Michael KreponMissile Defense Phobia

Krasnodar is a beautiful region near the Black Sea which is justly famous for its black tea. It may become the home for Iskander tactical ballistic missiles, now that the Kremlin has pulled the plug on talks with the Obama administration over missile defenses. The passage of time clearly has not diminished Moscow’s hyper-sensitivity over missile defenses. The threat to deploy the Iskander is part of a menu of choices ostensibly designed to protect Russia from a nonexistent threat from the west. Or, more likely, to project the Kremlin’s unhappiness at not being able to prevent US theater missile defense deployments in its “near abroad.”

Moscow claims that theater missile defense deployments are part of a nefarious plan to negate Russia’s strategic deterrent. This argument becomes increasingly implausible as budget deficits curtail US strategic modernization programs, shrink force structure, and reduce spending for BMD programs. In reality, alcohol and tobacco pose far more of a threat to Russia’s national security than TMD deployments geared toward threats emanating from Iran.

Old, Cold War-era phobias die hard, especially in Russia, where nuclear weapons remain the primary currency of status in a nation whose proud history and future promise have been clouded by public health crises, population decline, endemic corruption and political stagnation. Russia now joins Pakistan in threatening to embrace short-range, nuclear-capable missiles as a means to shore up deterrence and national psychology.

A missile defense deployments-at-all-costs mentality also dies hard in the United States, where TMD has replaced national missile defenses as the current cause célèbre in Republican circles. If missile defense enthusiasts try to employ TMD as a back-door means to pursue national missile defenses, then Moscow’s opposition will have plenty of company in the United States, including from this quarter. Before jumping on Moscow’s bandwagon, however, it’s worth remembering that US BMD deployments have always lagged far behind projections. The Pentagon would rather spend diminishing resources on more pressing, affordable, and technically feasible military programs.

True to form, the Obama administration’s ambitious TMD plans are now being pared back by budgetary realities. The value of TMD deployments in countering proliferation threats has to be weighed against the heartburn it causes Moscow and Beijing. Architecture and deployment levels will clarify purpose, since theater missile defenses are worth pursuing to counter threats from outlier states, not major powers.

TMD deployments can help shore up the Nonproliferation Treaty regime by signaling US support in very tangible ways to states concerned over Iranian and North Korean nuclear and missile programs, especially as the US nuclear umbrella becomes less of a factor in alliance relations. US friends and allies in troubled regions, as well as Moscow and Beijing, do not buy the argument that TMD is doomed to fail. Another reason for selective TMD deployments against outliers is to support states that do not wish to be drawn back into Russia’s orbit, joining Belarus which, like Krasnodar, may also find itself hosting Iskander missiles. This rationale may well aggravate the Kremlin the most.

Washington uses missile defenses to affirm partnerships; Moscow uses implied nuclear threats to regain its clout. Moscow is playing a weak hand unwisely but not unexpectedly: states that vehemently oppose missile defenses are most strongly beholden to nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles for suasion and status. Weapon systems like the Iskander are cards in the deck that cannot be played without grievous losses. In contrast, theater missile defenses might just help prevent grievous losses. Unlike outliers, countries that possess highly pedigreed missiles, like Russia, can readily take steps to ensure that TMD will not negate their deterrents.

Until TMD effectiveness is demonstrated in rigorous flight tests, these deployments will have more political than military utility. BMD testing that improves intercept capabilities against less advanced missiles can, in turn, reinforce the political utility of TMD deployments against outliers.

Russian strategic concerns warrant serious attention, but Moscow cannot be given a veto over Washington’s dealings with allies, friends, and states that were once involuntary members of the Warsaw Pact – especially when its arguments against TMD are phobic relics of the Cold War. The notion that missile defenses will facilitate a bolt-out-of-the-blue pre-emptive US strike against Moscow’s nuclear forces made no sense then, and is complete nonsense now that the Cold War is over and Washington and Moscow have nothing to fight about. Western analysts who indulge their Russian counterparts by lending credence to this phobic fantasy have become prisoners of computer simulations of nuclear war-fighting scenarios.

Seeking national missile defenses against Russia and China by means of high deployment levels of advanced TMD is unwise as well as unfeasible. It is also unlikely in an environment of strained military budgets and long-term, yawning deficits. For the foreseeable future, technological, political, and especially budgetary restraints can serve to limit TMD deployments to the regions where they are most needed.

