Missile Defense and the Strategic Relationship among the United States, Russia, and China

The Indispensable Link: Strategic Defensive Capabilities as a Cornerstone of Arms Control and Arms Racing

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Tong Zhao and Dmitry Stefanovich
Promoting Dialogue on Arms Control and Disarmament

By Dmitry Stefanovich

Since the late 1960s, strategic missile defense has been understood as a major factor in nuclear deterrence—and not always a positive one.1 Debate about its importance and about which details make defense assets “strategic” has continued unabated. Crucially, the balance (and imbalance) of offense and defense has played a significant role in arms races, with perceived imbalance often mattering much more than the actual technical capabilities of adversaries.

The Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABM Treaty) of 1972 played an important and stabilizing role during the Cold War, an understanding shared by both Moscow and Washington.2 With the launch of the Strategic Defense Initiative by the Reagan administration, however, attitudes and narratives started to evolve. The Soviet side was extremely concerned by U.S. missile defense research and development (R&D) and took all measures it could to preserve the ABM Treaty. While Soviet R&D programs were launched to overcome future defenses—and to build new Soviet defensive capabilities—concessions were also made.3 Despite the normalization of relations between the USSR (and later Russia) and the United States during the late 1980s and 1990s, efforts to adapt and preserve the ABM Treaty (including the 1997 Agreed Statements) failed, and the United States eventually withdrew from the treaty. Continued resistance to legal limits on missile defense development has fueled worst-case-scenario planning by Russia’s military-political leadership.4

Currently, the official Russian position on the strategic stability dialogue with the United States is based on the so-called security equation, which includes strategic defensive capabilities (understood primarily as the ABM systems) that must be addressed together with strategic offensive capabilities, both nuclear and nonnuclear.5 Simultaneously, Russia continues to develop measures to ensure it can penetrate future missile defense systems, as well as to develop and upgrade the Russian “air-space defense” system, which “must detect hypersonic and ballistic targets of all types at long distances and then be able to destroy them along the entire trajectory of their flight.”6

This paper outlines Russian perceptions of U.S. missile defense efforts, explains current and proposed Russian missile defense capabilities, maps areas of actual and possible cooperation between Russia and China, and offers a list of possible unilateral and joint measures in missile defense that might reduce nuclear risks and strengthen strategic stability. While the war in Ukraine—in which the United States and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) are actively supporting Ukrainian armed forces—is a major hurdle, viable alternatives to reengagement on strategic issues are lacking, and officials from both sides continue to emphasize their readiness for such dialogue as soon as their counterparts demonstrate genuine interest.7


Russian Reaction to U.S. Missile Defense Efforts

Russia has been transparent about its possible reaction to the continued development and deployment of U.S. missile defense, especially since the early 2010s. Statements by former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, presentations by Russian Ministry of Defense officials (and even an international conference), and articles by Russian military scholars have all portrayed a wide array of countermeasures along three main vectors: enhanced missile defense penetration capabilities; strike capabilities aimed at the destruction of missile defense assets, as well as active and passive defenses for national strategic assets, including NC3; and strategic nuclear delivery systems.16

In March 2018, when an array of so-called novel Russian strategic delivery systems was publicly revealed by President Putin, Minister of Defense Sergey Shoigu said, “What is being created today in Poland and Romania, in Alaska and is supposed to be created in South Korea and Japan, this ‘umbrella’ of missile defense turns out to be ‘full of holes.’”17 A similar claim was made by Deputy Prime Minister Yuri Borisov (former deputy of the Ministry of Defense and since July 2022 the head of Roscosmos, the Russian space agency), who asserted that the Russian Avangard hypersonic weapon “devalues the United States’ efforts to create a missile defense (ABM) system.”18 Nevertheless, the Russian side cannot be expected to disregard future developments and the role of new technologies and concepts.

