NMD map Joan Johnson Freese

Simulated trajectory of an Iranian ICBM (red) and a Russian SS-19 (yellow) heading for targets in the United States (visualization using Google Earth).

America wants to use policy — talks on missile defense cooperation — to make Russia feel better about the European Phased Adaptive Approach (EPAA). But the Russians, who say they think EPAA threatens their ICBMs and thus creates all sorts of arms control problems. say technology — not policy — is the problem.

The Russian Foreign Ministry has continually insisted on legally binding guarantees that US missile defenses are not aimed at it and that would allow Russia access to sensitive aspects of the system. Russia has also threatened to deploy a range of countermeasures against NATO’s missile defenses, including tactical nuclear missile deployment in Kaliningrad and improvements to its strategic nuclear missile arsenal to make it capable of evading missile defense. Whether EPAA is aimed at Russia or technically capable of even potentially intercepting Russian missiles, however, are very different considerations. But the Russians seem to ignore that simple truth that the technology is limited by physics and engineering, not political considerations.

Ironically, moving the technology further away from Russian borders could increase the potential for its successful use against Russian missiles. So, whether or not Russian technical concerns could ever really be assuaged must be questioned.

Frank Rose, deputy assistant secretary of State for arms control, verification and compliance, restated in May 2013 the declaration made at the Chicago NATO Summit held in May 2012. “The NATO missile defense in Europe will not undermine strategic stability. NATO missile defense is not directed against Russia and will not undermine Russia’s strategic deterrence capabilities.” He went on to state that “through transparency and cooperation with the United States and NATO, Russia would see firsthand that this system is designed for ballistic missile threats from outside the Euro-Atlantic area, and that NATO missile defense systems can neither negate nor undermine Russia’s strategic deterrent capabilities.”

So let’s look at EPAA’s technology and its limits .

In Phase I of EPAA, allied navy ships in the Mediterranean have been equipped with SM-3 Block IA interceptors. Phase II adds more advanced SM-3 Block IB missiles and the interceptors will also be land-based in Romania. Under Phase III, faster SM-3 Block IIA interceptor missiles are to be based at Redzikowo, Poland. In addition to protecting Europe, these can potentially offer a first line of defense against future Iranian ICBMs heading for the East Coast of the United States. (Phase IV, which includes even faster Block IIB missiles in Poland, was cancelled in March 2013.) A hypothetical Iranian ICBM (based on the North-Korean Unha-3 space launcher) heading towards the Northwestern United States passes over Poland, as illustrated in Figure 1. Russian ICBMs launched from bases in Western Russia heading for targets on the US East Coast, such as an SS-19 ‘Stiletto’ launched from a silo in Tatishchevo aimed at Norfolk Va. (as shown in the map), would pass north of Poland. This puts them within the maximum range of the interceptors.

But range is not everything. Obviously, the interceptor needs to be fast enough to reach the ICBM before it goes out of range. The SM-3 block IIA, (currently under development) has a maximum speed of roughly 4.5 km/s, which is considerably faster than the Block IA/B at 3 km/s. Its increased performance is illustrated in Figure 2, in (so-called) fly-out contours, i.e. the horizontal distances (measured over the surface of the Earth) and altitudes that the missile can reach at different times after launch. The contours were calculated based on open source data. The Block IIA obviously covers a much larger volume than the Block IA/B. The speed difference is evident from the figure, by comparing the contours at, for instance, 300 s.

EPAA JOan op-ed figure2

Figure 2: Fly-out contours of the Standard Missile 3 Block I (red) and Block II (blue), that follow from computer simulations of the missile trajectories.

