The US is pursuing an ambitious space policy to include vast missile defense plans. True, the existing systems may not be the most effective means to counter the ballistic missiles, but the United States is working hard to achieve technological breakthroughs to make missile defenses more reliable. Moreover, a US conventional Prompt Global Strike could hypothetically provide the potential capability for a disarming first strike against Russia to downgrade its retaliatory strike potential successfully neutralized by enhanced ballistic missile defense (BMD) systems.
On June 21, a US and Japanese missile test conducted in Hawaii missed its target. The firing involved a sea-based SM-3 Block IIA missile which is built for the Aegis ballistic missile defense system (BMD) destined to shoot down medium- and intermediate-range ballistic missiles. This was the missile’s second intercept test. The first, which took place in February, was a success. The event goes to show that the US and its allies continue to apply intensive efforts to create BMD potential in the proximity of Russian borders.
All in all, the US Navy has 22 guided-missile cruisers and 62 guided-missile destroyers equipped with the Aegis system. Japan has six Aegis destroyers with plans for more. South Korea also operates Aegis-equipped destroyers.
The Aegis system operates similar to the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system (THAAD) system which has been partially deployed in South Korea. Each THAAD unit consists of six truck-mounted launchers, 49 interceptors, a fire control and communications unit, and AN/TPY-2 radar. The X-band radar can spot missile as far as 2,000 km with forward-based mode and 600 km with terminal mode. It can be changed into the radar with a much longer detectable range.
It should be taken into consideration that the THAAD deployed in South Korea will be added to the THAAD battery deployed on Guam, two AN/TPY-2 radars deployed in Japan (at Shariki and Kyogamisaki), space-based assets, plus a range of ship-borne radars and larger land-based radars in other parts of the Pacific theatre. The deployment in South Korea might not guarantee the interception of ICBMs as they move fast while sophisticated penetration-aids confuse missile interceptors but it will greatly improve early tracking of Russian and Chinese missiles, depending on their launch point.
The first operational deployment of the system was to Hawaii in 2009, followed by Guam in 2013 and there are currently five THAAD batteries worldwide, including in the United Arab Emirates. The THAAD system has been deployed in South Korea on the basis of military-to-military agreement without the knowledge of the president and parliament.
Russia and China see the US BMD systems in the region as destabilizing. Last year, Russia warned that the US deployment of an advanced missile defense system in South Korea would have «irreparable consequences». Speaking at an economic forum in St Petersburg (June 1-3, 2017), Russian President Vladimir Putin said, «What is happening is a very serious and alarming process. In Alaska, and now in South Korea, elements of the anti-missile defense system are emerging. Should we just stand idly by and watch this? Of course not. We are thinking about how to respond to these challenges. This is a challenge for us». «This destroys the strategic balance in the world», he added.
Russia and China have been saying that the deployment is unnecessary and would tip the balance of power in the Pacific towards the United States. Beijing sees THAAD as a serious threat. For example, the US-deployed system would potentially be able to intercept Chinese intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). Beijing also believes the radar deployed with THAAD is able to see far into its territory. It will give Washington the potential to track China’s military capabilities. The deployment of the AN/TPY-2 radar system lays down the basis for regional BMD upgrade and expansion to counter Russian and Chinese strategic nuclear potentials.
Japan is also considering the option of deploying THAAD. It is reasonable to expect Russia and China to develop technology that would render THAAD useless; thus the beginnings of an arms race. The deployment of THAAD to South Korea could be the catalyst that sets the United States and Russia/China) on a collision course.
In late May, a Ground-based Midcourse Defense, or GMD, system located at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California successfully intercepted a mock intercontinental ballistic missile target. In May, a group of senators introduced a bipartisan bill that seeks to bolster homeland missile defense and sharply increase the number of GMD interceptors.
In May, 2016, the Aegis Ashore system in Deveselu, a US naval support facility in southern Romania, was operationally certified. The land-based BMD system is designed to detect, track, engage, and destroy ballistic missiles in flight outside the atmosphere. It is equipped with the same phased-array SPY-1 radars and Aegis Combat Systems as are installed on many of the US Navy’s surface ships. The SM-3 Block IB missile has a range of up to 1,200 km. It has a robust capability against medium- and intermediate-range ballistic missiles. The Deveselu site comprises three batteries (24 missiles) of SM-3 Block IB interceptors. After the system is ramped up, it’s easy to increase the number of missile launchers.
In response, the Russian Ministry of Defense has taken a decision to deploy a squadron of long-range, supersonic bombers Tu-22М3 with variable sweep wing to Crimea with the option of eventually sending an entire regiment to the peninsula in response to Eastern European NATO allies' reinforcement plans.
