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Prokhor Tebin

PhD in Political Science, RIAC expert

In May 2016, the U.S. Navy and the U.S. Missile Defense Agency announced that its ballistic missile defence (BMD) base at Deveselu, Romania, had been put into operation. This marked the second phase of the European Phased Adaptive Approach (EPAA) announced by Barack Obama in 2009. Immediately thereafter, construction of a similar base in Redzikowo, Poland began as part of the third EPAA phase. These events force us once again to reflect on the potential threat that the United States’ current plans to deploy BMD in Europe poses to Russia’s national security.

In May 2016, the U.S. Navy and the U.S. Missile Defense Agency announced that its ballistic missile defence (BMD) base at Deveselu, Romania, had been put into operation. This marked the second phase of the European Phased Adaptive Approach (EPAA) announced by Barack Obama in 2009. Immediately thereafter, construction of a similar base in Redzikowo, Poland began as part of the third EPAA phase. These events force us once again to reflect on the potential threat that the United States’ current plans to deploy BMD in Europe poses to Russia’s national security.

Aegis Ashore

EPAA replaced a previous idea to deploy a missile defence base in Poland which was to include ten silo-based GBI (ground-based interceptor) missiles. GBIs were previously deployed in Alaska and California. The plans to create a third GBI installation in Europe infuriated Moscow, who feared it would threaten the survivability of the Russian Strategic Nuclear Forces. The rationale behind this third GBI installation as an approach to European security was questioned by then French President Nicolas Sarkozy, stating that the deployment of an American BMD “would bring nothing to security in Europe.” On the contrary, it “would complicate things.”

After Washington abandoned the idea of a third GBI installation, it was decided to instead deploy BMD in Europe on the base used by the U.S. Navy’s Aegis system. The main declared objective was to protect Europe from the hypothetical threat of an Iranian missile attack.

REUTERS/ Inquam Photos/Octav Ganea/
U.S. Army personnel cleans the red carpet
ahead of an official inauguration ceremony
at Deveselu air base, Romania, May 12, 2016

Initially, the EPAA was to have four phases. Phase one was implemented in 2014–2015, when four U.S. destroyers carrying Aegis BMD systems with SM-3 IA interceptor missiles were permanently stationed at Naval Station Rota in Spain. At the same time, a ground-based AN/TPY-2 radar was deployed in Turkey. The second and third phases are to involve the creation of bases in Romania and Poland, respectively. These bases are to be built around the Aegis Ashore Missile Defence Complex, a ground version of the U.S. Navy system.

Aegis Ashore consists of a SPY-1D(V) radar and a 24-celled Mk41 vertical launching system. SM-3 IB interceptors will be deployed in Romania [1], with the more advanced SM-3 IIA missiles to be deployed in Poland [2]. As part of the EPAA’s fourth phase, the missiles in Poland were to be replaced by a more advanced version, the SM-3 IIB. However, the Pentagon dropped the fourth phase in 2013.

The Aegis BMD System

The Aegis multi-functional weapons control system (AWS) was initially intended primarily for unit air defence. However, in 2004, the U.S. Navy began deploying ships outfitted with a modified version of the AWS, capable of performing ballistic missile defence tasks.

Aegis uses two families of interceptors: an anti-missile version of the SM-2 for intercepting in the final stretch, and an SM-3 for midcourse interception. The very limited number of SM-2 interceptor missiles are being replaced by the more sophisticated long-range multi-functional SM-6, capable of air defence, anti-missile missions and combating surface targets [3].

At present, the U.S. Navy has 33 ships fitted with the AWS [4]. By 2021, that number is set to increase to 49 [5]. By that time, the total stockpile of SM-3 interceptors should amount to 320 [6]. (There are 200 such interceptors today [7]. ) The U.S. Navy calculates that performing its own missions (escorting aircraft carriers and carrying out support duties for naval groups in Japan and Europe) would require 40 ships fitted with AWS. In addition, requests have been sent to regional commands (to ensure BMD in theatres of hostilities, including on the ground), which have grown from 44 ships in 2012–2014 to 77 in 2016.

U.S and Japanese vessels, along with the Aegis Ashore complex, test fired a total of 36 SM-3 interceptors (29 were launched successfully, including a hit on a disabled American satellite in February 2008) and five SM-2 and SM-6 missiles (all successful). Judging from publicly available sources, in all but one case, the tests were on targets that simulated short and intermediate-range ballistic missiles with multiple or single warheads [8].

