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The US deploys Ground-Based Midcourse Defense against ICBMs.

by Michael Puttré and Ted McKenna
Nov. 21, 2005
In a briefing conducted for invited members of the press and defense industry analysts in mid-October, Raytheon officials said they were "highly confident" that the US National Missile Defense (NMD) system, as currently deployed, would be able to defeat an intercontinental-ballistic-missile (ICBM) attack from North Korea. This is a historic development with far-reaching implications for US national-security policy.

Let's be clear: even if the system works as advertised, this is a very rudimentary capability that would be effective against a very specific threat under a limited set of circumstances. However, given that North Korea is a high-profile potential enemy with only a very limited ICBM attack capability, the development is important in the near term as it counters a means of leverage that nation may have in its relations with the US. It eliminates the certainty in the minds of Korean and US leaders that a North Korean ICBM attack would be successful.

First of all, what is the US anti-ICBM capability as it exists today? In short, it is the so-called Ground-Based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system (prime contractor: Boeing), based on missile interceptors deployed at Ft. Greely, AK, and Vandenberg AFB, CA, and their associated sensors and battle-management systems. As of this writing, there are nine Ground-Based Interceptor rockets deployed at Ft. Greely and two at Vandenberg. The interceptors rely on a chain of early-warning radars and space sensors. The first line of detection is made up of infrared launch-detection sensors on satellites developed during the Cold War under the Defense Support Program (DSP). These satellites in geosynchronous orbit are cable of detecting ballistic-missile launch plumes. The second line of detection is composed of Ticonderoga-class cruisers and Arleigh Burke-class destroyers equipped with the AN/SPY-1 series radars of the Aegis combat system that would track enemy ballistic missiles during their boost-phase ascents. There are currently up to two Aegis cruisers and 10 Aegis destroyers acting as radar pickets in waters near North Korea. The third and main line of detection is made up of existing ground-based warning early-radars, modified for missile-defense purposes, that would track warheads and decoys during their suborbital midcourse flights. Currently, the key installation is the AN/FPS-108 Cobra Dane L-band phased-array radar at Eareckson Air Station on Shemya Island, AK, that has been upgraded to provide a midcourse-tracking capability. The ballistic-missile-tracking function of the Cobra Dane radar was demonstrated this past fall in a test where a missile target was dropped from a C-17 transport. Battle management of a ballistic-missile intercept would be handled by the GMD Fire Control Node at Ft. Greely.

The payload of the Ground-Based Interceptor is the Raytheon Exoatmospheric Kill Vehicle (EKV), which is essentially a maneuvering spacecraft with an electro-optical (EO) sensor and a command link to the ground. The Ground Based Interceptor is launched into the path of the incoming ICBM, as determined from tracking data from the various ground- and space-based sensors. Upon separation, the EKV receives updated course correction from the GMD Fire Control Node. During the midcourse phase of its flight, an ICBM will release its reentry vehicles and perhaps a number of decoys. The latter are typically radar decoys that mimic the radar signature of a warhead or infrared (IR) decoys that mimic the IR signature of a warhead. By combining data from ground-based radars and the EKV's onboard EO sensor, the wheat will be separated from the chaff, so to speak, and the EKV will be instructed to engage a warhead target. The interception is a "hit-to-kill" event, wherein the EKV impacts the warhead, destroying it utterly through kinetic energy. Battle-management doctrine would determine how many Ground Based Interceptors would be launched at a given inbound ICBM to ensure the destruction of its warhead(s). Such battle doctrine is highly classified, but it might be assumed that at least two interceptors would likely be launched at a missile suspected of having a single reentry vehicle warhead, perhaps as many as four.

