When Norwegian and U.S. scientists launched the Black Brant XII sounding rocket from a small island off Norway's northwest coast on January 25, 1995, they intended for it to harmlessly collect scientific data about the Northern Lights. But when Russia's early warning system radars detected the rocket, they generated an alarm that entered the nuclear forces command and control system and reached the highest levels of government. An accidental nuclear war was never a possibility--by the time the alarm reached Russian President Boris Yeltsin, the rocket had been properly identified--but the incident clearly demonstrated the dangers of a launch-on-warning posture.
A Cold War hangover, launch-on-warning was designed to provide additional protection to nuclear forces by ensuring that a retaliatory attack could be initiated before a first strike obliterated its targets. Implementing launch-on-warning required substantial investment into a network of early warning radars and satellites--plus a command and control system that would allow missiles to be on constant "hair-trigger alert." Its cost proved high enough that only two nuclear powers--the United States and Soviet Union--established a launch-on-warning capability. Nearly 15 years after the Soviet Union's collapse, neither the United States nor Russia have abandoned it.
Numerous proposals have tried to address launch-on-warning concerns. Most point to the Black Brant XII incident as evidence that the precipitous decline of the Russian early warning and command and control systems is the main problem. The argument is simple: If the early warning system was unreliable a decade ago when it was in relatively good shape, imagine how bad the situation is today, after years of decline. Accordingly, many believe the remedy lies in helping Russia compensate for the disrepair, either by creating arrangements that would allow Russia and the United States to share their early warning data, or by providing direct assistance to Russia that would allow it to upgrade its system. These proposals are misguided. Repairing the Russian early warning system would actually increase the danger of an accidental launch.
The reason for this is that the role of the Russian early warning system today is marginal at best. Even in its prime, the system could not provide the data necessary for a launch-on-warning strike. The radar network has always had serious gaps in coverage and the space-based segment of the system was not designed to detect sea-launched missiles. In addition to this, a series of problems plagued the system during its development and early deployment stages. As a result, the Soviet military learned to regard the alarms it generated with suspicion.
The system's deterioration has only added to doubts about its ability to provide a reliable warning. The breakup of the Soviet Union left most of the radars outside Russian territory. At present, Russia operates only three early warning satellites, while minimally reliable coverage of U.S. territory requires at least five. No second-generation satellites, which would expand coverage to the oceans, are operational today. This leaves Russia with an early warning system it can't really trust.
The lack of trust is exactly the reason why the decline of the system is much less dangerous that it may seem. The continued disrepair erodes confidence in the system's performance further and makes it much less likely that an alarm (whether real or false) would be acted upon. Attempts to repair or upgrade the system, on the other hand, would only increase the danger of miscalculation, since such actions would introduce new elements into an already complex system and boost confidence in its performance.
By the same logic, the United States should not be complacent about its early warning system simply because it is thought to be more robust and reliable than its Russian counterpart. High confidence in the U.S. system could make a technical malfunction--should one ever occur--an extremely dangerous event, since U.S. operators would be unlikely to question the information provided by the system.
The best way to deal with the dangers of accidental launch is to remove missiles from hair-trigger alert, for example by introducing physical barriers that would prevent a launch on warning. Technical solutions that have been suggested include removing warheads from missiles or limiting submarine patrol areas. None of these measures have been implemented, since they involve intrusive and cumbersome verification provisions that neither side is willing to accept. What these proposals don't take into account though is that the main goal of de-alerting--reducing the risk of accidental launch--does not require transparency or verification. If a missile does not have a warhead, it won't be able to leave a silo regardless of whether or not one can verify it. In this respect de-alerting is quite different from disarmament, where verification rightfully belongs.
Moreover, transparency could make de-alerting potentially dangerous. Reducing a missile's readiness for all the world to see could create instability during a crisis. If one country decides to bring its missiles back into operation, its counterpart might feel the need to do the same lest its forces remain unprepared for a launch. This might create a rush to re-alert forces, and the dangers associated with re-alerting could outweigh any de-alerting benefits. Ideally, de-alerting measures should be completely undetectable. This approach would remove missiles from the launch-on-warning equation while minimizing the instabilities associated with re-alerting.
With the verification hurdle removed, there is no reason why the United States and Russia should not make a public commitment to de-alert their strategic arsenals. They don't even need to do it together. De-alerting is beneficial even when done unilaterally. Of course, there will be plenty of questions about the value of commitments that are neither enforceable nor verifiable. But the value would be quite real--thousands of missiles would no longer be on hair-trigger alert. And the next time Norway launches a scientific sounding rocket, we can all breathe a little easier.