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US Missile Defense Plans in Europe

Implications for Russia and Europe
Jürgen Altmann
Götz Neuneck

The US government under President George W. Bush plans to build ballistic missile defense (BMD) systems in Eastern Europe as part of the intended Global Ballistic Missile Defense System (GMD/GMDS). The US is negotiating arrangements with two host countries to base an interceptor site in Poland and a fixed mid-course radar in the Czech Republic. At a later time, a mobile radar is to be located closer to the Middle East region. These plans are causing a renewed controversy in Europe about the necessity, rationale, and implications of such a system.

The stated purpose of the “ground–based mid-course defense system” is to help to defend US forces stationed in Europe, US friends, and allies as well as US territory against long– range missile threats, mainly from Iran.1 According to the Director of the Missile Defense Agency (MDA), the US chose these geographical locations in order to maximise the coverage of Europe for ballistic missile launches from the Middle East and redundant coverage for the US against intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs).2

Over the coming years it is planned to deploy 54 ground-based interceptors (GBI) at three locations in the US (Vandenberg/California and Fort Greely/Alaska) and Europe. Once the production capability of the GBI is established and more locations are ready for deployment, this infrastructure can be expanded rapidly. The administration fielded the first GBIs in the US in 2002 and maintains that it has since then achieved an “operational capability” or “a rudimentary protection” of the continental United States.

In the next years it is planned to deploy up to 44 GBIs to the US. Further GMDS elements are a sea-based X-Band-Radar, upgraded early-warning radars, mobile sea-based and forward-based radars, a Space Tracking and Surveillance System (STSS), other lower-tier missile defense systems, and a Command, Control, Battle Management, and Communication Network.

The reactions in Europe are quite controversial: some governments, especially in Poland and the Czech Republic, hope that the two BMD sites would strengthen their ties with the US and could become a decisive security guarantee against Russia. The supporters claim that the GMD sites would protect Europe as well as the US. However, for geographical and technical reasons, the GMD sites cannot protect the countries close to Iran such as Turkey, East-Bulgaria etc. – these countries would have to be “protected” by additional NATO missile defense systems.

Meanwhile, more than 60 percent of the public in Poland and Czech Republic oppose the BMD bases fearing that their countries might become targets of missile attacks in the future. European opponents argue that the technology is premature, that no Iranian ballistic missile threat to Europe exists, and that the unilateral participation of Poland and the Czech Republic would harm efforts for a common European Defence and Security Policy.

President Putin strongly criticized the US missile defense plans in Europe as “muscle–flexing,” arguing at the Security Conference in Munich in February 2007 that this would lead to “an inevitable arms race.” Russian politicians voiced their main concerns: Foreign Minister S. Lavrov said that “Any unilateral anti–missile projects would fundamentally alter the continent’s strategic relationship.”3 Lavrov also said: “We must acknowledge that these objects are fully suitable to intercept missiles fired from Russian territory.”4 The President puts into question the whole arms–control architecture which helped to end the Cold War due to a changed “strategic balance in Europe.” On December 12, 2007, Russia suspended adherence to the 1990 Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty, which imposes limits on the deployment of tanks and other military equipment in Europe. This erosion of arms limitation can also affect other agreements such as the Open Skies Treaty or the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. At the same time, President Putin ordered the military to place the strategic forces on a higher alert level. Russia has already resumed its long–distance strategic bomber patrols. The military threatened the possible deployment of nuclear short– or medium–range ballistic missiles (MRBMs) in the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad. A breeze of Cold War is in the air again, and if both parties don’t find ways to handle the problem a new block confrontation could emerge. There are many reasons for these strong and bad reactions by the Russian government: the growing unease with Western interference in Russia’s backyard; the deployment of US troops in former Warsaw Pact countries; and the US BMD plans near to the Russian territory. President Putin said: “In violation of previous agreements, certain member countries of the NATO alliance are increasing their resources next to our borders.”5

On the other hand, President Putin has also offered co–operation to the USA by joint use of a Russian early warning radar in Azerbaijan and he proposed deployment of intereceptors in south–east Europe or Turkey.6 Unfortunately, US Defense Secretary R. Gates has stated that the Azerbaijan Radar would only be regarded as “an additional capability” to complement the proposed GMD sites in Europe. The ongoing US-Russian talks on missile defense cooperation have not yet led to any result.

