Air Defense: Russia Deals With Interception Envy

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January 14, 2017: In mid-December 2016 Russia conducted the fifth test of its new A-235 Nudol ABM (Anti-Ballistic Missile) system. Little is known of this missile, as was the case with its predecessor the A-135. Russia never revealed many details about the A-135, which was the result of 1970s nuclear disarmament treaties that limited Russia and the United States to one ABM system each, specifically for protecting the national capital. The A-135 system was based on 1970s technology and officially entered service protecting Moscow just as the Cold War ended. Only 68 of the silo-based A-135 missiles were produced. These were apparently five ton, two stage solid fueled missiles.

The American equivalent was the Sprint, a 3.5 ton two-stage solid fuel missile. Sprint was never deployed because, like the A-135, it used a small nuclear weapon to destroy incoming warheads. In addition both the U.S. and Russians were equipping their ICBMs with multi warhead missiles that made systems like A-135 and Sprint incapable to stopping a large scale attack. In the 1990s Russia said it had replaced A-135 nuclear warheads with non-nuclear ones but that was never verified and it was long suspected that A-135 was officially deployed more as a publicity stunt than because it actually worked.

What made the Nudol tests newsworthy were the assertions that it could also be used to hit space satellites in low orbits. This is something that the U.S. has already demonstrated with the ABM version of its standard Aegis naval anti-aircraft missile system. In 2008 an American cruiser fired a SM-3 ABM that destroyed an American spy satellite that was malfunctioning and needed to be destroyed. The SM-3 was able to find and destroy the SUV sized satellite that was then in a 220 kilometer high orbit because of the powerful Aegis radar and fire control installed on most large American warships. Many reconnaissance satellite use such low orbits and are clearly vulnerable after the 2008 “demonstration”.

Moreover it was clear that the 2008 success was not a fluke. Since the late 1990s Aegis has achieved a success rate of over 80 percent during live test firings. So now many countries want Aegis ABM equipped ships for protection. The Aegis system was designed to operate aboard warships (cruisers and destroyers that have been equipped with the special software that enables the AEGIS radar system to detect and track incoming ballistic missiles). Currently, the U.S. Navy has 30 ships with the Aegis anti-missile system. There are over 100 American and foreign warships equipped with Aegis, but less than half of them had the software mods and anti-missile missiles that enable them to shoot down ballistic missiles and low-orbit satellites. Converting an Aegis ship to Aegis ABM costs about $15 million, mainly for new software and a few new hardware items. This is seen as a safe investment.

To knock down ballistic missiles Aegis uses two similar models of the U.S. Navy Standard anti-aircraft missile, in addition to a modified (to track incoming ballistic missiles) version of the Aegis radar system. The anti-missile missile is the RIM-161A, also known as the Standard Missile 3 (or SM-3). It has a range of over 500 kilometers and max altitude of over 160 kilometers. The Standard 3 is based on the anti-missile version of the Standard 2 (SM-2 Block IV). This SM-2 missile turned out to be effective against ballistic missile warheads that are closer to their target. One test saw a SM-2 Block IV missile destroy a warhead that was only 19 kilometers up. An SM-3 missile can destroy a warhead that is more than 200 kilometers up. But the SM-3 is only good for anti-missile work, while the SM-2 Block IV can be used against both ballistic missiles and aircraft. The SM-2 Block IV also costs less than half what an SM-3 costs.

The SM-3 has four stages. The first two boost the interceptor out of the atmosphere. The third stage fires twice to boost the interceptor farther beyond the earth's atmosphere. Prior to each motor firing it takes a GPS reading to correct course for approaching the target. The fourth stage is the nine kg (20 pound) LEAP kill vehicle, which uses infrared sensors to close on the target and ram it. Russia does not appear to be trying to copying the SM-3 but rather the American successor to Sprint. In the 1990s the U.S. Army went ahead and developed THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense) a non-nuclear successor to its Sprint system. In 2011 the army received its first two production model THAAD anti-missile missiles. In 2011 the army conducted another successful test firing of THAAD, demonstrating the system's ability to hit targets closer to the ground and to share data with Patriot anti-missile systems. This was the seventh (out of seven) successful test since 2005. Since 1995 test firings of THAAD have been nearly as successful asSM-3. THAAD entered service in 2008, with pre-production missiles for use in further testing.

In 2009 the army formed its second THAAD battery and went on to create two more. Each THAAD battery has 24 missiles, three launchers and a fire control communications system. This includes an X-Band radar. The gear for each battery costs $310 million. The six meter (18 foot) long THAAD missiles weigh 837 kg (1,400 pounds). This is about the same size as the Patriot anti-aircraft missile, but twice the weight of the anti-missile version of the Patriot.

The range of THAAD is 200 kilometers, max altitude is 150 kilometers, and it is intended for short (like SCUD) or medium range (up to 2,000 kilometer) range ballistic missiles. THAAD has been in development since the 1990s. Ultimately, the army would like to buy at least 18 launchers, 1,400 missiles, and 18 radars. THAAD is a step up from the U.S. Army Patriot PAC-3 anti-missile (which is an anti-aircraft missile adapted to take out incoming missiles). The PAC-3 works, but it has limited (20 kilometers) range.

Thus the U.S. has three anti-missile systems, although one of them currently only operates from warships (cruisers and destroyers that have been equipped with the special software that enables the AEGIS radar system to detect and track incoming ballistic missiles.) AEGIS can also be operated from land bases, and one of those systems was recently installed. Russia may be serious about getting their new A-235 ABM or it may become, like the A-135, an expensive bit of propaganda.

 


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