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Center for Arms Control, Energy and Environmental Studies at MIPT


An Umbrella for the Planet

by Yuri Makhnenko

Published September 3, 2001. Translated into English, September 30, 2001.

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The question about Russia's appropriate response to the American NMD modernization plans is getting more and more topical and critical. Noteworthy is the fact that besides ineffective attempts to demonstrate the past grandeur in the form of MIRVed warheads, more realistic and pragmatic strategies are also under consideration.

Grigory Yavlinsky in his interview to Moscow Times expressed his views about the possibility of creating a non-strategic Russian-European missile defense system - "an umbrella" for Europe (MN # 31, 07/31/2001). It would help us not only to "avoid humiliation" under the conditions of expected unilateral denunciations of current treaties but also "secure huge orders for the domestic military-industrial complex, create new jobs, etc" (in view of the recognized level of Russian technological developments and its geographical location). As for the approach to the settlement of disputes about the strategic NMD, the Yabloko party leader proposed that a meeting with the participation of all nuclear powers be convened.

Voicing our doubts whether the Europeans are willing to immediately cooperate with us on such complicated and versatile problems, one cannot but admit that it is the Americans' persistence in implementing their initiatives in many respects unexpected by the Russian leaders, their evidently flattering statements about a "qualitatively new level of mutual understanding" and "common interests" offer much better opportunities to earn real dividends.

One of the main objections against the new American NMD program is its officially declared orientation to the defense mainly from the "rogue" states. Even the US allies question the credibility of nuclear threat from such countries.

Meanwhile, in our daily life, we seem to forget that both America with its allies and Russia (and even the "rogue" states) face a number of other no less real and major strategic threats. Two years ago Russian and foreign media widely discussed probability and extent of the Earth's collision with an asteroid or comet, predicted for the summer of 1999. Estimations made by different experts showed that the processes accompanying the impact of objects of 1 to 2 km in size are much similar to the "nuclear winter" which may be caused by nuclear warfare. As a visual aid of a possible doomsday scenario, the photos of the impact craters on the Mars lifeless surface were demonstrated. The video was accompanied by speculations about available proof of the former existence of the vegetation and, perhaps, even intelligent life. It was stated that due to the constantly growing number of dangerous technological objects, a fall of even a small celestial body might cause an environmental crisis or provoke a nuclear conflict.

An important specific feature of the articles was that they not only stated the need to create an anti-asteroid and anti-comet Planetary Protection System (PPS) -- astronomers and specialists in cosmonautics had long been aware of the need -- but also discussed the possibility and even urgency of beginning the task.

A practical example described was the Citadel conceptual project developed by the Lavochkin NPO (S.A. Lavochkin Science and Production Association). According to the project, the PPS was designed to consist of two basic parts: the united celestial sphere monitoring service and the ground-space interception service. Establishment of the first part was planned to begin with an immediate integration and coordination of efforts of the astronomical centers, amateur astronomers and military space control centers, in order to early detect dangerous space objects and warn about a possible threat. Later it would become necessary to include satellites with onboard telescopes in the monitoring service. The interception service would be based on special reconnaissance spacecraft, space interceptors and launchers suitable to place interceptors onto the collision trajectory towards dangerous celestial bodies and deliver nuclear weapons (note that nuclear weapons were to be used not for destruction but for protection of the whole mankind!). The authors of the project strongly advocated for the practicability of the PPS deployment despite its fairly complicated scientific and engineering problems; however, they admitted that the system could only be deployed if resources of the whole world community are combined.

There are also other sources of a threat from space. In particular, the recent splashdown of the Mir space station reminded about them. Old defunct satellites, spent rocket stages, spacecraft fragments and other so-called "space debris" of the total mass of approximately three thousand tons already constitute a real danger of a fall on the Earth surface or threatening to orbital missions. Undoubtedly, the proposed PPS components could also provide for the protection against this kind of threat.

Thus, in spite of really numerous technical, political, diplomatic and psychological obstacles, it is not idealistic but rightful and timely proposal to channel the efforts of NMD proponents into development of a joint defense system of the planet from space objects.

The mutual benefits from this "flight mission" change would be evident.

Not retreating a step from their ambitious plans, the U.S.A. would get weighty moral grounds for their implementation since protection from "rogue asteroids" could naturally go in line with the national interests of the defense against the "rogue states" within the framework of the PPS.

Russia would not only save its face but also be able to claim an equal participation in a grand project with the prospects that its heavy nuclear potential is reasonably used and its numerous ideas and developments are applied for peaceful purposes.

And, evidently, the main consideration is that the mankind would obtain a really effective and universal instrument for the joint protection of our mutual house against indisputably real dangers, and acquire invaluable experience of international cooperation in the accomplishment of this noble, vital mission.

See also:

Yuri Yuriyevich Makhnenko is a Senior Research Associate of ZAO "Bonum-1" and a Corresponding Member of the Russian Academy of Cosmonautics

The opinion expressed reflects the author's view only and may not coincide with the views of the START Web Site editorial board.

© Center for Arms Control, Energy and Environmental Studies at MIPT, 2001

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