Threats Posed by the U.S. Missile Shield
No. 2 2007 April/June
Vladimir Dvorkin

Head of Research, Center for Strategic Nuclear Forces, Major General (Ret.).

In the last few
years, there have been marked efforts by the United States to
deploy a strategic missile defense system. Before the end of 2007,
for example, there are plans to increase the number of antimissiles
deployed in Alaska (Fort Greely) from 14 to 21 (by 2011, it is
projected that 40 antimissiles will be deployed in Alaska), while
in California the number will increase from two to four.

In Europe,
negotiations are underway on the deployment of one Ground Based
Interceptor (GBI) missile base in Poland (which contains 10
interceptor missiles), together with Ground-Based Radar (GBR) in
the Czech Republic. It has also been reported there are plans to
deploy antimissile and radar bases in other nearby countries,
including the UK, Germany, Turkey, the Caucasus, and even

What consequences
may Washington’s plans have?


The U.S. missile
defense system is intended to protect the country’s territory, in
addition to forces stationed abroad and allied forces. This system
is meant to defend against ballistic missiles by intercepting them
in all phases of flight (initial, middle and terminal). It is an
open-ended system that can be upgraded and modernized by including
new levels (tiers), or increasing the number of elements in each

An integrated
missile defense system will comprise ground, sea, air and
space-based information assets, as well as ICBM interception assets
and combat command and control assets. The majority of these assets
were developed earlier as part of the Star Wars program.

All missile
defense tiers are intended for target interception with
conventional assets, using either the so-called kinetic
interception of missiles or high-explosive fragmentation
projectiles to destroy them.

In 1975, the
United States, acting fully in compliance with the 1972 ABM Treaty,
deployed a strategic nuclear missile defense system at the Grand
Forks ICBM Base (North Dakota), very much like the one that is now
deployed around Moscow. But after four months of operation, it was
dismantled by Senate decision with only the radars kept in place.
The reason given was that, on the one hand, its effectiveness was
generally low, since the majority of assets slated for a
retaliatory strike are deployed in the naval component of the U.S.
strategic nuclear triad (the nuclear triad comprises
intercontinental ballistic missiles, submarine-launched ballistic
missiles, and cruise missiles deployed on strategic bombers).
Meanwhile, the defense of one ICBM base can ensure the protection
of not more than 4-5 percent of total warheads.

On the other
hand, a nuclear missile defense system is a serious hazard, because
an incoming missile or warhead cannot be identified as to its type
– nuclear, conventional, chemical, or a dummy. In any event, its
interception can provoke a nuclear fireworks display over America’s
own territory with all the ensuing consequences. This must have
been the most serious reason that forced the U.S. to abandon the
nuclear interception option in favor of conventional

Missiles in the
boost phase of flight are to be intercepted with airborne lasers,
as well as sea and ground-based antimissiles.

Laser weapons are
far more effective against liquid propellant missiles which,
compared to solid-propellant missiles, have a longer boost stage
and a weaker airframe.

There are plans
to deploy laser weapons aboard Boeing-747 aircraft hovering at an
altitude of about 10 kilometers. The laser has a maximum range of
up to 800 km and can apparently destroy missiles within 60 seconds
after launch. Target exposure time is one to five seconds; the
technology can only destroy a missile if the latter is under heavy
thermal or power stress.

Aircraft equipped
with laser weapons can be promptly redeployed to areas near enemy
missile bases. This requires that several attack, cover and
refueling aircraft remain ready for deployment and in combat
readiness. It is unlikely that such air assets can be used to
intercept missiles based in the hinterland and protected by
effective missile defense systems. But deployment of aircraft in
patrol areas where there are missile-carrying submarines will
create a real threat to ballistic missiles launched from

The use of sea-
and ground-based Standard-3 and THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area
Defense) interceptor missiles for destroying missiles at launch is
made possible by their deployment several hundred kilometers away
from missile launch centers in the sector of their flight paths,
with the assistance of essential information support. In this
context, submarine-launched ICBMs, as well as missiles launched
from coastal areas, will be the most vulnerable to sea-based

antimissiles have a maximum interception range of 300 kilometers, a
maximum interception altitude of up to 250 kilometers, and a
maximum speed of 4.5 km/s. A three-stage missile has a mass of
about 1,500 kilograms, and a warhead mass of 15-18

THAAD is a U.S.
defensive weapon system primarily designed to protect troops,
civilian and military facilities against missiles in their terminal
(descending) phase of flight. In certain scenarios and geographic
locations, it can be used to destroy missiles at launch. It has a
maximum range of up to 200 kilometers, an interception altitude of
30-40 to 150 kilometers, and a maximum speed of up to 4 km/s. This
one-stage missile has a mass of a mere 600 kilograms, and a warhead
mass of 40-45 kilograms.

