Joshua PollackRussia's EW Is Worse Than You Thought

Cross-posted from

Last week’s obsessive recapping of the Unha-2 launch provided an occasion to ask why Russian officials have such odd perceptions of North Korean missile and nuclear activity, and what that would imply for the actual use of GMD by the United States. Hint: not so good.

Just a few days later, the situation looks, if anything, even worse than at first glance. While there’s every reason to believe that the Russians can see missiles inbound from the United States, there’s not much indication that they can see missiles launched from North Korea.

That means that a multiple GMD launch in the direction of Russia is likely to be the first thing that the Strategic Rocket Forces commander learns about, not the North Korean launch(es) that would have prompted it.

Because I’d like to come to the point while I still have your attention, I’m putting the source material in the comments at TW. Go look there, if you’re not too squeamish.


To:     Combatant commanders, present and future
From: Posterity

One doesn’t want to judge hastily. So: if these accounts are basically accurate — I stress if — and until such a time as this mess can be cleared up, the actual use of GMD against a North Korean missile launch in the direction of North America would appear to be an act of madness.


  1. blowback (History)

    Why should the Russians give a damn about North Korea’s missile capabilities?

  2. Josh (History)

    They shouldn’t, except that since 2004, the U.S. has had plans to shoot at North Korean ICBMs in the event of launch. And the U.S. interceptors will fly out in the direction of Russia. Even in the best case, most interceptors won’t collide with a North Korean warhead, but will continue on their merry way towards Russia or beyond as discussed here (scroll down a little).

    So the Russians have every reason to want better situational awareness. And the U.S. has every interest in improved Russian situational awareness, too. And in taking Russian nuclear weapons off alert, too!

  3. raghar (History)

    So a Russia could mistake a ICBM like GBI for a real ICBM. Well they were quite opposing an idea of an anti Iran/anti NK missile defense.

    On the other hand, for Russia, it’s better to pay the bills and continue with modernization of nuclear forces than spending money for too large EW capabilities. Lot of Russian nuclear weapons are quite mobile, and unlikely to be killed in a first strike. In addition, Russian’s nuclear submarines are somewhat safe, thus the return strike can’t be averted even without EW capabilities. Russia can afford to be hit first, and then ask to whom they should return the favor.

    If US wants to avoid any mishaps, they should include costs of Russian’s EW modernization in the ballistic missile defense costs.

  4. Andy (History)

    I guess we can be thankful the North Korean missile threat remains largely theoretical.

    One question this raises: What capabilities do the Russians have to detect a ballistic missile attack from China, particularly NE China?

  5. Peter J. Brown (History)

    What does this do to the Prompt Global Strike concept, too? The Russians did not want PGS to go forward due to their inability to discern a PGS launch from an ICBM launch, or so I thought. Now, we find out that they have this gaping hole on the Pacific side — maybe elsewhere?. Does this mean that in the future absent a fix, we can forget about PGS in the POR, except perhaps south of the Equator? Or what?

  6. Josh (History)


    Good question. I don’t know the answer. But there may be some differences for an inbound missile from the direction of Manchuria or Korea and an outbound missile from the same areas.


    The main concern I’ve heard expressed about PGS would be the inability to distinguish a conventional missile from a nuclear missile, which could knock out Russia’s EW radars even if it did not actually target any point in Russia. If the Russians can’t see either missile, it’s actually less of a concern. But I’m guessing that an inbound missile would become apparent at some point, under most scenarios. There’s a lot we don’t know… but that’s what worries me.

    I should add that one of the attractions of the Conventional Trident SLBM is that it could be postured so as not to overfly Russia en route to wherever. That may be one of the reasons that it won out over conventional ICBM options in the 2006 QDR. But this does not necessarily mean that CTM is a good idea. I’ve examined this question before.

  7. steve (History)

    Clausewitzian uber-friction.

  8. Josh (History)

    Would this be an example of friction? I was thinking more of “fog of war.”

  9. steve (History)

    Sure. I was thinking of where ‘uncertainty’ can accelerate events as well as decelerating them.

    Plus, uber-fog-of-war didn’t appeal!

  10. Andrew Tubbiolo (History)

    … Then again this is Moskovsky Komsomolets. I used to get the English version of it during the Cold War. What else was a Cold War kid to read in 80’s Clifton NJ? Soviet Life (Still have the Chernobyl issue[Before the meltdown.]), Pravda, and Novaya Rooskaya Slovo. Moskovsky Komsomolets could be compared to Boys Life if it were published by the John Birtch society. Take what it reports with a pillar of salt.

