Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye, September 28, 2007

Vladimir Dvorkin, George Lewis, Pavel Podvig, Theodore Postol

The U.S. plan to deploy elements of its Ballistic Missile Defense System in Eastern Europe was bound to be controversial. Russia has long been wary of U.S. missile defense plans and skeptical of U.S. claims about the ballistic missile threat from the third countries that missile defense is supposed to counter. The choice of Eastern Europe as the site of the upcoming deployment has made the plan particularly contentious, linking it to the already controversial process of eastward expansion of NATO. As a result, many Russians believe that in reality the missile defense system is directed against Russia.

The controversy over the deployment of a missile defense system in Europe is mainly a political issue that is directly linked to the character of the relationships between the countries, the way they understand each other’s intentions, and the level of trust between them. The disagreement that surrounds the missile defense deployment is probably the best evidence that the relationships between Russia and the United States and its Eastern European allies are not in good shape. At the same time, it is usually the process of working together on resolving differences that presents an opportunity to improve relationships. The United States and Russia have made a number of promising steps in that direction recently, but, unfortunately, it is too early to say that they have already found a solution of the problem.

In dealing with issues of missile defense, attempts to find a political solution inevitably have to take into account technical realities, in particular the potential capabilities of missile defenses and their limitations. Unfortunately, neither in Russia nor in the United States are these realities part of the public discussion to the extent it is necessary. This, of course, directly affects the quality of the debate. This article is an attempt to consider the main facts related to the suggested deployment of the missile defense system in Eastern Europe and to present an assessment of the capabilities and limitations of this system. We hope that this analysis will help improve the understanding of the issues the United States and Russia are dealing with and will help in finding a mutually acceptable way out of the current situation.

The planned system and its capabilities

The core of the current U.S. plan is to deploy ten ballistic missile interceptors in Poland and a tracking and discrimination radar in the Czech Republic after 2011. The officially declared goal of the current stage of deployment is “an improved capability to defend the United States against ballistic missile attack from the Middle East” and “to extend defensive coverage to Europe” against some missile attacks from that region.

The interceptors that would be deployed in Poland are two-stage solid-propellant missiles with a launch weight of about 22 tonnes that carry a relatively small kinetic-kill vehicle. Even though the interceptor is smaller than an ICBM (for example, the launch weight of a Minuteman missile is about 36 tonnes and that of a Topol-M is about 47 tonnes), it can accelerate the kill vehicle to very high speed – about 9 km/s, which is higher than the speed achieved by intercontinental missiles.

The radar that is planned to be deployed in the Czech Republic would be moved there from its current location at the missile defense test site at Kwajalein Atoll, where it has been used during various missile defense tests. It is a phased-array radar with a 12 meter diameter antenna that can be rotated. The radar operates in the X-band (wavelength of several centimeters), which allows it to achieve fairly high resolution and accuracy. The hope of the developers of the system is that the radar would be able to find a warhead among simple decoys and then track it. The intercept is supposed to take place during the ballistic phase of the flight, at altitudes well above the atmosphere.

The capability of a missile defense system depends on a number of factors. At the very minimum, the interceptors of the system must have a high enough speed to be able to reach a target after it is detected by the system’s radars.

The United States insists that the only targets that the planned system could intercept would be ballistic missiles launched from the Middle East region, from Iran in particular. The Missile Defense Agency (MDA) claims that interceptors deployed in Poland will not have even a theoretical capability to reach Russian ballistic missiles on their trajectories. Unfortunately, this claim is incorrect. An analysis of possible trajectories of ICBMs and interceptors shows that with support from the radar in Czech Republic, interceptors deployed in Poland could reach most Russian missiles launched from bases in the European part of Russia. This, of course, does not automatically mean that the interceptors would be able to actually destroy the missiles (more about this later), but it is clear that this kind of misleading claim undermines the credibility of U.S. statements.

Another claim often being made by the U.S. Administration is that the ten interceptors that would be deployed in Poland could not possibly counter the Russian strategic nuclear force. Although it is hard to disagree with this statement, it should be noted that U.S. documents that set the roadmap for missile defense development clearly state that missile defense deployment would not stop after today’s systems are deployed. The Presidential National Security Directive 23 (PNSD-23), signed by President Bush in December 2002, states that the United States would begin to deploy missile defenses in 2004 “as a starting point for fielding improved and expanded missile defenses later.” The missile defense system is being developed and deployed in a way that would allow the system to expand in the future, as new or additional components become available. So, it is understandable that the references to the limited scale of the current deployment do not look entirely convincing.

There is a clear disconnect between the views held on the possible future capabilities of the system by the United States and Russia. Ideally, these views would eventually be reconciled. But by deliberately downplaying the capability of its system, the United States makes this reconciliation more difficult.

On the other hand, overestimating the capabilities of the system, which is often done in the Russian debate, does not help to resolve the issue either. It should be noted that any missile defense system that is supposed to intercept targets outside of the atmosphere would be extremely vulnerable to simple countermeasures. Even if an interceptor was able to catch up with a target missile and reach it in time, the system would still have to solve the problem of finding the warhead in a cloud of decoys. This task would be complicated by the employment of a range of other penetration aids. Systems that are supposed to counter missile defenses – decoys and other penetration aids – have been an integral part of development of ballistic missile forces, both in the United States and Soviet Union since at least 1960s, and all modern Russian missiles carry them. Given the experience that is available in this area, we can state with certainty that the current or future missile defense system will not be able to counter the ballistic missiles that Russia has in its arsenal today. (It is also likely that the missile defense could not successfully counter a missile threat from Iran, should this threat ever materialize.)