In the longer
term, work could resume on the deployment of space-based laser
weapons. Under the Star Wars programs, there were plans to deploy
laser complexes in different circular orbits. Up to six spacecraft
can be deployed in one orbit, at an altitude of about 1,200
kilometers and with the maximum range of 4,000-5,000

The main means of
missile interception in mid-flight (the highest point of the flight
path) is the ground-based strategic missile defense system with GBI
missiles and GBR locators. This system has an effective
interception range of up to 4,000 kilometers, at an altitude of up
to 1,500 kilometers. With such specifications, a single GBI missile
unit, deployed, for example, at the Grand Forks base, can ensure
defense against single launches of ICBMs that target installations
located virtually across the country’s entire territory.

The three-stage
interceptor missile has a maximum speed of up to 8 km/s; the EKV
warhead has a mass of 50-60 kilograms. The payload stage has its
own engines and a homing system. It is equipped with an infrared
homing head. There may be three types of detectors, working in the
IR, UV and optical bands. This substantially enhances the accuracy
of aiming even in the presence of decoy flares. Four micro-engines
ensure good maneuvering.

The effective
range of 4,000 kilometers can be ensured only with complete
information support, that is, when a space-based information system
is deployed in a low orbit for target detection, tracking and
designation. Without a space-based information component, and with
only ground-based information available, the GBI will only be
effective at a range of 2,000-2,500 kilometers.
Missile warheads at the descending stage of flight are to be
intercepted with ground and sea-based THAAD and Standard-3 systems,
as well as the Patriot Advanced Capability 3 (PAC-3) antimissile
complex (interception range of 25 km, altitude of up to 15 km,
minimum altitude 2 km, maximum speed of about 2 km/s), which can
only intercept tactical missiles. However, it cannot be ruled out
that this complex can be effectively used against maneuvering and
homing ICBM warheads that have lower speeds at descending phases of
their flight, moving for a relatively long time in the

effectiveness of a strategic missile defense system with GBI
missiles, as well as other assets, can be ensured by an information
component comprising the existing space, ground and sea-based
missile defense information assets and a prospective space-based
missile launch-detection system with six satellites in stationary
and high elliptical orbits. In the future, its key components will
include the Space Tracking and Surveillance System, or STSS,
comprising 24 to 30 low-orbit satellites.


Washington claims
that the main motive for the deployment of missile defense bases in
European countries was the growth of missile threats posed to the
U.S. and Europe by Iran. How real are these threats?

Iran has been
working on ICBM complexes since the early 1980s. These programs are
given high priority in Iran’s military development and
modernization plans. Missile building is among the country’s most
dynamic sectors. There are plans to create the most powerful
missile arsenal in the region by 2015. At the same time, the
Iranian leadership refuses to recognize the Missile Technology
Control Regime.

In 1992, Iran
launched the Shehab missile program, featuring several types of
liquid-propellant missile systems. Its cooperation with North Korea
enabled Iran to develop and adopt Shehab-3 one-stage missiles
(based on North Korea’s Nodong-1 missile technology), with a range
of at least 1,500 km and a payload of about 1 ton. This enables
Iran to effectively engage targets in Turkey, Israel, Saudi Arabia
and parts of Russia (including the cities of Volgograd, Rostov on
Don, and Astrakhan). If its payload is halved, the missile’s range
will increase to at least 2,000 km and can be increased even more
by enlarging its fuel tanks. The Shehab-4 two-stage missile, based
on the North Korean Taepodong-1 medium-range missile, is comprised
of a Shehab-3-based first stage and a Scud-based second stage. The
project, launched 12 years ago, may soon be completed, thereby
enabling Iran to target installations in Europe at a distance of
more than 3,000 km.

There are also
reports about the Shehab-5 ICBM project, based on the North Korean
Taepodong-2 missile, whose only test launch (in July 2006) ended in

Therefore, it
cannot be ruled out that in the future Iranian missiles can
threaten the whole of Europe. If Iran’s current policy is
maintained by its future regimes, eventually Iranian missiles could
also reach U.S. territory.

