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Missile Defense Against Iran Without Threatening Russia
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Jaganath Sankaran

All recent U.S. efforts after the conclusion of the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) to move ahead on bilateral nuclear arms reductions with Russia have stalled over Russian concerns regarding the capabilities of the European Phased Adaptive Approach, as the Obama administration’s missile defense policy in Europe is formally known, and its effect on Russian nuclear retaliatory potential.

Since the early stages of the phased adaptive approach, Russian officials have cited it as an obstacle to further nuclear arms reduction. Last March, however, U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel announced a restructuring of the approach, canceling the planned implementation of its fourth phase, which had prompted the strongest Russian complaints.[1] The key feature of that phase was the deployment of the Standard Missile-3 (SM-3) IIB interceptors in Poland. The SM-3 IIB, with a planned velocity of 5.5 kilometers per second, would have had the ability to fly further and faster than any other missile in the system.

Cancellation of the fourth phase has removed any capability that the fully deployed system would have had to intercept Russian intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). As described below, Russia should be able to independently verify that, under the restructured plans, the system will not be able to intercept Russian ICBMs even when fully deployed. At the same time, proponents of the phased adaptive approach can be confident that the cancellation of the planned deployment of the SM-3 IIB interceptors did not diminish the ability of the system to intercept Iranian missiles. This restructuring should now pave the way for more-productive U.S.-Russian negotiations on nuclear arms reduction.

The U.S.-Russian Discourse

The phased adaptive approach was originally viewed by many as an attempt to ease Russian concerns over the previous administration’s missile defense plans in Europe. In 2007 the Bush administration proposed deploying a ground-based midcourse defense system in Europe to defend against Iranian missile threats. That system would have included 10 interceptors in Poland, a radar in the Czech Republic, and another transportable radar deployed in a country close to Iran. This proposal raised strong opposition from Russia.[2]

On September 17, 2009, the Obama administration announced it would cancel the Bush-proposed European missile defense program. Instead, the plan was to develop and deploy a missile defense capability based on SM-3 interceptors on land and on ships equipped with the Aegis missile defense system. The interceptors to be deployed in a phased manner, adapting to the threat posed by Iran. Moscow initially welcomed this decision with caution.[3] As details on the phased adaptive approach emerged, however, Russia argued that this missile defense system still posed threats to Russian ICBMs. Russian political leaders have claimed that the phased adaptive approach, particularly the now-canceled fourth stage of the system involving advanced high-velocity interceptors and possibly advanced missile-tracking satellites, was a threat to its strategic nuclear deterrent and a potentially destabilizing element.[4]

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Russia has asked for legally binding “military-technical” guarantees from the United States and NATO that the missile defenses that they are deploying in Europe will not be aimed against Moscow’s strategic nuclear forces.[5] The only publicly available explanation of what constitutes military-technical guarantees describes them as making certain changes to the algorithms of the operation of missile defense radars, refraining from bringing Aegis-equipped ships into areas that are in direct proximity to the potential trajectories of Russian ICBMs and submarine-launched ballistic missiles, stationing Russian observers at U.S. and NATO missile defense installations, and formulating a mechanism to monitor the implementation of such measures.[6]

Russian President Vladimir Putin has stated that his government would contemplate further bilateral nuclear arms reductions only if the United States addressed concerns about the evolving ballistic missile system. “Russia is open to new joint initiatives” in arms control, Putin said in an August 2012 statement. “At the same time, their realization is clearly possible only on a fair mutual basis and if all factors affecting international security and strategic stability are taken into account.” Among the factors, according to Putin, is the “unilateral and totally unlimited deployment of a global U.S. missile defense system.”[7]

Dmitry Medvedev, Russia’s president from 2008 to 2012, had expressed similar views. Speaking at the 2011 summit of the Group of Eight industrialized countries, Medvedev said, “If we do not reach an agreement by 2020, a new arms race will begin.”[8] He further suggested that “a European missile defense system can only be genuinely effective and viable if Russia participates in an equal way.”