The capabilities of all U.S. missile defense assets are gradually increasing, and emerging and disruptive technologies are playing an increasingly impor­tant role. Probably the greatest variables are related to the Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) and its next-generation interceptor. When the new kill vehicle will be tested and how capable it will be is unclear, although the United States plans to deploy it by the end of the 2020s.19 However, the new kill vehicle is likely to follow the pattern of the recently canceled Redesigned Kill Vehicle and Multi-Object Kill Vehicle efforts, which focused on the capability to better discriminate against decoys and to counter several incoming threats simultaneously.20 If the kill vehicle redesign project is successful and if a long-debated second GMD silo field on the U.S. East Coast becomes a reality, this would present a significant challenge to the ability of Russian (and Chinese) intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) to reliably deliver nuclear retaliation. At the time of writing, however, none of these issues have been definitively resolved.

The counter-ICBM capability of the SM-3 Block IIA interceptor of the Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD) system demonstrated in 2020 would allow the United States to rapidly increase its defensive capabilities due to the relatively wide availability of Mark 41 launchers in the U.S. Navy and the possibility of placing new Aegis Ashore installations on the continental United States and elsewhere.21 Still, this is not yet a viable defense against the modern ICBMs Russia is currently deploying. The newer Russian missiles include sophisticated missile defense penetration aid packages that were absent in the ICBM-class target intercepted by the SM-3 Block IIA in 2020.22 Russian scholars generally agree with this assessment.23

Beyond this, radar technology remains somewhat unnoticed. Substantive progress on range and discrimination capabilities may be possible, and machine-learning technologies (and other “AI elements”) might dramatically increase the capabilities of ground-based radars, radar satellites, and probably even kill vehicle–based sensors.24

The use of directed energy weapons for “strategic” missile defense remains somewhat underdeveloped, but the threat is taken seriously on the Russian side. For example, regular scientific events are held at the Strategic Rocket Forces military academy to develop ways to protect ICBMs from lasers.25 While details are scarce, the mere fact of such regular events demonstrates how important the issue is perceived to be.

A somewhat underresearched issue is how investments in defensive technologies aimed at new threats (i.e., hypersonic weapons) can affect the “central balance” of strategic nuclear delivery vehicles that assure nuclear deterrence. Technological surprises cannot be ruled out, and solutions developed to counter “hypersonic threats” might eventually undermine the penetration capabilities of the “classic” missiles and thereby effectively destabilize nuclear deterrence between the great powers. Despite this, the currently deployed hypersonic weapons of the Russian armed forces are explicitly justified by the need to overcome adversarial missile defenses.26

Russia’s Avangard missile system with hypersonic gliding winged reentry vehicle can be classified as a hypersonic glide vehicle (HGV) on an ICBM-type booster (SS-19 ICBM). Research and development of this system allegedly began with the Albatross project in the late 1980s after U.S. President Ronald Reagan announced the Strategic Defense Initiative.27 Albatross received a substantial push after the United States left the ABM Treaty and was vaguely mentioned by military-political leadership as early as 2004.28 Deployed in late 2019, the HGV is the first operational strategic hypersonic weapon in the world.29 To achieve survivability, the weapon is deployed in hardened silos.

Missile defense penetration due to unpredictable and relatively low flight trajectory is the main reason for the HGV program itself, although actual trajectories (including possible skip-glide maneuvers on the border of the atmosphere) have not been made public.

Another hypersonic weapon in the Russian arsenal is the Kinzhal air-launched hypersonic aeroballistic missile (a relative of the 9M723 Iskander-M surface-to-surface aeroballistic missile). With a claimed range of two thousand kilometers (likely including the range of its launcher, the MiG-31K/31I supersonic jet, originally developed as a heavy interceptor), this is not a strategic weapon per se. However, it could be used as a tool to breach surface-based missile defenses (both on land and at sea). The Kinzhal weapon system reached initial operational capability in December 2017.30 Currently, Kinzhal carriers are a part of the long-range aviation program of the Russian air-space forces, which effectively puts them in a basket separate from tactical missions.31 Kinzhal is also the only hypersonic weapon to have been used in actual military conflict, with at least one case demonstrating an air/missile defense penetration capability.32