The European and in particular the German political debate is mainly political ignoring many important physical, geographical, and technical facts. Most of the papers from think tanks and newspapers focus on the future strategic relationship between the US, Russia, and Europe or on supposed domestic interests such as influencing elections. High–ranking US politicians tried to downplay the threat for Russia posed by additional BMD sites in Europe. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice maintains that the interceptors are far too few to upset the Russian-US relationship. There are also technical arguments presented by US envoys which try to challenge Lavrov’s statement. General H.A. Obering and P. Sanders of the US MDA have come forward with explicit statements that the Poland–based interceptors could not target Russian ICBMs, arguing with missile and interceptor velocities and times.7 These statements are more than dubious.8

Some Facts About the Iranian Ballistic Missile Threat

US President G.W. Bush says that there is a “real and urgent” need for missile defense in Europe. According to the US intelligence community, Iran has an aggressive ballistic missile program and the US government believes that Iran develops nuclear weapons. The international community became suspicious about the nuclear program when it learnt about covert fuel–cycle facilities and acquisition activities. Worldwide pressure and sanctions were instituted; it is estimated that Iran, if it intends to build a bomb, would need 5 to 10 years. Tehran procured several Russian–originated Scud–B missiles from Libya and Syria, later known as Shahab–1. Iran also started to assemble Scud components from North Korea and began production of liquid and solid–propellants. But Iran was not very successful in “reverse–engineering” Scud–B. Hence, since 1991 it also acquired the Soviet 580 km Scud–C (Shahab–2) from North Korea.9

After the Iraq–Iran war (1980–1988), Iran purchased NoDong missiles (Shahab–3, range around 1,100 km) from North Korea.10 There seems to be no indigenous manufacturing capability in Iran. Until early 2006 there were ten Shahab–3 test launches reported, not all of which were successful.11 The Iranian government claims that the Shahab–3 is an indigenous activity and that missiles have been deployed since 2003. However, there is evidence that the development has not been completed. Iran seems to depend on Russian and North Korean networks; it has only a small number of Shahab-3 missiles, which are not very reliable, and given their limited range cannot reach Central Europe. There are speculations about more advanced versions of the Shahab–3, dubbed Shahab–4 and 5, but a complete new missile has not yet been detected.

A number of intelligence services believe that Iran is also developing new longer–range ballistic missiles. At present, Iran has no Shahab series production, and development of new engines or guidance components is beyond Iran’s capabilities. Specialists conclude that the status of Iran is comparable with the situation of Iraq in the 1980s or 1990s.

Another way to acquire an MRBM capability is to acquire tested North Korean TaepoDong (TD) technology (TD–1, range 2,300 km; TD–2, range 5,500 km). In the only three-staged space launch vehicle test in August 1998, the TD–1 failed. In July 2006, North Korea tested a missile widely assumed to be the TD–2 that was a complete failure. The US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) maintains that the TD–2 can fly 10,000 km which is very doubtful given the current state of missile technology in North Korea. A missile with such a range must be much larger in terms of missile diameter and rocket engine. One can conclude that neither Iran nor North Korea have the capability to reach the US. Iran is not capable of producing its currently deployed guided missiles indigenously. There are no indications that Iran is working on a long–range missile which can be equipped with a nuclear warhead and which can target, e.g., Central Europe. The vague possibility that this could happen gives some more time to find a solution with Iran.

US BMD Plans in Europe and Rationales

The ten interceptors in Poland are to be silo–based on a field the size of a football pitch. They are a two–stage variant of the originally three–staged interceptors that have already been deployed in the US. The US State Department claims that no test will be conducted in Europe. But even for no more than ten missiles in Poland a new, substantial, and costly test program would have to be set up. It is therefore rather likely that other locations in Europe might be added.

The European Midcourse Radar (EMR), proposed to be deployed in the Czech Republic, is a high-resolution tracking radar which is to identify and distinguish the warhead from the missile parts and to guide the GBIs to the target.12 The radar capability is limited by the number of transmit/receive modules (T/R) which are distributed across its 100–120 square meter antenna.13 At the current stage of planning, the EMR can track only a few objects in flight. The maximum number of T/R modules is 300.000, which would increase the tracking capacity of the radar to hundreds of objects tracked. If the US decides to expand the capability of the EMR, this could compromise the Russian deterrent.

