Missile Defense Challenges

9 august 2008

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

Resume: Russia and the U.S. have become hostages of Cold War weapons, above all ground-based intercontinental ballistic missiles which cannot be placed in a reduced launch readiness status without violating the normal mode of operation. Therefore, the system of “mutual assured destruction” must be maintained.

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 limitations.

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 weapons.

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 administration;
  • 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 efforts.

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 system.
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 scale.

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 states:

  • 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 (Israel);
  • states that have the motivation to possess nuclear weapons and the required research and technological potential (North Korea and Iran);
  • “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 others).

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 states.

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

  • 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 interaction.

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 assets.


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 ones;
  • 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.

Last updated 9 august 2008, 13:35

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