    HOWEVER, the point is still valid. As I said before I think global strikers and wonkers have a lot of common interest in making sure that everyone knows what’s going on. While we bask in the pleasing hum of our computers discussing the pros and cons of allowing a North Korean strike to complete in order to avoid the chance of an accidental launch from a blind and spoofed Russia, it’s unlikely nerves would be so calm during a real crisis. It sounds to me as if we need a public global monitoring system that all the world can use to avoid a launch on false warning crisis.

  11. bobbymike (History)

    Soviet Union/Russia – we are against, in no particular order, MX, Trident D5, GLCM, Pershing II, PGS and now say we may interpret a purely defensive system as an ICBM launch, so defenses are very dangerous. Surely the Russians know the US does not have nuclear tipped ICBM’s in Alaska or California or can they not tell the difference about those launches either?

    Does anyone really believe the Russians cannot detect Nork launches that would mean parts of China would fall into that “blindspot”. So the US could park a few Trident subs off the coast of North Korea and not have the Russians detect the launches? Sorry don’t buy it!

    Could it be the Russians are obfuscating alarmists putting out propoganda to feed the West’s media. That has been going on since about 1946.

  12. Distiller (History)

    What about setting up a fast missile on Okinawa for a tail shot? KEI is your friend! Should hit a NKor missile pretty much exactly at apogee.

  13. John McKittrick (History)

    So the Russians can not detect the NK ICBM that prompts a GBI response … but can detect (and thus “misinterpret”) the GBI launch? And you actually buy this Russian spin?

    “We demand you scrap your missile defense due to our own Russian incompetence!” Please.

  14. Tim (History)

    Russian submarines are safe??
    They spend all their time sitting at the dock! They’re less stealthy and less mobile than the country’s ICBMs right now …

  15. Josh (History)

    Readers should not attribute my conclusions to “the Russians” or anyone else besides me. For one thing, I don’t think any Russian official has ever publicly conceded the weakness of their EW network; at least in my limited experience, they tend to make reassuring noises, and certainly seem much more concerned about conventional prompt global strike than about GMD.

    So why am I concerned about GMD if they aren’t? First, I suspect some of them may be, but aren’t about to let on. Second, even if they aren’t, we should be. Russian officials may overestimate the robustness of their situational awareness in a crisis. Or they may simply dismiss the issue. After all, North Korea doesn’t have a working ICBM, and even if they did, they aren’t suicidal. Short of a U.S. invasion, it’s hard to imagine why they would shoot. That’s the good news.

    The bad news is, the NKs continue to test long-range missiles, and the conversation in the U.S. continues to turn towards trying to shoot one down at some point. (Fortunately, I don’t think this scenario would apply to the due-east-trending-south launches the NKs have favored so far.)

    What is more, the Russians don’t know for sure what’s on the GBI; their own interceptors, for example, are nuclear-tipped. And then there’s the problem of knowing what the missile is. Launches from Vandenberg, it seems to me, would pop up on Russian radars from behind the horizon, and could just as easily be SLBM launches.

    You can dream up any number of nightmares, and it would be poor judgment to dismiss them peremptorily. That would be a failure of imagination, to coin a phrase. The basic point is that there are only a few minutes for the Russians to figure out the situation and decide what to do, under pressure and with very sketchy information. And I don’t find that comforting.

    Now, the good news. It should not be that hard to address the worst of this problem, if we are willing and able to make JDEC and other measures happen. If.

  16. Andrew Tubbiolo (History)

    Josh your point about dismissing faulty conclusions based on ruling out events during a crisis is spot on. History shows that when alert levels are elevated mundane events like redeployment of fighter squadrons have a lot of weight given to them. Unrelated Soviet air movements during the Suez crisis drove American alert levels to higher levels. Quite to the contrary when alert levels are higher events that would normally just register a log entry can have far more effect as the nervous party starts reading too much into the significance of events.

  17. Ryan Crierie

    What is more, the Russians don’t know for sure what’s on the GBI; their own interceptors, for example, are nuclear-tipped.

    Actually, they recently upgraded the Moscow ABM system to use conventional kinetic-kill interceptors. In fact, the long-range interceptors protecting Moscow are pretty much comparable in size to GBI; which makes you wonder about whether virtually all of western Russia is already under a Russian Missile Shield…HMMMMMM

    Secondly, GBI has a different flight profile than a ICBM, due to the different requirements.

    Thirdly, We don’t have ICBMs at Fort Greely. So a Infrared Missile Launch Warning from the Greely Base won’t cause a lot of worry in Moscow.

    Really, “GBI might be mistaken for ICBM” is just a strawman, like the million other strawmen used over the years to kill missile defense.

    My personal favorite was in a declassified paper from way back when, talking about how unless SAFEGUARD (the old 1970s ABM) had a last-ditch intercept capability to intercept a hypothetical 10 MT re-entry vehicle above 50,000 feet, to prevent any damage on the ground; it would not be effective.

