Mr. Artsrun Hovhanissyan is a military expert and analyst. He has published several books on a variety of military topics.
SUMMARY: On 23 March 1983, President Ronald Reagan proposed a radical new nuclear doctrine of strategic defense officially known as Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) dubbed as The Star Wars by the media., and thereby, abandoning the strategic offense doctrine, the Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) which had been the governing cornerstone of US/Soviet tacit understanding. In 1984 the US Department of Defense set up the Strategic Defense Initiative Organization (SDIO) to oversee the SDI that was subsequently renamed in 1993 and 2002 respectively to Ballistic Missile Defense Organization and Missile Defense Agency (MDA).
Just over three decades later, the United States is deploying these missile systems in Europe, Middle East (the United Arab Emirates and Turkey) as well as South Korea; and MDA, officially describes its mission as”.. .to develop, test, and field an integrated, layered, ballistic missile defense system (BMDS) to defend the United States, its deployed forces, allies, and friends against all ranges of enemy ballistic missiles in all phases of flight.”, much to the discontent of both Russia and China who see this development a direct threat to their own military strategy.
Thus for the past couple of years, the United States and Russia have returned to antagonistic postures, which has manifested itself in the development of new weaponry. The American air-defense system, according to leaders of Russia’s military policy-making, is first and foremost meant to threaten Russia. This article aims to discuss a number of questions related to the recent “missile system race” between USA and Russia.
In the second half of the 1990s, when the United States initiated steps to improve its anti-ballistic missile system, Russia’s 53T6 (NATO: Gazelle) anti-ballistic missile (ABM) was able, on its first test in 1999, to pierce the warhead of an incoming ballistic missile. Tests were completed with these missiles again in 2007 and 2011, this time with new engines. These were impressive results, of course, but, in light of the facts, these Russian ABM’s cannot respond to new American air-defense systems.
Today, America’s air-defense system, which is expanding in conjunction with other efforts, has three distinct layers. First of all, it is constructed with the heaviest anti-ballistic ground interceptor payload launch vehicle (GBI-PLV). The latest model weighs 13 tons, has a range of 5,000km, and an altitude ceiling of 2,000km. It is controlled during the flight’s main portion, according to the semi-active principle, and the latter portion, an exoatmospheric kill vehicle (EKV) remains, weighing about 50kg; it is released with an autonomous warhead. Of 20 tests of this ABM, 14 were completed successfully. Today, about 30 of these are being deployed to American bases around the country, including to Alaska.
This first layer also includes another air-defense system: the Standard Missile SM-3, part of the Aegis system which, on February 20, 2008, shot down the USA-193 satellite with an RIM-161 Block IA missile at an altitude of nearly 240km. Aegis is a component part of the American naval ABM and is also the greatest threat to enemies because they are found on ships in international waters, making them completely mobile and allowing for supreme flexibility in defense operations. These systems are already found on dozens of American warships – the system itself continues to be perfected.
The next level comprises the THAAD air-defense system, which is used to protect individual sites. It can hit targets up to 200km away and at an altitude of 150km. This is also an exceptional system and it is already found in the American military arsenal. At a lower level, air-defense problems are solved by the well-known Patriot PAC 3 air-defense system. The aforementioned systems primarily intercept missiles in the air with a kinetic charge which is, of course, more difficult to do technically but increases the likelihood of successful neutralization.
Besides the air defense operations of the Gulf War, Israel has the most air-defense experience. Generally, it is the country best equipped in the world with air-defense systems. Since the 2006 war with Hezbollah, Israeli companies, with the help of American experts and resources, developed the unique-in-its-class Iron Dome air-defense system. This was in addition to the already operational Arrow system. Currently, David’s Sling air-defense system is also in the process of coming online. Iron Dome has already been widely used and is the last line of defense. According to various sources, between 2011 and 2013, it has destroyed 550 to 600 out of 1,500 to 2,000 incoming missiles.
During military operations which took place in July-August of 2014, 4,954 missiles were shot at Israel in 50 days; similarly, numerous missile attacks are unprecedented. Of that number, Iron Dome was able to neutralize 735 missiles while missing 70 – the remainders landed away from population centers and were considered not immediately life-threatening. In a video appearing on the Internet in August 2014 during those days showed how Iron Dome would concurrently release 15 air-defense missiles in response to 15 incoming missiles – each defensive missile hit its target.
Until now, it was believed that Iron Dome, which was destroying 70-80 targets a day, could not neutralize multiple targets. But, many interceptions have indeed taken place with just one air-defense missile whereas before, there were at least two. This means that multiple interceptions with one air-defense missile are indeed possible.
By 2020, in line with corresponding American plans, there might be up to 90 naval cruisers and destroyers which will have, according to average estimates, several dozen defensive missiles. The imbalance created by American air-defense development has the potential to lead to a renewed global arms race.
A complete system must include an oversight network of both land and air-based detection stations and a few different types of defensive missiles which can be placed around the world. It is especially effective to place these in Europe because by doing so, the ability to compromise the launch of Russian ballistic missiles increases. The thing is, ABMs are more effective against ballistic missiles during the first part of their flight after launch when the ballistic missile’s size is big and it is gaining altitude at a reduced speed. It is precisely for this reason that it is more effective to place ABMs in Europe and also on ships because these can partly neutralize land-launched ballistic missiles while almost completely neutralizing ballistic missiles launched from military submarines.
