US vs Russia: Will Missile Defense Help in a Global Nuclear War?

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US vs Russia: Will Missile Defense Help in a Global Nuclear War?

Originally appeared at The National Interest

The intensity of relations between the United States and Russia has reached its zenith. That has led nuclear deterrence and missile defense to once again become a relevant subject of discussion, as they were during the Cold War. I have already discussed the countries’ balance of strategic nuclear forces in a separate series of articles covering landundersea and air components. Now it’s time to pay attention to their missile-defense system capabilities and assess whether they can—at this point or in the future—shift the strategic balance towards any party’s side.

U.S. Missile Defense: Strategic GMD and Progressive Aegis

The only existing U.S. strategic missile-defense system capable of intercepting the warheads of intercontinental ballistic missiles is GMD (Ground-Based Midcourse Defense). The principle of the system is the kinetic interception of enemy warheads prior to their entry into the atmosphere. The target is destroyed by a direct hit with a small Exoatmospheric Kill Vehicle (EKV) interceptor, which is sent to the enemy warhead by the Ground-Based Interceptor (GBI) launch vehicle. The top speed to which EKV accelerates is approximately ten kilometers per second, and the speed of an ICBM warhead is approximately seven kilometers per second. Direct head-on collision at such speeds leads to the guaranteed complete destruction of any combat unit. However, the most difficult task in this situation is to successfully lock the kinetic interceptor on a target moving at great speed. At this point, eighteen test interceptions using the GMD system have been performed, with nine being successful—only 50 percent. This is despite the fact that tests are conducted in the most benign conditions; the target is known in advance and consists of a single warhead with no missile defense breaching systems. At this point, about thirty interceptors are deployed in Alaska and California, with the plan being to increase their number to forty-four by 2017. At this stage of development, GMD will be able to knock down at least twenty warheads in case of a large-scale ICBM strike. Considering that based on the New START Treaty, Russia and the United States may possess up to 1,550 strategic nuclear warheads, this figure is small and insignificant.

Another, more “flexible,” missile defense system, which may claim the label of strategic by 2022, is the Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense System, originally created in a ship-mounted modification. Now the land version—the Aegis Ashore—is being built in Romania and Poland. The Aegis BMD has a great advantage due to the placement of SM-3 missiles in the universal Mk-41 cell launchers. Not only is the Mk-41 compatible with interceptor missiles, it is also capable of launching anti-ship missiles and BGM-109 Tomahawk strategic cruise missiles. Currently the SM-3 Block IB interceptor missile is used, which is able to destroy short- and medium-range missiles at ranges of up to seven hundred kilometers. They are capable of intercepting ICBMs only at the initial stage of the flight, and given the size of Russia’s territory, and most underground missile silos and mobile units’ location far from Russia’s borders and seas, striking down the missiles at launch would be impossible. There are new versions of missiles, named the SM-3 Block IIA in development (phase-in expected in 2018) and the SM-3 Block IIB (phase-in planned for 2022). They dramatically outperform their predecessors in speed and range, which reaches 2,500 kilometers. Those new variants are likely to have the ability to destroy ICBMs warheads. In fact, they are very similar to GMD. In addition to missiles warfare, the Aegis has already proven that it is capable of effectively dealing with low-orbit satellites.

And yet, as we have already noted, the real effectiveness of ICBM warhead interception is yet very low, and initial flight-stage missile interception in the event of confrontation with Russia is inefficient (the European part of Russia holds a very small number of ICBMs—and in theory those are only possible to bring down during the launching phase). After the warhead has separated from the booster, it is practically impossible to intercept, and after separating the plurality of warheads and decoys too many interceptors are needed to repel the attack. And they are very expensive—more expensive than the warheads.

