How the United States looks at a nuclear strike

In late February, when Russian President Vladimir V. Putin declared that his country’s nuclear weapons were entering a “special combat readiness”, the US surveillance team was placed on high alert. Hundreds of imaging satellites, as well as other private and federal spacecraft, began looking for signs of increased activity among Russian bombers, missiles, submarines and storage bunkers, which contain thousands of nuclear warheads. .

The orbital fleet has not yet detected anything of concern, image analysts said. Echoing private assessments, US and NATO officials have not given any indication that Russia is preparing for a nuclear war. “We haven’t seen anything that has made us adjust our stance, our nuclear stance,” President Biden’s national security adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters on March 23.

But U.S. atomic watchdogs have reason to keep looking, experts said. Moscow has long practiced the use of relatively small nuclear explosions to compensate for battlefield losses. And some military experts are concerned about what Mr. Putin, after setbacks in Ukraine, to restore his reputation for cruelty.

If Russia were preparing for an atomic war, it would normally disperse its bombers to reduce its vulnerability to enemy attacks, said Hans M. Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists, a private organization. research in Washington. But right now, he said, “none of this is obvious.”

Since 1962, when one of the first U.S. spy satellites failed to detect a shipment of missiles and 158 nuclear warheads that Moscow had sent to Cuba, U.S. surveillance powers in orbit have soared. Today, hundreds of public and private imaging satellites are continuously scanning the planet to evaluate crops, map cities, manage forests, and increasingly reveal the secret actions of nuclear states.

Russia’s arsenal is outnumbering the nuclear reserves of other nations, which is a challenge for analysts to thoroughly assess their state of play. U.S. private companies such as Maxar, Capella Space and Planet Labs have provided analysts with hundreds of close-up images of Russia’s atomic forces. Planet Labs alone has a constellation of more than 200 imaging satellites and specializes in concentrating on military sites.

The private fleet monitored Russia’s nuclear forces long before the war, revealing maintenance work as well as routine drills and exercises. According to experts, this kind of basic understanding helps analysts discover the true preparations for war. “You keep track of these things and you get an idea of ​​how normal it is,” said Mark M. Lowenthal, a former deputy director of CIA analysis. “If you see a deviation, you have to ask if something is wrong.”

A false alarm sounded shortly after Mr. Putin. A Twitter account, The Lookout, published that a satellite had detected two Russian nuclear submarines coming out of a northwest port. The Express, a London tabloid, warned in a headline of “strategic preparation”. The news received little attention because experienced experts realized that the secondary exit was a planned exercise.

However, Jeffrey Lewis and Michael Duitsman, satellite imaging specialists at the Middlebury Institute for International Studies in Monterey, California, have continued to monitor Russia’s submarine fleet so that their movements can provide reliable evidence of higher states of readiness for nuclear war.

Typically, about half of Russia’s submarines equipped with long-range missiles go out to sea on scheduled patrols, while the rest remain on their docks to rest, repair and maintain. Analysts see empty docks as a warning sign.

To assess the current situation, Dr. Lewis zoomed in on a large submarine base known as Gadzhiyevo in the northern Arctic of Russia. Images in Google Earth show a dozen massive docks jutting out of rocky fjords.

The Middlebury team examined a close-up image, taken by Planet on March 7, of four of Russia’s submarines next to two of Gadzhiyevo’s docks. Mr. Duitsman said a separate image of the entire base revealed that all of its active submarines were in port, suggesting they were not preparing for a nuclear attack. “During a higher state of readiness,” he said, “I would expect several submarines to be at sea.”

The team also studied images of a military base in the wilds of Siberia where mobile launchers move long-range missiles onto inland roads as a defensive tactic. Mr. Duitsman said the images, taken on March 30 by one of Capella’s radar satellites, which can be seen through the clouds and night darkness, showed no signs of unusual activity.

Finally, near the banks of the South Volga River, the Middlebury team looked at Saratov-63, a nuclear weapons storage site for long-range missiles, as well as the Russian Air Force. There is a bomber base nearby. The images, taken by Planet on March 6, revealed a snowy landscape and, Mr. Duitsman, no evidence of increased alertness.

A senior U.S. Army official visited an underground bunker in Saratov-63 in 1998 and reported that it contained not only extremely powerful nuclear weapons, but also minor weapons, sometimes known as tactical weapons. Small arms are considered to play a major role in Russian nuclear attacks because their power can be fractions of the destructive force of the nuclear bomb in Hiroshima, Japan, blurring the line between conventional and nuclear weapons and making them look more like usable.

Nuclear analysts and experts say the accumulation of evidence suggests that Mr. Putin’s “preparation for combat” was not an order to prepare weapons but rather a signal that a message of war could arrive soon.

Pavel Podvig, a longtime Russian weapons researcher, said the alert probably prepared the Russian army for the possibility of a nuclear order. Nikolai Sokov, a former Soviet diplomat who negotiated arms control treaties, agreed. “It’s a signal to the chain of command and control,” he said. “It simply came to our notice then. An order may come. ‘”

But Dr. Lewis of the Middlebury Institute said that Mr. Putin also appeared to have sent more military personnel to central locations transmitting orders and messages among the dispersed forces. “That’s why we didn’t see anything,” he said. “The number of humans in the bunkers was increasing.” Practice, he added, is a standard part of how Russia raises its nuclear preparedness levels: more people are needed to carry out war preparations than to keep places on standby.

Dr. Lowenthal, the former deputy director of the CIA and now a senior professor at Johns Hopkins, said he found the personal aspect of the Moscow climbing process most troubling.

“We can develop a good baseline on what is normal” and routine in the movement of Russian nuclear weapons, he said. “It’s the inner things that are always worrisome.” Image satellites, after all, can’t see what people are doing inside buildings and bunkers.

He said the main uncertainty was “the level of automaticity” in Russia’s escalating war warnings, a topic covered in “The Dead Hand”, a 2009 Pulitzer Prize-winning book that described a semi-automatic system designed to work by itself. even in case the Russian leaders had been assassinated. In that case, Russia’s nuclear authority would pass a few low-ranking officers in a concrete bunker. It is unclear whether Moscow today is based on something similar.

“You’re never entirely sure” how Russia is going to authorize the use of nuclear weapons, Dr. Lowenthal said. “That’s the kind of thing that makes you nervous.”

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