Initially, the Kremlin had demanded that Europe be divided into two sectors, with NATO taking responsibility for providing missile defenses for one and Russia for the other. Under this arrangement, the two sides would have equal authority in decision-making for interceptor launches.[9]

The United States and other NATO countries did not agree to Russia’s proposals for such sectoral missile defense. Citing Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty, which says that an attack on any member “shall be considered an attack against them all” and that each member “will assist” the attacked country, they claimed that NATO alone bears responsibility for defending the alliance from ballistic missile threats.[10]

The constant U.S. response to Russian claims of vulnerability has been that the interceptors to be deployed under the phased adaptive approach would not pose a threat to Russian missile forces. Responding to such concerns in late 2011, Rose Gottemoeller, acting undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, said, “We have worked at the highest level of the United States government to be transparent about our missile defense plans and capabilities and to explain that our planned missile defense programs do not threaten Russia or its security.”[11]

The United States has declined to engage in negotiations on any formal agreement with Russia on the phased adaptive approach. In March 2012, Ellen Tauscher, U.S. special envoy for strategic stability and missile defense, said Russia was seeking a “legal guarantee” with a set of military-technical criteria that would limit the ability of the United States to deploy future missile defense systems. Tauscher said Russia also was asking for data on when U.S. Aegis-equipped ships entered certain waters and when an interceptor achieved a certain velocity. The United States “will not accept limitations on the capabilities and numbers of our missile defense system” or on where it deploys the Aegis-equipped ships, she said. Those vessels are “multi-mission ships that are used for a variety of missions around the world, not just for missile defense,” she said.[12]

Nevertheless, the U.S. government has expressed a willingness to accept a political agreement affirming that U.S. missile defenses are not aimed at Russia. Tauscher explained that any such statement would be politically but not legally binding and would publicly proclaim Washington’s intent to work with Moscow in charting a course for cooperation on missile defense.[13]

Russia has continued to insist on a legally binding agreement with limits on U.S. missile defense operations. Such a legally binding agreement seems very difficult to achieve given the strong Republican animosity to it in Congress. The Senate resolution supporting ratification of New START, for example, specifically stated that the Senate would not accept any limitations on missile defense.

System Capabilities

Russian concerns, as well as the U.S. responses to those concerns, are closely tied to the location and capabilities of the various elements of the phased adaptive approach. Under that approach, interceptors would be stationed in phases on Aegis-equipped ships in the Mediterranean Sea and at land sites at Deveselu, Romania, and Redzikowo, Poland, to defend against a variety of current and future Iranian missile threats. The first phase of the approach is already in place with a command center in Germany, a forward-based radar in Turkey, and an Aegis-equipped ship with SM-3 IA interceptors deployed in the Mediterranean Sea. Phase II, consisting of SM-3 IB interceptors deployed in Romania, and Phase III, consisting of SM-3 IIA interceptors deployed in Poland, are to begin in 2015 and 2018, respectively (fig. 1). The previously planned fourth phase, consisting of the SM-3 IIB interceptors, was to be deployed in Poland.[14]

The major Russian concern with the system has been with the capability of the SM-3 IIB interceptors that were to be deployed as part of the fourth phase at the Polish site around 2022. The Russians have suggested that the interceptors would be able to intercept Russian ICBMs. Yet, modeling done by this author using minimum energy trajectories of the missiles and interceptors shows that interceptors at that site do not pose a viable threat to Russian ICBMs.[15] Under the original conception of the phased adaptive approach, an SM-3 IIB interceptor launched even with an idealized “zero time delay”—that is, immediately after the launch of the target ICBM—would be able to intercept Russian ICBMs from only five missile sites in western Russia. Modeling demonstrates that, even under these conditions, Russia would be able to launch its ICBMs from at least nine other launch sites without being intercepted.

In reality, interceptors can never be launched without some delay. It takes nearly 30 seconds for an ICBM to rise above cloud cover and for early-warning missile tracking satellites to recognize the launch of an ICBM.[16] After that, depending on the location of tracking radars, it can take as long as a couple of minutes for the system to calculate the point at which it will intercept the target missile. It seems that the closest radar that can track Russian ICBMs is the Fylingdales upgraded early-warning radar located in the United Kingdom. This radar would start tracking Russian ICBMs just as their powered flight ends, approximately three minutes after being launched.[17] Some Russian experts, however, have indicated that the Globus II X-band radar in the city of Vardo, Norway, which is much closer to Russia, also could be utilized in missile defense operations against Russia.[18] These Russian experts claim that the Norwegian radar will begin tracking Russian ICBM flight trajectories 140 seconds after launch.

In order to account for these real-world operational delays, the same modeling described above was repeated with a delay of 155 seconds. That time period was chosen because an additional time of at least 15 seconds is needed from the start of tracking (140 seconds) to calculate an intercept point and launch the interceptor. The interceptors in Poland have no capability to intercept Russian ICBMs with a time delay of 155 seconds. This would have been the case even if the SM-3 IIB interceptors were in place. Because of the distance of Russia from the Polish site, a time delay greater than 45 seconds would guarantee that interceptors from that site could not hit Russian ICBMs.

