Missile Defense Challenges
No. 3 2008 July/September
Pavel Zolotarev

Deputy Director of the Institute for U.S. and Canadian Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences.

Missile defense has recently become one of the most acute
problems of international politics. Plans by the United States to
deploy a third position area in Eastern Europe for its national
missile defense system triggered a sharp reaction from Russia,
which threatened to take countermeasures. Europe is divided over
the expediency of the American project and there are many skeptics
in Washington as well. A retrospective view of the parties’
attitudes to the missile defense issue will give a better idea of
the current situation.


The missile defense issue first emerged after Nazi Germany
attacked London with V-1 and V-2 rockets in the summer and autumn
of 1944. It did not take the military long to come to the
conclusion that the only real way of protection against those
rockets was an antimissile system. However, it took almost 20 years
between this conclusion (circa 1946) and the first test launches of
antimissile missiles in the United States and the Soviet Union
(1961-1962). The time was needed to develop radar technologies and
build up the speed of countermissiles. Thus, from the outset,
missile defense needed new technologies, which stimulated the
search in a wide range of fields.

Both Moscow and Washington worked on two options – hard-kill
systems and powerful explosions for destroying targets at long
distances. The parties almost simultaneously came to the conclusion
that the only acceptable result of defeat could be ensured by
nuclear-tipped antimissile missiles. Also, both parties came to
realize that it was prudent to limit the missile defense shield to
several critical facilities. Until 1964, there were no doubts that
the goal of missile defense was to destroy the opposing party’s
missiles – the Soviet Union or the U.S. The range of possible
missile threats broadened once China became a nuclear power, but
this did not affect the nature of missile defense systems.

In the middle of the nuclear arms race in the mid-1960s, a group
of American politicians proposed limiting these systems. They
feared that a successful attempt to create a missile defense system
by either party could instill in it a dangerous illusion of its
invulnerability and, in a certain situation, could tempt it to make
an irrevocable decision to use nuclear weapons.

One must give credit to the United States which in 1966 came out
with an initiative to limit missile defense systems. Pentagon chief
Robert McNamara, Secretary of State Dean Rusk and U.S. President
Lyndon Johnson were the first to realize the need for such

For Soviet military-political leaders, new ideas were the last
thing on their minds. Moscow worked hard to catch up with the U.S.
in strategic nuclear armaments – and it had solid grounds for that.
After the Soviet Union tested nuclear weapons, the United States
started working on real plans for a nuclear war against it. The
U.S. Plan Trojan provided for attacking the Soviet Union on January
1, 1950. At that time, the U.S. had 840 strategic nuclear bombers
and over 300 nuclear bombs. However, staff exercises revealed that
Washington was not ready to wage a preventive nuclear war; so the
issue was withdrawn from the agenda.

In 1953, the Eisenhower administration adopted a “massive
retaliation” doctrine. In December 1960, the first comprehensive
blueprint (Single Integrated Operational Plan or SIOP) was drawn
up, specifying how American nuclear weapons would be used in the
event of nuclear war. SIOP provided for an all-out nuclear war
against the Soviet Union, using an unlimited number of nuclear

In 1961, it was replaced with SIOP-2. The new plan provided for
five interrelated operations:

  • destruction of the Soviet nuclear arsenal;
  • suppression of the Soviet air defense system;
  • destruction of facilities and centers of military and state
  • destruction of large force groupings;
  • attacks on cities.

The U.S. military-political leadership proceeded from the need
to have strategic nuclear forces in such amounts that would ensure
the implementation of the concept of “assured destruction” of the
Soviet Union as a viable state.

The possibility of carrying out preemptive strikes against the
main centers of state and military administration (“decapitation
strikes”) and nuclear delivery vehicles (“counterforce strikes”)
could enable Washington to minimize the likelihood of a retaliatory
strike. The combination of planned preemptive strikes and the
capabilities of a missile defense system created an impression that
a victory in a war against the Soviet Union was achievable, while
damage from retaliatory actions could be minimal.

In such circumstances, the Soviet leadership initially reacted
warily to the U.S. initiatives for limiting missile defense
systems. But the foreign-policy situation caused both states to
look for ways to reduce tensions in their bilateral relations.