For a successful intercept, the ICBM should be inside the fly-out contour corresponding to that particular time at some time after the interceptor launch. Figure 3 shows the simulated trajectory of the Iranian ICBM, seen from Poland, superimposed over the fly-out contours of the Block IIA missile. The interceptor is launched at time t=0 s. This is 300 s after the ICBM launch, just after the end of the ICBM boost phase, i.e. the time during which the ICBM engines are running. The somewhat unusual shape of the ICBM trajectory is due to it being shown in coordinates measured from the interceptor launch site. At first the ICBM approaches Redzikowo, while gaining altitude. After passing south of the interceptor site, it moves away, with the surface distance increasing.

EPAA Joan op-ed figure3

Figure 3: Trajectory of a hypothetical Iranian ICBM heading for New York superimposed on fly-out contours of the Block IIA missile in Poland. Time t=0 corresponds to the interceptor launch, 300 s into the flight of the ICBM.


Figure 3 shows that at t=300 s (600 s after its launch) the ICBM is inside the 300 s fly-out contour, where the interceptor can reach it. In this particular case the SM-3 Block IIA can intercept the ICBM between 280 s (first opportunity for intercept) and 563 s (last opportunity) after interceptor launch.

EPAA Joan op-ed figure4

Figure 4: Trajectory of an SS-19 heading for Norfolk Va. superimposed on fly-out contours of a Block IIA missile based in Poland (in green) and in the North Sea (in red).

Results of a similar simulation for the Russian SS-19 are shown in Figure 4, in green. The interceptor is again launched at 300 s after the ICBM launch (this is now a few seconds before the end of the boost phase). The launch site itself is now within range of the interceptor but the ICBM is long gone by the time the interceptor can reach it, and is never inside the corresponding fly-out contour. Other combinations of targets in the US and launch sites in Russia give a similar result: when launched from Poland, the SM-3 Block IIA interceptor is just not fast enough to intercept Russian ICBMs.

An interceptor launched within 230 s after the SS-19 launch could reach it, but currently this is not feasible. The interceptor has to be launched after the end of the ICBM boost phase. During the boost phase, the ICBM is steered towards its target and an interceptor that is launched early does not know precisely where its target will be heading and is unlikely to be able to compensate for the error. Even launching a few seconds after the boost phase has ended, as in the example of the Iranian ICBM, is fraught with difficulty.

A recent report by the U.S. General Accounting Office states that, to be more effective against Iranian ICBMs, interceptors should be based on ships in the North Sea (between the Netherlands, the UK and Scandinavia) rather than in Poland. This would buy valuable time against Iranian missiles but it is not without consequences for intercepting Russian ICBMs. Figure 4 also shows the trajectory of the SS-19 when seen from a site in the North Sea (in red). Now, an interceptor launched at 300 s after the launch of the ICBM can reach it at 300 s into flight. Placing interceptors further away from Russia actually makes intercepting (some) Russian ICBMs easier. Russian protests would likely then follow missile defense placement there as well. However, if an early launch were possible somehow or interceptors were indeed to be based in the North Sea, Russia could still prevent its ICBMs from being intercepted by allocating ICBMs based in Western Russia to targets in the Western United States instead of near the East Coast and vice versa.

The Russians have certainly run such simulations and are aware of the technical limitations of EPAA as currently configured. Whether missile defense in Europe is the right answer to the question of dealing with missile threats from countries like Iran and North Korea aside, Russian protests ring hollow and their demands for assurance are reminiscent of that wonderful Charles Schultz cartoon series where Lucy kept moving the football away from Charlie Brown whenever he tried to kick it. Whatever assurances we give the Russians will probably not be enough. Simply put, Russia is just playing politics.

Joan Johnson-Freese, a member of the Breaking Defense Board of Contributors, is an expert on strategy, US military space and the Chinese military.  She is a professor at the Naval War College and a lecturer at Harvard University.

Ralph Savelsberg is an assistant professor at the Netherlands Defence Academy in Den Helder, specializing in missile defense.



  • http://john101b.ipage.com/globalwarming/climatechange.html Jack Everett —– Mato

    America has been trying to surround Russia with missiles since Reagan. This is very interesting but in the end it’s just more military industrial complex wasted money on scare tactics to keep America in the war profiteering business.

