Why Numbers Matter

May 25, 2011

By Jonah Friedman

Last week Russian General Andrei Tretyak, head of the Armed Forces General Staff Main Operations Directorate, made a statement about the threat posed to Russia by U.S. missile defense plans.  In it, he claimed that the real danger to Russia’s nuclear deterrent would come after 2015, when the United States deploys its new version of the SM-3 missile, as well as 40 ships thus equipped – bringing the total number of interceptors to 400.  These figures mirror those given by the director of the Missile Defense Agency in  congressional testimony last year.  Although it seems highly unlikely that the U.S. would station the entirety of its BMD-capable ships in Europe, it could potentially send them there in the event of a crisis.

“So what?” some would argue.  Under the terms of the New START treaty Russia can maintain 1,550 deployed warheads, so why should they care about 400 interceptors (especially given that 400 interceptors does not necessarily entail 400 hits, something which both sides know)?  For one thing, it seems as though what the Russians really fear is not U.S. capabilities today (or even in 2015), but U.S. capabilities further in the future.  They figure that if the United States can field 400 interceptors by 2015, what is to stop it from deploying 800 by 2020 or 1,200 by 2025?  Such an expansion would certainly start to undermine Russia’s nuclear deterrent.

Another reason why 400 interceptors might be cause for concern in Moscow is also related to future U.S. capabilities.  According to the MDA website

“The MDA plans to develop and test several new technologies designed to intercept and destroy ballistic missiles during the ascent phase of flight, providing increased flexibility and targeting opportunities…By leveraging Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) and space assets for pervasive over-the-horizon sensor netting, the engagement zone of current Standard Missile-3 interceptors can be extended to the pre-apogee portion of a missile’s trajectory.”

At current, U.S. missile defenses are geared towards targeting missiles in the mid-course or terminal phases of their trajectory, after warhead(s) separation.  This means that if a conflict were to erupt between Russia and the U.S./NATO today, some 1,500 warheads would have to be met by 400 interceptors.  Add countermeasures to the equation and it becomes difficult to see how the interceptors could prevail.  However, even 400 interceptors could cause serious crisis instability, since the Russians would be facing a worst-case scenario of losing about a quarter of their warheads. 

Moreover, if the United States were to develop the capability to effectively target missiles prior to warhead separation, it would only need to contend with the 700 deployed launchers allowed by the New START treaty.  Although some of those 700 launchers would include bombers and SLBMs, the threat that 400 interceptors (or more in the future) could pose to Russia’s silo-based ICBMs could start to undermine Russia’s deterrent.  

For its part, Russia has been loudly warning lately that if no agreement can be found on missile defense, it will resort to augmenting its nuclear strike capabilities, and may even withdraw from the New START treaty.  Although abrogation of the treaty seems unlikely, and modernization of Russia’s nuclear forces may still suffer funding setbacks (partly due to corruption), these are not threats which can be totally ignored.  It is important for the United States to consider the impact its missile defense policies will have on the strategic calculations of other nuclear powers such as Russia.  BMD systems which target missiles in their mid-course or terminal phases would be less worrying to Moscow, yet still capable of defending against limited and unsophisticated attacks from Iran or North Korea.  If the pursuit of certain missile defense capabilities serves to increase tensions in the U.S.-Russia relationship, that pursuit may need to be reconsidered.