Space Capabilities—Perceived from Earth

Fortunately, strike systems are still absent from outer space. Some U.S. Space Force officials claim that some Russian satellites look like space torpedoes, although publicly available proof of such programs is nonexistent.33 Nonetheless, even unweaponized space is extremely important for missile defense. Intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities, early warning systems, targeting for missile interceptors (and for long-range precision strike weapons), and data transmission all enable and enhance Earth-based missile defenses. Russian military planners are extremely concerned about such deployed technologies, especially those that offer left-of-launch capabilities. As recently as 2020, the U.S. Missile Defense Agency (MDA) released diagrams and documents that explicitly mention ISR satellites that can be deployed over “provisional,” road-mobile ICBM launchers; that is, the potential targets of “Attack operations (Left of Launch).”34

One challenge associated with the proliferation of space-based ISR capabilities is the parallel development of artificial intelligence (AI)–assisted technologies of rapid data analysis. Although continuous satellite monitoring of Russian territory remains a bit too ambitious, 24/7 monitoring of crucial regions (e.g., SSBN bases and road-mobile ICBM bases and patrol areas) might be possible soon. That countermeasures are already being developed suggests that ISR and AI have already taken a seat at the “offense-defense,” action-reaction table that is the cross-domain arms race.

Russia considers such developments a major threat and is putting a lot of effort and investment into preventing them from becoming a reality. Its Peresvet battle laser is understood to be “a dazzler” capable of preventing detection and targeting of road-mobile ICBMs.35 Future counterspace capabilities include S-500 and Nudol’ surface-to-air missile systems that, although developed with the missile threat in mind, may be capable of striking targets in space.36 Moreover, because U.S. aerial early warning and control (AEW&C) and airborne warning and control system (AWACS) aircraft are considered priority targets for Russia’s long-range SA missile systems (e.g., the S-400), Russian military planners likely also consider U.S. ISR satellites to be targets of systems capable of reaching the relevant altitudes.

Another major concern for Russian officials is the global nature of U.S. missile defense, with strike platforms and sensors distributed across the planet. The launch locations and burnout speeds of interceptors are as important for successful interception as the location of detection and tracking radars. American officials and experts portray the deployment pattern of missile defense assets with little consideration for the Russian perception of this pattern, despite the geographical fact that Russia is almost entirely surrounded by these U.S. assets.37 In Russia, however, the U.S. deployment pattern has been considered a major issue for many years, and Russian officials have been vocal about it. During one international conference in 2012 that included presentations by top military brass, these concerns were explained through simulation models.38 Although the simulations are open to challenge, they are a clear example of Russian threat perception. Moreover, unilateral deployment of strategic missile defense assets in various regions of the world is considered not only to negatively affect international, regional, and national security per se but also to undermine efforts to develop multilateral mechanisms to prevent the proliferation of missiles and missile technology.39 While some of these assets are aimed at regional threats, their mission being to protect U.S. overseas deployments and U.S. allies, the demonstrated launch-on-remote and engage-on-remote capabilities of these assets are also a proof of concept that all U.S. missile defense assets belong to a joint system. A system of such sophistication is, however, vulnerable on multiple fronts and subject to numerous other problems (e.g., reliability) that can be exploited by any adversary—and the means for such exploitation are already being developed.


Russian Concepts and Programs

Russian missile defense programs, although part of the challenge, can also be part of a solution. Unlike the United States, Russia has no dedicated missile defense agency. Tasks related to missile defense are carried out by the air-space forces and their air and missile defense units. The Russian concept of joint air-space defense includes air defense, missile defense, space forces (including the Sistema Konrolya Kosmicheskogo Prostranstva, SKKP, or Space Control System, for space situational awareness), early warning systems, and Moscow’s ABM system.40 Moreover, as elaborated in a 2021 article in the journal Military Thought (published by the Russian Ministry of Defense), this architecture possibly includes a space countermeasures system (Sistema protivodeystviya kosmicheskim sredstvam, SPKS), although the main priority for missile defense development is to protect both the highest command and control layers and strategic nuclear force deployment areas.41 Russia operates several major strike systems, including upgraded 53T6M interceptors for the Moscow ABM system and future S-500 and Nudol’ mobile surface-to-air missiles, with the latter, per some sources, being a capable anti-satellite (ASAT) system as well.42 An S-500 intercept test was made public in summer 2021, with launch footage (the missile interceptor is blurred in the released video) distributed by the Russian Ministry of Defense.43