    Iran has no ICBMs and is not trying to develop them. Iran also has a right to protect itself from Jewish terrorism and the Jews are the only Middle East country with nuclear WMD and Chemical weapons.

    America is not to be trusted to keep the treaties it makes with Russia for nuclear disarmament and unfortunately has broken every disarmament treaty it has signed and Russia knows how unreliable we are.

    We really need to get leadership back in congress and the white house before one of our loony leaders finds a way to start lobbing a few nuke at someone.

    America never stops creating these shadow threats to keep the military industrial complex getting bigger and bigger and to sell more arms to dictators that later become our supposed enemies.

    • Chernenko

      As much as it kills me I agree with Jack. If we the Aegis team ( US, Japan, and S. Korea) are going to spend money on ballistic missile defense lets at least design it on the basis of a real world weapons platform the DF-21d and not unicorn tipped Iranian missiles.

    • Curtis Conway

      “Iran has no ICBMs and is not trying to develop them.”.

      What is a Simorgh Space Launch Vehicle, Sejil missile, newly-built rocket motor test stand near Shahrud? it is interesting to note that Iran’s missiles are not controlled by the military, they are controlled by the Revolutionary Guard, which has its own air force, ground force, and navy, and which reports to Iran’s spiritual leader. That alone makes the prospect of a potential Iranian missile program even scarier. The greatest sponsor of ‘state sponsored terrorism’ on the planet claims one thing while they do something else?

  • Alan

    All lies! Please link this “open source” data where the SM-3 range suddenly triples to reach ICBMs and IRBMs. It’s impossible, all hogwash.

    • hatfey

      Block-iiA can hit IRBMs now .

  • Wilford

    If this were a high school student paper, I’d give it a C. Iran doesn’t even have missile that can reach Germany. Russian ICBMs would fly the shortest route, over the arctic, not over Europe. These clowns can’t even get the confusing SM-3 block terminology correct.

  • Robert B.

    If anyone is interested in this topic, here is a link to an article with the real details.


    Yes its just a small website, but the links are to real data sources. All the junk here is not linked to anything because its all made up BS from contractors. The SM-3 is far to small to reach any ICBMs or IRBMs, all this is gigantic fraud.

    • Tom

      That article includes a quote from the General in charge of our missile defense effort:

      In October 2011, U.S. Army Lieutenant General Patrick O’Reilly, director of the Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency, publicly reassured Russia that the current and planned SM-3s were no threat to their offensive missiles. “They would be ineffective as anti-missile interceptors against a country like Russia, whose strategic deterrent missiles are launched from deep inside its territory”, he said. “These are smaller missiles [and] can’t reach that far.”

      Exactly! But since Iran is just as far from Europe as Russia’s missiles, the smaller SM-3s that can’t reach that far are no threat to Iranian missiles either! It is obvious that this proposed “missile defense” is just a ruse.

      If these much smaller much cheaper SM-3 missiles do have the range to hit ICBMs, why are we spending so much to place huge GBIs in Alaska and Vandenberg? Because the SM-3s can’t reach high enough to hit ICBMs or even IRBMs! The sites Poland and Romania are nothing more than local anti-aircraft batteries, and the Aegis ships in the Black Sea and Sea of Japan can hit high flying missiles either!

  • Ralph Savelsberg

    The details of the sources of the information used to model the interceptors were not included in the original article to keep it from getting even longer than it already is. In response to the comments and for the sake of transparency, however, I am happy to list them:

    -The parameters for the SM-3 Block IA and B models were derived from information in IHS Jane’s Strategic Weapons systems (2008) for the 1st and 2nd stages and from ‘Navy Theater-wide defense, AEGIS LEAP Intercept/ Standard Missile Three (SM-3) Flight test Program overview‘, by Scott D. Robinson (1997), for the 3rd stage and kill vehicle. The burn-out velocity that follows from simulations with these parameters is roughly 3 km/s (obviously dependent on the exact trajectory).

