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How Russia's Own Anti-Ballistic Missile System Is Shaping Up

The author discussed the specific characteristics of Russian missile launch warning and long-range guidance stations in the first part of the article.

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This post first appeared on Russia Insider

We found out that besides officially specified functions, they also perform others. What are these functions about which people talk a lot but know so little?    

I would warn you that everything that follows is the author’s frivolous reasoning on the possible creation of a Russian missile defense system based on scarce available information and common sense. He doesn’t know any insiders, which is why any relation to reality is the result of the author’s imagination. It will not include combat characteristics, names or photographs, because the author is trying to figure out the concept of missile defense itself.

<figcaption>Test-fire of Russian short-range anti-ballistic missile on June 21, 2016 from the Sary-Shagan testing ground in Kazakhstan</figcaption>
Test-fire of Russian short-range anti-ballistic missile on June 21, 2016 from the Sary-Shagan testing ground in Kazakhstan

Dividing the task into parts

Engineering missions give pride of place to optimum cost-effectiveness. It’s possible to build a shellproof missile defense system, but by then, there could be nothing to protect. That’s why many innovative solutions are not always reasonable. For example, I’ve always been impressed by America’s maniacal perseverance of things such as super-precise warheads hunting Russian missiles in the initial trajectory, a masterpiece of engineering - and stupidity. This is not about them…

First, we need to specify the range of tasks faced by Russia’s missile defense system. Apparently, the main task is to protect major strategic locations against nuclear/non-nuclear attack, by weakening them. Apparently, the main ‘protection’ is the country’s nuclear shield, consisting first of ground based elements. This will be the major target. Once it is eliminated, everything is easy to target.  It’s possible to attack them with cruise and ballistic missiles, with hypersonic atmosphere missiles. We won’t talk about these because there is little information on them. Instead we will talk about existing threats.

Russia’s anti-missile defense system currently faces two types of threats: cruise missiles and ballistic missiles. Both can be used for striking either a disarming blow, or a general blow. To prevent or reduce threats from cruise missiles, requires not only active means such as missile defense systems, but also passive means.

Let’s have a look at the map of Eurasia.

As we know, the major part of Russia’s strategic nuclear potential is located along the line from Moscow broadly defined through Vypolzovo, Yoshkar-Ola, Teikovo, Kozelsk, or along the narrow line following the southern border of Russia from the Saratov region to Irkutsk.

The range of any American cruise missile currently operationing (BGM-109 Tomahawk, AGM-86B), is less than 3,000 km. Besides, all of them are either air or sea based. Looking at the map, we see that all the objectives except Russia’s strategic nuclear forces bases in the Moscow are located beyond striking range of cruise missiles.

European Russia is safely covered with ground air defense systems and missile defense systems. Anyway, cruise missiles can only attack them from two directions from the waters of the Black and Baltic Seas. Some Northern or Mediterranean Sea bases can be reached with the ultimate range, but only if the route is direct as an arrow, which is easier to intercept.  

That’s why any ship with cruise missiles in the Black and Baltic Seas is under constant air watch and would be destroyed on command within minutes. That’s why they are always used for training.

Of course, there are other targets on Russian territory that can be attacked by cruise missiles, starting with advanced missile defense systems. It’s very important not just to site them as far as possible from protected objects, but to move the fight against the enemy’s missiles over water wherever possible.

The point is that it’s much easier to intercept atmospheric targets over the sea. The new Russian "Podsolnukh" over-the-horizon radar, for example, whose export model has a range up to 450 kms, can cover naval bases and missile defense locations in these areas. They are designated to operate on low targets. A "Mars" radar station will probably be the "eyes and ears" of the S-500 surface-to-air missile system.

Thus, a first conclusion: Russia’s missile defense dramatically increases efficiency, while decreasing threats when moved to our borders, and it would be silly not to use this opportunity:

  • in the north – Novaya Zemlya, Franz Josef Land, Severnaya Zemlya, New Siberian Islands;
  • in the east – Wrangel Island, Chukotka, Komandorskie Islands, Kuril Islands;
  • in the west – the Kaliningrad region, the Crimea, Belorussia.

Let’s leave the south alone for the moment.

Thanks to the location of its missile defense blocks, Russia can drastically reduce the load on those elements.