If North Korea launched a ballistic missile at the US right now, this is the defense system that would mobilize against it. Over time, various elements of the GMD system are being modernized. Most notably, the Sea-Based X-Band Radar (SBX) is on its way to Alaska from Corpus Christi, TX, via the Straits of Magellan to assume the function as the primary midcourse-tracking, target-discrimination, and battle-assessment sensor. The SBX is an impressive ocean-going structure derived from a deep-ocean oil-drilling platform that any James Bond villain would be proud to call home. On Nov. 14, the SBX began loading aboard the Motor Vessel Blue Marlin, which is owned and operated by Dockwise Shipping B.V. (Breda, The Netherlands). The Blue Marlin is the same vessel that carried the Aegis destroyer USS Cole back to the US after it was crippled in a terrorist attack in Yemen in October 2000.

The PAVE PAWS radar at Vandenberg and the Ballistic Missile Early Warning System (BMEWS) radar at RAF Fylingdales, UK, are being modified to serve as GMD early-warning sensors. The US is preparing to launch new satellites and deploy new air-transportable ground-based radars to improve coverage of enemy launch sites. But for now, the system described above is what the US has in hand to defeat an ICBM attack.

And what of the threat? As it stands, North Korea does not have an ICBM that could reach the mainland United States. It does have classes of intermediate-range ballistic missiles (IRBMs) – the Taepo Dong series – upon which an ICMB could be developed. The GMD system is not intended for nor would it be effective in engaging IRBMs or shorter-range theater and tactical ballistic missiles, with which North Korea is well supplied. This is a different threat, and different means of countering it are being developed.

Starting in 2003, there were reports about the so-called Taepo Dong-X ICBM that North Korea was on the verge of deploying. This missile was regarded as being either a further development of the Taepo Dong-2 or based on the Russian SS-N-6 submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM), or perhaps even the product of an integration of these two missile types. Estimates of its effective range varied wildly, with some unidentified Bush administration officials reported as saying the missile could strike virtually anywhere in the continental US. There is no way of knowing, because a Taepo Dong-X has not been unveiled, much less tested. In fact, the Taepo Dong-2 itself is untested. When North Korea tested a prototype of the Taepo Dong-1 in 1998 with an alarming launch over Japan, the unexpected third stage of the rocket failed to separate. While it would be imprudent to dismiss the threat posed by such a missile for the present, it also must be considered unlikely that the North Koreans would risk such a monumental act as striking at the US with an unproven system. On the other hand, it is a defense against just such an irrational act that is most often cited by GMD supporters as justification for the program.

During the Cold War, the Soviet Union's arsenal of thousands of land-based ICBMs and submarine-based SLMBs – not to mention nuclear weapons deliverable by strategic bombers and shorter-range systems – was countered by the equally impressive collective arsenals of the US, the UK, and France. It is easy to forget – even easier to lampoon – the state of affairs that dominated superpower politics in the last three decades of the 20th century, with its missile gaps, fail-safe points, duck-and-cover drills, and backyard fallout shelters. Yet it is clear today that decision-makers on both sides of the Iron Curtain understood that any general war would quickly go nuclear and, hence, to oblivion. The only question, really, was how to go about it. Do you launch on warning or ride out the attack? Do you employ massive retaliation or flexible response? Those missile-defense systems allowed at the time under the terms of the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty were skeletal at best. Bombs would have bounced the rubble on both sides. This understanding, exemplified in the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD), is widely regarded as having kept the peace.

There is a fear today that a rogue state possessing both nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them might be undeterrable. This is an amazing concept, really. Imagine a power so careless of its own survival that it would commit suicide by launching an ICBM at the greatest power on Earth, one that could and quite possibly would destroy the offending regime, if not the nation. Yet preventing an enemy from taking such action against the US at some point in the near future is the key mission of the US Missile Defense Agency (MDA). In fact, the US government considers the threat of North Korea lashing out in its death throes with a nuclear strike to be so real that the "urgent need" for a GMD system required the high-risk, high-cost development tempo of the program.

Of course, the GMD program doesn't speak to the threats posed by nuclear weapons delivered by shorter-range ballistic missiles launched from sea-based platforms such as Q-ships or submarines, or by long-range cruise missiles, or by those smuggled in by container ship or other means. Moreover, there are many critics of GMD who question the effectiveness of such a system on technical grounds. Others oppose the system on geopolitical grounds. Still others question the cost-effectiveness of GMD in light of other options, such as pre-emptive strike. Nevertheless, the evolving threat to the US homeland from an ICBM attack by a rogue state is such that tremendous amounts of resources are being used to develop a means to intercept them.

