New PR for an Old Missile

President Vladimir Putin declared last month that the military is preparing to deploy new weapons "that no other state will have anytime soon." This was followed by announcements that the Air Force is deploying a new conventional long-range cruise missile and that a "modernized" antiballistic interceptor has been successfully tested at the Sari-Shagan testing range in northern Kazakhstan.

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Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov has publicly threatened preventive attacks against terrorist targets worldwide. The new cruise missiles may be used in such attacks and if foreign powers retaliate. Ivanov made the announcement of antiballistic missile, or ABM, interceptor testing during a televised conversation with Putin in the Kremlin.

The Soviet Union was the first country in the world to begin to develop an ABM defense back in the 1950s. In 1961, a Soviet interceptor was the first to successfully intercept a ballistic missile in northern Kazakhstan. In the late 1960s, the Soviet Union was the first country in the world to begin to deploy a real ABM system, and today Russia is the only nation in the world that has a massive operational ABM defense deployed around Moscow, consisting of 100 interceptors deployed in silos at eight ABM launch positions and three control radars near Moscow under the command of the special anti-missile division of the Russian Space Forces.

The long history of Russian efforts to develop an ABM system has convinced the military that it is futile and technically impossible to build a completely trustworthy defense system. When it came to deployment in the 1970s, the military abandoned all attempts to develop so-called "direct interceptors" that destroy an enemy warhead by ramming it like a "bullet hitting a bullet," like the ones the United States is now deploying in Alaska.

Instead, Russia developed an indirect nuclear ABM system that destroys incoming ballistic warheads by nuclear explosions in the sky. The development of this system helped the Soviets to overcome many technical difficulties, because a nuclear megaton explosion several kilometers off-target can still disable an enemy warhead. In the 1970s, the United States also developed such a system, which was known as Safeguard. After initial deployment in North Dakota, however, Safeguard was eventually scrapped.

A nuclear ABM system can only be used in a global nuclear war. In the event of a small-scale attack by a limited number of rogue state missiles, a nuclear explosion of megaton interceptor warheads 100 kilometers from the center of Moscow in a so-called "high-level" nuclear intercept or as close as 20 kilometers in a "low-level" intercept would cause unacceptable damage to the defenders themselves.

During a global nuclear war, Defense Ministry sources state, the ABM system was expected to destroy most if not all of the first U.S. wave of warheads aimed at Moscow, thus giving the Russian political and military leaders approximately 10 extra minutes to get airlifted out of town before further waves of warheads destroyed everything.

A source in the Defense Ministry explained that the updated A-135 interceptor missile tested at Sari-Shagan was in fact first made back in the Soviet era in 1988. It was last deployed as part of the Moscow ABM defense. Since then, this missile has been in storage. The aim of the test was to determine whether the missile would still fly properly after such a long time on the shelf. In the Soviet era, old missiles would simply be scrapped and replaced, but at present, Russia does not have the money or industrial capability to replace its missiles.

The Kremlin propaganda machine has turned the purely technical issue of testing an old "updated" interceptor missile to remind the world that Russia still has ABM capability. Of course Kremlin spin doctors neglected to mention that this capability cannot be used without wiping out a large portion of the population of Moscow.

The U.S. ABM interceptors, deployed today in Alaska, have repeatedly missed targets during simplified test runs. The intelligent American "killing machines" cannot distinguish a real warhead from a primitive decoy. No one knows how many years and hundreds of billions of dollars it will take to develop a missile defense that will work. This seems to be the inherent problem with any ABM system, be it Russian or American: It is a very expensive political weapon that cannot be effectively used in the real world.

Pavel Felgenhauer is an independent defense analyst based in Moscow.