The essence of the Soviet position was to include U.S.
forward-based armaments in the balance of strategic forces. The
United States attached great importance to the issue of missile
defense limitation. The U.S. approach, which provided for reducing
the scale of deployment of missile defense systems, on the whole
satisfied the Soviets. The then U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert
McNamara convinced the Soviet leadership that a missile defense
system was a destabilizing factor. Further discussions of this
issue mainly concerned technical aspects, such as the quantity and
location of deployment areas and particulars of missile defense
system configurations.

The Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABM Treaty) and the Interim
Agreement on the Limitation of Strategic Offensive Arms (SALT-I),
signed in Moscow in May 1972, marked a qualitative change in
Soviet-U.S. relations. Relations between the two countries
stabilized because neither party could now launch a nuclear strike
without an assured destructive retaliation.

Nevertheless, the establishment of acceptable levels for the
development of missile defense systems did not stop the development
of offensive nuclear weapons. The Soviet Union had to constantly
respond to ever new challenges – in particular, it worked hard to
catch up with the U.S. in the number of strategic nuclear
armaments; respond to the introduction by Washington of
independently targeted multiple reentry vehicles and to the
deployment in Europe of American Pershing II missiles capable of
delivering “decapitation strikes” against the Soviet Union; and it
had to take other measures.

In March 1983, U.S. President Ronald Reagan unveiled a new U.S.
missile defense program called Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI).
There are grounds to believe that this program – dubbed “Star Wars”
– was intended to give a boost to the development of advanced
technologies, which was actually achieved. But, whatever the case,
the Soviet Union – which was struggling through economic and
political problems – reacted to SDI in earnest and with strenuous

With the beginning of the process of d?tente, initiatives in the
field of missile defense took a different tone. U.S. President
George Bush Sr. proposed shifting the focus of SDI to missile
defense for the U.S. and its allies, as well as for force
groupings, against single and group strikes. The new system was
called Global Protection Against Limited Strikes (GPALS). However,
work on such a system required going beyond the limitations of the
ABM Treaty. Within the framework of mutual consultations, Moscow
proposed joint development and operation of a global protection
system (GPS). At a U.S.-Russian summit in Camp David in February
1992, Russian President Boris Yeltsin proposed transforming SDI
into an international project involving Russia. These proposals
provided that GPS would be open to all states wishing to take part
in its creation.

However, the United States tried to use the Russian proposal
primarily to revise the 1972 ABM Treaty. It soon became clear that
the U.S. was not ready to offer equitable cooperation in missile
defense. Washington would not object to Russia’s token
participation in the system’s creation or to its borrowing of some
advanced technologies – but, apparently, for the sake of only one
goal, namely, the renunciation of the ABM Treaty. Also, the U.S.
ruled out the creation of an international system that would be
controlled by anyone else but Washington.

The Russian proposals were turned down; but this factor did not
damage Russian-U.S. relations, mainly due to the generally
favorable political background. Moreover, both countries
successfully developed cooperation in theater missile defense.

The administration of U.S. President Bill Clinton proposed a
compromise version of a missile defense system – a limited national
missile defense system to protect against single and group strikes.
Due to its limited capabilities, such a system would not be a cause
for concern for Russia and China, yet it required revising the ABM
Treaty. At the same time, it must be admitted that Russia’s
official position did not provide for any compromises then. Some
political forces in Russia once again raised the issue of a joint
Russian-U.S. missile defense system, but this did not affect the
official position.

At a Russian-U.S. summit in Moscow in June 2000, Russian
President Vladimir Putin came out with an initiative to create a
pan-European non-strategic missile defense system as an alternative
to America’s National Missile Defense (NMD). The United States
agreed to consider this proposal – only not as an alternative to
its own plans, but as an addition to NMD.

Russia’s uncompromising position toward the ABM Treaty
eventually caused the George W. Bush administration to withdraw
from the treaty. Nevertheless, the two parties continued to speak
about prospects for their possible cooperation in missile defense.
Thus, in May 2002, when the parties signed the Treaty on Strategic
Offensive Reductions (SORT) in Moscow, they also adopted a Joint
Declaration, in which they pledged to continue their cooperation on
missile defense and on issues of strategic stability in the new
environment. To this end, the parties decided to establish a
Consultative Group for Strategic Security to be chaired by foreign
and defense ministers. However, the group proved to be rather
passive. Therefore, the aggravation of the situation because of
Washington’s plans to deploy components of its missile defense
system in Poland and the Czech Republic was quite logical.