But this may
happen only in a very distant future. What are the reasons then for
America’s hurried actions – from putting unproven antimissiles on
alert in Alaska and California, and planning to deploy them in

One reason is
that the administration of George W. Bush is striving to deliver on
its election and post-election pledges to protect U.S. territory
against attacks from “rogue states.” In the 1990s, a CIA report
pointed out that missile threats to the U.S. territory from “rogue
nations” could not materialize before 2015, which almost completely
coincided with Russian assessments. However, such a forecast, which
made the missile defense issue irrelevant, did not suit everyone in
the United States, primarily those corporations that develop
missile defense elements and systems. In the late 1990s, a special
commission, led by Donald Rumsfeld, concluded that such threats
would emerge much earlier – in 2005. That became the principal
argument cited by the George W. Bush team in favor of withdrawing
from the 1972 ABM Treaty (which was opposed by Russia), as well as
plans for launching full-scale development, and subsequent adoption
of plans to deploy, a national missile defense system.

In 2004, the
decision was made to deploy the first battery of antimissiles in
Alaska, even though they were still in the experimental stages of
development. This was a reckless military adventure without
precedent. In the Soviet Union, there were only isolated instances
when missile complexes had to be put on alert without sufficient
testing. In the U.S., such hurriedness had never occurred before.
Yet, U.S. officials explained their behavior, arguing that swift
action was common practice both in Russia and the United States. It
seems that the main reason for the U.S. haste was to appease the
military-industrial lobby and make the development of the missile
defense system irreversible. Thus, there is good reason to say that
the existing and planned strategic missile defense bases in Alaska,
California and Europe will not be combat-ready for at least the
next five years.

One may get the
impression that the U.S. does everything very sensibly: by the time
the missile defense system is deployed in Europe, Iran will have
appeared on the scene as a real missile threat. But first, the U.S.
should have completed testing its missile defense systems before it
started to deploy them. Second, there is already an effective and
credible first tier missile defense, namely, precision-guided
conventional weapons for engaging missiles and ground-based
launchers. Former U.S. Defense Secretary William Perry and former
Assistant Defense Secretary Ashton Carter advised using this weapon
immediately following North Korea’s missile launches in the summer
of 2006 (True, Senator Richard Lugar responded by saying that all
of the political options had not been exhausted yet). So, it is
quite likely that should a real missile threat emerge from Iran,
this first tier missile defense tier will be used by the United
States, especially considering that Iranian long-range missiles
will be deployed at unprotected ground-based stationary


The extension of
the U.S. missile defense system will not threaten Russia’s
nuclear-missile potential in the near future, that is, until around
the year 2015. The flight paths of Russian strategic missiles,
capable of hypothetically deterring the U.S., indeed pass outside
the antimissile operation zone in Europe, especially since they are
designed to destroy warheads in mid-flight, rather than shoot down
missiles at the boost stage. Moreover, Russian strategic missiles
are equipped with such powerful ABM defense suppression systems and
other assets, including hundreds of decoy targets and jamming
stations, that even with “favorable” (in terms of missile defense)
flight paths, as many as ten antimissiles would be needed to
destroy just one warhead. Therefore, President Vladimir Putin and
ex-Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov were quite right when they said
that no missile defense system poses a threat to Russia’s strategic
missiles. This will also hold true even if the U.S. deploys ten
such bases in Poland and the Czech Republic. Ditto for missile
defense bases on U.S. soil.

It is not ruled
out, however, that the U.S. will not stop at the current stage.
Should laser and kinetic weapons start being deployed in space on a
massive scale, the nuclear deterrence potential could be reduced.
But this problem is not on the agenda yet.

At the same time,
there is a potential danger that seems to have been ignored until
now – the direct threat posed by the U.S. strategic missile defense
system for spacecraft in low and medium orbits. As these spacecraft
have permanent and therefore predictable orbits, they prove
defenseless against GBI antimissiles. In his latest
state-of-the-nation address to the Federal Assembly in May 2006,
Vladimir Putin said, “there are still no firm guarantees of …
non-deployment of weapons in outer space.” Given the
anti-spacecraft potential of the strategic missile defense system,
there is reason to say that as the GBI antimissile tests began,
these weapons already began their deployment in space – for the
first time since the closure of Soviet and U.S. anti-satellite

In these
conditions, Russian and U.S. independent experts immediately began
to draft a code of conduct for space activities. Such a document
would ban any activities designed to weaken the stability of space
systems, including by deploying space weapons. This code should
also ban tests, deployment and use of all assets designed to
destroy space systems or hinder their operation. But because a
missile defense system with an anti-satellite capability has
already been deployed, at least its testing for destroying
spacecraft must be banned.


