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Fire Shuts Down Russian Early-Warning System

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Philipp C. Bleek

A May 10 fire at a Russian satellite-control facility at least temporarily compromised Russia’s ability to detect the launch of long-range missiles from the United States, highlighting the deterioration of the country’s early-warning capabilities.

The fire broke out in the early morning hours at a satellite-control center near Serpukhov, a city outside Moscow, and was reportedly extinguished only after it had effectively gutted the building. The blaze appears to have knocked out communication with four early-warning satellites that monitor U.S. ICBM fields.

Russia maintains a variety of early-warning capabilities that provide some redundancy, but the loss of communication with the satellites likely increased the time Russia would have required to detect a launch, decreasing the amount of time available for Russian officials to determine whether an attack was underway.


Russian news sources provided conflicting reports as to how quickly contact with the satellites was restored after the fire. While some reported that uplinks were re-established at another control center within 24 hours, others cited Russian officials stating that contact was not fully restored until four days after the fire. A U.S. administration official was able to confirm that contact with the satellites had been lost, during which time the satellites would have gone into a “safekeeping mode” in which no data could be transmitted, but was unable to clarify how quickly contact had been re-established.

Attempting to ensure that such incidents do not lead to mistaken warning of nuclear attack, the United States and Russia signed a series of agreements last year establishing a center at which U.S. and Russian officers would jointly monitor early-warning information. (See ACT, July/August 2000 and January/February 2001.) Implementation of those agreements remains stalled pending ongoing disputes over tax and liability exemptions. According to an administration official, Russian officials are insisting that import duties and taxes be paid by U.S. contractors working to renovate the former kindergarten outside Moscow that the Russians have provided to house the center. Russian officials also continue to decline requests for liability exemptions for U.S. contractors.

The administration official emphasized that, although the parties have been unable to reach agreement on a mutually acceptable “diplomatic framework” to resolve the tax and liability issues, the administration remains optimistic that the issues can be worked out by June, when Presidents George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin are scheduled to meet for the first time, allowing the early-warning center to begin operating by the end of the year.