Since 1985, about $90 billion has been spent on missile defense by the US under various programs, beginning with the Reagan-era Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) through the Clinton administration's Ballistic Missile Defense Organization and into today's Missile Defense Agency. But funding since fiscal year 2001, at $4.8 billion, has been stepped up quite a bit, with $7.8 billion in FY02, $7.4 billion in FY03, $7.7 billion in FY04, and $9 billion in FY05. Missile defense accounts for about 2% of the Defense Department budget, more than any other program. Ground-Based Midcourse Defense is only one facet of the expenditure. Other important activities include the Boeing Airborne Laser (ABL), Lockheed Martin Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense, and the Northrop Grumman Kinetic Energy Interceptor (KEI) programs. Each of these programs and attending technologies address different aspects of the ballistic-missile threat. The MDA views the entire package, including GMD, as an integrated, multi-phase effort to develop and deploy a defense network capable of covering the US and allied nations from the full range of ballistic-missile threats.

Urgent Need, High Risk

For all intents and purposes, the GBD system, as it is currently configured, is designed to handle one contingency: an "end-game" launch of an ICBM from North Korea, possibly during the dust-up of a regime collapse. This problem has been weighing on the minds of defense planners for more than a decade, since the latter years of President Kim Il Sung's rule. The instigation of this concern was an assessment that North Korea was determined to develop and deploy nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles to deliver them, apparently confirmed when North Korea declared its intent to withdraw from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 1993. Extended brinksmanship ensued. During this time, North Korean bellicosity was generally viewed as coercive in nature, that playing the "nuclear card" would enable the regime to achieve leverage in its dealings with the US and its allies, especially South Korea and Japan.

The resurgence of National Missile Defense (NMD) as we know it took shape after the US Department of Defense (DoD) announced the so-called "three-plus-three" plan in 1997, under which a decision would be made in 2000 about whether the threat warranted a fast-track deployment of a GMD system in 2003 or if deployment could be deferred. Extended domestic politics ensued. Ultimately, the DoD decided that the threat posed by North Korea did indeed justify a rushed deployment of a rudimentary NMD capability. This decision did not come without attending costs and risks. In fact, a NMD review committee chaired by General Larry Welch, USAF (ret.), a former Air Force chief of staff, concluded that the risks were such that an initial operational capability (IOC) in 2003 was unattainable. Scheduled IOC was put off until 2005.

The phased deployment of the GMD segment of the NMD system envisioned a series of threat levels that could be matched over time with ever-increasing capability. The so-called C1 threat level of a strike from North Korea using up to five single-warhead ICBMs that dispense few if any countermeasures would be countered by a system very much like the one now in place. The C2 threat level projected a reasonably orchestrated strike from East Asia or the Middle East involving a dozen or more sophisticated ICBMs equipped with countermeasures. This threat would require 100 or so Ground-Based Interceptor missiles, an expanded early-warning radar network, and a new-generation satellite-based Space Tracking and Surveillance System (STSS). Original estimates for this capability achieving operational status were 2010, but this has been pushed back to 2012 at the earliest. Projections of more advanced threat levels exist, but since these involve ICBM strike capabilities possessed by Russia and those under development by China, there is not much detail available on what the NMD architecture to counter them would look like or when it might be deployed.