The number of ABMs, according to American sources, can reach several thousand, a part of which will be placed on land and another part at sea. Placing these at sea can immediately solve several problems. The sea component is important because ships can travel wherever they wish while solving other issues and addressing the need to maintain naval superiority. According to the plan, within a few years, up to 100 American naval ships can be equipped with the Aegis system, not counting the ships of allies. During times of conflict, each ship can carry up to 96 defensive missiles whereas, during regular periods, they would carry 30-50 units. If in international waters there are 100 of these ships concurrently and the number of available ABMs totals 10,000, that would mean that a ballistic missile would need to be launched from Asia with a range of over 5,000km for even one to have the possibility of reaching the United States. And this scenario does not even take into account America’s land and air-based air-defense systems.
The geographic deployment of American land-based air-defense components (ABMs, radar stations, etc.) suggest that it is oriented toward the identification and neutralization of missiles released from anywhere inside the entire Asian landmass. These components are located around all large Asian countries, seas, and other potential hotspots.
At first glance, in the event of a massive ballistic missile attack, no anti-ballistic missile systems will be able to work successfully: this is believed to be self-evident. In the discourse concerning such issues, the United States has stated that this is the case with its own system and it asserts that its system was not created with the intent of stopping Russian or Chinese missiles; the US also insists that the system was not created to work against a massive missile attack. Nevertheless, the nuance therein is that the American military is preparing its ace-in-the-hole, air superiority, with the ability to execute a preemptive attack. As such, a massive missile attack can be preceded by a correspondingly grave preemptive attack by America’s air forces.
The thing is that the United States Navy and Air Force are able to, with one or two pushes of a button, release 10,000 high-precision tactical missiles with a range of up to 2,000km. This is not only in itself enough to neutralize any country’s nuclear potential, but also to destroy much of Asia’s military arsenal.
And that’s not the extent of the US’s abilities, either: its navy and air force have the ability to double the amount of damage caused by that first salvo. In the event that the aforementioned is successful, only 10-20% of Asia’s ballistic missiles will remain and American air-defense systems can neutralize that, as well.
At present, there are no more than 5,000 ballistic missiles with a range of over 2-3,000km in all Asian countries combined; whereas, ABMs may be at more than 10,000 within the same territory. In the event of an air force attack by the United States, 1,000 of the 5,000 missiles may be saved but the complete use of ABM systems can reduce that amount to zero. Those ABMs can likewise neutralize the missiles’ warheads, although the ABMs found on ships are effective precisely because they are able to neutralize their objectives before the shutdown of the warheads. This is not even taking into account repetitive strikes and other operations, the defense capabilities on the land of the United States, space programs, etc. Such is the way to neutralize Asia’s nuclear capabilities without even the use of any nuclear capabilities.
Naturally, in the best case scenario, the attack would happen against only one or two countries – otherwise, the situation may be graver. The whole of Asia is not going to go to war against the US all at once – and the US will always have allies in Asia. If we take into account that, today, more and more attacks are being executed with the use of stealth technology, it is thus understandable that their occurrence is going to become largely more effective. And, although it is an otherwise insurmountable weapon, the nuclear weapons of Asia thus lose their role as an effective arm, as a guarantor of safety or to prevent defeat, or to defend against the new order where air superiority prevails. At that point, after the first unexpected air attack, thousands of drones on standby in the skies above will identify and eliminate any remaining targets.
Today, Russia and China are inventing more and more new technologies to challenge American air superiority. These efforts can primarily be separated into a few groups: active and passive detection systems; pseudo-arms; and, passive and active radio-electronic disruption. Today, Russia’s Nebo-M (55Ж6МЭ), Nioby (55Ж6УМ), and Protivnik-GE (59H6-E) radar stations are widely deployed. Also, there is a Chinese model, YJ-26 which, according to some sources, has been able to locate an American F-22, a semi-stealth fighter, over Korea.
Besides location devices, the Russian military is trying to widely apply detection abilities like the Avtobaza-M and others. At the same time, other types of passive and active disruptive mechanisms like Valeriya, Pole-21, and Krasukha-2, and other systems are being tried; these come in a number of models and they can be very effective, especially in separate engagements. Nevertheless, they have a few essential faults:
1) They are primarily deployed on land which, in matters of air superiority, is not that effective;
2) They are physically very large, which allows them to be easily found with little effort;
3) They are inherently defensive mechanisms which can be a benefit to an enemy who is conducting a continuous, incessant attack;
4) American air attack forces have many tools, like fake targets, to be used against precisely this sort of machinery, radio-electronic weapons, passive systems, and others, which, in the event of a preemptive attack, will be able to destroy up to 40-50% of targets. And these counter-measures are plentiful not just in relative but in absolute terms. For example, in a preemptive attack, in one day, it is possible to make 2,000 military flights, during which the number of shot missiles and fake targets can be 4-6,000.
Thus, this is how global, international, massive, high-precision attacks can secure air superiority in America’s air-defense strategy, against which it would be difficult to fight.