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Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 34, February 1999

Concern over Russian Early-Warning Systems

On 10 February, The Washington Post featured an article alleging serious deficiencies in Russia's system of satellites deployed to provide early-warning of the launch of US nuclear missiles. The Post claimed that Russia was no longer able to provide 24-hour satellite surveillance of US launch-silos and submarines. The article quoted Russian expert Paul Podvig, from the Moscow Centre for Arms Control, Energy and Environmental Studies: "Over the last five or six years, Russia kept the [satellite] configuration working all the time... But it started disintegrating at the beginning of 1998. The situation in the last six years wasn't good, but they had reserves. They kept it working. Now, they have used up those reserves. The problem is serious."

Reacting to the report later that day, State Department spokesperson James Rubin conceded: "We are concerned about the potential deterioration of Russia's ballistic missile attack warning capabilities." However, Rubin added that, given the negligible chance of an actual attack, there was no need to panic: "[W]e believe the idea that there are increased risks of a serious miscalculation overstates the current Russian launch posture, which is based on their assessment of whether there is a real chance of a nuclear or conventional attack."

On 11 February, an unnamed Russian Defence Ministry was quoted by the Interfax news agency as saying that the existing system was perfectly adequate: "In coordination with other structures, Russia's early-warning system fully monitors the possible launch of ground- or sea-based US intercontinental ballistic missiles."

Reports: Russia's missile defenses eroding, Washington Post, 10 February; US says concerned over Russia's missile defense, Xinhua, 11 February; Our missile early warning systems are fine - Russia, Reuters, 11 February.

© 1999 The Acronym Institute.

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