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Center for Arms Control, Energy and Environmental Studies at MIPT

Our Comment

The fire may be serious, but there is no reason for concern

May 10, 2001

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The information about a fiire at one of the Russian MInistry of Defense space control centers indicates that Russia may have lost contact with its early-warning satellites. However, there seems to be no danger to Russia, the United States or any other country, associated with the consequences of the fire.

According ot reports, the fire affected four satellites. This is exactly the number of Russian early-warning satellites that are currently operational. The satellites are Cosmos-2340, Cosmos-2341, Cosmos-2351, Cosmos-2368 (all satellites are on highly elliptical orbits). The control center that supports operations of early-warning satellites is separate from all other Military Space Forces satellite-control facilities, for these satellites, in contrast with other military satellites, have always been under control of Missile and Space Defense Forces, rather than the Military Space Forces. This all strongly suggests that it is indeed the early-warning satellite control center that is affected by the fire.

If this is the case, then it is very likely that normal operations of early warning satellites have been disrupted. In particular, the equipment that processes information from satellites was probably affected. The Military Space Forces may try to use its regular control centers to restore communications with the satellites and even try to bring them back under control, although the latter would be difficult. Restoring full data-processing and therefore early-warning capabilities may take much longer.
An area covered by the Russian satellites

It seems likely that the fire resulted in Russia's losing (maybe temporarily) the space-based component of its early-warning network. However, this would not result in any serious immediate degradation of its early-warning capability, since the satellites' capabilities were limited to detecting launches from U.S. territory (see figure). The space-based system that is capable to detect launches from oceans still seems to be in the deployment stage and right now there are no satellites that would provide this capability. The last satellite capable of detecting launches from oceans, Cosmos-2224, ceased operation in June 1999.

It should be noted that the loss of early-warning capability would not have any serious impact on Russia's (or any other country's) security. In the last few years Russia has been maintaining its space-based early-warning network at the level consistent with the existing missile threat (or, rather, lack thereof). For example, the four satellites in highly elliptical orbits are capable of maintaining 24-hour coverage of U.S. territory.

As for any mistake that would result from the current loss of early warning capability in space, the probability of it was arguably made only smaller. As for the possibility that such a mistake would have seriuos consequences, such as an accidental launch of missiles, it did not exist in the first place and was not made any more likely.

Paul Podvig
Center for Arms Control, Energy and Environmental Studies,
contact address: www-start@armscontrol.ru.

See also our special section: Current Status of Russian Early Warning System

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