its allies.” That echoes the launch-on-warning doctrine that makes inadvertent war more likely — and the early warning systems’ reliability more crucial.
Then, too, pre-delegation seems to contradict what is known of Moscow’s standing procedures. Leonid Ryabikhin, an expert in missile technology and arms control who taught at the Soviet Air Force Academy, wrote in 2019 that a nuclear launch would require encoded authorization from at least two of the three portable terminals controlled by the president, the defense minister, and the chief of the general staff.
Only if the government were decapitated by, say, a first strike on Moscow, would a backup system kick in. Known in the West as the “Dead Hand” and in Russia as “Perimeter,” it has been understood as a computer process that would launch automatically if command and control connections with the leadership were destroyed.
But is it fully automated? Not necessarily. A 2003 book by Russian Col. Valery Yarynich, who served in the central command of the Strategic Rocket Forces, reports that human intervention would still be required at “the super hardened radio command and control center,” located somewhere underground. “The [Perimeter] system has no capability for preparing a launch order automatically without participation of the center’s crew,” he writes. “If, with[in] a certain period of time, there is no evidence of actual nuclear explosions” from seismic shock, a spike in air pressure, or radioactivity, no missiles would be launched.
Arms control treaties that have come and gone between Russia and the U.S. have limited the numbers and deployment of various nuclear weapons but have left Moscow and Washington capable of obliterating humanity many times over. The chance of error remains unaddressed.
The probability of nuclear war by accident would be reduced if Russia and the U.S. shared surveillance information, a proposal discussed in 1998 by President Bill Clinton and Russian President Boris Yeltsin. A brief experiment in cooperation was held from December 1999 to January 2000 to avoid Y2K computer problems at the turn of the millennium. Eighteen Russian officers spent about three weeks at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado to make sure nothing went awry.
The permanent Joint Data Exchange Center, as it was to be named, fell victim to various tensions in the relationship following Putin’s election in 2000. By the time President George W. Bush met Putin in 2001, the late John Steinbruner wrote, “the building designated to house JDEC sat abandoned in Moscow on an overgrown lot and was reportedly being used by local teenagers as a drinking hangout.”
That was a modest venture, probably not sufficient to convey real-time data to avoid errors. For that, Postol believes, the U.S. would have to provide Russia with actual infrared sensors capable of differentiating a missile plume from background terrain. There would be no risk of technology transfer, he argued: “Possessing the sensors gives you no information about how to fabricate them and therefore does not release any sensitive technology secrets.”
That’s a voice crying in the wilderness. Imagine how hard it would be to achieve such cooperation today, just when it’s needed most.
A version of this article was previously published by the Washington Monthly.