Jeffrey LewisIt's broken, so don’t fix it

About ten years ago (25 January 1995) a Black Brant XII rocket launch from Northern Norway triggered a false alarm in the Russian early warning system. How close the false alarm came to triggering an accidental nuclear war is a matter of dispute.

The event has been used to build support for various efforts to improve Russia’s early warning system in order to reduce the chance of future false alarms—including papers by Geoff Forden and John Steinbruner.

Looking back on this event, Pavel Podvig (who is sitting about 30 feet away from me right now) has written a fascinating and counterintuitive blog post and memo about why the United States shouldn’t help repair Russia’s early warning system. “The Russian early-warning system is broken,” Pavel concludes, “so don’t fix it.”

The concerns about the deterioration of the Russian early warning system are very well founded. The breakup of the Soviet Union left most radars outside of the Russian territory and made it impossible to complete construction of large phased-array radars that were to constitute the core of the early-warning network.


Although the decline of the early-warning system is indeed serious, it does not necessarily increase dangers associated with launch on warning posture. A loss of early-warning capability would have an adverse effect on the likelihood of an accident only if that loss was sudden and unexpected or discovered at the time of an attack. But this is not the case in Russia; the deterioration of the early-warning network is gradual and at every point in time process the Russian military has complete understanding of the system’s limits and capabilities.

Since the early warning system is an essential element of a launch-on-warning posture, it is understandable that a number of proposals that aim at reducing the risks of accidental launch suggest helping Russia to repair or upgrade its early-warning system. These proposals included assistance in bringing into operation the radar in Irkutsk or helping Russia to complete deployment of its early-warning satellites. Neither of these projects were implemented, but if they were, they would most likely have increased the risk of an accident by introducing new elements into the already complex system and increasing confidence in its performance.


To sum it up, the goal of reducing the risks of launch-on-warning postures seems incompatible with the efforts to repair or augment the deteriorating Russian early-warning system. Instead, the efforts should be directed at helping Russia change the command and control procedures to accommodate the loss of early-warning capability. These changes would almost certainly result in a shift away from the launch-on-warning posture, reducing the risk of an accidental launch.