The First Missile Defense Perimeter

We’re done with cruise missiles, so now let’s talk about ballistic missiles. There are two types of missiles in the US inventory: Minutemen-3 ground-based intercontinental ballistic missiles, and sea-based Trident-2 intercontinental ballistic missiles. Given the specific contribution of sea-based components in the event of a preventive nuclear blow, there are only five to six ballistic missile submarines from which to strike.

If more than the usual number of submarines leave the bases - and they can strike only from certain points - this will signal to Russia to put all systems at full readiness. In theory, it’s possible to strike from all bases, but the reprogramming of dozens of missiles would be detected, signaling to the enemy to avoid them.

There could be two or three submarines from the the Central Atlantic and two or three from the Pacific Ocean. The Indian Ocean should not be excluded, but then the number of main attack forces would be decreased by the increased time need to deploy submarines in the given area, which should not exceed five to six in number in order not to alert the enemy. But considering all options, there are 24 "Trident-2" missiles in each submarine with up to 240 warheads.

With respect to the specific character of the Trident-2 releasing warhead, all warheads are dispersed in turn. So if there are 10 warheads, it will take a significant amount of time (a warhead covers 300 kms a minute, and it would take at least 5-7 minutes for all to disperse). But even afterwards, warheads fly in in compact formations and can be destroyed by a nuclear explosion in space.

Besides, a strike from the Atlantic is possible, speeding up in the Central Atlantic and releasing warheads near Morocco and Spain to flying across the Crimea.  

Pacific Ocean strikes boost and speed-up from the central area, releasing warheads near Japan to fly across Vladivostok-Sakhalin or Manchuria.  

A strike from US territory, releasing warheads near the pole.

An interesting picture is appearing. If we create the first element of a missile defense in the sea, for example in the area west of Gibraltar and east of Japan, we could try to intercept most of the warheads before or at the moment of release. The missile defense complex based on a 1,000-1,500 km missile range, controlled from space by one system would be effective. The craft should have a powerful radar station onboard.

How can we forget plans to construct the "Lider" atomic torpedo-boat destroyer? I’m not saying that it will be similar, but the idea occurs to me. Plans to build seven atomic torpedo-boat destroyers (according to suggested figures) seem excessive for the Russian navy. But as part of the missile defense system of the country, everything fits together.  

Of course, the system can be destroyed, but this will also signal an attack, making a crippling strike on the part of the US pointless.

It’s a little more complex in the north. The "Miniteman-3" has individual warheads, complicating interception, considering their number. On the other hand, there are no restrictions on reinforcement of missile defense: land is a bigger area than a deck.

One more thing: a strike on launching missiles and those in the inertial section of the trajectory by means of nuclear explosion, do not have much effect on radar stations many kilometers away.

The next reasons for a nuclear warhead are cost, efficiency, and kinetics: one missile per target, but the result is not guaranteed. Sometimes I’m shocked by American naïveté, believing they can intercept Russian missiles before the warheads are released. The US has a 50/50 success rate even on the middle section of kinetic warheads using the old Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition systems via GBI.  But it is only possible by deploying combined space tracking of launches and missile trajectories.

The first satellite has already been put into orbit. The rest are promised by the end of 2018. I hope we manage to do it at least by the end of 2020. The first one was launched half a year ago, and it will be good if the second is launched this year. There are 10 of them, with a production time of 1.5 years each.

What missiles can be used as first elements? Probably either the so-called long-range S-500 missile defense complex or the A-235 "Nudol", which I think will be one and the same missile at the end of the day, since the characteristics are similar. They should allow the missile to speed up to 7-20 kms, in order to place the warheads in the area in not more than 3-5 minutes after launch. From what we understand, high level precision in operating nuclear warhead is not necessary.

We need to understand that taking into account Russia’s geographic characteristics, it could have not just one, but several first element belts. There are islands in the north, then in the continental coast along the line Murmansk-Archangelsk-Vorkuta. Taking into account the S-500 complex, the second one will also perform the tasks of long-range radar stations and important objects of the defense system of other classes of missiles. It would be reasonable to place a similar second boundary along the Vladivostok-Sakhalin-Kamchatka line.