The ground-based missile defense site is an element of a larger European shield and US global ballistic missile defense effort to be expanded to cover Europe, Turkey, the Middle East, Japan and South Korea. Another Aegis Ashore system based in the missile defense site located at Redzikowo, Poland, near the Baltic Sea is to become operational next year. The European Interceptor Site (EIS) in Poland will consist of 24 SM-3Block IIA middle range missile interceptors.
The missile defense system in Europe also includes a radar in Turkey, a command center in Ramstein, Germany and interceptor ships. An early warning radar station in Malatya, Turkey, has been in service since 2012. The operational center became active the same year. Four missile defense-capable Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyers were deployed to Rota, Spain, in 2015 for rotational patrols in the Mediterranean.
The construction of sophisticated new radar system known as Globus 3 in Vardø, Norway, has already been launched. The site is an element of the US-led NATO BMD. The radar located in Svalbard (the Arctic) can also be used by US military for missile defense purposes. The radar is installed in violation of the 1925 treaty which states that Svalbard has a demilitarized status.
The North Korean threat in the Asia Pacific and a threat from Iran for NATO European allies are used as pretexts for efforts aimed at reducing Russia’s capability to respond in case it comes under a nuclear attack. The Iranian program is under international control now, leaving NATO with no explanation for proceeding with its BMD plans.
The Aegis Ashore systems installed in Europe use the naval Mk-41 launching system, which is capable of firing long-range cruise missiles. The Aegis Ashore launchpad is practically identical to a system used aboard Aegis warships that is capable of launching Tomahawk cruise missiles.This is an outright violation of the INF Treaty, banning land-based cruise and medium-range missiles with a range from 300 to 3,400 miles. This fact has been emphasized by Russia’s officials.
The short flight time of these missiles diminished to mere minutes provides little time to decide whether to launch a second strike, raising the risks of mishaps. Military leaders are prone to believe that if the enemy's intentions are unclear they should be interpreted as aggressive (otherwise, they could be late to respond). That leaves the military alone in a vicious spiral of inevitable decisions.
Russia has put forward a number of proposals related to cooperation with NATO in the field of missile defense making conditional the right of joint decision over the configuration and parameters of the system, as well as international legal guarantees that the system will not undermine Russia’s nuclear potential, to no avail. It has also come up with the initiative on introduction of sectoral missile defense, in which the Russian armed forces would take responsibility for the defence of NATO’s eastern region. All the proposals have been rejected.
The decision to continue with BMD plans is fraught with very serious consequences. The Aegis Ashore systems pose a threat to Russia’s key infrastructure installations located in the western part of the country. Russia has no choice but to respond in kind. Missile defenses provide a false sense of security, as they invite more tensions with Russia – which has recently placed Iskander missiles in Kaliningrad to target the Polish site. The Russian military has also placed Bastion missile launchers in Kaliningrad, the exclave bordering NATO members Poland and Lithuania. This could threaten the prospective NATO BMD site in Poland. Russia could respond to the BMD plans by increasing its cyber weapons potential to target BMD sites as well spurring its efforts to create space-based anti-missile systems. Russia also could increase the number of fake missiles it has coming down on targets so more interceptors go to the wrong missile. And the tactical aviation is in high readiness to knock out the NATO BMD installations.
The United States abandoned the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABM) in 2002 to greatly complicate further arms control talks. The document had been the cornerstone of the strategic weapon limitation process for the previous thirty years. The countries which host BMD sites, such as Romania, Poland, South Korea and, if the plans go through, Japan automatically become targets for Russia’s military.
The BMD shield which the United States has activated in Europe and is activating in Asia is a step to a new arms race. The BMD deployment dashes hopes for achieving progress in nuclear disarmament talks at a time the arms control regime is disintegrating. Russian officials say there is no »political logic and common sense in proposals 'to disarm' in conditions when the current US administration has been making concerted effort to undermine the defense and the military-industrial potential of Russia through its sanctions policy for a long time».
The BMD plans have become a major obstacle on the way of reviving the arms control dialogue between the US and Russia. The administration will have to address Russia’s deep concerns about US missile defense in Europe and elsewhere if it believes the arms control regime to be important enough to get the dialogue out of the present deadlock. According to Steven Pifer from the Brookings Institution, «A future U.S. administration interested in a treaty providing for further cuts in strategic nuclear forces may find that it can go no further if it is not prepared to negotiate a treaty on missile defense».
The US allies who host the systems should realize that such moves greatly reduce their security, turning them into the first strike targets for the Russian military. This BMD is a burning issue to be immediately addressed at the round table. Instead, the United States is stubbornly intensifying efforts to boost its BMD capabilities in an attempt to intimidate Russia. The result could be quite the opposite than expected – the policy would undermine the security of the United States and its allies.