Ballistic Missile Early Warning System and Strategic Stability

DOI: 10.20542/0131-2227-2016-60-12-40-50

A. Savel'ev, Primakov National Research Institute of World Economy and International Relations, Russian Academy of Sciences (IMEMO), 23, Profsoyuznaya Str., Moscow, 117997, Russian Federation (

Abstract. The central part of the article is devoted to the analysis of a “human factor” in the decision-making process based on the information presented by the Ballistic Missile Early Warning System (BMEWS). Having analyzed well-known cases of the U.S. and Soviet (Russian) BMEWS false alarms, the author comes to a conclusion that the role of a “human factor” in preventing fatal mistakes in decision-making process is most important. At the same time, the very existence of an early warning system has rather negative than positive effect on strategic stability. The author states that without BMEWS, the strategic situation could be probably less predictable, but more stable since in that case it excluded launch-on-warning options for military-political leadership of the two great nuclear powers. The early warning system could be used by a “third power” to provoke a nuclear conflict between Russia and the United States; it can be vulnerable to a cyber-attack, or just initiate a false alarm due to a technical error as it took place before. All this can result in a fatal decision to launch nuclear weapons on warning of such an “attack”. The present procedure which includes a “nuclear case” with a “red button” in it not only provides, but also contributes to such an option. The author concludes that the present unstable situation with BMEWS can be improved only by adding ballistic missile defense to the state security system of Russia. It is suggested that Russian authorities reconsider their negative attitude towards ballistic missile defense and start a national-wide program to provide a “thin” defense for the most populated territories of the state. This move could contribute to security by offering the leadership other options in case the BMEWS initiates an alarming signal. As a minimum, there will be the “third” option in comparison with the present choice to order or not to order launching of nuclear weapons on warning.

Keywords: nuclear deterrence, security, strategic stability, Ballistic Missiles Early Warning System, decision-making, launch-on-warning, human factor, ballistic missile defense 


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For citation:
Savel'ev A. Ballistic Missile Early Warning System and Strategic Stability. World Eonomy and International Relations, 2016, vol. 60, no. 12, pp. 40-50.

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