The Russian Ministry of Defense has announced that its only geostationary early-warning satellite — the Cosmos-2479, launched two years ago — is no longer functioning. With just two other observation satellites left in orbit, the chances of a false-alarm nuclear attack just escalated.
An incident that occurred 20 years ago helps illustrate why this news merits a severe case of the uh-ohs. At dawn on January 25, 1995, Norwegian scientists and their NASA colleagues launched a large sounding rocket from Andoya Island, off the coast of Norway, to study the Northern Lights. As the rocket climbed in altitude, it was detected by a Russian radar installation 470 miles away at Olenegursk. The trajectory suggested that it could be a Trident missile, launched from a U.S. submarine, to detonate in the atmosphere and blind Russian early-warning radars to a massive first strike. Within minutes, Russia's command and control system was placed on higher alert and President Boris Yeltsin activated his "nuclear briefcase," allowing him to issue launch orders, if necessary.
Yeltsin, learning that it was a false alarm, never launched those missiles, thanks in large part to a complete fleet of early-warning satellites that Russia had inherited from the Soviet Union — which provided continuous, 24-hour surveillance of U.S. continental missile fields.
Not any more.
Russia has traditionally relied on two different types of satellites — a redundancy system designed to detect missile launches while also reducing the likelihood of false alarms. One type follows a highly elliptical orbit (HEO) that looks at the Earth at a glancing angle, so that it can easily detect missile plumes silhouetted against the dark background of space—thus reducing the chance that incoming missiles could be mistaken for naturally occurring phenomena. (The two remaining Russian early-warning spacecraft, Cosmos-2422 and Cosmos-2446, are HEO satellites.)
However, in 1983, there was the "Autumn Equinox Incident," when an HEO satellite, the sun and U.S. missile fields aligned in such a way that light reflecting off high-orbit clouds appeared to be a missile in flight. That incident prompted Moscow to widen its field of vision by launching geostationary satellites — remaining in the same position relative to a stationary observer on Earth — which were designed to look straight down at the U.S.
That additional capability is now gone. And, with only two early-warning satellites, Russia's period of surveillance has dropped from 24 hours to 3 hours per day.
Several U.S. security officials still wonder if things would have turned out differently during the 1995 false alarm, if the incident had taken place during a political crisis or period of tension between the U.S. and Russia.
Today, Russia's early-warning system is falling apart during an actual period of political tension. Just one month ago, the U.S. and Russia conducted large-scale nuclear drills within days of one another. The Cold War is over, but it's getting a bit too chilly to be comfortable with Russia's broken early-warning system.