One of the most interesting recent “revelations” happened during Ministry of Defense discussions of air-space defense tasks set by President Putin in November 2021.44 Defense Minister Shoigu, listing various weapons systems and emphasizing that production and deployment should be accelerated, mentioned an advanced future system: S-550.45 Subsequent reports citing various anonymous sources in the Russian military industry, as well as the head of Rostec, Sergei Chemezov, suggest that the S-550 is a mobile system with missile defense capabilities that should be able to defeat ICBM-class targets.46 A Soviet project with the same designator emerged in the late 1980s, although the two projects are barely related, with the current S-550 described as a simplified S-500 with a strict focus on missile defense.

In 2021, an open-source research article suggested that yet another program of strategic missile defense is under development in Russia, namely “Aerostat.”47 While the range of nontraditional sources used in the report (e.g., procurement documents and court cases) raises the possibility that the analyst conflated multiple programs, evidence of an ongoing R&D effort similar to the U.S. GMD is growing, although Aerostat is probably a road-mobile variant.

On a substrategic level, the S-300V family of ground force air defense systems is believed to be quite capable as a regional missile defense system, and the S-500 (part of the 77N6 missile interceptor family) might be “related” to the S-300V (part of the 9M82/9M83 missile interceptor family). The latest version of the latter system, the S-300V4, is capable of defeating tactical short- and medium-range ballistic missiles and outperforms the Patriot PAC-3 system.48 An earlier modification, the S-300V2, is deployed in the Moscow region, where it is tasked with protecting the Russian capital from “nonstrategic” ballistic missile threats.49 The capability of the S-300V system to counter nonstrategic ballistic missiles has been acknowledged by scholars from the Vasilevsky Army Air Defence Military Academy.50 Moreover, an “Abakan” missile defense system was proposed for export and first demonstrated at the Army-2020 Forum. Its appearance and announced specifications suggest it is a “mix” of the S-300V and S-500, with organic radar added to the five-axle transport erector launcher that resembles the TEL associated with the S-500.51 The 9M82 family of missile launchers was proposed as early as 2004 as the basis for the mobile layer of a missile defense system to protect “large industrial and/or administrative regions of a country.”52

Finally, in 2012, sources claimed that a next-generation “active protection” system for ICBM silo launchers was under development.53 A project with similar aims, called “Mozyr,” was under development during Soviet days, however its actual capabilities and plans are unclear.54 A major unknown is how mature is Russia’s hit-to-kill technology. The nonnuclear warhead used in Russian interceptors is described as a “high explosive with directed field of fragments” (oskolochno-fugasnaya boyevaya chast’ napravlennogo deystviya), or “high explosive with controllable fragmentation pattern,” and the designs for the 9M82, 53T6, and 77N6 may all be similar. 55 Western analysts believe that Russia’s nuclear warheads are capable of both air and missile defense; they are, however, in central storage, and their numbers are unknown.56 The destructive test of an unnamed surface-to-space system against the nonactive Kosmos-1408 satellite on November 15, 2021, raised many concerns about space security.57 However, one possibility is that this was not an ASAT test but a missile defense test to prove the maturity of Russia’s hit-to-kill technology.

