Jeffrey LewisBanning Nuclear-Armed ABMs

I have my semi-weekly column up at Foreign Policy arguing that the impending demise of Nunn-Lugar is of a piece with the loss of monitoring at Votkinsk and obligatory telemetry exchanges with the expiration of the START treaty.  The Russians want us out as they modernize.

I worry that the bilateral arms control process is dying a slow death in large part because we’ve failed to expand it beyond reductions into a broader set of measures to strengthen strategic stability.  In particular, as I’ve been arguing for some time, I think the Russians are much more worried about decapitation — the prospect that they could not command their nuclear forces following an attack and would be unable to retaliate.  I’ve pestered my friends, enemies and people I don’t even know with the odd idea that this Russian fear might account for a series of weird things they’ve said and done, including expressing concern about nuclear-armed missile defense interceptors in Poland.

How do we start talking about command and control with Russia, especially if the Russians won’t address the matter directly?  I would propose that the US and Russian agree to a joint statement prohibiting the placing of nuclear weapons on missile defense interceptors.  It is a modest measure that begins, obliquely, to address Russian concerns while strengthening stability.

The full proposal is after the jump.

Prohibiting Nuclear Armed Missile Defense Interceptors

The United States should propose, as a part of any dialogue on missile defense cooperation, that Russia also prohibit nuclear-armed ballistic missile defenses. This could be codified in a Joint Statement of a ten-year duration signed by both Presidents.

This should be a relatively easy proposal for the United States to accept. Such an agreement would not further constrain the US Missile Defense Agency. US missile defenses rely on “hit to kill” intercept technology and are not nuclear-armed.  The Stevens-Feinstein Amendment prohibits the Defense Department from spending on the “research, development, test, evaluation, procurement, or deployment of nuclear armed interceptors of a missile defense system.”

The Russians might be less interested.  As best I can tell, the Moscow ABM defense system still relies on nuclear warheads.  There are some reports that Russia is arming the S-400 and S-500 with nuclear weapons, though I don’t know how much credence to give them.  There is also some evidence that the Russians might be interested in moving to a conventional missile defense around Moscow.  After I and a colleague floated the idea a few years back, Sergey Rogov told the 2011 Carnegie Nuclear Policy Conference that Russia might eliminate the nuclear-armed ABM system around Moscow, but his asking price was a bit high.  (Rogov told some of my colleagues he wanted the US to share SM-3 interceptors with Russia to help with the transition to conventional missile defenses.)

Still, the US and Russia have to talk about so-called “nonstrategic” nuclear warheads at some point — and this is probably the easiest basket to start with.

A Joint Statement would codify the US prohibition and permit basic confidence-building measures, such as exhibitions and complementary visits, that could take place in the context of broader missile defense cooperation.  The Russians might value related confidence building measures regarding US missile defenses in Europe and some limited technical cooperation involving radars.

An agreement to prohibit nuclear-armed ABM interceptors would provide at least two benefits.  First, a prohibition on nuclear-armed missile defense interceptors would provide a mechanism to address the least difficult portion of Russia’s stockpile of tactical nuclear weapons.  These weapons are obsolete, making them an excellent target for elimination.  (The Joint Statement might also commit the parties to specific forms of missile defense cooperation that allow Moscow to replace its nuclear-armed missile defense system around Moscow.)

The Moscow ABM system really bothers me from a stability perspective. The system is nuclear-armed.  It is kept off alert in peacetime, but the Russians plan to place it on alert during a crisis. As a result, the Russian military will be operating the system in an unfamiliar fashion during an extraordinarily tense environment in which an attack is believed likely.  Furthermore, the decision to use an ABM interceptor must be made under the most dire time constraints and is, therefore, pre-delegated, possibly with the decision to alert.  Even the US has experienced accidental ABM launches with theater systems.  It is not clear to me that, if a nuclear-armed interceptor were used over Moscow against a flock of geese, that the Russian command-and-control system would understand it was one of their own or survive the EMP effects.  Then all hell might break loose. I’d like to get rid of this thing.

Second, a prohibition on nuclear-armed missile defense interceptors would enhance strategic stability by reinforcing the prohibition on intermediate-range nuclear forces.  Some existing missile defense interceptors exceed MTCR thresholds.  Some planned versions may exceed INF treaty thresholds, which is bad news for a treaty that doesn’t need more bad news.  A while back, I asked David Wright to do a basic calculation and he concluded that alow-speed SM-3 Block II (4.5 km/s burnout) could reach Moscow from Poland with a 200 kg payload, and the high-speed Block II (5.5 km/s burnout) could reach Moscow from either Poland or Romania with a 200 kg payload. A ban on nuclear-armed ABM interceptors, combined with some confidence-building measures, might make the difference in preserving INF.


  1. Bruno (History)

    I am still wondering if the Gazelle still carry nuclear warhead (and since the Russians announced they would get the Gorgons out of their mothballs). Moscow declared it got read of them in 2002 if my memory is correct. But yet, in terms of efficiency using a nuke would serve the purpose and no one is clear on what kill mechanism it would have been replaced with (minimizing the distance of passage is not that technologically simple).
    Well, it is a good debate nonetheless:)

    • Jeffrey (History)

      Yes, this is something I’ve been struggling with for a while.