As an option, we can consider the Kaliningrad-Brest-Crimea boundary in the west. However, it’s located inside the territory, and this makes for lesser efficiency.

Actually, the western direction is the worst for Russia’s missile defense. There are too many threats, and the boundaries are too uncomfortable.

The south is the safest direction. An unexpected attack is possible only from a ballistic missile submarine; but on the other hand, without reliable bases in the Indian Ocean, it will be extremely difficult to provide a first line of defense. For Naval Forces to safely cover that area we need to have two groups (in the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal). This means that we need to keep at least three to four groups in the sea, and one or two should be located far from bases.   

Second Missile Defense Boundary

The second boundary faces in-coming warheads that manage to break through at less than 1,000 kilometers from the objective.

The "Voronezh-DM" radar station would be tracking them all the way, because today every station can estimate a few hundred trajectories with an accuracy of one to two kilometers. If the point of impact is far away, this warhead would either maneuver to set course, or have been destroyed by the first element of missile defense, or due to technical malfunction, making it potentially dangerous.

By the way, miracles happened in the Donbas in 2014. "Tochka", Ukraine’s Tactical Operational Missile System, often launched toward "terrorists", and "purely by accident" never hit a strategic facility. If it hit an area far from the target, it never destroyed the target itself. As I have said, wonders will never cease!

It’s only possible to maneuver the warhead in space, where it can precisely estimate its trajectory. It will be extremely difficult to track its location and maneuver it, even if it enters the upper atmosphere and heats up. This can be done, of course, but the size and weight of the equipment will exceed that of a warhead, and who wants such a warhead?

We also try to identify false targets and remove them from the mid-trajectory sighting device, using special algorithms. This part of the missile defense task is as important as the destruction of enemy warheads, which is why it gets so much attention. Radar operating algorithms are updated and academic theses are written about them, resulting in awards and titles, as usual.

By the time the target enters the zone of responsibility of the second element, a limited number of warheads should land on every object. Even for Moscow, there should be a maximum of a few dozen targets.

According to some estimates, there can be at most 1,900 warheads simultaneously in the first wave (6*24*10+450). Given that they will not be launched simultaneously, because in that case, the first element would do the maximum effective damage, and to "exploit a success", there should be no more than half of this amount.

The breakthrough for at least half of first-wave warheads would result in indisputable enemy success. This means that the second wave should have at most 400-500 warheads. To carry out a disarming strike, there would have to be be no fewer than 30-40 targets in Russian territory for an average of 10-15 warheads per target. Moscow’s missile defense system will consist of 50-60 second element antimissiles, plus almost the same number of elements of the third one. S-500 batteries would be deployed along the perimeter. We have nothing to worry about in Moscow. But what will be going on in the periphery? Roughly, one S-500 regiment per area, taking into consideration their multifunctional problem-solving abilities, will leave 16 second-element antimissiles in permanent combat readiness. Two squadrons of eight missile launchers, at least four of which are for long-range missile defense systems, 16 missiles in total. The most important areas are protected by a multiple squadrons with correspondingly increased fire power.

Taking into account that it’s practically impossible to maneuver warheads in this area, it does make sense to use either kinetic warheads, or directional high-explosive fragmenting ones (a decision for the experts). Nuclear warheads would send signals to radar stations, striking them blind, which is why they are unlikely to be used.

The third element is missiles operating at a range of 100 kilometers, not higher than 30 kilometers. The atmospheric interception by "Gazel" antimissiles is well-practiced, and taking into account that production of old school Soviet anti-missiles has restarted, the updated model will have at least a third of the missile defense of Moscow, and its characteristics would be used in S-500 systems for close combat (but it’s too early to talk about that). Only kinetic warheads (direct kill) are likely to operate there. The distance and precision of the "Mars" radar station will enable the necessary kill probability of enemy warheads that have broken through.

In general, when all the components of Russia’s new missile defense system are operational, the kill probability by nuclear strike on its territory will decrease considerably. Given that, most probable enemies of the Russian Federation not only prevent it from developing in every possible way, but also try to create "weapons of the future" – hypersonic atmosphere long-range missiles - so far unsuccessfully. Once it’s created, it will be time to talk about the ability of Russia’s missile defense to take on that challenge. According to the military, its conceptual possibilities are being developed.

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