Moscow’s blustery exit from BMD talks with Washington will backfire, as it did in 1983. Influence is not advanced by leaving your seat at the table. A phobic response to limited theater missile defense deployments is as anachronistic as the threatened deployment of tactical nuclear weapons. This is 2011, not 1983. The contraction of US and Russian strategic force levels will continue apace. Krasnodar would be far better served by exporting tea than by importing Iskander missiles.


  1. wrf (History)

    Very important topic! I must correct one point however, Michael: you say it is a limited theater defense, but is it? FAS recently did a study that shows Russia does not have a problem with the system as it is now but what it will become after a few years. I think the problem is one of uncertainties that such systems raise than with any real capabilities. Would we allow China to build a similar base in Cuba as we are going to build in Romania? Of course not!
    A little empathy goes a long way. Plus, any impartial person has to admit that the purported threat is a bit, shall we say, hyped to begin with?

  2. Sharif (History)

    This is a more complicated topic than it first appears to be. I disagree with your approach to the subject — the very premise. The first question that needs to be asked is why it is being pursued…not why Russia is angry. The fact that it has a lot of well known weaknesses probably makes it a bit of a puzzle for Russia. They probably wonder how we can seriously be going ahead with this and what the hidden agenda is? That said, there are a number of legitimate issues, and some illegitimate issues as even US analysts have pointed out:

  3. Allen Thomson (History)

    Somewhat along these lines, is there any indication that the political implications of the ArcLight SM-3 Block II based project have been considered in the context of SM-3 Block II ABM deployments?

    http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/systems/munitions/arclight.htm) says,

    “The ArcLight program will design, build, and flight test a long range (> 2,000 nm) vehicle that carries a 100-200 lb payload(s). ArcLight is based on an SM-3 Block II booster stack, a hypersonic glider and is capable of being launched from a Mark 41 Vertical Launch System (VLS) tube. The development of the ArcLight system will enable high speed, long range weapons capable of engaging time critical targets and can be launched from Naval surface and sub-surface assets, and Naval/Air Force air assets.”

  4. Scott Monje (History)

    Russia’s concern about BMD is real (and their arguments are no more ludicrous than some of the things heard in Congress on any day of the week), but I suspect that there is something else going on here as well. Since Putin came along, every four years, in the year prior to a Russian presidential election, there is some national security threat on the agenda. The Chechens helped out in the earlier election cycles. The war was renewed in 1999 (following the attack into Dagestan by rogue Chechen warlords and the bombings of Russian apartment buildings, which some people blame on the FSB). The Chechen war played a big part in Putin’s initial burst of popularity. That war was still going on during the next election cycle, with an attack on a Moscow theater in 2002 and a string of suicide bombings in 2003. In 2007, however, with things getting quieter in Chechnya, we had Putin taking up the BMD issue and likening the Bush administration to the Nazi war machine (whatever you think of Bush, that’s a bit strong and it came up very suddenly). Tensions remained high owing to the (presumably unrelated) Georgian war in 2008, but then improved. We generally ascribe the improvement to new policies in the Obama administration, but maybe some of it was just the fact that the tensions had served their purpose. Now, with elections coming up again, we have a new and equally sudden “crisis” in East-West relations. As I said, the BMD issue is not entirely manufactured, but it is possible that the current crisis is. It may very well settle down again of its own accord in a few months, when the elections are past.

  5. Amy (History)

    I think the Russians would not be so opposed to a Theater missile defense (even if it worked). The problem is, last I checked, that in Phase III and IV the system is *designed* to become a National Missile Defense system — i.e. one capable of intercepting Iranian ICBMs.

    That is what Russia and China really raise their eyebrows about. wrf mentioned the FAS report above — it is available here and useful to understanding the Russian and Chinese concerns:

  6. Mark Gubrud (History)

    “If missile defense enthusiasts try to employ TMD as a back-door means to pursue national missile defenses, then Moscow’s opposition will have plenty of company in the United States, including from this quarter.”