In fact, one of the challenges to NMD had been the diplomatic one. First of all, there was the ABM Treaty to be withdrawn from, since many of the technologies required for strategic ballistic-missile defense were banned under it. But this was accomplished with surprisingly little shoe-banging from Russia in 2002, despite apocalyptic predictions from critics. Subsequently, the US has taken pains to assure Russia and even China – which was not a party to the ABM Treaty – that NMD is not intended to counter their strike capabilities. The assumption, strategically, is that the time-proven concept of deterrence will continue to keep the peace with both nations, at least with regard to nuclear war. From a practical standpoint, Russia appears confident that it will remain able to overwhelm or evade any NMD system the US deploys, and the latest generation of Russian ICBMs, the Topol-M, bears this out (see sidebar at bottom). China, which is understood to have only a limited number of true ICBMs capable of striking the continental US, has reasons to be more suspicious of US intentions with regard to NMD. Certainly, a bubbling disagreement over the status of Taiwan runs the risk of open conflict between the US and China. A 1999 Rand report entitled "Planning a Ballistic Missile Defense System of Systems: An Adaptive Strategy" pointed out that managing the objections of China would be an important component to deploying NMD.

Leaving aside diplomatic issues, there are real technical challenges to deploying a robust NMD capability. The Rand report put it this way:

"Even under ideal circumstances and with the latest technologies, ballistic-missile defense is exceedingly difficult. Destroying an RV [reentry vehicle] in flight requires an end-to-end sequence of successful tasks: detecting and classifying the threat missile, predicting the threat trajectory, cueing sensors down the line, tracking the target, discriminating the target from clutter and countermeasures, acquiring the target for intercept, intercept, kill assessment, and repeating the sequence as required. A failure anywhere in this chain precludes successful intercept."

Physics, Not Political Science

ICBMs go through a number of phases from launch to when payload warheads detonate over the target. The launch proceeds from the boost phase of approximately 90 to 300 seconds, during which the missile's series of booster stages ignite, burn, and fall away. All the while, the missile accelerates into the midcourse phase, lasting up to 20 minutes, in which the payload complex arcs out of the atmosphere on a suborbital trajectory. During the midcourse portion of the flight, the payload complex may release decoys and could possibly maneuver using attitude-control thrusters. The warhead or warheads are released during this phase. In the terminal phase, lasting perhaps 30 seconds, the warheads reenter the atmosphere and fall toward their targets. Shorter-range ballistic missiles go through the same stages, but of shorter duration.

Each phase has its own program to develop "interceptors" that would intercept and eliminate the enemy missile. Addressing the boost phase, the Airborne Laser system would consist of aircraft that fly about in shifts, all day and every day, ready to shoot down ballistic missiles using a chemical-oxygen-iodine laser, the heat of which would cause the ballistic missile to explode or at least leak so that resultant change in pressure causes the missile to go off course. There is also the Kinetic Energy Interceptor (KEI) under development that would be able to engage ballistic missiles in their boost phase with very fast interceptor missiles from either land- or ship-based launchers deployed in theater. For the mid-course phase, the GMD system, as outlined above, would swing into action.

In addition, apart from the threat of intercontinental ballistic missiles, still other programs are being developed to intercept short- or medium-range ballistic missiles, including Scud missiles, which Iraq was known to lob on Israel and US forces during Operation Desert Storm. These interception systems include the Patriot Advanced Capability-3/Medium Extended Air Defense System (PAC-3/MEADS), the Arrow 2 missile-defense system deployed by Israel, and the ship-based Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense system using the SM-3 missile. All of these missile-based interceptor technologies employ "hit-to-kill" kinetic warheads.

These various forms of interception will need a lot of help to hit their targets, particularly the long-range ballistic missiles. A number of supporting systems are in development to sense these incoming missiles and guide the interceptors to them. The Forward-Based X-band Radar Transportable program, for instance, would use solid-state, phased-array antennas to watch out for and track intercontinental ballistic missiles and medium-range threats. The Space Surveillance and Tracking System, along with the Space-Based Infrared System-High (SBIRS-H) program, would also be able to detect and track missiles from their launch to midcourse flight but, instead of using X-band radar, would use visible and infrared sensors. The Aegis system, in addition to having its own SM-3 interceptors, would also provide long-range surveillance and tracking of threats. These various means of tracking threats would be overseen and controlled by the Command and Control, Battle Management, and Communications element of the program. Information from the various surveillance systems could be correlated and passed along to the different types of interceptors, with the battle-management system used to make decisions about how to respond to threats.

