TechGermany taps global nuclear test network for missile defense

Germany taps global nuclear test network for missile defense

One of the German stations monitoring the occurrence of radioactive elements in the atmosphere.
One of the German stations monitoring the occurrence of radioactive elements in the atmosphere.
Images source: © Lic. CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons, Wusel007
10:53 AM EST, February 27, 2024

The Treaty on the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban has facilitated the establishment of a global surveillance network known as the International Monitoring System (IMS). This network, equipped with ultra-sensitive instruments, is designed to detect not only explosions but also rocket launches. Germany is now proposing to leverage this data for air defense purposes.

Berlin suggests enhancing its national air and missile defense capabilities in an unconventional manner by incorporating the global network's "listening" features, which are traditionally used for detecting nuclear explosions, into its array of sensors, such as radar stations.

International Monitoring System (IMS) was developed to ensure adherence to the Treaty on the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban. This system plays a crucial role in global efforts to curb nuclear proliferation.

As Defence 24 reports, German officials believe this infrastructure, originally intended for monitoring nuclear armaments, could serve as an effective early warning system against missile threats. But what exactly is IMS, and how can it contribute to missile defense?

Understanding the International Monitoring System (IMS)

Established following the signing of the Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty in 1996, the International Monitoring System is a comprehensive network of sensors designed to detect nuclear explosions on land, under the sea, in the atmosphere, or underwater.

The network boasts over 330 facilities worldwide, including 170 seismic stations tasked with detecting underground explosions. These stations are complemented by marine monitoring systems, which include hydroacoustic stations that capture changes in water pressure from sound waves and the acoustic energy produced when waves strike land.

Moreover, other stations measure atmospheric radionuclide levels, searching for radioactive particles in the air or monitoring infrasound frequencies that are inaudible to humans.

Monitoring rocket launches

Infrasound technology, initially devised for spotting distant nuclear detonations, has proven invaluable in tracking rocket launches as well. These capabilities provide intricate details about the launch process, as highlighted in a publication by the American Geophysical Union two years ago.

For the space industry, this data can validate if a launch proceeded without issues. In recent years, the system has monitored over a thousand rocket launches, gathering a vast library of sound signatures that document both the initial launch and subsequent flight stages.

This versatile network, created to safeguard the nuclear treaty, also supplies valuable data for studying meteorite impacts, infrasound from auroras, volcanic activity, or marine mammal communication, as noted by the SETI Institute.

Strategic defense initiative: A historical context

The global endeavor is reminiscent, albeit to a lesser extent, of the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), a program launched by the United States during the Cold War in the 1980s. SDI focused on early missile launch detection and the potential to neutralize threats immediately as they were fired from their launch sites—utilizing advanced technologies such as orbit-mounted lasers and Gauss guns powered by chemical or nuclear sources.

Although SDI catalyzed numerous innovative research efforts, it was never fully implemented. Labeled "Star Wars" by its critics, the initiative raised concerns for potentially breaching the Cold War-era Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) doctrine, a cornerstone of strategic peace at the time.

The peril of false alarms

It's crucial to acknowledge the inherent imperfections of remote nuclear arsenal monitoring systems. During the Cold War, these systems' susceptibility to false alarms nearly brought the world to the brink of nuclear war on several occasions, with only the judicious intervention of key individuals preventing catastrophe.

One of the most notable incidents involved Soviet Colonel Stanislav Petrov in 1983, who correctly identified a system glitch that misinterpreted sunlight reflections on clouds as a missile launch from Montana, thus avoiding a potential nuclear conflict.

Another close call occurred in 1995 when a scientific rocket launched by Norwegian researchers was mistakenly identified by Russian systems as a nuclear missile, nearly leading to a catastrophic response. Fortunately, the trajectory of the Norwegian rocket quickly clarified that it posed no threat to Russia.

In a more recent, albeit less dangerous episode, residents of Hawaii in 2018 received a misleading missile threat alert on their cell phones due to a mix-up attributed to human error and poor system interface design, highlighting the continued challenges in emergency communication and threat detection.

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