The third element of the European Missile Defense is a transportable forward–deployed X–band radar (FBX). The air–transportable FBX can be deployed closer to the hypothetical Iranian threat and in principle it provides earlier acquisition and more tracking data. The US Administration sees it only as a tool to augment coverage and interception of adversial short- to mid-range missiles.

A debated issue is the current performance and future capability of the exo-atmospheric “hit–to–kill” technology employed in the mid-course phase, when a kill vehicle is to collide with a target (warhead) previously released by an attacking missile. There have been relatively few tests of the deployed GMD system since 2002. In September 2007, the MDA conducted the seventh successful of a total of twelve attempted intercepts.14

So far, the test conditions have remained rather unrealistic. The targets are cooperative and not comparable with targets in a real attack situation. It is striking that in later tests new malfunctions occurred which had not been observed before. Certainly such a complex technology will improve over time, but it is clear that the current system cannot cope with countermeasures. Lightweight decoys, e.g. warhead replica balloons made of aluminized mylar, can be included in the payload and set free with the real warhead after burnout of the ballistic missile in space. Due to the missing drag force outside the earth’s atmosphere, these objects travel along with the heavier warhead during the long mid-course phase before re-entry. The GMD system would have the complicated task to select the “right” target. A key problem is that none of the physical observables that could be used to distinguish decoys from warheads can be identified with infra-red and radar sensors. For example, the system cannot look into inflated and metal–coated balloons and therefore cannot discriminate the real warhead from the decoys.

Another open question is whether the US Congress will fund a third GMD site in Europe, while it is not clear that the GMD system even works for the protection of the US. Until now, Congress has cut funding for the European component in 2008. The House has reduced the MDA’s budget request for the GMD system by $160 million and the Senate by $85 million. The Bush administration had requested $310.4 million.

If Iran were to develop ICBMs with nuclear warheads for attacking the USA, these missiles would have to have a range of 10,000 to 12,000 km. Due to the curvature of the Earth, such missiles would rise into the viewing cone of a radar in the Czech Republic about five minutes after launch, at about 2,000 km distance. From this possibility of trajectory determination the flight time to somewhere above East Europe would be about six minutes. When overflying East Europe, these ICBMs would be at about 1,000 km altitude. Interceptors in Poland would need around three minutes to reach this altitude in vertical climb and around four minutes if 1,000 km horizontal distance would have to be covered at the same time. Thus, the interceptors have to be launched within a few minutes after radar detection.

Capabilities of the Planned BMD Systems Versus Russian ICBMs

A radar deployed in the Czech Republic is much closer to missile silos in western Russia than to Iran. Thus, these Russian missiles would rise into the radar field of view much earlier in their trajectories. They could be detected about three minutes after launch and their flight could observed about ten minutes. This includes the time when the missile bus maneuvers in order to place re–entry vehicles on their respective trajectory. The radar in particular could observe the release and deployment of decoys. This provides valuable information for discrimination between warhead(s) and decoys. Whereas it is improbable that reliable recognition and identification will be possible in case of many objects – at e.g. 1,000 km, the radar beam from the EMR will be several km wide – a Russian planner will have to take a conservative approach and assume a significant discrimination capability.

The least consequence would be the use of more sophisticated decoys, but increasing the numbers of missiles and warheads is also likely countermeasure. The EMR is to be integrated into the global BMD system, thus the information gained (some discrimination, trajectories) will be relayed and could also be used for launch and control of US–based interceptors that have considerably more time to intercept the target than the ones from Poland.

Given that the Czech–based radar can observe Russian ICBMs, the next question is whether Poland–based interceptors can hit such ICBMs. To this question the Director of the Missile Defense Agency has explicitly stated: “U.S. System Cannot Counter Russian Offensive Missiles” and “European interceptor site has no capability to defend U.S. from Russian launches.”15 His viewgraphs show very fast Russian ICBMs and slow US interceptors. Ted Postol from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), a long–time independent technical expert on BMD issues, analyzed the MDA assumptions. As Figure 1 demonstrates, the MDA Director uses slow ICBM speeds and an unnecessarily long interceptor launch delay. If these values are corrected, it turns out that an intercept from Poland is kinematically possible even for the northernmost European ICBM site. In a modified slide of June 2007, the ICBM speed was increased, but the interceptor speed still underestimated by one third.16