    Current US plans under the EPAA, and presumably for other theaters as well, include development and deployment of SM-3 Block IIB which is intended to intercept longer-range missiles including those which could reach the United States from Iran or North Korea (although neither nation currently possesses any such missiles). I don’t know if that’s back-door; it isn’t any secret. It is the policy of the Obama administration, which is proceeding with little opposition from any quarter.

    Another element that is missing here is recognition of the fact that SM-3 Block IIB, as planned, would be a highly capable LEO kinetic energy antisatellite weapon, and its deployment would ensure that China, Russia, India and others follow suit by developing and deploying their own KE-ASATs and other space weapons. The implication of proceeding down this path is that a space arms race is unavoidable, codes of conduct notwithstanding.

    “US friends and allies in troubled regions, as well as Moscow and Beijing, do not buy the argument that TMD is doomed to fail.”

    But in fact, what you call “TMD” here includes exoatmospheric midcourse intercept, which is subject to the same easy countermeasures in the case of “TMD” as in the case of “NMD.” Thus, it is doomed to fail against any threat involving missiles armed with nuclear warheads and equipped with readily accessible and well-known countermeasures which would assuredly defeat weapons such as the SM-3s.

    “…theater missile defenses might just help prevent grievous losses. Unlike outliers, countries that possess highly pedigreed missiles, like Russia, can readily take steps to ensure that TMD will not negate their deterrents.”

    As is well-known, well-argued, and uncontroversial, any nation which can produce ballistic missiles with nuclear warheads can equip those missiles with countermeasures which would reduce to near zero the effectiveness of BMD systems which rely on the combination of radar and optical/infrared sensors to discriminate warheads from decoys — that is, all systems that the US currently possesses or plans. It is not a matter of “pedigree.” The countermeasures which can defeat BMD/TMD/NMD are well-known and easy to do compared with the rest of the project to produce nuclear ballistic missiles.

    TMD systems are only fractionally effective, and only against the bottom rung of cheap, short-range, conventionally armed missiles without countermeasures. They will be completely ineffective against nuclear ballistic missiles produced by Iran or North Korea when and if those countries are able to produce such weapons.

    “Until TMD effectiveness is demonstrated in rigorous flight tests, these deployments will have more political than military utility. BMD testing that improves intercept capabilities against less advanced missiles can, in turn, reinforce the political utility of TMD deployments against outliers.”

    The effectiveness of these weapons against dumb targets without countermeasures has been demonstrated in flight tests. Reliability has been a problem and can be improved. But effectiveness against countermeasures has never been demonstrated and can’t be because it is impossible with the technologies being employed. TMD demos may serve to reinforce the “political utility” in terms of building alliances against “outliers”, but to the extent that this is based on a perception that the TMD will provide an effective defense, it is a deception.

    I should add that further full-impact BMD flight testing is completely unnecessary in order to continue to improve system reliability or to tinker with any ideas about how to solve the (insoluble) discrimination problem.

    “Seeking national missile defenses against Russia and China by means of high deployment levels of advanced TMD is unwise as well as unfeasible. It is also unlikely in an environment of strained military budgets and long-term, yawning deficits.”

    I agree it is unwise and success is infeasible, but the “strained military budgets and long-term, yawning deficits” are today’s economic conditions, the result of a half-century of reckless economic policies favoring the interests of the wealthy over those of the nation and its people. Perhaps we’ll straighten this out in a few years (as took place between 1932 and 1942).

    BMD and other strategic weapons deployment levels are not currently limited by fundamental technological or resource constraints. Yes, this is 2011, not 1983, but what about 2021? Russian and Chinese military planners need to think ahead, too.

  7. Nick (History)

    Is there any *credible* public information anywhere that clearly spells out that Iran or IRI officials have threatened to strike Europe or even Israel with nuclear tipped missiles?

    If the answer is no, then given the current state of domestic economic problems in US and Europe why is this topics being discussed so much? Unless the real target of the BMD is Russia, but it is fashionable these days to accuse Iran. After all, WH regularly refers to Russia as “our partners,” and it would be illogical to encircle partners with missiles, even if they are defensive.

  8. Joe Cirincione (History)

    Here is what Daryl Kimball and I told NPR tonight. The whole transcript is here:


    Many analysts say Medvedev’s remarks went beyond short-term political considerations.