Even though the
possible deployment of a U.S. missile defense system in Europe does
not pose an immediate military threat to Russia’s strategic nuclear
forces, these plans are provoking serious criticism within the
Russian leadership and causing serious concern among the leaders of
some “Old” European countries. German Chancellor Angela Merkel
believes it necessary to get NATO involved in Russian-U.S.
consultations on the problem of the U.S. missile shield in

French President
Jacques Chirac also expressed concern over the U.S. plans to deploy
missile defense elements in Eastern Europe. “We should be very
cautious, taking care not to encourage the creation of new dividing
lines in Europe or the return of past stages of history,” Chirac
said, referring to the period of confrontation between the Soviet
Union and the West during the Cold War era. “The American project
raises many questions, which require much thinking over,” the
French leader added. Former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder was
even more blunt, describing the U.S. missile defense plans in
Europe as not only dangerous but also absurd, urging German
diplomats to persuade the United States to abandon its

In Russia, the
American plans have provoked a strong “asymmetric” reaction. Top
military brass, starting from Sergei Ivanov, immediately brought up
the question of Russia’s withdrawal from the INF Treaty,
retargeting Russian strategic missiles at missile defense
installations in Europe.

The issue of a
possible pullout from the INF Treaty was raised earlier, as well,
but for a different reason: the infringement of Russia and the U.S.
to possess intermediate and shorter-range missiles. Many countries
have these types of missiles, whereas the world’s two leading
missile powers have their hands tied by a treaty of unlimited
duration, which prohibits them from not only having such missiles,
but developing them as well. Such missiles are not really necessary
to the United States because they may be substituted with thousands
of air- and sea-based cruise missiles with nuclear warheads
(presently in their stockpile).

In a bid to
somewhat soften the West’s negative reaction to Russia’s possible
withdrawal from the INF Treaty, statements began to be made in
favor of arming intermediate and shorter range missiles with
conventional precision-guided warheads. Of course, such moves can
be well substantiated, particularly by potential threats in the
South and the East. But in the prevailing situation, the negative
fallout greatly exceeds the apparent gains.

It is quite
likely that concern in Europe over U.S. plans to deploy missile
defense bases in Poland, the Czech Republic and other countries has
less to do with Russia’s generally negative reaction than with its
possible withdrawal from the INF Treaty. But if Russia makes the
decision to pull out of the Treaty, there will hardly be any state
in Europe that would not insist on U.S. missile defense bases being
deployed on its soil. Thus, there will emerge a strong incentive
for the unification of European countries. None of them would
probably object to the deployment of surface-to-air ballistic and
medium-range cruise missiles in Europe as a retaliatory

The ongoing
crisis can trigger a further deterioration toward a Cold War-like
period. For example, if Washington continues building up its
missile defense system both quantitatively and qualitatively, while
Moscow pulls out of the INF Treaty, Venezuelan President Hugo
Chavez, for example, would be only too happy to host Russian
medium-range missiles with any warheads, in addition to other types
of weapons from Russia. It seems that some people in power never
really learned the lessons of the Caribbean Crisis.

One of the
reasons for Moscow’s sharp reaction to Washington’s missile defense
plans is the arrogance with which the incumbent White House
administration makes unilateral decisions on strategic issues. And
although U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice asserted that
Moscow had been informed about U.S. plans to deploy missile defense
bases in Poland and the Czech Republic on a dozen occasions,
apparently this is not the type of format for relations that suits
Russia. Rice’s statement evoked immediate reaction from European
leaders, who called for close consultations on missile defense
problems in a U.S.-NATO-Russia dialogue. An even more constructive
solution would be Russia’s direct participation in developing and
jointly using not only a European antimissile system, but also a
global system.

The White House’s
policy undermines the possibilities for strategic partnership and
trust, vital for countering new threats to global and regional
security. Plans to deploy missile defense bases in Europe have
already become a factor in aggravating relations between Moscow and
Washington. These plans are hindering cooperation necessary for
tackling the crisis of the nonproliferation regime, the war on
terror and drug trafficking, averting regional crises,
environmental disasters and other threats; unfortunately, given the
current situation, these real dangers are receding into the

At the same time,
Washington’s recent proposals on the need for deep missile defense
consultations with Russia and prospects for its participation in
the joint development, in addition to the use of information and
combat systems of the global and European missile defense systems,
inspire some optimism. Progress in these efforts would rule out a
return to any semblance of a new confrontation and would allow the
parties to focus on jointly countering real security threats, among
them nuclear and missile proliferation.