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U.S. missile defense: the facts of life


MOSCOW. (Yury Zaitsev for RIA Novosti)

On December 13, 2001, George W. Bush declared that the United States would unilaterally withdraw from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, and a year later he ordered the deployment of an anti-missile defense system. The reaction of top-level officials in Russia was low-key. Some voiced "regret," and Yury Baluyevsky, then first deputy chief of the General Staff of Russia, said that steps by the United States to put a global anti-missile shield in place by 2010-2015, or perhaps even 2020, "posed no threat to Russia's security."

Indeed, the next 10 to 15 years are going to be a political rather than a military headache for Russia. The technology to develop an effective intercept network, especially against individually targetable warheads, does not currently exist. The only unpleasant note for Russia will be its greater exposure to the system's components, which will be located in Poland and the Czech Republic.

The trajectory of an intercontinental ballistic missile can be divided into four phases. The first is the boost phase: from launch to engine burnout and jettisoning at an altitude of 200 to 300 kilometers. In the case of solid-propellant missiles, this phase may last up to three minutes, and with liquid-propellant ones up to five. The remaining missile bus contains nuclear warheads, a control system, vernier engines and devices to help the missile penetrate enemy defenses, called "penetration aids." The latter include heavy and light decoys identical in temperature, effective scatter area and flight velocity to live re-entry vehicles, and hundreds of thousands of chaff pieces to confuse an enemy radar.

In the second phase, when instructed by the control system, the bus maneuvers into the first pre-calculated position and fires a warhead and some of the penetration aids against target No. 1. Then it moves into the second pre-calculated position, then the third, and so on, depending on the number of nuclear warheads carried. Each maneuver takes 30 to 40 seconds.

The third phase is the ballistic coasting of all elements released - real and dummy - at altitudes of up to 1,200 kilometers. This phase lasts 15 to 20 minutes.

The final and shortest phase is less than a minute long, with "clouds" of elements entering the atmosphere at an altitude of 110-120 kilometers and at speeds of around 7 km/sec. Air drag causes the dummy elements to fall behind heavier combat units. Nevertheless, identifying a warhead surrounded by a bevy of decoys is incredibly difficult in engineering terms and is unlikely to be achieved in the near future. So no anti-missile system will be effective unless it can destroy missiles in the first, or boost, phase, which affords the best conditions for pinpointing (from the infrared glow of their burning engines) and targeting interceptors.

The destruction of missiles is made easier by their large size and relatively low mechanical sturdiness. But interception at this phase is possible only if a ground-based interceptor is faster than the attacking missile and not more than 500 kilometers away, in the case of liquid-fueled ballistic missiles, or 300 kilometers in the case of solid-propellant missiles. The Americans themselves concede that missiles launched from Russia's hinterland would be impossible to intercept, which explains their desire to move anti-missiles closer to the Russian border.

The success of a counter-strike also depends on the sophistication of an intelligence-gathering system, whose objective is to fix the moment of launch, second-guess the flight path and guide an interceptor to its target. The earlier the launch is detected, the better the chances of a successful hit.

Well before pulling out of the 1972 ABM Treaty, the United States took concrete steps to deploy, along the Russian border, radars capable of spotting missile launches and sending targeting data to interceptors. The first such radar, code-named HAVE STARE, was stationed in Norway. If the radars scheduled to be positioned in the Czech Republic have roughly the same characteristics as the HAVE STARE, they will cover practically all of European Russia, which extends as far as the Urals.

Experts from an authoritative organization, the American Physical Society, have reached some very interesting conclusions. These are contained in a report issued by its working group and dealing with intercept systems for national missile defense. The authors of the paper draw attention to the fact that a successful intercept in the boost phase will prevent a strike against planned targets, but the surviving warheads will fall on populated areas along the flight trajectory and inflict a heavy death toll.

So in the event of a nuclear conflict, the first strike will hit countries which host elements of an American missile defense system. The experts note that the remaining submunitions will under no circumstances fall on the territory of a launching country. Their calculations show that if a missile is hit when traveling at a speed of 3.9 km/sec, its warheads may travel for another 2,000 kilometers, and at 5.5 km/sec, they will go a further 5,000 kilometers.

What counter-measures can be taken to reduce, if not neutralize, the effectiveness of a future American missile interception system?

Shortening the boost phase is considered to be the most radical way of countering interception. That can be achieved by converting liquid-fueled missiles to solid-propellant ones. Future plans envision cutting the boost phase to one minute and ending it at an altitude of 80 to 100 kilometers.

A missile's maneuvering in the track-out phase will also make interception more difficult. Yury Solomonov, who designed Russia's newest missile, the Topol-M, said that it can maneuver both in the vertical and horizontal plane, which has been demonstrated in tests. Another trick is to use a depressed trajectory that practically never rises above the dense layers of the atmosphere.

On balance, while recognizing that the United States' withdrawal from the ABM Treaty was a mistake - one which, however, does not threaten Russian security - it is still necessary to closely monitor developments in the U.S. in this field and work out methods of disabling its anti-missile systems.

Another point to bear in mind is that with cuts in strategic offensive weapons, the role of missile defense will grow considerably because its combat effectiveness is inversely proportional to the number of attacking missiles and warheads. So maintaining a sufficient potential for nuclear deterrence over the next decades is one of Russia's key military and political goals.

Yury Zaitsev is an expert at the Russian Academy of Engineering Sciences.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.

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