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Russian Missile Defense and Anti-Satellite Capabilities: Enabling Coercion

May 9th, 2018

By Davis Florick – Senior Fellow

In the last five decades, the Soviet Union and later Russia have developed robust missile defense and anti-satellite programs. Russia now possesses a range of silo-based and mobile missile defense capabilities as well as direct ascent interceptors and non-kinetic systems to degrade and destroy satellites. Its expansive and modern range of missile defense and anti-satellite capabilities are not simply for defensive purposes only. Instead, they are intended to enable offensive operations by hindering the ability of the US, as well as its allies and partners, to counter offensive operations. Moreover, Russia has provided missile defense technologies to Iran and almost certainly to North Korea. Moscow’s substantial investments in and arms transfers of missile defense systems, in particular, stand in sharp contrast to its criticism of Washington and those the US shares its technology with. In response to Russia’s missile defense and anti-satellite capabilities, as well as its extensive proliferation network, the US must ensure a sufficient range of response options are available to deny Moscow any plausible military advantage from these systems.

Russia has developed an expansive and increasingly modern series of missile defense capabilities. Defending Moscow is the A-135 anti-ballistic missile (ABM) system. Initial work on the system began in 1968, and it first became operational in 1989. Today, there are reportedly 68 A-135 missile silos encircling Moscow. The A-135 is armed with nuclear warheads. Moscow also possesses hundreds of S-300 and S-400 mobile missile defense launch vehicles in multiple variations. Development of the S-300 began in 1969, and development of the S-400 first began in 1993. The S-300 and S-400 are intended to provide integrated air and missile defense capabilities. During crisis or conflict, they can be deployed to a designated area to provide focused missile defense. For instance, should Russia attack the Baltic states, the S-300 and S-400 could be concentrated along Russia’s western border and in the Kaliningrad Oblast to challenge NATO access to the region.

The Kremlin is also working expeditiously to develop new missile defense capabilities. In early April, the Russian Ministry of Defense conducted its latest test of an upgraded A-135, the A-235, at Sary-Shagan in Kazakhstan. There is wide speculation that this system will be armed with nuclear warheads as a means to overcome Russian concerns about the accuracy of its missile defense interceptors. The A-235, also referred to as Nudol, could potentially have a range of 1,500 kilometers (km) and a maximum intercept altitude of 750 km, allowing it to engage a missile in both mid-course and terminal phases. Furthermore, the A-235’s range may allow it to intercept satellites. Russia is also making progress in the creation of the S-500, a new mobile missile defense system. Its development first began in 2002 and fielding will allegedly begin in 2020. The S-500 can reportedly engage multiple targets at once and is capable of intercepting cruise missiles. It has been compared to the US Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system. The A-235 and S-500 represent Moscow’s attempt to meet the threat of increasingly advanced ballistic and cruise missile systems, as well as hypersonic glide vehicles.

An operational Russian anti-satellite (ASAT) capability may well be on the horizon. The US Director of National Intelligence’s 2018 Worldwide Threat Assessment stated that Russia is probably developing counterspace capabilities, including ground-launched ASAT systems. The same assessment indicated that Moscow is pursuing directed energy weapons to partially or irreparably degrade satellite capabilities with limited attribution. Russia is also reportedly developing co-orbital capabilities intended to follow and then latch onto other satellites to degrade or destroy them. Collectively, these anti-satellite systems could threaten US, ally, and partner space capabilities—including civilian systems—at all orbital levels.

These capabilities are not just defensive in nature but are intended to offer options for coercion. For instance, in 2017 the S-300 and S-400 were used during Russia’s major military exercise, Zapad. This exercise occurred at multiple locations near the Baltic states, Poland, Ukraine, and Georgia. NATO estimated 40,000 Russian military personnel were involved in the exercise. Moscow’s missile defense capabilities were intended to fit with the larger Russian narrative that it can conduct regional offensive operations and impose significant costs on the other states should they decide to respond. Its anti-satellite systems are also capable of denying Washington and others the ability to counter moves by Moscow. Russian Ministry of Defense officials have been clear that they intend to one day possess capabilities that can degrade or defeat opponent satellite systems. Notably, this could significantly constrain Western use of precision munitions, thus limiting possible response options.