So, the entire history of Russian-U.S. relations in the sphere
of missile defense gives grounds to mistrust the U.S. plans. The
reasons for this mistrust are still valid.


The basic factor of mutual distrust between the two countries is
the increased readiness of their strategic nuclear potentials in
line with the task of mutual nuclear deterrence. Both countries
have become hostages of Cold War weapons, above all ground-based
intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM), which cannot be placed
in a reduced launch readiness status without violating the normal
mode of operation. The parties’ main plans for the employment of
nuclear weapons provide for the mutual destruction of each other’s
facilities. All ground-based ICBMs are in a state of readiness for
use in the “launch under attack” mode and can be employed on
signals from missile warning systems.

Therefore, the system of “mutual assured destruction” must be
maintained. Hence the inevitable need to keep the balance of
strategic nuclear weapons and strategic defensive systems. All
these factors lay the foundation for mutual mistrust and primarily
Russia’s mistrust toward the United States because it is constantly
in the position of a country trying to catch up.

The following factors are behind Russia’s mistrust:

The U.S. is trying to convince Russia that the new missile
defense system will not be directed against it. However, statements
like this run counter to Washington’s doctrinal approaches to its
defense policy. The United States has declared that it is
proceeding not on assessments of threats to its national security,
but on assessments of other countries’ capability to pose such a
threat. Russia is the only country that possesses the nuclear
capacity to destroy the U.S. There are no grounds to believe that
Washington, which is building a multi-tiered and highly expensive
missile defense system, does not have the possibility to deliver
strikes against Russian strategic nuclear delivery vehicles.

All preliminary plans for cooperation and for joint creation of
a missile defense system come across the U.S. desire to control
that system alone. As already mentioned above, the United States is
ready to admit Russia, on certain terms, to the creation of a
missile defense system and to exchanges of advanced technologies
and technical solutions – but not to the control of this
Elements of the missile defense system, planned to be deployed in
Poland and the Czech Republic, may be only a first step to the
deployment of the entire system on the European continent. This has
analogies with NATO’s arguments for its enlargement. Again, Russia
is hearing reasoning about the right of every state to protection
against possible missile threats. As a result, a large missile
defense force may be deployed in Western Europe, which would upset
the strategic balance of forces.

Moscow has repeatedly made it clear to Washington that Russia’s
territory allows for the building of a missile defense system with
a structure that can best ward off missile threats from the south.
However, the U.S. has displayed no interest in such cooperation. In
addition, there is plenty of information about U.S. plans to deploy
elements of its missile defense system south of the Russian border.
These plans attest to a dual purpose of the NMD’s structure –
against threats from the south and against Russia.

According to estimates from Russian and U.S. experts,
antimissile missiles with a velocity of 4.5 to 9 km/sec can destroy
targets located at a distance of 2,000 to 2,500 km from where they
are deployed (in this case, in northeast Poland). Therefore,
elements of a missile defense system in Eastern Europe could be
employed even against missiles deployed in Russia’s Saratov,
Chelyabinsk and Orenburg regions. Some experts assume that
antimissile missiles with a velocity of 9 km/sec would be capable
of destroying missiles launched from anywhere in the European part
of Russia and their warheads.

In addition, Russian experts fear that the functional
capabilities of the European elements of the U.S. missile defense
system will markedly exceed the declared characteristics. It cannot
be ruled out that antimissile missiles in Poland could be easily
converted into strike missiles. The latter would need short flying
time to the target to destroy critical facilities on Russian
territory. It is also probable that antimissile missiles will be
used to perform anti-satellite missions. There are no guarantees
that they will not be used to destroy rockets launched from
Russia’s Plesetsk launch site.

Also, the planned radar in the Czech Republic will be capable of
controlling all space and missile activities in the European part
of Russia, including the Plesetsk test range, as well as in the
Barents, White and Kara Seas; that is, the zone of operation of
Russia’s Northern Fleet.

The build-up of combat capabilities of a missile defense system
is due to the development of space-related components capable of
destroying warheads during their free flight phase. This will
likely result in the emergence of a U.S. missile defense system
capable of effectively countering retaliatory strikes by Russian
strategic nuclear forces.