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The March 15 decision by the Obama administration to cancel the planned deployment of SM3-IIB interceptors, the fourth phase of the phased adaptive approach, has effectively removed any possibility that these interceptors based in Poland and Romania could be a threat to Russia. Russia, however, also has expressed concerns that Aegis-equipped ships with the SM-3 IIA interceptors, which have a velocity of 4.5 kilometers per second, located in the North Sea and the Barents Sea could pose a threat to its deterrent. Under a number of ideal and therefore unrealistic conditions, including immediate launch of the interceptors in response to the launch of the target missiles, ships located at these two positions would be capable of intercepting some ICBMs traveling on trajectories from Russia toward the United States. The threat dissipates again if one assumes a time delay of 155 seconds (fig. 2). Furthermore, during a real attack, Russia would be able to deploy multiple missiles and countermeasures that would make interception even more difficult. If the interceptors are not able to hit Russian ICBMs without taking these factors into account, as the modeling shows, then the interceptors will not be able to do so when they come into play in a real-world scenario.

Some experts within Russia support the argument presented above. In a number of articles, these experts have said that, in a hypothetical strike against U.S. territory, Russian ICBMs cannot under any circumstances end up within reach of the missile interceptors in Romania and that ICBMs from Kozelsk in western Russia can be intercepted by the missile interceptors in Poland only if they are aiming for the U.S. East Coast. Furthermore, these experts have said that other missile divisions in western Russia, such as those deployed at Vypolzovo, Teykovo, Tatishchevo, Yoshkar-Ola, and Dombarovskiy, could possibly be threatened only by ship-based missile defense systems from the waters of the Baltic, Barents, and Norwegian seas. Yet, the farther east the Russian missile division is located, the more hypothetical this threat becomes. According to these Russian analysts, inasmuch as it is the midcourse, or space, phase of ICBM trajectories that will pass over those seas, even the ship-based missile defense systems in present form are incapable of reaching these missiles.[19]

Although the cancellation of the planned deployment of the SM-3 IIB interceptors has removed the possibility that interceptors deployed under the phased adaptive approach would pose a threat to Russian missiles, it has not diminished the missile defense system’s primary mission of intercepting an array of current and potential future Iranian missiles (fig. 3). The restructured missile defense system would still theoretically be able to handle these Iranian missile threats, even if one factors in a comfortable amount of time for detecting and tracking them.

Moving Forward

The phased adaptive approach in its currently planned form would not have any effect on Russia’s nuclear deterrent. Nevertheless, a number of policy actions to ease Russian concerns have been suggested by experts in Russia and the United States. Giving Russia access to interceptor data, such as burnout velocity, is one of the prominent suggestions.[20] Given the now-reduced maximum velocity of the current system, however, it is not clear what data the United States could provide to the Russians that they could not discern on their own and that would provide them with a greater reassurance about the capabilities of the interceptors deployed under the phased adaptive approach. Russia possesses, among other means, its own early-warning satellites that it can use to monitor and estimate the characteristics of interceptors deployed under the phased adaptive approach.[21] Also, as described above, even under ideal conditions, the currently planned U.S.-NATO system does not pose any potential threat to Russia. Additional data are not needed to determine this.

It might be necessary to reassure Russia about the future evolution of U.S. missile defense systems in order to convince Moscow to engage in negotiations on further bilateral nuclear arms reduction. It is conceivable that Russia is concerned about the possibility of a very ambitious and hostile U.S. effort to employ missile defenses against it in the future. Earlier this year, Medvedev said, “We do not want next generations of politicians in 2019 or 2020 to take decisions which would open a new page in the arms race. But such a threat exists and everyone in Russia and the United States should understand this, that’s why we still have chances to come to an agreement.”[22]

In order for the phased adaptive approach to threaten Russia in a meaningful fashion in the future, not only would the United States have to deploy Aegis-equipped ships at difficult-to-operate locations such as the North Sea and Barents Sea, but it also would have to succeed in some of its ambitious plans for the development of space-based missile defense sensors.