Over the last decade, Moscow has begun exporting its missile defense technology. In 2004, China began purchasing the S-300 and now possesses at least fifteen batteries, with four delivery vehicles per battery and four interceptors per delivery vehicle. This capability was featured prominently in China’s “Blue Shield-2017” exercise. In early 2018, Moscow began delivering Beijing’s next purchase, the S-400. This system will enhance China’s ability to conduct air and missile defense operations further off its coast, thus raising the costs for US, ally, and partner defensive actions.

More disconcerting has been Russia’s potential involvement in rogue state missile defense programs. Russia finalized the sale of five S-300 launch vehicles to Iran in 2016. By 2018, Iran’s S-300’s had reportedly become operational. Tehran is developing an indigenous equivalent, the Bavar-373, which likely has some enhancements. Although Russia publicly sold missile defense technology to Iran, it may well have circuitously provided assistance to North Korea. Kamaz, the first major Russian firm to establish a plant in North Korea, is the same truck company that builds the chassis for the S-300 and many other Russian missile launch vehicles. Partnering with the Pyongsong Automobile Assembly Plant, it built the Taebaeksan-96 from 2007 to 2010. The Taebaeksan-96 is now the delivery vehicle for North Korea’s KN-06, Pyongyang’s missile defense system which resembles the S-300 with its biconic nose, four guidance fins, and radar system.

The possibility that Russia has provided these rogue states with missile defense capabilities creates considerable concern. It raises the costs for the US, its allies, and partners to respond to Iranian or North Korean aggression. Therefore, Tehran and Pyongyang are more empowered to pursue a coercive strategy. Consequently, Russia is encouraging aggressive behavior for its own profit.

Moscow’s approach to missile defense cooperation is fundamentally different from that of Washington. As mentioned previously, Russia has overtly sold missile defense technology to Iran and may have circuitously provided assistance to North Korea. By contrast, the US supports responsible nations. These states—such as Japan, Saudi Arabia, and South Korea—desire defensive options to limit damage against the threats posed to their populations and strategic interests from rogue states. If Moscow wants to limit Washington’s missile defense cooperation, it can begin by limiting its own proliferation to nations which act outside of international norms.

In the meantime, the US will need to ensure it possesses a sufficient range of response options necessary to neutralize Russian and Russian-made missile defense capabilities. This will include air-, ground-, and sea-launched systems and a combination of ballistic and cruise missiles. Russia’s enhanced missile defense capabilities will almost certainly be intended to meet more complex missile threats. For instance, arming the A-235 with nuclear warheads would be intended to overcome the technological challenges stemming from a hit-to-kill approach. Similarly, the S-500 reportedly will be able to engage multiple reentry vehicles at one time. This is likely necessary, at least in part, to overcome decoys and other countermeasures. As a result, US missile capabilities will need to rely on increasingly complex countermeasures. This may include, but not be limited to, faster systems, greater maneuverability, and improved decoys and jamming devices to complicate the coercive strategies of Russia and those it has provided with missile defense technology.

Additionally, the US must ensure that it can overcome Russian anti-satellite systems. In some cases, this may mean reducing the number of missions a single satellite performs. That will reduce US vulnerability to the degradation or destruction of any one asset. Also, diversifying functions may make it easier to replace existing satellites quickly during crisis or conflict. Washington should also explore capabilities to defend against or evade Russian offensive systems. As an example, making satellites more maneuverable could be a useful way to overcome a ground-based interceptor.

Russian missile defense and anti-satellite capabilities present significant concerns. Moscow’s ability to concentrate its mobile systems during crisis or conflict is intended to limit opponent response options. Similarly, its proliferation to China and rogue states is meant to enable their coercive strategies in the mistaken hope that this will weaken the US position elsewhere. Russia’s efforts to embolden rogue states, particularly Iran and North Korea, have significantly increased US allied and partner demands for the protection offered by US missile defense capabilities. In addition to defensive systems, to meet the threat posed by Russian and Russian-inspired missile defense capabilities, the US must continue to develop response options with a sufficient range of countermeasures. This is the best means to deny Russia and its customers the benefits they seek from missile defense systems.

Image: S-400 launchers seen during the 2010 Moscow victory parade (Source: Kremlin.ru).

About Davis Florick

Davis Florick is a Senior Fellow in the Security and Defence division. He recently completed his master's in East-West Studies at Creighton University and is a member of the 2015 Nuclear Scholars Initiative with the Center for Strategic and International Studies. His foreign relations areas of concentration include, East Asia and the former Warsaw Pact and Soviet Union.