An unexpected consequence of the North Korean attempted satellite launch was that it has demonstrated that Russian early-warning radar coverage is poor. Specifically, the Russians didn’t detect the North Korean launch at all; they picked up the object during its suborbital flight, but not during its ascent. This is worrying, because it suggests two things – first of all, that the Russians would only get warning of a missile launched from that direction when it was already about to re-enter the atmosphere, giving them very little time to analyse the situation, and secondly, that the US Groundbased Midcourse Defense interceptors based on the Pacific coast could, if launched to intercept a North Korean missile, appear on the Russian radars flying up over the edge of the Earth, as if they were incoming North Korean, Chinese, or US submarine-launched missiles.
This obviously involves some pretty awful risks, and it is another good reason to be sceptical of GMD; in a real crisis, would it actually be wise to fire it? If not, of course, it’s useless and the potential enemy can be expected to take account of that. Worse, however, is that the Russians are bound to consider a radar contact from that direction more threatening than one from over the Pole, from the West, or from the South, directions in which they have much better coverage. Therefore, the very fact of the weakness is destabilising; it increases the perceived importance of quick reaction, and therefore the coupling between Russian and other missile/radar complexes. With the increasing numbers of ballistic missiles in Asia – Indian as well as Chinese, North Korean, or submarine-based – this is not good news.
It’s been suggested that one solution would be a Joint Data Exchange Centre, a headquarters in Moscow in which US and Russian staff would swap information from their warning systems. This has a serious problem; if one party is willing to launch a first nuclear strike, they are surely also willing to feed fake data to the JDEC and to accept the imminent death of their representatives there. Unfortunately, it is unlikely to be credible. Hence another plan, RAMOS (Russian-American Missile Observation Satellite). This foresaw that the US would finance and help build a constellation of satellites similar to its own Defense Support Program birds, which detect rocket launches worldwide using infrared cameras, which would broadcast their data in the clear so that both powers (and anyone else) could receive it and use it independently. Both parties would participate in their development, and would be able to do anything they liked to verify the satellite before launching it on one of their own rockets. (Perhaps now we could publish the design under the GPL.)
This Clinton administration idea, however, failed to get funding back in 1999 and was promptly canned by the Bush administration as far too sane. Perhaps it could be resurrected. Or alternatively, whatever the Americans think, why shouldn’t the European Union do it? The radar position is not as bad in our direction, but the Russians have their own missile-defence interceptors that do fly out our way, and there was that horrible business with the Norwegian research rocket. We have a serious space industry, and the French would be wholly delighted; they consider space power to be a major national priority anyway. It’s better than relying on another Stanislas Petrov.