Strategic Weapons: May 12, 2004

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Russias ICBM early warning system is falling apart. At the end of the Cold War, Russia had a network of high powered radars facing North America, and other potential nuclear powers, plus a number of space satellites providing additional coverage. The United States had a similar system. But the end of the Cold War brought with it huge cuts in the Russian defense budget. Now, most of the satellites are defunct and few replacements have been put up. The huge radars are not functioning much of the time, after a decade of cut rate maintenance. In response, the Russians dont rely on their early warning system any more. 

The Russians  have another reason for this policy. In 1983 and 1995 the system have confirmed alerts that the United States had launched missiles at Russia. In both cases, the officers in charge ultimately decided that it must be a malfunction, and retaliatory Russian missiles were not launched at the United States. In both cases, the investigation showed not only that it was indeed a false alarm, but that the system had more potential for false alarms than its designers had expected. 

The American early warning system handled false alarms better than the Russian system, and is still functioning. There was a proposal, in the late 1990s, that the U.S. and Russia integrate their early warning systems to provide more complete, and reliable, coverage. Everyone thought this was a splendid idea, but politics, and lack of money, have so far delayed any real progress. 

With great fanfare, both the United States and Russian announced that they were retargeting their ICBMs, and no longer aiming them at each other. But it is believed that some Russian ICBM are still aimed at American and European targets, and some U.S. missiles are still targeting Russian locations. American ICBM guidance systems were upgraded since the end of the Cold War, so they could have their targets changed very quickly (actual speed of the change is secret, but is said to be a few minutes.) There are still some 30,000 nuclear weapons out there, although most of them are not fully assembled and ready to use. Theres enough nuclear material left over from the Cold War to build over 200,000 nuclear weapons. But most of this nuclear material is headed for reprocessing and use in running nuclear power plants. There are only about two thousand ICBMs still in working order (nearly all of them Russian or American), but thats more than enough to end civilization as we know it. 

 


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