U.S. plans to create a significant breakout potential, along
with operationally deployed strategic nuclear forces, and to build
an effective national missile defense system may upset the
strategic balance of forces between the two major nuclear powers.
That would cause serious damage to strategic stability on a global

At the same time, despite the great potential for mistrust,
missile defense can help considerably to promote security amid
conditions of nuclear multipolarity.


Nuclear multipolarity means the existence of several groups of

  • officially recognized nuclear states (the U.S., Russia,
    Britain, France and China);
  • unrecognized nuclear states which have openly declared that
    they possess nuclear weapons (India and Pakistan);
  • states that do not admit that they possess nuclear weapons
  • states that have the motivation to possess nuclear weapons and
    the required research and technological potential (North Korea and
  • “latent” states, i.e. those capable of developing nuclear
    weapons but – due to political or military considerations – are
    avoiding nuclear status and are refraining from moving into the
    ranks of nuclear states (Argentina, Brazil, South Korea and

The proliferation of missile technologies is inevitable, while
possible energy problems make the proliferation of nuclear
technologies inevitable as well. As a result, nuclear multipolarity
will expand, and nuclear-missile threats will grow.

Missile defense systems can decrease the motivation to possess a
nuclear-missile potential (through preventive devaluation of the
significance of this potential), as well as reduce or prevent
damage from a possible employment of nuclear missiles.

But the missile defense problem must be solved in a manner that
will not upset the strategic balance of forces between major
nuclear countries.

There are several peculiarities about building missile defense
systems. It is sufficient to name the following:

Nuclear-missile danger may arise from different geographical
areas. Therefore, the architecture of a missile defense system must
be flexible enough.

A deliberate use of nuclear weapons by officially recognized
nuclear states against each other is actually ruled out as it would
be absolutely senseless. However, maintaining the balance of
nuclear potentials may be of political importance for a long time
yet, thereby influencing attitudes toward the emergence of a
missile defense system in any country.

Threats involving the use of short and medium-range missiles are
particularly acute; however, one should not rule out the use of
intercontinental ballistic missiles in the future.

A missile defense system can be effective only if it is capable
of hitting a target at various phases of the trajectory of a
missile or warhead.

An effective missile defense system cannot be created within one
national territory because of the ambiguity of missile-threat
directions and because of the need to engage targets at various
phases of their flight path.

The deployment of missile defense facilities outside of one’s
national territory will inevitably evoke apprehensions among states
possessing a missile potential and located within the range of
these facilities.

Apprehensions caused by the deployment of missile defense
facilities near one’s national territory can be allayed if other
states possessing a nuclear-missile potential participate in the
control of these facilities.

A missile defense system will be cost-optimal if it uses
national missile defense facilities of states located near
missile-threat trajectories.

An optimal missile defense system is one built jointly by
several states. Its control system must allow joint employment of
national information systems and weapons, as well as participation
in the command and control of combat crews assigned by partner

With regard to existing facilities and systems, it can be
assumed that a joint (collective) missile defense system should

  • national facilities of missile warning systems;
  • national mobile (ground-, sea- and air-based) and stationary
    antimissile missile systems for defeating missiles at the active
    and passive phases of their flight trajectory;
  • national ground-based antimissile systems, including radar
    targeting facilities, for destroying warheads of missiles at the
    passive and terminal phases of their flight;
  • joint (multinational) facilities and control centers that will
    allow joint employment of national missile defense facilities of
    participating states.

Later, the missile defense system may include space-based
weapons for destroying warheads at the passive phase of their
flight trajectory.

Obviously, missile defense facilities deployed on national
territory must be controlled by the host country, which, however,
does not rule out their use within a joint system. Therefore, there
is no sense including missile defense facilities, intended to
destroy warheads at the terminal phase of their flight trajectory,
in a joint missile defense system. But there must be integration
between information systems of the national missile defense system
and elements of the joint system. The destruction of surviving
warheads will be effective only if one knows the results of the
joint system’s actions.

If we proceed on the Russian-U.S. memorandum on the
establishment of a Joint Data Exchange Center (JDEC) in Moscow,
signed in June 2000, it is necessary to single out several
important provisions of this document.

First, it is planned that the JDEC will be made
open to representatives of other countries for participation.

Second, participants in the JDEC must notify
each other about planned launches of missiles (test,
combat/training, and research missiles), spacecraft, etc.

