The satellites which provide Russia with the space-based tier for detecting ballistic missile launches have worn out at a bad moment for President Vladimir Putin: He is strapped for the huge amounts of cash needed to replace the defunct satellites. And so Moscow is left partially blind to a possible nuclear first strike at a time of spiraling international crises and tensions with Washington over Ukraine.
The Russians have turned to ground radar as an interim measure, although it is not as effective or accurate as the space-based early warning units, which pinpoint an enemy missile launch about a minute faster.
DEBKA Weekly’s military report that, to defend its borders, Moscow has rustled up all available N6 Big Bird three-dimensional surveillance Radar 64 systems, which are attached to the S-300 air defense missiles. More are in production.
The Big Bird has a range of 250 km and can display up to 200 targets simultaneously. It is highly mobile and can be deployed in five minutes. It is mounted on two vans, towed by a MAZ tractor and manned by a crew of four – separate from the missile system itself.
However, Big Bird is short on accuracy compared with the space-based system and may therefore catch the wrong worm by mistake.
Preventing an inadvertent nuclear war
DEBKA Weekly‘s exclusive sources reveal that Washington, aware that these radar stations are connected to Russia’s rapid response center for its nuclear missiles, has initiated a secret dialogue with Moscow on a liaison mechanism that would hold the process up while the two powers confer, with a view to preventing the inadvertent outbreak of a nuclear war.
Two Russian satellites of the old US-KS/Oko system stopped functioning some time in late 2014. Left over from the Soviet Union, they had come to the end of their operational lives. Cosmos-2422, launched in July 2006, failed to perform an orbit correction maneuver in September 2014. Cosmos-2446-33447, launched in December 2008, also failed at around the same time and is currently drifting off its working orbit.
The two satellite systems worked as part of the US-KS system which gave the Soviet Union the ability to detect ballistic missile launches from US territory. Each was in position for about six hours a day. Technically, four were needed for 24-hour coverage, but reliable detection required more than double that number.
Space-based early warning was a useful, but not critical component of the Russian early-warning system.
As the old satellites ran down, Russia worked on a new system known as EKS, which was expected to produce its first satellite, the Tundra (14F142), in 2009.
The new satellite keeps missing its launch date
But production kept on slipping behind schedule. Its maiden flight was scheduled for 2014, but it missed that date. Russian defense sources now say that launch is due in June or July 2015. (Interestingly, that date correspondents exactly to the deadline for the current nuclear negotiations between and the six world powers on a final accord.). But until then Russia is half-blind to possible intercontinental ballistic missile launches.
US intelligence sources don’t expect Moscow to meet this date – not just because of technical difficulties but because Russia, drained by plummeting oil prices and sanctions, is hard put to find the resources for the project. Indeed, Russian workers have been rising up in protest against unpaid wages and enforced idleness – even in the space and defense industries.
Thursday, April 23, the US State Department accused Moscow of deploying additional air defense systems in eastern Ukraine up to the front lines, in violation of the ceasefire agreement signed in February, and “continuing to ship heavy weapons into Ukraine.” This was described as the highest amount of Russian air defense equipment in eastern Ukraine since August.
Iran can forget about the S-300s for now
As Western military personnel pour into Ukraine (see the last DEBKA Weekly issue), Putin is clearly rushing to fill in the many gaps in the air defenses on Russia’s borders until the new Tundra satellite can be put into orbit.
However, the factories working to produce more Big Bird radar stations are also behind demand, even as he scrapes the bottom of the barrel for funds.
Sources in Washington calculate that Iran will have to go without the promised S-300 anti-air missile system, despite the Russian president’s promise to supply by the end of 2015, because he won’t take the chance of leaving Russia any more vulnerable to ballistic missile attack than it is today.