Relations between Russia and the United States have hit another low due to the deployment of the Aegis Ashore missile interceptor system in Romania. Russia claims that, because the Aegis Ashore uses the same vertical launch systems cells as it’s shipborne counterpart, it’s deployment is a violation of the Intermediate Nuclear Forces treaty.
Russia has also expressed concerns that the interceptors could be used to neutralize it’s nuclear arsenal. NATO claims that the Aegis Ashore was created with the intention of protecting Europe from increasingly longer range Iranian missiles, not Russia’s strategic nuclear weapons.
Russia isn’t completely delusional. The VLS cells used in the Aegis Ashore are extremely flexible. They can be loaded with both missile interceptors like the SM-2 and SM-3 and offensive weapons like the Tomahawk cruise missile. Weapon loadouts can be changed very quickly, without modifying the launcher itself.
While the range of the missiles vary, the Tomahawks generally have a range of 1600 to 1700 km. This is enough range to threaten most Russian missile bases near Europe from the current launcher in Debelsev and the proposed one in Redzikowo, Poland. However, there are no know plans to base such weapons at the missile defense sites.
Reality of the situation
NATO’s claim is the most logical. The idea that the interceptors in Debelsev could stop a nuclear attack is somewhat ridiculous. In the event of a nuclear exchange between the Russia Federation and the United States most missiles would be fired over the arctic; far outside the interceptor’s range. This is the most direct path from Russia to the American mainland.
What is most likely happening is that Russia is using the deployment as a pretext to justify it’s own destabilizing actions. Putin has lent credence to this possibility, stating that Russia should “act to neutralize” the NATO missile defense threat.
How he will do this is unclear, but there are several possibilities. Russia could develop hypersonic glide vehicles for ballistic missiles to defeat the interceptors. They could also deploy Iskander missiles to Kaliningrad to strike the ABM installations before a war. The Iskanders would be able to maneuver in the air to avoid air-defenses while also retaining the range to hit NATO ABM assets in Poland and the Baltic states.
However, both of this moves have been years in the making. Russia has deployed missiles to Kaliningrad before and currently has a program to to create a hypersonic glide vehicle that was last tested as recently as 2015. There is nothing here that we haven’t seen coming. What’s different now is they have an excuse to follow through on their plans.
The INF treaty
Perhaps the most troubling prospect isn’t a new weapon but an old one. There is the possibility Russia could also use the deployment as a pretext to withdraw from the Intermediate Nuclear Forces treaty.
Signed in 1987, the treaty banned all ground based missiles with ranges of 500 to 5500 kilometers, regardless if they carried a nuclear weapon or not. Dropping out of the INF would allow the Kremlin to develop and field intermediate range missiles that could threaten NATO military installations across Europe, including anti-ballistic missile systems in Poland and Romania.
Russia has already created several arguments suggested that the U.S and NATO have already violated the treaty. Along with the launcher in Romania they have suggested that drones are included in the treaty along with missiles used as targets for interceptors. Remember that Russia uses information as a weapon. The validity of these assertions are irrelevant as long as they are plausible enough to provide cover for Russia’s actions.
Russia’s new weapons
Back in reality, experts believe that Russia has already begun to field intermediate range weapons. R-500/ Iskander K cruise missiles have been tested on land based launchers in violation of the INF. The R-500 has an estimated range of 2000 km; long enough to strike NATO’s headquarters in Brussels from their current base in Luga. Longer range missiles could hit targets even further away, with Russia’s long range 3000 km cruise missiles capable of reaching Reykjavik from Luga.
Why Russia would leave the INF
Russian has many reasons for pursuing intermediate range missiles. The missiles could replacing lost capabilities and counter nations on it’s periphery like China. The R-500 could also offset NATO’s conventional superiority by holding NATO’s military and political assets a risk in Europe. Such a threat could be a strong tool of coercion and destabilization; threatening NATO’s cohesion and stoking fears inside the alliance.
Cruise missiles like the R-500 are also effective against ABM systems because they fly close to the ground and maneuver outside of a predictable ballistic trajectory. This complicates interception and makes them dangerous, even against hardened targets. Such missiles would also allow for land based strikes inside the Balkans and Central Europe, which had been out of range of Russia’s stock of declared tactical missiles.
Russia leaving the INF would be incredibly destabilizing and likely result in reciprocal actions by NATO. This back and forth could lead to an arms build up in Europe and increase requirements for American troops on the continent. A positive feedback loop is likely, where the Russian missile threats fuels a NATO buildup, which then would justify additional Russian defense expenditures and provocations. The end result could be a nuclear standoff in Europe, with tactical nuclear weapons reintroduced into American and Russian arsenals.