Proponents of GMD technology, and particularly the contractors, focus on the capability and reliability of the key technologies. The sensor systems on the DSP satellites have a long track record of reliability. Similarly, the Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense system has successfully detected, tracked, and engaged missile targets in numerous tests. Likewise, the various phased-array radar systems that will be used for early warning and tracking of ballistic missiles have been shown to be effective and reliable. Perhaps most importantly, though, the hit-to-kill concept employed by the various kinetic kill vehicles under development for the NMD program has been demonstrated in suborbital- and terminal-engagement live-fire tests. Moreover, target-discrimination technology that fuses data from radar and EO sensors has been shown to be successful in picking warheads out from attending decoys and debris. It is their ability to demonstrate these key capabilities that is the source of much of the confidence expressed in the NMD system by officials at the MDA and its top contractors.

In all of these tests, the testers knew ahead of time where the target missiles were coming from and when they would be launched. Knowing ahead of time where and when a target is going to be makes tracking that target much easier than having no advanced notice, as might expected to be the case in an actual missile attack. Apart from criticizing the nature of the testing so far – at least to the extent that the unrealistic conditions surrounding the tests mean that statements about the system's effectiveness at this point can only be conjecture – critics also point to the use of certain types of countermeasures by enemy missile designers that could stymie the missile-defense system. These include the use of radar-absorbent materials (RAM) on the surfaces of the enemy missiles that would make them hard to detect by the interceptor sensors, as well as the use of advanced decoys to throw the interceptor off its scent.

Frankly, defeating advanced decoys and countermeasures is not in the cards for the C1 implementation of GMD. The North Koreans do not yet have a demonstrated ICBM capability, let alone the expertise to incorporate advanced countermeasures technologies into their systems. Many of the criticisms leveled at NMD – and the GMD segment in particular – about its inability to handle multiple decoys and advanced countermeasures or launches from unexpected quarters of the globe are unfair, in that such threats are not expected as imminent. The C1 implementation of GMD is a point defense against a very specific potential enemy at a particular moment in time. Everything points at North Korea. As the threat evolves, NMD will be upgraded accordingly. Charles LaDue, director of advanced missile-defense directed-energy weapons at Raytheon Missile Systems (Tucson, AZ), called this a capabilities-based approach. "The goal is to build up capabilities and deploy them to stay ahead of what the enemy can do," he said.

However, mundane problems can sometimes overshadow the greatest technological achievements. Even though the tests done to date have been quite controlled, based on advanced knowledge of the locations of objects to be tracked and targeted, not all of the tests done so far have been successful. Of the 10 times the GMD has been tested, for instance, it has successfully intercepted an incoming missile five times, with the most recent successful test in 2002, noted Victoria Samson, a research analyst with the Washington, DC-based Center for Defense Information (CDI) research group. It is important to note that all of these interception tests were done with kinetic-kill vehicles launched from modified Minuteman missiles as opposed to the GMI rocket, which is undergoing a separate test series.

Cooling problems in the EKV's EO sensor, faulty signals between the booster rocket and the payload, and faulty components in the EKV's separation mechanism have all caused test failures. The possibility of such low-tech failures compromising a missile-defense test, let alone a live interception under wartime pressures, is a real worry. The highly complex GMD system, which requires an extended chain of events to occur flawlessly in order to achieve an intercept, has had a comparatively spare testing regimen. One potentially encouraging aspect of the testing program has been periodic failures in getting decoys to inflate. Perhaps the North Koreans will have this problem, too.

The 1998 Welch Report pointed out that one of the vulnerabilities in the high-risk development track of the GMD program was that it would be "hardware poor," meaning that there would be little, if any, prototyping and that articles would fly as built. The report concluded: "Due to the inability to perform end-to-end tests in a realistic environment, simulation and analyses will provide much of the necessary design and decision information."

The CDI's Samson said that if little things like that go wrong during testing that prevent the interceptor from launching or the EKV from separating, there might be many other little problems that can't be known until much more testing is done. "You can do simulations, but they can only go so far. They can't show you how the system might really work," said Samson, who has worked as a subcontractor on war-gaming scenarios for the MDA's Directorate of Intelligence. "That's only possible with real tests."

