NATO Missile Shield Prompts Russia to Expand Defenses

Russia is developing advances weapons systems in order to keep up in its missile arms race with the West.

A Russian Buk-M2 air defense systems rolls down Moscow's Red Square during night training for the yearly Victory Day parade, May 6, 2012
A Russian Buk-M2 air defense systems rolls down Moscow’s Red Square during night training for the yearly Victory Day parade, May 6, 2012 (Russian Ministry of Defense)

While it calls for limitations on NATO’s missile defense shield in Europe and raises questions about the justification of such a system now that a nuclear deal with Iran seems within reach, Russia’s own missile defense systems capabilities have been strengthening.

The combination of the United States building missile defenses in Europe and Russia enhancing its defensive capabilities could, as Bill Gertz argued in The Washington Free Beacon last year, “upset strategic stability and complicate efforts to reduce strategic offensive arms.” Not only is the development of such systems a concern; some of the systems are for export purposes too. Hence, it would accelerate the missile defense arms race on a larger scale.

America’s refusal to provide information to Russia regarding the locations of its missile defense interceptors in Europe, the number of interceptors and their reaction speeds has prompted Russia to undertake a comprehensive missile defense program of its own.

It is possible Russia is boosting its missile defenses in order to coerce the United States into formally declaring that the European missile shield — parts of which have already been canceled by the Obama Administration — will not affect its nuclear deterrent.

NATO insists the system is primarily designed to shield countries from possible attacks originating in the Middle East.

But Russia might also be apprehensive about the system itself as it should reduce the risks involved if the United States carried out a first strike. In such an event, the NATO missile shield could prevent Russia from retaliating against American allies in Europe. This, coupled with a relative decline in Russia’s nuclear posture due to slow modernization efforts, could have convinced policymakers in Moscow to hasten their own missile defense development.

At present, Russia is concentrating on sophisticated anti-missile defense systems like the S-400 and the S-500, the Vityaz missile system, which has more advanced radar and a launcher for sixteen separate missiles, and a short range mobile air defense system, the Morfey, which has a range of five kilometers.

Russia is also upgrading the SH-08 nuclear tipped anti-missile interceptors, in service since 1995. Other anti-missile interceptors being fielded include surface to air missiles like the SA-20 and SA-21 and an advanced version of the S-300, the SA-X-23. These systems are assessed to be effective against bombers, cruise missiles, jet fighters, short and intermediate range ballistic missiles and intercontinental missiles.

In addition, the S-300s are fitted with nuclear warheads. The S-500s are reported to be more capable version of the S-400s which would possess the capability to neutralize ICBM threats.

Russia’s S-400s have not been fully developed since they need to be compatible with missiles of various ranges. At present, it is believed to be compatible with only short range missiles.

Russia is also developing hypersonic missiles, the 77N6-N and the 77N6-N1, which are supposed to be launched from S-400s and S-500s. These missiles would be carrying inert warheads which could destroy nuclear warheads by “force of impact.” These missiles would indeed offer respite to Russia since new, state of the art systems like the S-400 and S-500 require sophisticated and advanced missile systems.

Russian media reports suggest that the S-500s is expected to become the “backbone of a unified aerospace defense system being formed in Russia.” Former defense minister Anatoliy Serdyukov said that “the integration of [aerospace defense] systems will make it possible to intercept any targets at any speed, including hypersonic ones.”

There is little doubt that the S-500 will be similar to the S-400 but with extended range missiles. There is also little doubt that these systems are designed to counter perceived missile threats from the United States.

It must be noted that under the conditions of the New START treaty that was signed in 2010, Russia will have far fewer deployed bombers and missiles, and nuclear warheads on each, than the United States. The expansion in Russian missile defensive capabilities might nevertheless prompt the United States to rethink the treaty’s reduction levels. For now, the country maintains that its deterrent is credible, regardless of new Russian interceptors. But the threat perception is growing.

One option to counter that threat perception would be to revive the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty from which the United States withdrew in 2002. This could reduce tension between the former Cold War rivals on issues pertaining to the development of missile defense systems and their fielding. Until then, the offense-defense spiral is likely to continue.

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