Third, at the initial stage, the JDEC must be
equipped with national facilities for displaying data from missile
warning systems, but later they are planned to be integrated.

In fact, the JDEC can serve as a basis for a joint missile
defense control system. But is it possible in principle to jointly
control such sophisticated systems? What if a jointly made decision
takes too much time and proves to be too late? In connection with
this, I would like to point out the following.

When time is limited, weapons of missile defense systems are
effective only if employed in automatic mode. When time is short,
it is not possible to effectively track targets, distribute weapons
for their defeat, launch and target missiles if a missile defense
system is operated in automated mode; that is, with user

Considering this peculiarity, the control center of a regional
missile defense system can be assigned the following functions:

  • collecting and keeping track of information on the state of
    national missile systems allocated for use as part of a unified
    regional missile defense system;
  • changing the alert status of missile systems depending on
    information received from various sources, including national
    missile warning systems;
  • collecting and analyzing information on the status of missions
    to defeat targets at various phases of their flight trajectory (for
    optimum employment of all available assets).

This set of functions makes it possible to raise the issue of a
joint control center. Meanwhile, missile systems will operate in
automatic mode, provided they are placed on the required alert
status in advance.

Obviously, it is more important today to raise the issue of a
regional missile defense system. The mobile nature of a majority of
existing missile defense systems (S-300, S-400, Patriot, Aegis,
etc.) makes it possible to build a system with a flexible
architecture capable of being deployed on various missile-threat
directions. Some experience has already been gained in this field.
There are good reasons and technological groundwork for joint
operation and control of existing national missile defense


The U.S. plans to deploy a missile defense system in Eastern
Europe stem from hypothetical threats from intercontinental
ballistic missiles, which may occur at an indefinite time in the
future. Characteristically, elements of the U.S. missile defense
system – to be deployed in Poland and the Czech Republic – are
intended to protect U.S. territory only and have no relation to
European missile defense. Nevertheless, joint efforts by Russia and
other countries to create a European missile defense system have
been suspended. Staying focused on the main principle – keeping the
balance of forces between major nuclear powers – would provide a
way out of the deadlock. However, this principle can be violated,
which is the source of Moscow’s concern.

Returning to the aforementioned peculiarities about building a
missile defense system, the most effective way to solve the problem
was proposed by the former Russian president. The establishment of
data exchange centers in Moscow and Brussels and the inclusion of
Russian radars in the system would lay the foundation to jointly
build a regional and a global missile defense system.

However, it follows from the U.S. position that the United
States is ready to include Russian missile defense elements in the
system, but is not ready to share control of it. Yet, there are
signs of change in U.S. conduct. At any rate, the proposals made by
Washington to Russia earlier this year, which would allow Moscow to
closely monitor prospective missile defense sites in Poland and the
Czech Republic, show that Washington recognizes Russia’s concerns
as well-grounded.

In all likelihood, we are now at the very beginning of a path
toward compromise options. A recent NATO summit in Bucharest
approved plans to deploy elements of the U.S. missile defense
system in Europe but, at the same time, pointed to the need for a
European missile defense system. In a situation like this, either
of two different compromise solutions are possible.

The first – and simplest –
solution would be to deepen the U.S. proposal for
Russian experts to monitor the elements of a missile defense system
in Poland and the Czech Republic. The U.S. proposal has not yet
been finalized, yet there are grounds to say that it would be
acceptable only if it would make it possible to verify the
fulfillment of the following technical conditions:

  • ruling out possible employment of radars to be deployed in the
    Czech Republic to focus on Russia;
  • ruling out a desire to convert antimissile missiles into combat
  • preventing the threat of employing antimissile missiles for
    defeating Russian ICBMs and rockets.

Obviously, such verification cannot be based on occasional
on-site inspections. It requires a permanent on-site presence of
Russian specialists.

The second solution – which is more rational
from the point of view of the creation of an effective missile
defense system that would not upset the balance of forces – would
be to adopt the Russian proposal to jointly build a missile defense
system and, most importantly, to jointly control it.

The choice of a solution will largely depend on the outcome of
the presidential election in the United States; and it will most
likely be an interim solution. In the future, one cannot rule out
gradual movement toward the Russian proposals, which are not aimed
at gaining unilateral advantages and which are highly rational if
one wants to create an effective missile defense system.