How does America monitor a nuclear strike?

In late February, when Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that his country’s nuclear weapons were entering “special combat readiness,” American surveillance services were on high alert. Hundreds of imaging satellites, as well as other private and federal spacecraft, have begun searching for indications of increased activity among Russia’s bombers, missiles, submarines and storage bunkers, which contain thousands of nuclear warheads.

Image analysts said the orbiting fleet has yet to spot anything worth worrying about. Echoing private assessments, US and NATO officials have reported no indications that Russia is preparing for nuclear war. “We haven’t seen anything that put us in check, our nuclear posture,” Jake Sullivan, President Biden’s national security adviser, told reporters on March 23.

But experts said the US atomic watchdog has reason to continue the research. Moscow has long practiced using relatively small nuclear explosions to offset battlefield losses. Some military experts are concerned about what Putin, after the setbacks in Ukraine, might do to restore his reputation for ruthlessness.

Christensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists, a private research organization in Washington, said if Russia was preparing for an atomic war, it would usually disperse its bombers to reduce its vulnerability to enemy attack. But now he said, “None of this is obvious.”

Since 1962, when one of America’s first spy satellites failed to spot a shipment of missiles and 158 nuclear warheads that Moscow had sent to Cuba, American surveillance forces have risen into orbit. Today, hundreds of public and private imaging satellites are constantly scanning the planet to assess crops, map cities, manage forests, and increasingly unveil the secret actions of nuclear states.

The size of Russia’s arsenal exceeds all other countries’ nuclear stockpiles in size, creating a challenge for analysts to make a comprehensive assessment of the state of play. Private American companies such as Maxar, Capella Space and Planet Labs have provided analysts with hundreds of close-up photos of the Russian atomic forces. Planet Labs alone has a constellation of over 200 imaging satellites, and it has specialized in focusing on military sites.

The Special Fleet tracked Russian nuclear forces long before the war, revealing maintenance work as well as routine drills and exercises. This kind of basic understanding helps analysts discover true preparations for war, experts said. Mark M. said Lowenthal, former assistant director of the CIA for analysis: “You follow these things and you start to recognize the natural form.” “If you see an aberration, you have to ask if something is up.”

A false alarm sounded shortly after Putin’s announcement. Twitter account, The Lookout, to publish A satellite has spotted two Russian nuclear submarines leaving a northwest port. The Express, the London tabloid, warned in a headline of “strategic preparedness”. The news flash didn’t get much attention because the seasoned experts realized that sub-departure was a planned exercise.

However, Jeffrey Lewis and Michael Deutzman, satellite imagery specialists at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in Monterey, California, continued to monitor the Russian submarine fleet because their movements could provide reliable indicators of higher states of readiness for nuclear war.

Typically, about half of Russian submarines equipped with long-range missiles go out to sea on scheduled patrols while other submarines remain at their docks for rest, repairs and maintenance. Analysts see empty sidewalks as a warning sign.

To assess the current situation, Dr. Lewis has expanded the large submarine base known as Gadzhiyevo in the north of Russia’s Arctic. His Google Earth images show dozens of massive piers jutting out of rocky fjords.

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

The team also studied images of a military base in the Siberian wilds where mobile launchers move long-range missiles over remote roads as a defensive tactic. Mr Deutschmann said the images – taken on March 30 by one of Capella’s radar satellites, which can see through clouds as well as darkness at night – showed no signs of unusual activity.

Finally, near the southern banks of the 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. Launchers base nearby. The images, taken by Planet on March 6, revealed a snowy landscape and, as Mr Duitsman said, there was no evidence of high alert.

In 1998 a senior US military officer toured an underground bunker in Saratov 63 and stated that it contained not only extremely powerful nuclear weapons but also lesser weapons, sometimes known as tactical weapons. Small arms are seen as playing leading roles in Russian nuclear strikes because their power can be fractions of the destructive power of the atomic bomb in Hiroshima, Japan, blurring the line between conventional and nuclear weapons and making them appear more usable.

Analysts and nuclear experts say accumulating evidence indicates that Putin’s declaration of “combat readiness” was not an order to prepare weapons, but rather a signal that a message of war might come soon.

The state of alert likely prompted the Russian military for the possibility of issuing a nuclear order, said Pavel Budvig, a longtime weapons researcher from Russia. Nikolai Sokov, a former Soviet diplomat who negotiated arms control treaties, agreed. “It’s a reference to the chain of command and control,” he said. It simply means, ‘Come to attention. There may be something to come. “

But Dr. Lewis of the Middlebury Institute said Putin’s order appears to have sent more military personnel to central centers that relay orders and messages between dispersed forces. “That’s why we didn’t see anything,” he said. “It has led to an increase in the number of people in bunkers.” This practice, he added, is a standard part of how Russia raises its nuclear readiness levels: It takes more people to carry out preparations for war than to keep sites on standby.

Dr. said. Lowenthal, a former assistant director of the CIA and now a senior lecturer at Johns Hopkins University, said he found the personnel aspect of Moscow’s escalatory operation most troubling.

“We can develop a good baseline of what’s normal” and routine in the Russian nuclear arms movement, he said. “It’s the inner stuff that always worries me.” After all, satellite imaging cannot see what people are doing inside buildings and bunkers.

The main uncertainty, he said, was the “level of automaticity” in Russia’s escalatory war alerts — a topic addressed in the 2009 Pulitzer Prize-winning book “Dead Hand” that described a semi-automated system intended to act on its own should this happen. Russia’s leaders were killed. In this case, the Russian nuclear power would pass to a few low-ranking officers in a concrete bunker. It is unclear whether Moscow is counting on something similar today.

Dr. said. “It’s the kind of thing that makes you nervous.”

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