      Some Russian reports, including an interview with General Yesin, suggest that, as of 2007, the exo-atmospheric 51T6 (Gorgon) interceptors had been deactivated, leaving the 53T6 (Gazelle) interceptors. The 51T6 are supposed to be replaced by something newer, when Russia plans to bring those sites back online. Whether the new interceptors will be nuclear or not is unclear. I would presume the remaining 53T6 interceptors to be nuclear-armed until they are retired.

      I hesitate a bit about that 2007 date, because in 2009, someone posted pictures of both types in a parade. (Really unusual, high-resolution shots.) It is possible the pictures were a few years old, that the canisters are empty or even that the 51T6 canister holds something newer and more interesting. I am just not sure.

      By the way, I love this 2007 interview with Vladimir Svetlov, General Director of Fakel:

      Question: Does your design bureau develop missiles for the defense of Moscow from a nuclear blow?

      Svetlov: For the protection of not only Moscow but also adjacent areas. In the early 1960s, Fakel developed the interceptor missile V-1000 and in 1961 it destroyed a combat block of a ballistic missiles capable of carrying a nuclear warhead. The A-35 system – this is our first antimissile defense system intended for defense of the Moscow industrial area from the American Titan and Minuteman missiles – also used missiles of Fakel. For the second generation of this system – A-135, which is still operation – we have also created the long-range interceptor missile 51T6.

      Question: Is this the missile that NATO calls Gordon?

      Svetlov: Yes. We do not give names to our missiles.


    • Pavel (History)

      As I understand, the interceptors are nuclear capable, but they are normally deployed without nuclear warheads. 12th GUMO said just recently that only ICBMs and SLBMs are deployed with nuclear warheads:

    • Bill (History)

      Jeffrey: You meant “Gorgon,” not “Gordon,” correct?

    • Jeffrey (History)

      The error – Gordon instead of Gorgon – is in the source which made it funnier when the designer said “we don’t name our missiles.” I have to check of its a translation error or if that’s what they said phonetically in Russian.

    • Bruno (History)

      Yes, 2007 :) And I meant “rid” and not “read”, sorry late hour and so. The question I guess is whether Almaz-Antey (or Fakel if it is it which is in charge of the KV) is actually capable of producing an efficient hit-to-kill for the Gazelle. The thing is as it is a low altitude intercept, the KV will have to be VERY fast especially against an ICBM type warhead. Precision is not needed if you detonate a nuke and I guess a much more usual high explosive would not do the trick since the rapprochment speed is so important.
      As for the Gorgon, I read recently that they wanted to put them again in service. Not a good news if you ask me.

    • Jeffrey (History)

      Not at all good news. From an organizational perspective, nuclear-armed missile defenses are the worst possible idea raising problems of predelegation, automation, sensor performance and so on. I generally am not a believe in the “computer starts a nuclear war” scenarios, but missile defenses make that much harder. For conventionally-armed theater defenses, the odd accidental Patriot launch is not a deal-breaker. For strategic nuclear systems, it scares the bejesus out of me.

    • George William Herbert (History)

      On the plus side, it will be fairly unambiguous that there was no inbound threat if the computer and/or electrical systems glitch and you loose a nuclear ABM live and get a subsequent earth-shattering kaboom.

      On the minus side, given the EMP nd confusion, and fallout, and the like, it would be pretty high-stress immediately afterwards.

      All of that said, I would hope that their command and control is effective enough to be able to tell leadership that it was an accident. I would not hand a live nuclear ABM warhead to someone I didn’t trust and mechanisms I did not trust to accurately and promptly inform me of their conditions of use if they’re fired.

  2. Allen Thomson (History)

    > A while back, I asked David Wright to do a basic calculation and he concluded that a low-speed SM-3 Block II (4.5 km/s burnout) could reach Moscow from Poland with a 200 kg payload, and the high-speed Block II (5.5 km/s burnout) could reach Moscow from either Poland or Romania with a 200 kg payload.

    Not an entirely fanciful concept; I’m sure DARPA’s ArcLight caught the attention of people in Moscow.

  3. shaheen (History)

    Is the “flock of geese” a reference to Putin’s September 2012 stunt?

    Seriously. If the nuclear Gazelle are still operational, CBMs in return for eliminating them would be small change. If they are no longer operational, why would the Russians not announce this as part of their PR campaign against strategic defenses? Or would they rather have the US believe that they still have them? But do they think that US intel has made up its mind one way or the other? Etc.

    • Jeffrey (History)


      No, I am just making a short-hand reference to false alarms. (A meteor shower is more likely to trip the radars.)

