Take A Rare Look Inside Russia’s Doomsday Ballistic Missile Warning System

As Russia’s early warning network marks 50 years of service, one of its satellite control centers opened its doors. 

Youtube Screencap

The Russian Ministry of Defense posted a video to its various social media channels yesterday showing some of the inside workings of one of the country’s early warning facilities that watch for incoming ballistic missiles. The video appears to show the Serpukhov-15 satellite control center in Kaluga Oblast, around 90 miles southwest of Moscow, which was at the center of one of the Cold War’s most hair-raising incidents.

The video was posted online as Russia’s early warning network, designed to protect against ballistic missile attacks, celebrated its 50th anniversary. The organization that operates these systems, commonly referred to by its Russian acronym SPRN, marked the occasion in an appropriate style. The footage shows that it even apparently simulated an incoming intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) attack from the United States. 

Youtube Screencap

Operators at work within the early warning station, apparently Serpukhov-15.

We also see the exterior of the sprawling facility, with its characteristic array of eight antennas under enormous geodesic domes. There is a brief view inside one of these radomes, revealing the rotating antenna itself, used for communication with early warning satellites.

The video in question, seen below, shows critical information flash up onto a screen before the operators within the facility swing into action to start categorizing the object and confirming whether or not the launch is real. This is followed by a clip showing what appears to be an automatically generated map with the projected path of, in this case, the simulated missile as it hurtles toward Russian territory.

According to the analysis of Dmitry Stefanovich, a Research Fellow at the Center for International Security, IMEMO RAS, the simulated attack sequence shown in the footage is based on a single ICBM being launched from the missile fields associated with F. E. Warren Air Force Base in Wyoming. This base is home to the U.S. Air Force’s 90th Missile Wing, which is equipped with LGM-30G Minuteman III ICBMs.

The job of the SPRN is not only to monitor for possible ICBM attacks but could help support a so-called “launch-on-warning” posture, wherein a nuclear retaliatory strike is initiated immediately when a likely threat is detected, rather than waiting for detonation to occur on Russian soil to conclusively confirm a suspect attack is real. There has been a debate over the years about whether or not the Kremlin actually has such a policy in place.

The network would also be used to detect targets that Russia’s A-135 anti-ballistic missile system — known to NATO as the ABM-4 Gorgon — could then attempt to intercept. That system is designed to protect the Russian capital Moscow and its surrounding areas.

The Missile Attack Warning System or Sistema preduprezhdeniya o raketnom napadenii (SPRN) became operational in what was then the Soviet Union on February 15, 1971. At that time, it consisted of a pair of Dnestr-M space surveillance and early warning radars located at Olenegorsk and Skrunda, plus a command post in Solnechnogorsk, located outside Moscow. 

As the space portion of the Russian early-warning system, the SPRN is the first echelon of this network, intended to detect the launch of an ICBM, while the second echelon consists of radars for over-the-horizon detection of ballistic missiles once they are on their flight paths. When ICBMs are launched, they create a telltale plume that can be observed by infrared sensors onboard satellites, at an altitude of around 25,000 miles above the surface of the Earth.

A similar system exists in the United States, where Lockheed Martin is building three new missile warning satellites as part of the U.S. Air Force’s Next-Generation Overhead Persistent Infrared program, also called Next-Gen OPIR. This is part of a wider plan for an array of new space-based sensors to help guard against both advanced ballistic missiles and emerging hypersonic threats.

GOOGLE EARTH

A satellite image of the Serpukhov-15 satellite control center, as seen in the video.

Once a satellite detects a launch, and its direction, this information is relayed to a ground control center where its reliability is assessed, followed by the automated warning: “Attention. Launch. First echelon.” At the same time, an alert signal is issued to the domestic missile defense system.

“The early warning system was one of the first systems to perform the tasks of detecting possible attacks of ballistic missiles in a fully automatic mode,” the Russian Ministry of Defense explains. “During its years of duty, it went through several stages of modernization. This included more powerful radar stations and a space echelon, including special spacecraft and ground control centers.”

Serpukhov-15 is one of two such centers, with a corresponding eastern satellite control center located near Komsomolsk-on-Amur in the Russian Far East. Between them, they receive information in real-time from early-warning satellites. The data is processed at the two centers and then transmitted to the command center at Solnechnogorsk.

New Oko early-warning satellites began to be launched in 1972 and the initial constellation was commissioned into service in 1982. The last of these satellites was reportedly launched in 2010 and, since 2015, the more capable EKS Kupol satellites have begun to replace them. The Serpukhov-15 site, specifically, has continued to be upgraded, as well.

It's also interesting to note that Serpukhov-15 was also at the center of an incident in 1983 that apparently almost led to World War III. On September 26 of that year, a serious malfunction led to this satellite control center erroneously alerting officials to a launch of five Minuteman ICBMs in the United States. Lieutenant Colonel Stanislav Petrov, the officer on duty at the time, is credited with discounting the reports — which were not backed up by early warning radar — and preventing a potential nuclear conflict.

Many years later, after the fall of the Soviet Union, another incident saw a fire break out at Serpukhov-15, on May 10, 2001. “The fire destroyed one of the buildings and cables at the Serpukhov-15 control station, which led to a loss of communication with all four satellites in orbit,” according to an account by Pavel Podvig, an independent analyst who runs the Russian Nuclear Forces research project. As a result of the fire, control over all four of the station’s satellites was lost, although the center was back online by August 20 the same year.

The Russian Ministry of Defense announced that the country’s missile attack warning systems detected more than 90 launches of foreign and domestic ballistic missiles and space rockets last year. Since the SPRN was introduced, the system has detected more than 2,000 launches of foreign and domestic ballistic missiles and approximately 1,000 launches of space rockets.

The SPRN may not attract as much attention as the country’s ICBM forces, missile defenses, or anti-satellite systems, but it is a fundamental component of Russia’s strategic defenses. While the arsenals of strategic offensive weapons in Russia and the United States may be greatly reduced compared to their 1983 levels, they are still capable of catastrophic destruction, and infrastructure like Serpukhov-15 will continue to play a vital role in providing early warning of a ballistic missile attack.

Contact the author: thomas@thedrive.com