Official reports concerning the ability of Aegis to intercept intercontinental ballistic missiles, including Russian missiles, are conflicting. Some sources say that the existing system cannot be used to destroy IBMs. Other sources note that although Aegis cannot destroy IBMs, it can be used for detection and tracking purposes at long distances. Moreover, some sources describe the SM-IIA and AWS 5.1 versions and higher as having “a limited capability” to combat IBMs [9].

Russia’s Fears

So what is the Russian side afraid of? Russia’s concerns are most fully formulated in the BMD-related materials of the 2012 Moscow Conference on International Security. They boil down to the following points:

  • The third and now cancelled fourth phase of the EPAA threatens Russian IBMs and SLBMs (submarine-launched ballistic missile) in various flight trajectories.
  • Improvement of the SM-3 family of interceptors continues. Also, the number of ships capable of BMD missions and the number of interceptors continues to grow.
  • U.S. BMD assets in Europe coupled with BMD in the Asia-Pacific Region are elements of global BMD intended, above all, to protect the United States.
The current threat to Russia’s security on the part of Aegis Ashore can be said to be fairly low. U.S. naval ships are still the real threat.

Russia has expressed doubts of a real missile threat from Iran, noting that there have been no breakthrough designs of missiles. Instead, obsolete missiles are being multiplied and built. This, along with certain other factors, has led Moscow to think that the risk of the Iranian missile challenge developing into a real missile threat to Europe is low.

To ensure security in Europe, including from the hypothetical Iranian threat, Russia proposed that the United States focus on political and diplomatic mechanisms. Moscow has even offered to ensure missile defence in Europe together with Washington, which would have addressed most of Moscow’s fears. However, these proposals were turned down. Russia insists that the intercept zone of the European BMD should not cross the Russian border. Besides, Moscow urged (without success) the need to promote confidence and monitoring measures, and conclude legally binding agreements to ensure equal security of the participants.

The intransigence of the United States means that Russia can take retaliatory military-technical measures. Such measures include activating the Voronezh-DM radar in the Kaliningrad Region, strengthening the cover of the Strategic Nuclear Forces, deploying Iskander operational-tactical complexes in the Kaliningrad Region, and even threatening to withdraw from the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty.

There are tell-tale differences in the public statements of the members of Russia’s political leadership on the one hand and the leaders of the Strategic Missile Troops on the other. In May 2016, the Press Secretary for the President of the Russian Federation Dmitry Peskov declared: “There is no doubt that the deployment of the BMD system is a real threat to the security of the Russian Federation.” The same day, the Commander of the Strategic Missile Troops Colonel-General Sergei Karakayev said: “The threats of the European segment of BMD to the Strategic Missile Troops are limited and do not at present critically diminish the combat capacity of the Strategic Missile Troops.” This shows that although the current Russian response measures can still balance the threat of the U.S. BMD, the fact that it exists has a negative impact on the military-political situation in Europe, giving Moscow additional cause for concern.

One of the problems is that despite the assurances that Aegis Ashore is strictly designed for missile defence, it can be fitted with other types of cruise missiles. While the Tomahawk, considering its comparatively low speed and vulnerability is not such a concerning threat, future anti-ship missiles and surface-to-surface missiles could increase the risks for the Russian side. Missiles with a range of 1000 kilometres stationed in Redzikowo and Deveselu can reach most parts of the Black Sea, the Baltic Sea, Crimea, Kaliningrad and St. Petersburg.

Aegis uses two families of interceptors: an anti-missile version of the SM-2 for intercepting in the final stretch, and an SM-3 for midcourse interception.

However, the total number of missiles in Poland and Romania will not be great and, in reality, they do not pose any new serious threats compared to the Aegis-fitted ships in the Black and Baltic Seas. The only significant difference is that U.S. cruisers and destroyers do not have a permanent presence near the Russian shores – not yet anyway. However, such “visits” have been fairly frequent recently.

In Their Own Element

The current threat to Russia’s security on the part of Aegis Ashore can be said to be fairly low. U.S. naval ships are still the real threat. And that threat is likely to grow.

The fact that the United States has not yet deployed the most advanced versions of its sea-launched interceptor missiles cannot in itself serve as a guarantee for Russia. The key indicators are the speed of interceptor missiles and the area in which they are deployed. Sea-based BMD makes it possible, if necessary, to deploy interceptor missiles in the Baltic and Norwegian seas, the most sensitive areas for Russia. Deploying interceptor missiles with critical speed indicators (over 5 km/sec) is a real threat for the Russian nuclear deterrent.

