Nuclear option: Aid for Russia?

Congressional office weighs U.S. help with 6 warning satellites

Failing system poses risk

August 27, 1999|By Greg Schneider | Greg Schneider,SUN STAFF

Russia apparently cannot afford to launch several new satellites for monitoring U.S. nuclear missile strikes, so the Congressional Budget Office has explored a truly strange gesture of post-Cold War goodwill:

Have the United States pay to put six of the satellites in orbit -- "enough to give Russia 24-hour coverage of U.S. missile fields," according to a CBO letter obtained by The Sun.

The Aug. 24 letter to Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, a South Dakota Democrat, weighs the pros and cons of such an action, which would seem to be an odd twist on generations of East-West mistrust.

But one expert said there is good reason to take the option seriously.

"Their early warning network is in pretty bad shape," said John Pike of the Federation of American Scientists. "My view is, we've got to do something here because it's an accident waiting to happen."

The United States and Russia have fleets of satellites that watch each other's nuclear arsenals for signs of attack. The United States has continued to update its network, and is spending billions to perfect a "star wars" system that could both warn of attack and knock enemy missiles out of the sky.

Russia's system, though, is so "seriously degraded [that it] poses risks to both countries," the Congressional Budget Office said. In 1995, the launch of a research rocket off the coast of Norway caused Russia's early warning system to go on alert for nuclear attack.

Such a situation could trigger a Russian nuclear launch before the false alarm was detected.

The two nations have explored ways of addressing the problem at least since last year, when another CBO study suggested giving Russia access to the U.S. early warning satellite system. Faced with considerable political pressure not to release such sensitive information to the Russians, Daschle asked the budget office to consider "nontraditional" alternatives.

Since then, according to the letter, the CBO has learned that Russia has built seven new early warning satellites, but "is unable or unwilling to devote the resources necessary to launch them."

The United States could buy Russian rockets -- which are less expensive than American rockets -- and launch six of the satellites for about $200 million, the CBO said.

The letter lists several arguments against the option, including the fact that if Russia were sufficiently worried about false alarms, it could cough up the money itself. In addition, the six satellites would not allow Russia to monitor launches around the globe, only in the United States.

And the option would not provide money for helping Russian institutes that design and build early warning satellites, meaning that the country's engineers could be driven from the field by lack of money.

But it could be argued that any investment in Russia's early warning system would be wise because "one of the greatest strategic threats the United States faces is inadvertent nuclear war caused by a failure in Russia's command-and-control system," the letter notes. Because the satellites are Russian-built, Moscow would trust their data, and cooperation on the project could lead to better relations on other early warning issues and arms control in general.

The CBO letter was written at Daschle's request on behalf of the budget office's director, Dan L. Crippen.

None of the letter's recipients -- Daschle and five other senators, including Majority Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi -- could be reached last night for comment, nor could their staffs.

While the United States recently agreed to cooperate with Japan on missile defense research, paying to launch Russian satellites could be a far thornier political issue.

Pike, who has monitored nuclear weapons for many years, said he does not give the idea much chance of survival in Congress.

"In the current political environment, no," Pike said. "Simply because it would require a more mature understanding of the actual situation than is prevalent in Washington right now."

But he said assisting Russia with the project would be better than doing nothing.

"Given the alternative between the old way of doing things and this way of doing things, I would prefer to do it this way," he said. "We would be living in a much safer world."

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