Figure 1: Corrected speeds, timelines, and interceptor launch delay (about 220 s after ICBM launch, about 30 s after radar acquisition) show that intercept of a Russian ICBM warhead from Poland is kinematically possible17

While it is true that ten interceptors based in Poland are no danger for the Russian nuclear force of about 500 ICBMs, the USA plans for continued expansion. Presidential National Security Directive 23 (PNSD–23), signed December 6, 2002, reaffirmed the policy of the Bush Administration “to develop and deploy, at the earliest possible date, ballistic missile defenses drawing on the best technologies available.” Deployment from 2004 on would serve “as a starting point for fielding improved and expanded missile defenses later.”18 Thus, Russia may be justified in viewing the deployments that are discussed at present only as the beginning of a much larger and more capable BMD deployment.

Another aspect, rarely considered, is the potentially offensive use of silo–based missiles in Poland: hypothetical ICBMs aimed from Iran to the mid– and western USA would fly over Belarus and Russia, respectively. To hit them in space, the interceptors would have to fly towards the east, that is towards Russia. With around 15 m length and 1.3 m diameter, the interceptor missiles are rather similar to medium-sized or small ICBMs. For example, the US Minuteman III with three nuclear warheads is 18 m long and 2 m wide. At least at the height of a crisis it is conceivable that a launch towards Russia would increase tensions.

Regardless of the political ramifications, the Russian proposals for joint use of an early warning radar in Azerbaijan (Gabala) or southern Russia (Armavir) with interceptors deployment in south–east Europe or Turkey make sense from a technical point of view. A radar station south of the Caucasus mountains would be blocked from seeing Russian ICBMs. Slower interceptors deployed at further away could in fact not hit such ICBMs in time. From a purely military–strategic viewpoint the Russian statements about the need for countermeasures and for targeting additional European sites also make sense.

Some Conclusions

A technical assessment shows that the planned radar in the Czech Republic and interceptors in Poland would provide substantial capabilities against Russian ICBMs in their western silos. Due to its integration in a global BMD system, the radar is more relevant than the interceptor site. The interceptors would grow in importance with increasing numbers – in Europe as well as in the USA. A Russian strategic planner will take into account a considerable future growth of the overall anti-missile system which would be seen as particularly threatening to the Russian second–strike capability in times when Russian arsenals would continue to shrink.19

Much of the Iranian ballistic missile technology goes back to early Russian origins, with detours via e.g. North Korea. If from its better knowledge of the Iranian capabilities Russia feels that Iran may be incapable of building an ICBM, then it has all the more reason to fear that US plans are directed predominantly against Russia.

Thus, the deployment is not just a bilateral issue between the USA and the Czech Republic and Poland, respectively. Nuclear strategic issues are at stake with ramifications for Europe and the whole world, in particular for any discussion of future disarmament. Not only would further nuclear reductions become more and more difficult, but there is the outlook of a new nuclear arms race in terms of new missiles, warheads, penetrations aids, and ballistic missile defenses. This holds despite the fact that decoys, which are much less difficult to build than long–range missiles, will continue to frustrate any attempt to make oneself secure from nuclear attack, even by a much smaller power.

The Russian proposals of joint use of an early warning radar much closer to Iran makes technical sense; the same holds for the concept of deploying interceptors only after observation of Iranian long–range ballistic missile tests and deploying them closer to Iran as well. An appropriate alternative is deployment of sea–based Aegis cruisers in the Mediterranean and the Baltic sea instead of the more strategic land-based GMD System components in Poland and Czech republic. The joint use of a radar, on the other hand, would require a very high degree of co–operation. How the USA will deal with such proposals for co–operation can be used as a litmus test on whether it takes Russian concerns seriously and makes attempts to allay these fears. There is still enough time to work out reliable solutions for a potential Iranian threat if this really emerges.

Europe should play an important role in bridging the Russian and the US interests. On the other hand, if Europe as a whole fails to do so, it might find itself again between the fronts of two nuclear powers.