    “Some of them, granted, are for political consumption during an election period. But part of it represents the real anxieties of the Russian military,” said Joe Cirincione, director of the Ploughshares Fund. He believes the U.S. has to take more seriously the concerns coming from Russia on this issue.

    “Russia is definitely trying to get our attention,” he added. “They keep saying one thing after another: ‘If you don’t solve this problem, we’re not going to have another round of arms control talks, or we might close the NATO supply routes to Afghanistan. We might withdraw from the treaty.”

    He was referring to the New START agreement that was ratified last year and which mandates a reduction in both U.S. and Russian offensive nuclear weapons to 1,500 on each side.

    Offense Versus Defense

    The actual missile interceptors that the U.S. intends to deploy in Europe are years away and in such small numbers that they could never neutralize Russia’s current offensive nuclear weapons.

    But that could change over time, says Kimball of the Arms Control Association. As arms control agreements force a smaller and smaller Russian offensive nuclear arsenal, the missile defense system could expand and become more formidable.

    “In theory, future versions of these missile interceptors could have greater capability against long-range ballistic missiles, including some in Russia. And they are going to be potentially deployed in larger numbers,” he said.

    So this disagreement is real and it goes deep, says Cirincione.

    “We are sending mixed messages to Russia,” he said. “Our diplomats say there’s nothing to worry about. This is all directed against Iran. But our military officials are rushing ahead with plans to build systems that, from a Russian point of view, look like they are aimed at Russia.”

  9. Magoo (History)

    This interesting piece and the arguments put forward under comments, miss one crucial fact that was mentioned by a Russian General recently. What guarantees are there that a missile (allegedly in anti-ballistic missile mode) cannot be modified into a missile with a more sinister offensive capability? In such an event its a possible means of getting around the INF Treaty after Bush so conveniently abrogated the ABM Treaty! Its Russia’s way of ‘abrogating’ its obligations vis-a-vis the INF Treaty. We are now viewing Arms Control Agreements going into reverse.

    • Allen Thomson (History)

      Well, speaking just to the numbers of it, the Russian General has a bit of a point. See the post about ArcLight above and consider the gross similarities between the Ground Based Interceptors of the present GMD system and the Small ICBM of yore:

      Orbital Boost Vehicle (GBI)
      Weight 12,700 kg
      Length 16.8 m
      Diameter 1.27 m

      Midgetman MGM-134A (SICBM)
      Weight 13,600 kg
      Length 14 m
      Diameter 1.17 m

      If I recall correctly, the GBI has a burn-out velocity of a bit over 8 km/s, more than orbital velocity, so increasing the payload weight somewhat should leave it with ICMBish ranges if deployed in that mode.

      If one were to get serious about such things, there are many matters to discuss and resolve. But the chances of getting serious are minuscule.

    • Scott Monje (History)

      George Lewis and Theodore Postol (Arms Control Today, October 2007) argued that the GBI was similar to the upper two stages of a Minuteman III and could be used to carry three nuclear warheads 6,000 km. It was my understanding, however, that the switch from the GBI to the SM-3 had reduced that concern.

  10. krepon (History)

    The key underlying assumptions of these critiques are worth highlighting, in my view:

    1) technological constraints on BMD effectiveness have not changed since the 1980s (or earlier).

    2) Top-heavy TMD deployments will happen, and will greatly undermine strategic stability, notwishtanding #1. TMD is, therefore, a slippery slope. (Leave aside that limited BMD deployments have yet to become a slippery slope, even after the ABM Treaty’s demise.)

    3) Moscow and Beijing are incapable of differentiating between TMD deployments geared toward outliers and TMD geared to negate their deterrents. (They are, however, more than capable in fielding cost-effective countermeasures to US TMD deployments.)

    4) There are quite manageble risks — including risks to the NPT — in not deploying TMD to counter Iranian and North Korean nuclear and missile programs.

    Leaving aside the contradictions inherent in these talking points, my analysis takes issues with all of these key underlying assumptions.

    I completely understand the concerns expressed by Moscow (holding Beijing’s proxy), while discounting Moscow’s bluster, atavism, and electioneering. Advanced TMD can, indeed, be a problem, depending on deployment levels and architecture, as I have stated. Budget and domestic political constraints, rather than arms control, will be required for reassurance to Moscow and Beijing — and for the other business Washington wishes to conduct with both countries. Current US TMD plans require down-sizing, which I expect to happen.