      There is third possibility, one that arises if we accept Russia is a place with various actors of differing outlooks. The Gazelle remain nuclear-armed, but surely there is a discussion about what to next? Perhaps some people see all the problems with nuclear-armed interceptors and say it should be replaced. Perhaps other people, noting the poor performance of many Russian military systems, share the view of a continuing minority in the US defense community that nuclear-armed ABMs remain the most efficient defense. (Recall that the Stevens-Feinstein Amendment arose in response to an interview in which the Chairman of the Defense Science Board said “We’ve talked about [nuclear-armed missile defense interceptors] as something that [Secretary Rumsfeld is] interested in looking at.”)

      In such a case, we may offer inducements to encourage Moscow to build only conventional defenses. One inducement is a set of confidence-building measures to assure Russia the United States does not have nuclear-armed offensive systems in US missile defense silos. The Russians apparently valued a similar confidence building measure — the ban on silo conversion — enough to seek it in the New START negotiations. A second inducement relates to missile defense cooperation, which will be harder in the United States. I have little expectation that the United States would offer SM-3 interceptors, but cooperation on radars might be a possibility. Such cooperation might be necessary to allow Russia to mount a credible defense of Moscow with conventional interceptors.

      The interesting challenge here is the extent to which UK and French forces remain optimized to penetrate the Moscow ABM system. Someone said “il suffit à la France d’être capable d’arracher un bras à son agresseur” but in fact our allies have tended to aim at the head, not the arm.

    • George William Herbert (History)

      The interesting challenge here is the extent to which UK and French forces remain optimized to penetrate the Moscow ABM system. Someone said “il suffit à la France d’être capable d’arracher un bras à son agresseur” but in fact our allies have tended to aim at the head, not the arm.

      Which is a challenge on our side as well, as the French (and to a lesser extent Brits) have to have some planning level of fear of the US umbrella failing for some circumstances in which their national interests are sufficiently threatened…

      The US has enough warheads to threaten an opponent en masse strategically. Most potential targets are widely dispersed. Moscow and Russia are an exception, where a huge portion of the country and populace is under that one shield. The French and UK position, given their dual trends towards strategic-only deterrents, has to be trending towards a “We have to be able to hold Moscow at risk” solution. That seems to have been what drove Chevaline and what has come after. And still seems credible. It’s not a two-sided discussion; British and French semi-independent thinking is a major factor; as are Chinese to some degree. And potentially Israeli, and eventually Indian.

  4. Mark A. Gubrud (History)

    I do not see why Russia would agree to a standalone ban on a type of missile defense which it alone possesses and for which it does not possess an immediate replacement, while the United States refuses to accept any limitation on its BMD systems (which are not only defensive but capable also as antisatellite weapons).

    The suggestion of a ban on nuclear armed interceptors could be useful in the context of a new ABM Treaty (call it a “BMD Treaty”, and make it global, not bilateral) which placed comprehensive limits on the scale and capabilities of BMD systems to be deployed by any nation. A burnout speed limit for interceptors would be one important element in order to limit the threat both to Russia’s strategic deterrent and also to satellites. Limits on the numbers of interceptors would also be important.

    In the latter context, a ban on nuclear interceptors would be of value to Russia also, not only from the perspective of paranoia about warheads hidden on SM-3s in Poland but against the possibility that as the US continues its pursuit of a reliable BMD, recognizing the midcourse discrimination problem, the US may revert to nuclear warheads. Such a system might appear to pose a much more serious threat to retaliatory capabilities following a first strike (which might involve only advanced conventional weapons such as ArcLight).

  5. Kusigrosz (History)

    “Svetlov: Yes. We do not give names to our missiles.”
    But, don’t they advertise them a few decades in advance?

  6. JW (History)

    In your FP column, page two para three, did you mean to say “to get us the hell out of their pants”? Or did you mean to say “plants”?

    Given that it’s the one place in the article where you use italics for emphasis, if that is a typo you should probably have it fixed. And if it isn’t a typo, it’s a very awkward phrase to say the least.

    • Jeffrey (History)

      It’s an awkward phase. You swing for the fences, sometimes you strike out. Oh well.

  7. Bill (History)

    I have to say it’s tempting to offer the Russians the best we have in interceptors to put around Moscow. It would be a princely gesture, one that would be talked about a long, long time and would impress them more than many words. After that I doubt they’d be worried about what we wanted to do in Eastern Europe to protect against Iran. The Russians are a sentimental people, and honorable, in the end.

    The fear/cost side is, they’d have access to the technology. But isn’t that what’s happening anyway, and isn’t that the path to prosperity– and peace– for both? Pandora’s Box is open, and everyone knows what’s inside. It’s just not possible to conceal physical fact from a determined government’s investigation.

    It would require a degree of trust I think is a bit naive just now, given Putin’s rather overt authoritarianism, but it’s something to keep in mind for later if we get someone a bit less Machiavellian.

    • Bradley Laing (History)

      —A possible problem: when developing military rifles in the 1950s, both the U.S. and the U.K. had a “it wasn’t made here, we can do better” attitude towards rifle design.

      —How do we convince the Russian rocket makers to use a foriegn made design? Would they lose face? Or just their jobs?

  8. Bill (History)

    I was thinking more like sell them to them though only fuzzily.

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