In particular, the Precision Tracking Space System (PTSS) that was planned for launch in 2017 was touted as a sensor that would have been able to provide more-precise missile tracking much earlier in flight than current systems. If the PTSS sensors had been able to reduce interceptor response times to less than 155 seconds, the Aegis-equipped ships equipped with SM-3 IIB interceptors located in the North Sea and Barents Sea would have had the ability to intercept Russian ICBMs.[23] The PTSS, however, has been canceled because of its “significant technical, programmatic, and affordability risks.”[24] Without these advanced sensors, it would not be possible for the United States to reduce the time delays to values small enough to successfully intercept Russian ICBMs. Also, the initial SM-3 IIB conceptual designs with liquid-fueled boosters were unsafe for deployment on Navy ships.[25]

Yet, it might still be prudent to reassure Russia that future U.S. missile defense systems will not affect its deterrent. The United States could bolster the offer of a political agreement that U.S. missile defenses are not aimed at Russia by voluntarily limiting the operational scope and reach of its future space-based missile defense sensors and missile defense interceptors. Developing a joint data exchange center[26] focused on monitoring missile launches might be useful, particularly if it will demonstrate to Russia the limitations of current U.S. early-warning and missile tracking systems.

In conclusion, the U.S. policy decision to eliminate the planned deployment of SM-3 IIB interceptors from plans for missile defense in Europe has removed any potential capability to intercept Russian ICBMs bound for the continental United States. The two countries should utilize the opportunity provided by this policy decision to begin discussions on further bilateral nuclear arms reduction.

Jaganath Sankaran is currently a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. He obtained his doctorate in public policy at the University of Maryland School of Public Policy. The research for this article was done while serving as a Stanton nuclear security postdoctoral fellow at the RAND Corporation. A more detailed version of this article is forthcoming. The views expressed in this article are the author’s.


1. Tom Z. Collina, Daryl G. Kimball, and Greg Thielmann, “What Does DoD’s Missile Defense Announcement Mean?” Arms Control Now, March 15, 2013, http://armscontrolnow.org/2013/03/15/what-does-dods-missile-defense-announcement-mean/; Eliot Marshall, “A Midcourse Correction for U.S. Missile Defense System,” Science, March 29, 2013, pp. 1508-1509.

2. At a February 2007 security conference in Munich, Russian President Vladimir Putin strongly criticized the ground-based midcourse defense system, maintaining that it would lead to “an inevitable arms race.” Russia had threatened to abrogate the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. For details, see Steven A. Hildreth and Carl Ek, “Long-Range Ballistic Missile Defense in Europe,” CRS Report for Congress, RL34051, September 23, 2009.

3. Kevin Whitelaw, “Obama’s Missile Plan Decision: What It Means,” NPR, September 27, 2009, http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=112909735; Robert Golan-Vilella, “NATO Approves Expanded Missile Defense,” Arms Control Today, December 2010.

4. “Moscow Takes Harder Line, but NATO Chief Still ‘Hopeful’ on Missile Defense,” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, May 3, 2012; “Russia Warns U.S. Against Deploying Final Phases of Missile Shield,” Global Security Newswire, October 1, 2012. Some Russian leaders also see the act of placing interceptors close to Russian territory more as a betrayal rather than as an actual threat. See Oleg Vladykin, “Missile Defense Push Seen by Russians as Latest in Long Line of U.S. Deceptions,” Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye Online, December 2, 2011 (in Russian).

5. “Russia Restates Demand for Pledge on NATO Missile Shield,” Global Security Newswire, September 14, 2011; Titus Ledbetter III, “U.S. Invites Russia to Monitor Aegis Missile Intercept Test,” SpaceNews, March 30, 2012; Robert Bridge, “Moscow Looking for NATO Cooperation, Missile Defense Guarantees,” RT, February 19, 2013, http://rt.com/politics/russia-missile-defense-nato-security-document-566/.

6. For details, see Sergey Rogov et al., “Russia: Experts—Missile Defense Compromise Dependent on Obama Reelection,” Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye Online, September 20, 2012 (in Russian).

7. “New Russian Nuke Cuts Will Depend on U.S. Missile Defense Moves: Putin,” Global Security Newswire, August 24, 2012.

8. Peter Topychkanov, “Missile Defense: Not Joint, but Cooperative,” Russia Beyond The Headlines, June 24, 2011.

9. “NATO Missile Shield Needs to Include Russia, Medvedev Says,” Global Security Newswire, May 16, 2011.

10. Frank A. Rose, “Reinforcing Stability Through Missile Defense” (remarks made at the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe Forum for Security Cooperation, Vienna, June 6, 2012), http://osce.usmission.gov/may_6_12_fsc_rose.html; Frank A. Rose “Growing Global Cooperation on Ballistic Missile Defense” (remarks, Berlin, September 10, 2012), http://www.state.gov/t/avc/rls/197547.htm. For the text of the North Atlantic Treaty, see http://www.nato.int/cps/en/natolive/official_texts_17120.htm.