Even if the United States expands the system, say, by increasing the number of interceptors, it would not be able to neutralize the retaliatory capability of the Russian missile force. This, of course, does not mean that Russia should completely ignore the possibility of the system’s expansion. But if Russia is concerned about this possibility, it should concentrate on this point and not pretend that the U.S. system in its current configuration could pose any threat.

Similarly, the concerns about the possibility of using the interceptors in Poland for offensive mission are hardly justified. Even though interceptors are ballistic missiles of a sort, neither their payload nor guidance make them suitable for attacking ground targets. Using the interceptors themselves or the infrastructure that is created for them for offensive missions would be absolutely impractical and therefore can be completely ruled out.

Another set of issues is related to the deployment of a radar in Czech Republic. The capabilities of this radar also need to be assessed very carefully. This is a dedicated radar that is suitable for a narrow range of missions and that is quite limited in its ability to be employed for other missions.

First of all, the location of the radar in Czech Republic would not allow it to see missiles launched from any of the Russian test sites used for launches of sea-based or land-based ballistic missiles. The curvature of the Earth completely prevents this. Thus the radar cannot be used to gather intelligence on Russian missiles.

As for its missile defense mission, the main reason the system will employ a centimeter-range (X-band) radar is that it can provide high resolution that could help distinguish a warhead among decoys. At the same time, at these wavelengths a warhead has a fairly small reflective cross-section, which limits the range at which the radar can detect a target. This means that the Czech radar would not be able to track a large number of warheads simultaneously. Its early-warning capability would be limited as well, so it would have to rely on an external support – in the current deployment plan, the search will be done by another radar (known as the forward-based radar), which would be relocatable and could be deployed in the vicinity of the expected ballistic missile launch area.

Theoretically, the X-band radar could be upgraded to boost its power and increase its range and the number of targets it can handle. This modernization would require almost complete rebuilding of the antenna and therefore can be detected far in advance. This capability may be distant, but it certainly needs to be taken into account and could be a reason for concern.

Overall, the European system in the configuration that is proposed by the United States today cannot present a significant direct threat to the Russian strategic force. At the same time, it is not difficult to see how Russia may have questions about the eventual goal of the missile defense buildup and about the circumstances that accompany its deployment. For example, for a system that is claimed to provide a defense of Europe, it does not seem to be well configured for this mission. The claims that interceptors would not be able to reach Russian missiles, despite the evidence to the contrary undermine credibility of other U.S. statements. Overall, the current situation does not help build trust and understanding between Russia and the United States.

Opportunities for cooperation

A truly viable solution to the current problem would mostly likely be possible only if Russia and the United States build a partnership that does not depend on the balance between their strategic forces. The controversy that surrounds the missile defense deployment in Europe clearly demonstrates that this goal has not yet been achieved. Moreover, this controversy prevents such a new relationship from emerging, instead returning us back to a Cold War logic and mentality. Neither Russia nor the United States should be interested in this kind of deterioration of their relationship.

Even though the disagreement seems to be very serious, the current situation presents an opportunity for finding mutually acceptable solutions to the current problem. The most important proposal so far is the Russian one to offer its early-warning radars in Gabala or Armavir for use in the defense. The United States should very seriously consider this proposal. These Russian radars were developed as dedicated early-warning radars and can provide serious surveillance support to the U.S. radar, which is designed primarily for target tracking and discrimination. Even though the Gabala radar is fairly old, it is perfectly adequate for the supporting role that Russia suggested. Integration of Russian and U.S. radars should not be technically difficult. Russia could also consider offering a site on its territory for the deployment of the U.S. forward-based radar. In any of these scenarios, cooperation between Russia and the United Stated on a range of issues related to missile defense, even if limited at first, would greatly help them build mutual trust and understanding that is clearly necessary today.

The Russian proposal is especially important since it would also allow establishing reliable joint monitoring of missile threats in the Middle East region by providing the capability to detect test launches from countries under scrutiny, such as from Iran. This, in turn, would allow developing a better response to this threat, which should not be limited to missile defense only.

Russia, in turn, would have to make a difficult decision regarding its strong opposition to the planned deployment of the radar in the Czech Republic and the interceptors in Poland. It is true that this deployment could present a political problem, but it should be taken into account that the capability of the system is very limited and it could not pose any significant threat to the Russian strategic missile force. Nor could the radar in Czech Republic even be used for intelligence-gathering.

Overall, Russia and the United States could achieve much more progress toward their respective goals by choosing dialog and cooperation over confrontation. Russia has already considerably changed the tone of the discussion on missile defenses by proposing the use of its radars. It is likely that by remaining open to cooperation and discussion and by demonstrating flexibility when necessary, Russia could further change the character of the discussion in the United States and in Europe. It should take into account that although missile defense enjoys wide political support in the United States, there are doubts, in Congress in particular, about the viability of the plan proposed by the current administration. There are also concerns about potential adverse effect that the current proposal may have on the U.S.-Russian relations. Russia’s openness to a dialogue could help strengthen those who seek effective and non-confrontational solutions of the problems related to proliferation of ballistic missile technologies. Maintaining a dialogue between Russia and the United States may prove difficult, but such a strategy will eventually prove more productive and will better serve the interests of both countries than the alternative.

The paradox of the situation is that the current disagreements provide unique opportunities for bringing the U.S.-Russian relationship to a new level of strategic partnership and for moving away from the current relationship based on mutual nuclear deterrence to a relationship that would make any serious confrontation impossible.