    This of course missed the point; that while people would get third degree burns at that altitude from the thermal pulse, and the airblast would still inflict a decent amount of damage by the time it reached the ground — the level of damage and hence the casualty count from such a huge initation would be far far less than what it would be if the 10 MT device was initated at an optimum altitude, instead of at 50,000 feet.

    Virtual Attrition is so much fun.

  18. Josh (History)


    Sure, all those arguments are fine, and I’m confident that reason would prevail in Russia on most such occasions. The problem is, for any given occasion, how much would you like to bet on that?

    Your life?

    Your children’s lives?

    How about human civilization as we know it?

    What it comes down to is, I just don’t trust the Russian military and their systems to see straight in an emergency 100% of the time. No offense is intended to anyone out there, but these are the same people who once confused a sounding rocket, launched from land and heading away from Russia, for an SLBM. And they often refuse to believe in the existence of an ICBM threat from North Korea to the United States, current or future. So if they don’t see the launch, it would be logical for them to believe that there was no launch. This, I believe, partly explains why they have “seen” a North Korean satellite two times now.

    Now, you don’t have to believe this is the most likely outcome, only that it’s a non-negligible possibility. And the answer to it is not necessarily to dismantle GMD, although that’s one possible response; rather, it seems more important to get JDEC working, and to go beyond JDEC.

  19. bobbymike (History)


    Do you understand what your reasoning ultimately has to conclude? You description paints their systems as so bad and unreliable that we should totally disarm to prevent them from confusion/misinterpretation of something we might do at some point in time in the future.

  20. Josh (History)

    Well, gee, either that, or maybe we could to something to improve their situational awareness. Like make JDEC happen, for starters. Almost a decade late already, but better late than never. I could also go for reviving RAMOS.

    On the missile defense front, we could start taking seriously Ted Postol’s proposal for a new boost-phase concept, which would avoid these issues entirely. (Richard Garwin has also made the case for boost-phase systems.)

    Beyond that, we could negotiate a bilateral dealert. Because, after all, the main danger relates to the posture of Russian weapons; the iffy state of their situational awareness exacerbates that underlying concern.

    Now please, everybody, what say we all stop jousting with strawmen, insinuating bad faith, dusting off antique arguments with other people about long-dead weapons systems, and so on and so forth? I was raised to consider it polite to argue issues on the merits.

  21. Ryan Crierie

    Sure, all those arguments are fine, and I’m confident that reason would prevail in Russia on most such occasions. The problem is, for any given occasion, how much would you like to bet on that? Your life? Your children’s lives? How about human civilization as we know it?

    Ah, the good old strawman known in The Business as “Shroud Waving”.

    What it comes down to is, I just don’t trust the Russian military and their systems to see straight in an emergency 100% of the time.

    Consider the following factoids:

    Fact One

    1.) The Russian Moscow ABM system until recently was nuclear tipped.

    2.) It’s trajectory against threats right up to the 1990s would have resulted in a nuclear-tipped missile overflying Western Europe to intercept the incoming ICBM bound for Western Russia. It’s really quite interesting that both GBI and the Moscow ABM missiles are roughly about the same size and weights, which makes you think…

    Funny how the US GBI system, which is a non-nuclear system from the start could somehow provoke a Russian Nuclear response; but somehow, the Moscow ABM system which until recently was nuclear tipped; can’t provoke a NATO Nuclear response.

    Fact Two

    The Russians when they want to test a ICBM, they randomly pick a silo from the inventory of the Strategic Rocket Forces, and send a team to unload the live warhead. They then launch the ICBM from an operational silo. Meanwhile, the USAF, when it tests it’s ICBMs, unloads them from their silos, moves them to Vandenberg AFB, and launches them from there; so that there’s no way they can be mistaken for an actual combat launch of an armed missile.

    Yet you know, we’re all still here. So the mythical strawman of a GBI launch being mistaken for a ICBM launch is just that, a strawman thrown up to discourage ABM.

    No offense is intended to anyone out there, but these are the same people who once confused a sounding rocket, launched from land and heading away from Russia, for an SLBM.

    I love this strawman.

    Let’s consider the facts:

    1.) The Russians had been complaining in the months beforehand about alleged US submarine patrols in the Norwegian/Barents Seas.

    2.) When the Olenegorsk HEN HOUSE radar first picked up the Brant; it had a very inaccurate position fix; which you know, isn’t surprising for a radar with a frequency of 150~ MHz, and very low PRFs. Instead of providing a precise position fix of the Brandt at Andoya Island (the launch site); the HEN HOUSE instead gave a rough positional region that not only included Andoya Island, but a lot of the Norwegian Sea.