It goes without saying that the best solution would be to prevent Iranian ICBMs and nuclear weapons by international agreement – achieving this will probably need a return to the obligations towards nuclear disarmament by the declared nuclear–weapon states under the Non–Proliferation Treaty. Wolfgang Panofsky, the highly respected Stanford physicist, who served as presidential advisor for several US administrations and who died on September 24, 2007, at an age of 88, said in a speech in 2004: “Since a single nuclear weapon can kill on the order of one million people when detonated in a metropolitan area, an active defense must achieve almost 100% intercept to be effective (…). But reducing the role of nuclear weapons to the single function of deterring their use is a necessity if their spread across the globe is to be inhibited, if the other nuclear dangers are to be contained, and if the damage which nuclear weapons can cause is to be minimized.”

This article is a shorter version of the paper “US Missile Defence Plans in Europe – Implications for Russia” written for the 57th Pugwash Annual Conference in Bari/Italy, 21–26 October 2007.


Jürgen Altmann is a physicist and peace researcher at Universität Dortmund, Germany, and has studied scientific-technical problems of disarmament since 1985;
altmann [at] ep3 [dot] ruhr-uni-bochum [dot] de.


Götz Neuneck is Research Advisor and Head of IFAR², the Interdisciplinary Research Group on Disarmament, Arms Control and Risk Technologies at the University of Hamburg; he is also German Pugwash representative; neuneck [at] uni-hamburg [dot] de.

  1. 1. Details of the US plans in Europe can be found in the MDA brochure Proposed U.S. Missile Defense Assets In Europe; www.mda.mil/mdaLink/pdf/euroassets.pdf.
  2. 2. Lt. Gen. Henry A. Obering III, Director Missile Defense Agency, Written Statement before the Strategic Forces Subcommittee, House Armed Services Committee, March 27, 2007; viewgraph 17.
  3. 3. Sergei Lavrov: A crucial debate on Europe’s anti–missile defences, in: Financial Times, April 10, 2007.
  4. 4. Moscow perplexes U.S. over missile defense in Europe in: IHT February 21,2007.
  5. 5. Putin Warns NATO against border build–up, AFP November 20, 2007.
  6. 6. Putin Surprises Bush with Plan on Missile Shield, New York Times, June 8, 2007.
  7. 7. Lt. Gen. Henry A. Obering III, Director Missile Defense Agency, Missile Defense For U.S. Allies And Friends, Presentation, March 2007; P. Sanders, Executive Director Missile Defense Agency, Missile Defense Program Overview For The European Union, Committee on Foreign Affairs, SEDE, Presentation, 28 June 2007 (viewgraph 26).
  8. 8. See e.g. George N. Lewis and Theodore A. Postol, The Technological Basis of Russian Concerns, in: Arms Control Today, October 2007, p. 13–18.
  9. 9. With a 700 kg payload and an estimated range of 1.300 km, it can reach targets in Israel.
  10. 10. The first flight test was conducted in September 1998.
  11. 11. The first flight test was conducted in September 1998.
  12. 12. U.S. Department of State, April 4, 2007.
  13. 13. Currently roughly 20,000 T/R modules are planned. See Lewis and Postol, op.cit., p. 14.
  14. 14. Wade Boese, Pentagon repeats missile defense test successes, Arms Control Today, November 2007.
  15. 15. H.A. Obering, Missile Defense For U.S. Allies And Friends, op.cit, viewgraph 21. The additional assertion “No plan to expand the number of interceptors in Europe – not in our five year budget” may not be very assuring to Russia.
  16. 16. From map distances and times given, an ICBM speed of 5.8 km/s and an interceptor speed of 5.4 km was assumed; however the latter reaches speeds between 7.7 and 8.3 km/s; explicitly stated was the interceptor launch delay of 250–300 s after ICBM launch. Obering presentation of 13 June 2007, viewgraph 27, with analysis in T.A. Postol and G.N. Lewis, The Proposed US Missile Defense in Europe: Technological Issues Relevant to Policy, Presentation at American Association for the Advancement of Science, Washington, DC, August 28, 2007; see also Lewis and Postol, The Technological Basis of Russian Concerns, op.cit.
  17. 17. Postol and Lewis, op.cit,, viewgraph 24. We want to thank Ted Postol for the permission to use his viewgraph.
  18. 18. Presidential National Security Directive 23 (PNSD 23) cited after Lewis and Postol, op.cit.
  19. 19. See the discussion about “Nuclear Primacy,” esp. K.A. Lieber and D.G. Press, The Rise of U.S. Nuclear Primacy, Foreign Affairs, March/April 2006.