Russia to Modernize Moscow Missile Defense

 - June 26, 2019, 12:45 PM
The MMZ Avangard factory in Moscow produced the massive A-925 (51T6) nuclear-tipped interceptor in the early 1990s. The weapon is no longer in use. (photo: MMZ Avangard via Vladimir Karnozov)

Speaking at a top-brass conference on June 19, Russian defense minister Sergei Shoigu said that development of the S-350 Vityaz medium-range SAM (surface to air missile) is now complete, and that of the Pantsyr-SM point defense system will be finalized by 2021. More importantly, the modernization of the missile defense system protecting the “Central Industrial Region” around Moscow will be completed in 2022, some two to three years ahead of an earlier schedule. The minister put this modernization on the list of high-priority tasks set before the Russian Air and Space Force (VKS).

Shoigu’s statement comes two weeks after the defense ministry released a video of an anti-missile launch. While it is not clear whether the particular testing involved S-500 or A-235 systems, the video release carried the message that next-generation anti-missile systems are in a high degree of readiness.

The future of Moscow’s anti-missile defense is associated with the Nudol project, under which a next-generation system to intercept incoming ballistic missiles is being established. It employs the A-235 weapon capable of engaging targets in near space, including satellites in orbits 500- to 700 km (310 to 435 miles) high. Reportedly, six launches were made in 2014-2018.

Although technically the Nudol is the next evolutionary step after the A-35, A-35M, and A-135, it represents a major departure from older systems through the use of conventionally armed rather than nuclear-tipped interceptors. Additionally, the whole system is mobile. This, and other features, enable the A-235 to be used in local (or restricted) conflicts, given that deploying an atomic warhead—even in an alleged self-protection role (to intercept an incoming missile)—is fraught with the dangers of starting a nuclear war.

Last year, the deputy chairman of the Russian government and former deputy defense minister responsible for weapons procurement, Yuri Borisov, described the Nudol as one of the projects through which Russia is pursuing development of next-generation weapon systems that have no counterparts in the West.

The A-235 will replace the A-135 Amur, with the added capability to engage satellites. Firing range is doubled, to some 1,000 nautical miles. The system is said to be able to intercept incoming ballistic missiles approaching at speeds up to Mach 10, compared to Mach 4-to-5 for the previous generation.

While the initial A-35 and A-35M completely relied on huge 20-meter exo-atmosphere interceptors weighing 33-to-40 tonnes, the A-135 also employs smaller 10-tonne projectiles. Originally, it came with the larger 51T6 (firing range of up to 600 km, maximum altitude of 670 km) and smaller 53T6 (100-km and 48-km, respectively). The former has been retired from active service due to expiring lifetimes; the latter remains operational until the A-235 is fielded.

After both A-235 and S-500 become available, Russia will have a complete composition of air defense means made up of small, medium, large and super-heavy interceptors. Today, there is a huge gap between the Ground-Based Midcourse Defense (GMD) and Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) in terms of missile weight (20 and 0.9 tonnes, respectively, for these U.S. systems), and their performance.

Russia appears to have been persistently narrowing the gap between the two classes. As a first step, it inducted the S-400 SAM with a 1.9-tonne 40N6 interceptor and the S-300VM4 (export designation Antey 2500) with the 2.3-tonne 9M83 and 4.7-tonne 9M82 missiles, all with the added capability of intercepting short- and medium-range ballistic missiles. The more recent S-500 will also handle intermediate ballistic missiles (with a firing range of up to 3,500 km), and yet remains a versatile defense system able to act against both aerodynamic and ballistic targets. Apparently, the core idea is to make use of unified surveillance and engagement radars against both classes of targets, while providing some tactical flexibility through the employment of several missiles types in a SAM system, so as to afford an optimal choice against a particular target.