    • Sharif (History)

      Michael — the TMD will evolve into an NMD around 2018. That is the main reason for concern. Also, as these are exo-atmospheric interceptors they can be defeated by decoys: whether used in TMD or NMD mode.

      So more testing — which you seem to advocate — should not be done. The flaw is conceptual and not something to be cured by spiral evolution and further development.

      I too hope for the budget hatchet to land on the system but I think we can all concur that the Russian military cannot count on that.

  11. bradley laing (History)

    By T. Rees Shapiro, Published: December 6

    Paul M. Doty, 91, a Harvard University chemist whose early work helping to assemble the first nuclear bombs led him to become a leading advocate against their destructive use, died Dec. 5 at his home in Cambridge, Mass.

    He had congestive heart failure, said his son, Gordon Doty

  12. krepon (History)

    If Iran and North Korea are intent on extending the range of their ballistic missiles to reach the United States, should the USG accord them the same “free ride” as we accord missiles belonging to Russia and China?

    Again, my key assumptions and policy preferences are:

    (1) Intercepts against Iranian and North Korean missiles will be less taxing and more likely than intercepts of Russian and Chinese missiles; and

    (2) The TMD deployment patterns and numbers ought to be commensurate with a prospective Iranian and North Korean missile threat, rather than a Russian and Chinese threat; and

    (3) Budgetary realities and more pressing Pentagon needs will support proposition (2), above.

    • John (History)

      Thank you for an intriguing post and also many thanks to the commentators.

      The first assumption above regarding how taxing intercepts of Iranian warheads vs. Chinese would be is technically incorrect, although I have seen this thought expressed several times.

      The effectiveness of the MD system is controlled by the offense: specifically by the number of decoys relative to warheads. Thus, intercepting NK or Iranian warheads among decoys is just as taxing as intercepting Chinese warheads among decoys, assuming both use the same number of decoys:warheads.

      There is perception that Russia and China can get around the system easier than the Iranians or NK. This is false and actually dangerous in that it gives a false sense of security.

      The offense can simply increase the number of technologically simple decoys relative to the warheads and defeat the system — to the extent that the offense wants.

      This is, indeed, an inherent flaw of the midcourse system and details may be found in the Sessler et al. study from about a decade ago — nothing has changed in physics since then:


      best regards,

  13. krepon (History)

    Am out of my depth technology-wise, but have trouble with the assertion that all countermeasures are alike and equally able to defeat intercepts

  14. Steven Starr (History)

    Regardless of whether BMD is or will remain ineffective, many in Russia believe the final stages of deployment of the U.S./NATO missile defense system are designed to have the capability of greatly reducing or eliminating Russia’s strategic nuclear deterrent. More importantly, BMD/TMD deployments occur via NATO, a military organization whose purpose has always been to “keep the Russians out”. It is the combination of NATO expansion, ongoing NATO military actions, and the deployment of a US/NATO missile defense system, which has triggered such a strong political reaction in Russia.

    Focusing primarily upon the issue of “BMD won’t work anyway” avoids the larger political problem of a BMD/TMD system on land and sea, operated by US/NATO forces, which will effectively surround most of Russia. Imagine the political reaction here in the US if the shoe were on the other foot . . . it is inconceivable that the US would tolerate a Russian military alliance on its borders, busy deploying an integrated BMD/TMD system that could track and possibly intercept US ICBMs.

    The expansion of NATO to the borders of Russia has created the potential for a local military conflict with Russia to quickly escalate into a nuclear exchange. Russian military doctrine has for many years included the policy of Nuclear De-escalation, i.e., the preemptive use of tactical nuclear weapons when faced with overwhelming conventional forces (see http://www.ifsh.de/pdf/publikationen/hb/hb156.pdf ); it is noteworthy that this policy was developed after NATO intervened in Yugoslavia, it is a direct response to the perception of NATO as a military threat.

    This seems to me to be a deadly combination, particularly if tensions continue to rise between the US and Russia. BMD is the focal point of these tensions and the US would be well-advised to take seriously Russian concerns, even if they appear to be based upon technical analysis which the US considers questionable. Why not make Russia a full partner in this process, if Russia is indeed not the target, if the alternative is a second Cold War and maybe worse.

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