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Russia Is Now Vulnerable to Surprise Nuclear Attack

Russia does not currently have warning satellites able to detect an incoming nuclear missile strike — but that doesn't mean the US would come out of a fight without getting its hair mussed.

by Ezra Kaplan and Jin Wu
Jul 9 2015, 4:55pm

Photo by Dmitry Astakhov/AP

Russia's space-based early warning system, designed to alert the nation to an inbound nuclear missile attack, is offline, leaving Moscow partially blind to potential intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) attacks.

Since the Cold War, both the US and Russia have used a combination of satellites and ground radars as part of early warning systems to alert their governments to any incoming ICBMs. Russia announced last year that it would be replacing its aging Soviet-designed missile-warning system, which was decommissioned in January, this month. But last week, they announced that the replacement satellites had been delayed by four months.

"Today we are nearly prepared to launch the first satellite into a highly elliptic orbit, the launch of which will take place in November 2015," Major General Oleg Maidanovich, commander of Russia's Aerospace Defense Forces, said Tuesday. Maidanovich, however, did not offer an explanation as to why the launch had been postponed.

Related: Russia Is Getting New Nuclear Missiles — But It's Probably Not the End of the World

Signs of an ICBM missile launch include heat and infrared signatures coming from the hot plume of rocket exhaust created during the missile's ascent phase. Early warning satellites are then complemented by an array of ground-based radars to detect incoming missiles.

"The major difference is that [the detection] range on the ground is limited because of the curvature of the Earth, so you don't have as much warning that a missile is incoming," Michaela Dodge, a senior policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation, told VICE News. She explained that ground-based systems have to look for different kinds of indicators because a missile's heat signature decreases significantly within five minutes of a launch.

So with its satellites out of commission, Russia can only depend on ground radar, leaving the country vulnerable to a surprise nuclear attack at a time when tensions with the rest of the world are growing.

Last weekend, while Russian President Vladimir Putin called President Barack Obama to wish him a happy Fourth of July, the US Air Force intercepted four Russian nuclear-capable long-range bombers off the coasts of California and Alaska.

Watch VICE News' 'Silencing Dissent in Russia: Putin's Propaganda Machine'

But despite that incident, recent antagonism in the Baltic Sea, and the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, experts point out that a pre-emptive strike against the Russians — even with their defenses down — would be exceedingly unwise.

"If you are going to do a first strike, you want be able to take out as much of the Russian nuclear force as you can so that you reduce the prospects of retaliation," Steven Pifer, director of the Arms Control and Non-Proliferation Initiative at the Brookings Institution, told VICE News. "Nobody has the capability to execute that."

It's also highly unlikely that the US would be willing to make the first move against the former Soviet republic.

"I can conceive of no circumstance in which the United States would launch a 'bolt from the blue' first strike on Russia — not gonna happen," Pifer said. The only way an American president would launch a nuclear attack, he says, would be in retaliation to another country's strike.

The decision for any nuclear strike has to come from the president, who would access the infamous nuclear "football," a super-classified briefcase that is always kept near him. Though its contents are a secret, it is widely believed that the black leather case contains everything the president needs to initiate a nuclear attack, whether preemptive or retaliatory.

Were the president to give the order, it would swiftly move through the chain of command until it reached the three legs of the nuclear triad: Ohio-class submarines carrying Trident D5 ballistic missiles, the 450 underground missile silos holding Minuteman III missiles spread throughout the Great Plains, and long-range nuclear bombers like the B-2.

Related: Cold War Nuclear Treaties: Old and Busted or Cool Vintage?

But no matter how effective the early warning systems, neither Russia nor the United States is capable of defending itself against an all-out missile attack from the other.

"The United States has been very clear that it would be impossible, foolhardy, and a fool's errand to try to defend against a Russian nuclear attack," Tom Collina, director of policy at Ploughshares Fund, an anti-nuclear proliferation think tank, told VICE News. "The only thing defending against a nuclear attack is Russia's own self-restraint and wisdom. Nuclear deterrence is what holds the balance of terror in place, not defenses."

The greatest danger posed by Russia's hobbled early warning system, according to Collina, is the risk of misinterpretation.

"We want Russia to have full information about what threats might be coming towards it, because the situation here is not that the United States is going to launch a pre-emptive war against Russia, but that Russia will launch nuclear weapons under the misinformed impression that it is being attacked," Collina said. "From the US perspective, the more situational awareness, the more early warning Russia has, the better."

In other words, the lack of early warning satellites doesn't make the world more dangerous because it increases the likelihood of a surprise nuclear attack. It makes the world more dangerous because it increases the fear of a surprise nuclear attack.

Follow Ezra Kaplan on Twitter: @KaplanEzra