Despite not having completed testing of the various components, the MDA in 2004 began deploying ground-based missile interceptors in Alaska, at the behest of the Bush administration, which wanted to achieve its promised goal of having some type of missile-defense capability ready by the end of 2004, even if limited. Thus, the first ground-based missile interceptor was planted at Ft. Greely, AK, on July 22, 2004. The SBX was originally scheduled to be in place by October 2005. It did perform a 58-day shakedown cruise in the Gulf of Mexico that ended that month (the 282-foot-high, 50,000-tons ocean-going structure was obliged to dodge Hurricanes Katrina and Rita), but it will be several more months until the SBX reaches its homeport of Adak Island, AK.

Testing of other NMD elements are proceeding apace. The Forward-Based Transportable X-Band Radar and an Aegis ship were tested in September to track a US Air Force missile originating from Vandenberg AFB, with their tracking information passed along to the command-and-control system. The Sea-Based X-Band radar transmitted a radar beam for the first time last Sept. 11. Also, a series of tests of the Airborne Laser's battle-management system and fire-control radar were completed this summer.

Complaining about critics who characterize the system as untested or unproven, and expressing the wish that "more people would give us the benefit of the doubt," MDA Director Lt. Gen. Henry Obering in an interview in the November issue of Arms Control Today declined to discuss in detail the likely current effectiveness of the system, saying that information is classified but calling it "much better than zero." The system cannot handle a "complex threat suite," he said, but it can handle what the MDA believes is the likely existing threat, adding that the recent unsuccessful tests of the GBI do not indicate the system's lack of functionality but were simply "technical glitches."

Wade Boese, research director of the Arms Control Association, said that calling the system's potential effectiveness, were it to be turned on for some emergency situation, "better than zero" is a little bit like saying a person who picked up a rock and threw it at a oncoming projectile of some type would have a "better than zero" chance of hitting it. It's theoretically possible, but the MDA or other proponents of the system just have no basis for determining if it would work at all, because it has not been tested realistically. "The fact is that the interceptor and the kill vehicle that make up the interceptor that's currently deployed in Alaska and California have not been flight-tested together," Boese said. "I think that should give everyone pause about how well this system has been tested."

One oft-criticized aspect of the missile-defense system is its alleged vulnerability to decoys – multiple objects launched by the enemy ballistic missile itself or simultaneously with the missile launch that distract the interceptor and its kill vehicle. One way to deal with the problem of decoys, the MDA says, is through the use of multiple kill vehicles. Thus, as an adjunct to the Ground-based Interceptor program, the Multiple Kill Vehicle (MKV) program, first unveiled in 2002, aims to create a missile able to intercept multiple enemy warheads by issuing a number of miniature missiles, each weighing 11 lbs. or so and traveling at several times the speed of sound. By striking at multiple targets, the MKVs would help guard against the use of decoys that might otherwise waylay an interceptor from the actual warheads.

But MKVs could themselves have limitations. The Center for Defense Information has estimated in research papers on the MKV program that the weight limitations of the ground-based interceptor would likely limit that number of the MKVs per launch to about a dozen, if only because the MKVs themselves cannot be so small as to lack the kinetic energy (defined as one half of the body's mass times the square of its speed) to take out an enemy warhead. In addition, the technological complexities of MKVs include their miniaturized hardware, based on the field of micro-electrical-mechanical systems (MEMS), which has garnered wide interest in a number of industries, including telecommunications but is still fairly new and untested. Developers must make sure the MKVs are able to sufficiently dissipate heat on the MKV that would otherwise damage the onboard electronics. Another problem is that an enemy warhead whose surface was cooled or painted a certain way could fool the optical sensors used by the MKVs to home in on the target.

In addition, the space-based sensors have run into a lot of developmental delays. The Space Tracking and Surveillance System, which would consist of 24 to 30 low-Earth-orbit satellites, used to be called the Space-Based Infrared Radar System-Low (SBIRS-Low) but was renamed after various cost overruns and delays. Another system to be used for tracking enemy missiles, The SBIRS-High is also notorious for its cost overruns and developmental delays.

