Space Weapons and the Risk of Accidental Nuclear War

By Graham, Thomas, Jr. | Arms Control Today, December 2005 | Go to article overview

Space Weapons and the Risk of Accidental Nuclear War


Graham, Thomas, Jr., Arms Control Today


The United States and Russia maintain thousands of nuclear warheads on longrange ballistic missiles on 15-minute alert. Once launched, they cannot be recalled, and they will strike their targets in roughly 30 minutes. Fifteen years after the end of the Cold War, the chance of an accidental nuclear exchange has far from decreased. Yet, the United States may be contemplating further exacerbating this threat by deploying missile interceptors in space.

Both the United States and Russia rely on space-based systems to provide early warning of a nuclear attack. If deployed, however, U.S. space-based missile defense interceptors could eliminate the Russian early warning satellites quickly and without warning. So, just the existence of U.S. space weapons could make Russia's strategic trigger fingers itchy.

The potential protection space-based defenses might offer the United States is swamped therefore by their potential cost: a failure of or false signal from a component of the Russian early warning system could lead to a disastrous reaction and accidental nuclear war. There is no conceivable missile defense, space-based or not, that would offer protection in the event that the Russian nuclear arsenal was launched at the United States.

Nor are the Russians or other countries likely to stand still and watch the United States construct space-based defenses. These states are likely to respond by developing advanced anti-satellite weapon systems.1 These weapons, in turn, would endanger U.S. early warning systems, impair valuable U.S. weapons intelligence efforts, and increase the jitteriness of U.S. officials.

The Dangers of Failed Early Warning Systems

The Russian early warning system is in serious disrepair. This system consists of older radar systems nearing the end of their operational life and just three functioning satellites, although the Russian military has plans to deploy more. The United States has 15 such satellites. Ten years ago, on January 25,1995, this aging early warning network picked up a rocket launch from Norway. The Russian military could not determine the nature of the missile or its destination. Fearing that it might be a submarinelaunched missile aimed at Moscow with the purpose of decapitating the Russian command and control structure, the Russian military alerted President Boris Yeltsin, his defense minister, and the chief of the general staff. They immediately opened an emergency teleconference to determine whether they needed to order Russia's strategic forces to launch a counterattack.

The rocket that had been launched was actually an atmospheric sounding rocket conducting scientific observations of the aurora borealis. Norway had notified Russia of this launch several weeks earlier, but the message had not reached the relevant sections of the military. In little more than two minutes before the deadline to order nuclear retaliation, the Russians realized their mistake and stood down their strategic forces.

Thus, 10 years ago, when the declining Russian early warning system was stronger than today, it read this single small missile test launch as a U.S. nuclear missile attack on Russia. The alarm went up the Russian chain of command all the way to the top. The briefcase containing the nuclear missile launch codes was brought to Yeltsin as he was told of the attack. Fortunately, Yeltsin and the Russian leadership made the correct decision that day and directed the Russian strategic nuclear forces to stand down.

Obviously, nothing should be done in any way further to diminish the reliability of the space-based components of U.S. and Russian ballistic missile early warning systems. A decline in confidence in such early warning systems caused by the deployment of weapons in space would enhance the risk of an accidental nuclear weapons attack. Yet, as part of its plans for missile defense, the Pentagon is calling for the development of a test bed for space-based interceptors as well as examining a number of other exotic space weapons. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA 8, MLA 7, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Note: primary sources have slightly different requirements for citation. Please see these guidelines for more information.

Cited article

Space Weapons and the Risk of Accidental Nuclear War
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Help
Full screen
Items saved from this article
  • Highlights & Notes
  • Citations
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Style
    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA 8, MLA 7, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Search by... Author
    Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

    Oops!

    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.