    -The SM-3 Block IIA is intended to have a burn-out velocity of at least 4.5 km/s. This is not unrealistic for a solid-propellant missile with a 21 inch diameter body and the same length as the SM-3 Block IA and IB. Parameters for such a missile can be found in the technical appendix of ‘Does Missile Defence in Europe threaten Russia‘, by Dean Wilkening, in: Survival: Global Politics and strategy (2012) 54:1, p31-52. We used these parameters for the SM-3 Block IIA interceptor in the simulations.

    -The ceiling for the block IA/B and the Block IIA missiles in the envelopes in figure 2 is consistent with, for instance, ‘The anti-satellite capability of the phased adaptive approach missile defense system‘, by Laura Grego.

    • Robbie

      Not actual results, just theoretical goals from a contractor, from 2008. Can you quote me the max altitude from an actual test? If so, why is that one third the altitude of what you cite?

      • Robbie

        I see, the second link quotes an actual test of shoot down at 240km, and confirms the rest of your “conceptual” data is make believe. Keep in mind that IRBMs arc around 500kms overhead and would simply sail over these bogus defenses, as the CBO and DSB concluded.

  • Ed

    Well, it’s all very interesting, and it’s clear that the author put a lot of work in the article, but unfortunately there are one or two “hidden” assumptions that the Russians probably aren’t willing to make.

    First and foremost, how willing are the US to share the technical data in truth and in full? They are obviously aware that, if the system is said to be technically capable of intercepting Russian ICBMs, Russia would be completely justified of its protest. So, if the system so happens to be capable of intercepting Russian ICBMs, would they really be honest about it?

    Furthermore, there is, of course, the principle of the slippery slope. If the system was to be implemented without any complaints, wouldn’t it be tremendously tempting to add just one more phase to the system that could reach the Russian ICBMs? This could be done in all secracy, of course.

    The fact that the system as intended is so very nearly capable of intercepting Russian ICBMs increases the validity of both arguments.

    Of course it’s not all bad for the Russians. They do still have their subs, for one. And if painted as a violation of agreements (which can certainly be argued for), they may find themselves justified to bend some rules themselves. The appropriate word here would be “escalation”.

  • red state Republican

    Two points: many thanks for making quantitatively clear what is pretty evident from a map: that Poland-based interceptors are incapable of holding at risk more than a small fraction of the Russian ICBMs (not to mention the SLBMs) and (by giving up some throw weight), a target like Norfolk is not immune from attack from elsewhere (like Petropavlovsk). The second point is that even with much greater interceptor capability than presumed in the simulations (and I share the skepticism of the manufacturers’ claims of interceptor capability), the geography of the interceptor launch site doesn’t cover a very high proportion of potential Russian missile trajectories (like if you launch from Tatischevo aimed at San Diego) and is porous in defending any US target. The Russians object to the interceptor site because it reduces their ability to intimidate the Europeans, and otherwise their arguments are specious.

    • http://www.breakingdefense.com/ Colin Clark

      Thank you for a rational and fact-based comment. Most refreshing!

    • Ralph Savelsberg

      Thank you. I share a degree of skepticism about manufacturers’ claims and there are other thorny issues that we haven’t addressed, such as whether the
      various radars can detect the ICBMs sufficiently early and
      accurately, whether the kill-vehicles have sufficient divert capacity to compensate for errors and can discriminate between warheads and possible decoys. Those issues would all be relevant if we were discussing whether EPAA will work against possible future threats from Iran. In light of the question whether the EPAA can affect Russia’s deterrent, we’ve looked at a system that works as advertised. It would make sense to also look at a system that works better than advertised.

  • hatfey

    Crap with iran deal done there is no need for it on european soil but still US is moving with its naval shield thinking they can intercept maneuvering BMs. Funny. Gound based violates treaty ,