Certain features of modern and next-generation early warning radars—specifically, the Voronezh and future Yakhroma series—may be included in future missile defense systems, but early warning, space control, and missile defense information is generally obtained and shared jointly.58 The Don-2N radar of the Moscow ABM system is being modernized as well, with emphasis on increased speed and precision of data analysis, and some radars of the older Dunai family are undergoing modernization.59

Russia has also begun to pay serious attention to nonballistic threats such as cruise and aeroballistic hypersonic missiles. One of its most important assets in this domain is the Konteiner family of over-the-horizon (OTH) radars, the first of which entered service in 2019–2020 in Mordovia, with more being built in western Russia (Kaliningrad), the Russian Far East (Zeya), and the Arctic.60 While this system is hardly capable of tracking separate incoming threats and providing targeting data, its main mission is to detect the operations of larger aircraft formations and, in case of conflict, missile salvo launches.61 The concept of using OTH radars for cruise missile defense has also been discussed in the United States.62

Russia is also developing substrategic missile defenses, including a regional missile defense system based on a road-mobile weapons platform to cover some cities, infrastructure, and military formations.63 Since the termination of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, this work has become even more important, and new S-300V units have been stationed in the Russian Far East. Whether this development should raise significant concerns for the West is uncertain, however, and the new units have largely followed existing deployment patterns. Moreover, some scholars argue that deploying a nonnuclear missile defense system can contribute to strengthening security, including by removing tension in cases in which early warning systems give false signals.64

Unlike the United States, Russia deploys hardly any missile defense assets abroad, with the notable exceptions of a legacy Volga early warning radar in Belarus and an S-400 expeditionary unit in Syria. Nevertheless, Russia has a growing missile defense capability, a trend that might lead both to Russian officials better understanding the U.S. drivers of missile defense development and to U.S. officials taking a greater interest in joint limits (or at least transparency) on existing and future missile defenses. In 2013, a Russian academic argued that specifying and limiting the scope of Russian missile defense within its overall air-space defense efforts might be necessary to limit possible negative impacts on strategic stability, provide protection against real threats, and, to some extent, lay the groundwork for possible agreement and even cooperation with the United States in this domain.65


The Chinese Vector

One result of the unique strategic partnership between Russia and China is growing cooperation, including in some sensitive areas. In July 2000, a joint statement on missile defense was signed by President Putin and Chairman Jiang Zemin calling for preservation of the ABM Treaty and addressing the challenges of nonstrategic missile defense undermining security and stability.66 Since then, mutual understanding of the threats in this domain has grown. The 2021 joint statement of the Russian Federation and the People’s Republic of China commemorating the twentieth anniversary of the Treaty of Good-Neighborliness and Friendly Cooperation includes a paragraph related to missile defense, with direct blame assigned to the United States for undermining “international and regional security and global strategic stability” with its development and global deployment of missile defense capabilities (and concomitant efforts to increase the capabilities of its long-range nonnuclear weapons).67 Similar points were reiterated in a joint Russian-Chinese statement issued in early 2022 expressing “concern over the advancement of U.S. plans to develop global missile defense and deploy its elements in various regions of the world, combined with capacity building of high-precision non-nuclear weapons for disarming strikes and other strategic objectives.”68

Russia has exported air and missile defense systems (S-300PMU, S-400), as well as radars (including OTH and space tracking), directly to China.69 Since 2019, it has been public knowledge that Russia provided support to the development of Chinese early warning capabilities.70 That support may have been limited (at least thus far) to the layout of the Chinese system. Nevertheless, early warning is inherently related to missile defense.

As for missile defense systems per se, Russian and Chinese service personnel have completed several “computer” exercises in this area.71 Such exercises include joint planning of operations to organize air and missile defenses, command and control, joint firing, and the response to accidental and provocative attacks by ballistic and cruise missiles against Russian and Chinese territory. Related to this is the extended Agreement on Notification of Launches of Ballistic Missile and Space Launch Vehicles between Russia and China.72 While the primary intent of the agreement is bilateral confidence building and transparency, Russia has explicitly contextualized its importance by citing U.S. efforts to deploy global missile defense capabilities.73 This—along with growing military competition between China and the United States and the lack of deescalation between Russia and the West—suggests that further developments in the same direction can be expected.

