Will Missile Defense Help in a Global Nuclear War?

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by Leonid Nersisyan

The intensity of relations between the United States and Russia has reached its zenith. That has led nuclear deterrence and missile defense to once again become a relevant subject of discussion, as they were during the Cold War. I have already discussed the countries’ balance of strategic nuclear forces in a separate series of articles covering land, undersea and air components. Now it’s time to pay attention to their missile-defense system capabilities and assess whether they can—at this point or in the future—shift the strategic balance towards any party’s side.

The only existing U.S. strategic missile-defense system capable of intercepting the warheads of intercontinental ballistic missiles is GMD (Ground-Based Midcourse Defense). The principle of the system is the kinetic interception of enemy warheads prior to their entry into the atmosphere. The target is destroyed by a direct hit with a small Exoatmospheric Kill Vehicle (EKV) interceptor, which is sent to the enemy warhead by the Ground-Based Interceptor (GBI) launch vehicle. The top speed to which EKV accelerates is approximately ten kilometers per second, and the speed of an ICBM warhead is approximately seven kilometers per second. Direct head-on collision at such speeds leads to the guaranteed complete destruction of any combat unit. However, the most difficult task in this situation is to successfully lock the kinetic interceptor on a target moving at great speed. At this point, eighteen test interceptions using the GMD system have been performed, with nine being successful—only 50 percent. This is despite the fact that tests are conducted in the most benign conditions; the target is known in advance and consists of a single warhead with no missile defense breaching systems. At this point, about thirty interceptors are deployed in Alaska and California, with the plan being to increase their number to forty-four by 2017. At this stage of development, GMD will be able to knock down at least twenty warheads in case of a large-scale ICBM strike. Considering that based on the New START Treaty, Russia and the United States may possess up to 1,550 strategic nuclear warheads, this figure is small and insignificant.

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The DEFCON Warning System is a private intelligence organization which has monitored and assessed nuclear threats against the United States by national entities for over 33 years. It is not affiliated with any government agency and does not represent the alert status of any military branch. The public should make their own evaluations and not rely on the DEFCON Warning System for any strategic planning. At all times, citizens are urged to learn what steps to take in the event of a nuclear attack.

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