Threats, however, are not limited to BMD. First of all is the development of a new version of the Aegis – the Aegis Combat System Baseline 9. One of the main features of this version is that it integrates the functions of air and missile defence. The existing versions of Aegis do not simultaneously perform air and missile defence functions. That is, a ship on a missile defence mission is to a large extent defenceless against modern air offensives, for example, if it is not covered by the anti-air capabilities of an aircraft carrier. Baseline 9 envisages the simultaneous performance of both functions. In combination with the latest versions of Aegis BMD (5.0 CU and 5.1) and the latest modifications of SM-3 interceptors, the value of a single ship increases substantially.

The intransigence of the United States means that Russia can take retaliatory military-technical measures.

The U.S. Navy needs 40 ships capable of integrated air and missile defence. Their main task, of course, is not to deter Iran or North Korea, but rather advanced potential enemies, which today means only Russia and China. The pace at which the U.S. Navy has been upgrading its destroyers to the Baseline 9 version has slowed down in recent years, however. This is mainly due to the need to save money in light of the newly implemented, resource-heavy programme to build new-generation missiles. Ten destroyers are to be modernized in the 2017–2021 fiscal years.

Other important ways of boosting the potential of Aegis are to include them in the single sea and air defence NIFC-CA system and build a new version of Arleigh Burke-class destroyers fitted out with a new and far more powerful AMDR radar. While AMDR, for all its advantages, does not change the balance substantially, the same cannot be said of NIFC-CA, which involves integrating all the elements of the U.S. Navy’s air defence from aircraft carriers and destroyers to Conformal Airborne Early Warning Aircraft (CAEW) and electronic-warfare aircraft into a single network of information exchange and transmission. NIFC-CA, for example, would make it possible to use long-range SM-6 guided air defence missiles against sea and air targets beyond the effective area of the ship’s own warning assets by having planes distanced from the ship transmit target data. All these factors together will significantly enhance the capability of the U.S. Navy during the course of a strategic aerospace offensive operation.

***

Thus, at first glance, the current plans of the United States to deploy Aegis-based BMD in Europe do not pose a serious threat to Russia’s national security. But the situation somewhat changes if seen in the context of the global U.S. BMD system being aimed at defending U.S. territory against Russian and Chinese nuclear deterrents. The emergence of more sophisticated sea-based interceptor missiles makes the threat more than substantial. And we should not forget about the threat that American Aegis ships pose in the event of a hypothetical armed clash without the use of Strategic Nuclear Forces.

The Russian response measures can still balance the threat of the U.S. BMD, the fact that it exists has a negative impact on the military-political situation in Europe.

These challenges force Russia to take retaliatory measures to ensure its own security. That in turn has a negative impact on security in Europe, the world, and the existing arms control regimes. Strategic threats may to a large extent be neutralized. And while conventional threats can be brought down to an acceptable level through negotiations, cooperation and diplomacy, that calls for an established and equal dialogue between Washington and Moscow aimed at signing legally binding treaties. Until that happens, the idea of equal and indivisible security in Europe will be far removed from reality.

1. The SM-3 IB differs from the previous IA version, having more advanced transverse targeting engines, a self-targeting warhead and signal-processing devices.

2. The SM-3 IIA differs from the IA and IB versions in that the missile body has a larger diameter, allowing the size of the warhead and fuel stock to be increased. This, in turn, allows the speed at the end of the trajectory to be increased.

3. A total of 75 SM-2 IV interceptor missiles were built by modifying the existing surface-to-air SM-2 IV.

4. Of which 4 ships use version 5.0 CU; 10 ships use version 4.X; and 19 ships use version 3.6.

5. Of which 21 ships will use version 5.1; 2 ships will use version 5.0; 20 ships will use version 4.X; 6 ships will use version 3.6.

6. Of which there will be 14 IIA modification interceptors; 271 IB interceptors: and 35 IA interceptors.

7. Roughly equal numbers of IA and IB interceptors.

8. It has to be noted that the target used during FTM-11a tests on August 31, 2007 is secret. Data on all the other targets are in the public domain.

9. As pointed out above, the United States decided against building an even more advanced modification of the SM-3 IIB.

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