11. “Obama Administration Defends Antimissile Plan,” Global Security Newswire, September 15, 2011.

12. Ellen Tauscher, “Ballistic Missile Defense: Progress and Prospects” (remarks at the 10th Annual Missile Defense Conference, Washington, DC, March 26, 2012), http://www.state.gov/t/186824.htm.

13. Ibid.; Ledbetter, “U.S. Invites Russia to Monitor Aegis Missile Intercept Test.”

14. For a review of the evolving architecture of the phased adaptive approach, see Tom Z. Collina, “The European Phased Adaptive Approach at a Glance,” Arms Control Association, May 2013, http://www.armscontrol.org/factsheets/Phasedadaptiveapproach.

15. In order to evaluate the capabilities of the various SM-3 interceptors against Russian ICBMs, a computer model was developed in the engineering software Matlab. The modeling was done using impulsive minimum energy trajectories of the missile and interceptor. Given the performance of a particular combination of missile and interceptor, the lowest required burnout velocity for interception was calculated.

16. David K. Barton et al., “Report of the American Physical Society Study Group on Boost-Phase Intercept Systems for National Missile Defense: Scientific and Technical Issues,” Reviews of Modern Physics, Vol. 76, No. 3 (October 2004).

17. Yousaf Butt and Theodore Postol, “Upsetting the Reset: The Technical Basis of Russian Concern Over NATO Missile Defense,” FAS Special Report, No. 1 (September 2011); Dean A. Wilkening, “Does Missile Defense in Europe Threaten Russia?” Survival, Vol. 54, No. 1 (February-March 2012).

18. Colonel-General Viktor Ivanovich Yesin and Major-General Yevgeniy Vadimovich Savostyanov, “Russian Experts Conclude European BMD Will Have No Significant Effect on RVSN,” Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye Online, April 13, 2012 (in Russian).

19. For details, see Aleksandr Khramchikhin, “Russia: Khramchikhin Answers Criticism of His Earlier Article on Missile Defense,” Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye Online, July 22, 2011 (in Russian); Yesin and Savostyanov, “Russian Experts Conclude European BMD Will Have No Significant Effect on RVSN.”

20. Jim Wolf, “Exclusive: U.S. Dangles Secret Data for Russia Missile Shield Approval,” Reuters, March 13, 2012.

21. For example, Russian radars detected the recent Israeli test-firing of the Sparrow missile in September. Available public information suggests that Russia was able to determine the launch direction and impact point. Given this, it is reasonable to conclude that Russia would also be able to monitor and estimate the velocity of the SM-3 interceptors independently. For a review of current Russian early-warning satellites and radars, see Russian Strategic Nuclear Forces, “Early Warning,” August 22,,2013, http://russianforces.org/sprn/. For details on the detection of the Israeli missile launch, see Dan Williams and Steve Gutterman, “Unannounced Israel-U.S. Missile Test Fuels Jitters Over Syria,” Reuters, September 3, 2013.

22. “‘No Flexibility’ in U.S. Missile Talk—Medvedev,” RIA Novosti, January 27, 2013. Although rarely considered seriously in the U.S. debate, this ambitious vision does emerge from time to time. See Jon Kyl, “Missile Defense Is Self-Defense,” The Wall Street Journal, May 14, 2012.

23. For details on how the Precision Tracking Space System can be combined with land-based radars to intercept ICBMs in boost phase and early post-boost phase flight, see Jaganath Sankaran, “Debating Space Security: Capabilities and Vulnerabilities” (Ph.D. diss., University of Maryland, August 2012), pp. 148-225, http://www.cissm.umd.edu/papers/files/sankaran_debating_space_securitycapbilities_and_vulnerabilities.pdf.

24. SpaceNews, “PTSS Canceled Before Analysis of Alternatives, Report Says,” July 29, 2013.

25. ACTMedia News Agency, “U.S. Defence Official: The Deveselu Base Will Be Equipped With SM3 IB Interceptors by 2015, Later On to Be Upgraded,” March 25, 2013, http://actmedia.eu/daily/us-defence-official-the-deveselu-base-will-be-equipped-with-sm3-ib-interceptors-by-2015-later-on-to-be-upgraded/45087.

26. Steven Pifer, “NATO-Russia Missile Defense: Compromise Is Possible,” Brookings Institution, December 2012, http://www.brookings.edu/research/articles/2012/12/us-russia-nato-arms-pifer.

Posted: November 4, 2013