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False alarms and early warning systems - Lessons for India Pakistan (M V Ramana)

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  • Harsh Kapoor
    The Daily Times (Lahore) Thursday, November 07, 2002 OP-ED False alarms and early warning systems M V Ramana Given the likelihood of false alarms, India and
    Message 1 of 1 , Nov 7, 2002
      The Daily Times (Lahore)
      Thursday, November 07, 2002

      False alarms and early warning systems

      M V Ramana

      Given the likelihood of false alarms, India and Pakistan should not
      go in for enormously complex, expensive and ultimately failure prone
      early warning systems; they should not deploy their nuclear weapons
      on missiles that can be launched at short notice

      In his statement before the US House Committee on Science last month,
      Brigadier General Simon Worden, Deputy Director for Operations at the
      United States Strategic Command, revealed yet another reason why
      India and Pakistan may have come close to nuclear war. According to
      his testimony, on June 6 of this year US early warning satellites
      detected a flash high over the Mediterranean Sea. Any boat down below
      on the water would have also experienced a shock wave. Both these
      signals are the same as would have accompanied a nuclear explosion
      that released as much energy as the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima. In
      reality the flash was caused by the impact of a small asteroid,
      probably about 5-10 meters in diameter, on the earth's atmosphere.

      India and Pakistan do not have the sophisticated sensors or the
      infrastructure to detect this impact or differentiate this from a
      nuclear explosion. Had the asteroid struck over India or Pakistan,
      General Worden pointed out, the "resulting panic in the nuclear-armed
      and hair-triggered opposing forces could have been the spark that
      ignited a nuclear horror we have avoided for over a half century".

      General Worden’s statement was probably wrong on one count. From what
      we know publicly, India and Pakistan are not yet in a hair-triggered
      situation, i.e., they do not have missiles loaded with nuclear
      warheads ready to be launched at a moment's notice. However, this
      situation may well change in the years to come and the potential for
      nuclear war would increase tremendously. This would not necessarily
      be because someone intentionally decides to launch a nuclear attack
      on the other nation; it may be more likely to happen because an
      accident — such as misidentifying an asteroid impact as a nuclear
      explosion — could trigger off nuclear war.

      Given his position at the US strategic command, it is not surprising
      that General Worden focused on a technological solution — namely to
      set up an asteroid early warning centre. That is in line with what
      the US and the Soviet Union have done to deal with the possibility of
      nuclear war. Since the two countries were concerned that the other
      country would launch a sudden nuclear attack on them, aimed at
      destroying their nuclear and military infrastructure, they set up
      enormously complicated systems involving a worldwide network of
      satellites and radars to detect the launch and approach of ballistic

      These early warning systems had to deal with a variety of extraneous
      inputs — noise, physical phenomena like sunlight reflected from cloud
      tops, the flight of other objects like geese, and so on. Mistaking
      one of these to be the signature of a missile attack is easy and
      happens often. From 1977 through 1984, the only period for which
      official information has been released, US early warning systems gave
      an average of 2,598 warnings each year of potential incoming missiles
      attacks. All of these were false — i.e., there was no missile coming
      in. However, in about five per cent of these cases authorities could
      not immediately decide that the signal was false and had to evaluate
      it further. According to US nuclear plans, such evaluation was
      accompanied by the alerting of nuclear weapons. Should the alarm not
      be ruled out as false within about 10 minutes, US plans called for
      launching the nuclear weapons, propelling the world into nuclear war.

      An example of a truly bizarre event that could have led to nuclear
      war may help clarify the enormous set of events that these systems
      have to contend with and not identify a false signal as that of an
      incoming missile attack. In 1979, computers at North American
      Aerospace Defense Command, the Pentagon’s National Military Command
      Center, and the Alternate National Military Command Center, all
      showed what the United States feared most — a massive Soviet nuclear
      strike aimed at destroying the US command system and nuclear forces.
      Launch control centres for Minuteman missiles received preliminary
      warning of massive nuclear attack. The entire continental air defence
      interceptor force was alerted; at least 10 fighters took off.
      Thankfully the error causing the alarm was found in time. It turned
      out that the computer running the early-warning programmes was
      receiving signals from a training tape.

      Such errors are to be expected in early warning systems since they
      are complex with many interacting parts, and have to deal with events
      that occur in rapid succession. Given their complexity, it is easy to
      make mistakes. Further, the range of circumstances and contingencies
      they have to deal with are truly immense and may not always have been
      foreseen. The kinds of things that may not be foreseen may be
      relatively commonplace. In 1960 for example the US early warning
      system indicated that a massive Soviet missile attack was underway.
      It turned out that the alarm was triggered by the radar detecting the
      rising moon.

      Following the pattern set by the US and Russia, India and Pakistan
      too have been planning to set up early warning systems. India has
      procured the Green Pine radar system from Israel and has the capacity
      to launch satellites. In January of this year, Pakistan's Minister
      for Science Technology announced that "the government is preparing to
      launch its own geo-stationary satellite by the end of the year to
      meet its strategic and communication needs".

      For reasons similar to the US and Russia, such systems would also be
      prone to false alarms. However, the situation in South Asia is made
      more severe by geography. The missile travel time between Pakistan
      and India is only a few minutes — far too short a time to provide any
      meaningful warning or permit sensible decision making. This, in
      combination with the likelihood of false alarms, implies that India
      and Pakistan not go in for these enormously complex, expensive and
      ultimately failure prone early warning systems and that they not
      deploy their nuclear weapons on missiles that can be launched at
      short notice.

      M V Ramana is a physicist and research staff member at Princeton
      University’s Program on Science and Global Security. Some of his
      writings can be found at
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