The Bush administration and the Missile Defense Agency, while noting that the missile-defense system is a work in progress, say that an initial capability for the system already exists. But at the same time, it has not been declared operational by the US military. This points to what some observers see as essentially inaccurate statements about the system's current capability. Though not tested as a system under realistic conditions – that is, without the system having any prior knowledge of the time of the enemy missile's launch, its location, or its trajectory – the MDA and members of the Bush administration nevertheless say the program provides a "limited capability." It would not be able to stop barrage of missiles that a country like China or Russia would be able to launch, but then again, it's not intended to. This harkens back to the "high confidence" expressed that the system could, right now, defeat a one-off, two-off attack from North Korea. This was the urgent need, and this is the capability as advertised.

The unofficial motto of the NMD program is "Engage early, engage often." Building on the initial GMD capability, the US plans to deploy a series of systems that will enable this motto to be put into practice. Ultimately, the purpose of NMD is to loosen constraints on US national-security policy by reducing or even eliminating the capacity of certain nations to threaten a nuclear attack. But in order to for NMD to achieve this, it will have to be widely perceived as effective. The US is only at the initial stage of demonstrating the effectiveness of such a system. But the security-policy implications of it are already being calculated around the world.
Topol-M: Missile Defense Penetrator

by Michal Fiszer

The most promising missile in the Russian inventory is the RT-2PM2 (also called RT-2PMU; 15Zh62 according to the GRAU designation system) Topol-M, known in NATO as the SS-27. The Topol-M has a weight of 47.1 tons, a length of 22.7 m, and a diameter of 1.86 m. The system also has very high accuracy: 180-m side error and 230-m error in distance. In 2006 there are to be 50 such missiles in service, and it was also recently announced that first regiment (10 missiles) will be issued the mobile version of the missile. It is planned that 220 Topol-M missiles will be deployed through 2012, while older types (SS-18 and SS-19) will be withdrawn.

Development of the Topol-M began in 1991 at the Moscow Institute of Thermal Technology and was officially confirmed by a decree from President Boris Yeltsin in February 1993. The design team was headed by Boris Lagutin and Yuri Solomonov. The first launch test took place on Dec. 20, 1994. The first test of the mobile launcher (and the 15th overall test) took place on April 20, 2004. Production at GPO "Votkinsky Zavod" in Votkinsk got underway in 1998. The first missile was declared ready on Dec. 27, 1998, and the system was officially accepted into service on April 28, 2000.

The Topol-M has three stages, with the first stage having three rocket motors developed by the Soyuz Federal Center for Dual-Use Technologies in Moscow. This gives the missile a much higher acceleration than other ICBM types. It enables the missile to accelerate to the speed of 7,320 m/sec. and to travel a flatter trajectory to distances of up to 10,000 km. The missile carries a single warhead but has a high throw weight: about 1,200 kg. This enables three warheads to be fitted, when necessary. Presently, the capability is used to carry realistic decoys that have the same weight and radar cross-section as the actual warhead. These decoys reenter the atmosphere at the same speed and with a similar thermal signature as the actual warhead. Unlike "balloon" and "reflector" decoys, the mock reentry vehicles are not stripped away by the atmosphere and remain effective through the terminal phase. Also, the decoys are probably able to maneuver, as the actual warhead can. The warhead and decoys are all covered with radar-absorbing materials (RAM) to reduce their signatures.

Reportedly, the warhead and decoys are also equipped with active-deception jamming systems, triggered as soon as the thermal cover is dropped after decelerating in the atmosphere. The missile was developed to overcome the eventual defense system under development by the US, but not all of the details have been unveiled. Nevertheless, if the Topol-M works as described, it will be able to overcome many of the discriminator and hit-to-kill technologies being developed for the US NMD. According to a statement by Sergei Ivanov, the Russian minister of defense, each Topol-M will have an 87% chance of penetrating the GMD system.
Copyright 2005 & Horizon House Publications

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