While details of the impact that the development of Chinese missile defense capabilities (including those with Russian support) might have on strategic stability are rarely discussed, such developments are cited among the reasons necessitating the future multilateralization of “strategic” arms control and the broadening of its scope toward missile defense and nonnuclear long-range precision weapons.74 The overall scope of Chinese air and missile defense development is being researched by Russian experts as well.75 Missile defense, with a focus on countering ICBM-class threats, is considered to be a priority for Chinese development efforts by some Russian authors.76 However, the explicit link between growing Chinese missile defense capabilities and Russian national security and foreign policy interests remains underresearched in the West. Conversely, the role of U.S. regional missile defense as a deterrence tool against both Russia and China and debates around this issue are being studied by Russian scholars, although without final judgments so far.77


Prospects for Future Arrangements

Where do we go from here, and what should we do next? To help answer these questions, the overall issue can be separated into several building blocks.

First, a frank Track I discussion is required. Currently, negotiations are at a deadlock, with Russian officials saying that missile defense must be part of the future security equation and most U.S. officials saying that it is off the table.78 This leads us nowhere, and, worst of all, it does not give officials on either side any incentive to engage in a joint search for solutions. To overcome this challenge, language that creates a new opening might prove useful. For example, shifting from a focus on “missile defense” as a broad issue, as it is currently discussed, to “undermining of second strike capability” might help the two sides define the actual problems and issues. If Russia and the United States could achieve mutual understanding of which technical capabilities are of concern to which nation, they could then agree to greater transparency in future development plans, although setting actual hard limits is unlikely. The Russia-U.S. consultations within the scope of the Strategic Stability Dialogue launched after the summer 2020 presidential summit in Geneva gave a glimmer of hope. Although we have no insights into how missile defense was discussed, the topic clearly was on the agenda.79 Moscow might be as willing “to give” as “to take,” and, as history shows (most notably in the so-called Krasnoyarsk radar case, which was dismantled because the United States argued it violated the ABM Treaty provision on nondeployment of large phased-array radars deep inside one’s territory), Moscow might be ready to address Washington’s concerns.80 Some Russian analysts suggest shifting attention from the relatively toxic topic of the U.S. GMD—unrestrained development of which enjoys broad support in the United States—to out-of-national-territory mobile missile defense platforms.81 Others argue for an option to delink missile defense from the “START process” and begin with an additional transparency level focused on relevant research and development efforts.82

Second, the United States could unilaterally, outside its bilateral discussions with Russia, use more technical and less bellicose language in its next missile defense review. This relatively simple change would be beneficial to all. On the Russian side, one can only hope that something like a Basic Principles of State Policy on Air Space Defense will be prepared and released. No one expected Russia to publicize its Basic Principles of State Policy on Nuclear Deterrence in 2020,83 so greater symmetry in available declaratory missile/air/space defense policy documents could become a reality. Having “symmetrical” documents prepared and published by other countries, including China, would be helpful as well. Of course, declaratory policies might be considered less important than actual military capabilities and deployments. However, such policies can and should be used to assess and better understand how one’s partner (or adversary) thinks about such issues, even if their actions somewhat contradict their documents.

Third, academics and other experts need to hold regular and highly specific exchanges on the technical capabilities of missile defense assets, planned developments, and mutual concerns, as well as the drivers behind ongoing trends.

Finally, the role of space in missile defense deserves its own discussion. While the deployment of a space intercept layer is a major destabilizing possibility, even existing space-based ISR capabilities are a major concern, especially if they enhance “left-of-launch” capabilities. The link between ASAT and ABM capabilities, which are next to impossible to distinguish, only heightens such concerns.

One crucial opportunity that might pave the way toward a new era of arms control is Russia’s seeming openness to “non-legally binding”—that is, “politically binding”—agreements as a “second-best scenario.”84 Missile defense remains a challenge for international and national security alike. It presents technical hurdles, drives the arms race, and is an irritant to the smooth operation of diplomacy. However, the original 1972 ABM Treaty was not an easy thing to achieve, and on the road to its creation Moscow and Washington had to overcome serious conceptual differences. We might not see a similar document anytime soon, or at all, but addressing misperceptions and misunderstandings is a task of paramount importance.