Russian Missile Defense: A-235 to Replace the A-135

Currently Russia has Moscow as a single area of ​​strategic missile defense system positioning. It is protected by the A-135 system adopted in 1990. Initially, A-135 consisted of two types of missiles: the 51T6 (ABM-4 “Gorgon” according to NATO classification) was created for long-range interception, and the close tier is defended by the 53T6 (ABM-3A “Gazelle” according to NATO classification). The 51T6, capable of destroying an ICBM warhead at a range of six hundred kilometers, was written off in 2006 due to its expiration date. The close tier is still armed. 53T6 missiles have a range of one hundred kilometers, with a height of interception of thirty kilometers; unlike the 51T6, the target is destroyed after entering the atmosphere. This anti-missile has unique characteristics allowing it to quickly respond to the threat: its maximum speed of 5.5 kilometers per second is reached in four seconds. Human vision cannot detect the movement of “Gazelle.” It intercepts ICBM warheads in, at most, twelve seconds after launching. In both interceptors, the principle of interception is very different from that in the American system, as it involves a high-altitude nuclear explosion of small capacity which does not cause any collateral damage to friendly forces. This approach allows us to raise the probability of destroying targets to almost 100 percent, because it does not require a direct hit and many of the ICBM warheads’ missile-defense breaching tools appear useless.

The extreme age of the A-135 system has led Russia to develop a replacement: the A-235 system, allegedly dubbed “Nudol.” There is no detailed and comprehensive information on the characteristics of the system yet, as it remains secret. But according to reports, the A-235 will have two or even three defense tiers. The most distant tier will be protected by interceptor missiles similar to the 51T6—but with the interception range increased to 1,000–1,500 kilometers. The nearest tier would be defended by a new modification of the 53T6, whose high-precision guidance would eliminate the requirement for nuclear warheads for interception—using instead a blast-fragmentation warhead. There is no data on the intermediate-tier missiles yet; perhaps there will none at all. In addition to ICBM warfare, the A-235 can be used against satellites and hypersonic cruise missiles. Unconfirmed information suggests that portion of the A-135’s launchers will be mobile.

U.S. and Russian TMD Systems: Getting Closer to Reality

We have reviewed the existing missile designs that are partly capable of dealing with ICBM warheads above. We will now turn to more “simple” systems, designed to combat short-range and medium-range missiles.

In the case of the United States, there are two major tactical missile defense systems. The first is THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense), performing kinetic exoatmospheric interceptions at a distance of two hundred kilometers. The second is the Patriot PAC-3 anti-aircraft missile system, capable of combating short-range missiles at an altitude of fifteen to twenty kilometers.

In Russia, there are also two main weapons systems capable of performing these tasks: the S-400 and S-300V4 antiaircraft missile systems. The latter is even more effective, as it has already received a new rocket, which allows for intercepting ballistic targets at altitudes of up to sixty kilometers and at ranges of up to four hundred kilometers. The S-400 will receive these missiles in the near future. Russian air defense missile systems are different from those of the United States, being less dependent on satellite data and having larger number of simultaneously engaged targets. And finally, Russia is actively developing the mobile S-500 anti-missile system. According to the available data, considering system capabilities, it will be similar to the Aegis when equipped with SM-3 Block IB interceptor missiles. Perhaps it will be able to combat ICBM warheads to some extent, but it is still too early to consider the S-500 a strategic missile defense system.

At this point, both the United States and Russia have achieved the capability of destroying the old Soviet short-range R-17 missiles (SS-1C Scud B according to NATO classification) with high probability. Those missiles’ simulators are used in most of the trials, and the Patriot PAC-3 took down nine of these missiles in 2003 in combat conditions. However, the R-17 has long been obsolete and used by countries access to more advanced weapons. In reality, the United States and Russia will likely go to war with these countries rather than with each other. In a hypothetical military conflict between Russia and NATO, the existing U.S. tactical missile defense system is unlikely to be able to cope with the modern Russian Iskander tactical ballistic missiles—even the probability of hitting the R-17 with two interceptor missiles is not 100 percent. Iskander is highly maneuverable, has a reduced radar signature and creates interference. It is far from certain that during a real war that even a single such missile could be destroyed.