    3.) The wavelength of HEN HOUSE is about 2 meters. Not coincidentally, the diameter of Trident II is about 2~ meters. So this means that the Olenegorsk HEN HOUSE radar is going to send to the computer a set of radar target characteristics going roughly:

    —16-18~ meters in length (Brant is 17m long, Trident II is 13.4m)
    —2~ meters in diameter (Trident is 2m diameter, Brant XII is 0.76m)

    (NOTE: Due to the radar’s wavelength, the minimal signal it can resolve pretty well is 2m; so 2m is sent to the analysis computer.)

    The computer chugs for a second or so, and spits out the most likely missiles; and among the top the list is Trident II. The radar operator spits out his coffee, double checks the readout; sees the position locator — from Andoya Island to the Norwegian Sea; concludes it’s a SLBM launch; and alerts higher command.

    4.) Due to the fact that a three-stage sounding rocket and an ICBM have a very similar early trajectory (going up up up up), things get even more confusing for our radar operator.

    5.) As a bonus, all previous Norwegian sounding rockets had been single stage. The Brant XII was their first multi-stage missile. Even more awesomer, both the Trident II and Brant XII undergo a staging operation at the same point in time of their flights.

    Flight time for a SLBM from the Norwegian sea to Moscow was about five to six minutes. That’s how much time the Russian officers had to make a decision.

    So what they did was to activicate the KROKUS system, which sounded a Missile Threat Warning (MTW) at the Russian version of “The Big Board”; and then the KAZBEK system, which set the Russian Strategic Forces on alert status, and activicated the “footballs.”

    When Yeltsin’s “football” officer pulled out the “football” for Yeltsin to handle, all they knew was that a possible possible US/NATO Missile launch from Norway/Norwegian Sea was still in the ascent phase, and it’s target azimuth was unknown.

    Anyway, while he was in conference with his commanders, Yeltsin considered using the Moscow ABM system to liquidate the threat missile; which you know, isn’t that hard, because surprise, decoys and MIRVs don’t work to swamp ABM systems; and it was being tracked by the Moscow ABM battle engagement radars at the time.

    It was the Moscow ABM system and it’s ability to deal with the possible inbound to Moscow that gave Yeltsin the extra confidence he needed to wait out a decision on committing the Russian Strategic Forces until more information became known about the threat missile’s trajectory as it came into line of sight of higher-resolution radars, and it’s azimuth was definitely confimed to be one aimed away from Russia.

    This incident converted a lot of people to the side of ABM.

    By the way; a GBI missile fired from Alaska or Poland won’t you know, cause this kind of incident — because you know, we don’t have ICBMs in Alaska; and we completely decommissioned IRBMs such as Pershing II from our inventory. And any Russian concerns about us possibly hiding secret Minuteman IIIs in the GBI silos can easily be countered by letting Russian officers view teh loading of the GBIs into their silos; and also opening the silo doors from time to time, to let the Russians take a peek inside with their satellites.

    Now please, everybody, what say we all stop jousting with strawmen, insinuating bad faith, dusting off antique arguments with other people about long-dead weapons systems, and so on and so forth?

    I’m sorry; but this is a long standing pattern with any ABM debate by the anti-ABMers.

    Phase 1 of the Argument: “It won’t work.”

    This was tried successfully from 1962 to the early 1970s; to constantly delay the introduction of ABM; by claiming that Nike Zeus was too easily defeated by multiple missiles, decoys, etc etc. This argument was revived in the early 2000s, against GBI, by saying “it keeps failing to launch or separate from the booster”.

    When finally, the ABM people manage to fix up the system enough to defeat the “It Won’t Work” argument — by going from mechanically scanned radars on NIKE-ZEUS, to Phased Arrays on SAFEGARD; and by slowly debugging the GBI until the booster and separation mechanisms are reliable enough — the anti ABMers switch to phase two.

    Phase 2 of the Argument: “It Works — But Is Too Destabilizing.”

    You can see this in the lead up to the ABM treaty, which choked off virtually all ABM research and development in the United States for the next thirty years; and by the recent strawmen arguments against GBI deployment in Europe — it’s too destabilizing.

  22. Josh (History)

    There was a longish comment just posted here. I approved it without reading very far into it — just long enough to determine that it was on-point. So you might have seen it here.

    Then I happened to start reading it. Now it’s gone.

    Look, folks, here are the rules. You can say all sorts of things. You can confirm all my worst suspicions about your inability or unwillingness to argue the merits of an issue. You can even be a little bit on the rude side. I’m not that sensitive. But you can’t make statements about third parties that could be deemed defamatory. And no, I’m not going to take the time and effort to edit that sort of thing out of your comments.

    Update: I’ve reconsidered and simply edited the comment. It’s back up, minus the offending portion.