Conclusions

Strategic missile defense systems in global nuclear conflict do not lend any real advantage at the moment; nor will they in the foreseeable future. The efficiency of intercepting ICBM warheads is not high enough. The high cost of the missile defense system and the need to use one to two interceptors per one warhead for security reasons (while one ICBM can carry up to ten warheads) makes the creation of a real global missile defense practically impossible—even the United States can’t afford it. Increasing the number of ICBMs and warheads would be much cheaper for Russia or China. In the end, we return to the absurd arms race of the Cold War, which culminated in the signing of the START treaty since none of the countries could maintain such a quantity of strategic weapons under normal conditions. Trying to develop a missile-defense system will result in exactly the same situation in a few decades. There is no prospect for any side violating of the strategic nuclear balance, as long as the prospect of global thermonuclear war remains. The development of tactical missile systems is the real key, as it will ensure that countries will be more secure during future local conflicts.

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  • Ted

    All of this is for not. One ICBM from Russia or the US with MRV say at ten each with a 500KT to 750 KT yield? Please, one weapon delivered and its over. 750 KT yield times 10! the equal of 160 bombs dropped on Japan in 1945. One ICBM would deliver a blow so devastating to either country it would not matter. One ICBM would bring more destruction then man kind has ever seen unleashed. The idea that this can be defended against is just silly as the risk is so great that failure can not be an option. If that is the case then it keeps these things grounded. The day some idiot thinks they have the capacity to engage in this type of war and win! That is a shitty day for the world.

    • Pacemaker4

      MIRVs are so 1970’s look up MARV…. it manoeuvres… thats why there is no terminal phase defense.

  • cheetah88

    Forget something???
    All types of S300, even the oldest ones, can intercept ICBM warheads- as well as the S350, 42S6 Morfey, Mozyr systems, and the CURRENTLY deployed A-235s, as well as the updated and STILL in use A135s. The A235s are not only around Moscow, but are also being placed at 4 of the new arctic air bases.

    • Gue Bjuen

      no they can’t intercept an icbm. and i have my huge doubt that the thaad system will be able to do that either. the US patriot are not able to intercept missiles till these days.
      you remember when houthi’s missiles were NOT INTERCEPTED and heat the saudis.
      the russian sam are great. but intercept an icbm?? that’s not possible yet even for the russians. russia is worried about thaad because it can be used as an OFFENSIVE SYSTEM and not a DEFENSIVE SYSTEM. that is the main concern of russia.
      in case the US decides to use those thaads in an offensive move, the russians won’t have time to distinguish whether they contain nuclear warheads or not. it is creating a huge danger of a nuclear outbreak.

      • cheetah88

        sorry, you need to do alot of research on modern missiles like i did. all of the ones i listed can indeed intercept ICBMs.

      • cheetah88

        they have tested them on their own dummy warheads. yes, they can. just because america does not have the capability, it does not mean russia doesnt either. but i agree on the thaad issue.

        • Gue Bjuen

          they can’t. what you are talking about is not icbm. not the russians nor the US are able to intercept a nuclear icbm after terminal phase. putin openly said that russia will not develope such a missile defence system for 2 reasons. 1. too expensive 2. the results are not very promissing. if you are not able to intercept an icbm with a nuclear warhead, after the terminal phase, you don’t have the ability to intercept an icbm.

          • cheetah88

            sorry some people just cannot accept that russian missile technology is decades ahead of americas. yes, they can and yes they have.

  • gravity

    Many people think US and Russia own the world therefore they talked about destruction of the world. This rhetoric need to halt because we need to live in peace. US and Russia will never go to war please quit speculation about war between two nations who respects each other.

    • Robert Buehs

      The media will destroy the world , so the so call experts will get good ratings the irony is that they will perish together with all of us, as assholes will always remain to be assholes

      • gravity

        Listen these people want to put us closer to doom day by deranged notion. Both president Obama and Russia president had children and they loved their very much.They want their children to live therefore they will never start stupid things like going to nuclear war with Russia. Russian are preparing themselves for nuclear war while in US no one talks about nuclear war because they know it would not happen.