Going Anti-Ballistic

So the Russkies are warning the U.S. not to pursue Anti-Ballistic Missle study. I’m havng trouble finding the facts, so I give what I think I know to you. Feel free to expose me as a paranoid lunatic if the sitch warrants.

  1. Despite the agreements of the ABM Treaty, the only city in the world that actually has a functional ABM system is… Moscow. As I understood it, the USSR proceeded to build that system more or less before the ink was dry on the ABM treaty.

  2. I recall reading that the Soviet Union in some way violated every arms limitation agreement they ever made with the United States.

So, 1) am I correct, or am I pulling this out of some damaged part of my brain? 2) What obligation does the U.S. really have to adhere to treaties that have been broken by a co-signor? Can we simply walk away from violated treaties, or are we legally bound to adhere to the treaties’ terms until the agreements are terminated (by Congress, I presume)?

I don’t know a whole lot but, IIRC, the ABM system around Moscow was specifically provided for in the ABM treaty. We each got one city, or something like that.

The Americans, of course, couldn’t defend one city without offending (no pun intended) all the rest, so none was built. Ask yourself – if you knew nuclear missiles were headed toward Washington, D.C. would you want them stopped?

“And comb London’s teeming millions for him? Had we but world enough and time.”
Dorothy L. Sayers
Murder Must Advertise

Since presumably the Soviet Union would have known which city was defended, I’m not sure it would have made me feel any better to be living there. I mean, it’s kind of like saying “We think THIS is our most important city! Be sure and take it out! Send a LOT of missiles here so that at least some of them get through!”

Today’s anti-ballistic missile systems aren’t much to get worked up about, AFAIK. when the Patriot batteries were deployed during the war with Iraq, the military-industrial complex crossed its collective fingers, hoping it would actually work. I know people who served, and people who worked at Raytheon on the guidance system, and they all told me they were surprised, even amazed, when they actually managed to hit something. Think about it – hitting a remote-controlled bullet with another remote-controlled bullet, under stressful conditions. And you thought air-traffic controllers had a stressful job?

Remember, the kill stats that were initially reported from the Gulf were exaggerated. Also, hitting the missile and rendering it ineffectual are very different things. Consider that (A) the warhead is still dangerous unless it is hit directly, and (B) ABM systems are short range. Who cares if you hit an incoming 10 Mton fusion device when it’s still a mile and a half from its target? It’s probably fuzed to blow at 10,000 feet, and the blast radius is so immense that you’ll have made no difference.

With the lack of accuracy of these defenses, let’s say (generously) that you could completely destroy 20% of incoming warheads, and intercept another 30% far enough from their target to make some difference. That means half of the warheads are still hitting you. With conventional weapons, this is acceptable. With nuclear, biological or chemical weapons, there’s no point in even trying with these percentages – the people on the ground are dead.

To be effective in an N/B/C attack, an ABM system has to be nearly-100% accurate and have very long range. We don’t have that capability yet. I hate to bring up the whole SDI thing from the '80s, but you’d need something like that. Namely, space-based missiles, beam weapons and sandcasters to prevent re-entry of the warheads. A means of stopping missiles on the ground, or rendering the warhead fuzes inoperable would be even better. the best bet is to not threaten to shoot the damn things at each other.

Of course, if we did that, I couldn’t say things like, “Nuke 'em 'til they glow, then shoot 'em in the dark!”

–Da Cap’n

I was hoping someone would bring up the Patriots.

At one point a source I read said that military had confirmed just ONE Patriot/Scud kill during the Gulf War.

I could be remembering incorrectly–maybe two.

Recollect, also, that the primary purpose of the ABM treaty was not to prevent missile defense but to prevent missile development. Halting missile defense was just a side effect.

The reasoning was similar to what Cap’n Crude outlined – the best way to defeat any ABM system is to overwhelm it. If the Russkies can stop 5,000 of our missiles, we’ll just send 10,000, and vice versa. So by foregoing defense we hopefully reduced the inventory on both sides and, to some extent, the potential for disaster.

Tortured reasoning, perhaps, but these were tortured times. It’s no accident that the acronym for mutually assured destruction is MAD.

“And comb London’s teeming millions for him? Had we but world enough and time.”
Dorothy L. Sayers
Murder Must Advertise

Part of the problem is that Patriots have conventional warheads. The best way to knock down a ballistic missile is with a nuclear warhead. The only Russian anti-ballistic missile I know of - the couple dozen Galoshes deployed just north of Moscow, all have nuclear warheads. (I think the treaty allowed 33 launchers and 100 missiles, but I’ll look that up.)

I don’t know if they are still truly operational. The comparable U.S. site - the one site allowed each side under the treaty 0 was going to be in North Dakota protecting our Minuteman squadrons. We never built any of them.

I bring up the nuclear warhead thing mostly to poke fun at the concept of ballistic missile interception. It’s close to impossible to do with a conventional warhead, and the futuristic alternatives (smart rocks, brilliant pebbles, energy beams, etc.) are simply futuristic. (Oops, I used a disjunct. I’m gonna git whupped by the moderators fer sure.)

Strategic Defense Systems, like the Stealth Bomber, are just another way to give the Russians itchy trigger fingers. I’d prefer anyone pointing that many SS-18s at me to be less, rather than more, nervous, but I’m kooky that way.

Nothing I write about any person or group should be applied to a larger group.

  • Boris Badenov

Oh, where to begin…

First of all, the Patriot missile was never designed as a missile interceptor. It was designed as an aircraft interceptor, but exceeded its specifications so much that it was retrofitted afterwards in the hope that it might work even a little bit for missile intercept. They got more than their money’s worth from it.

Second, If you intercept a nuclear warhead and disable it, it will almost certainly not detonate. Getting a proper fission explosion requires timing to the ten-thousandth of a second. Screw up the electronics, and that missile isn’t going to detonate if you slam it into a slab of concrete at 2000 mph.

Third, the whole ‘100% effectiveness is necessary’ thing was a giant red herring. The point to the original SDI was to prevent a first strike. To do that, you simply have to make sure that you retain the ability to counterstrike. A Soviet first strike would have been aimed at hardened missile silos. So even if you can just knock the missile a few hundred meters off course you can ensure that you can still launch your missile.

Next, the mathematics of missile defense make it impossible for your enemies to overwhelm you by throwing more missiles. Let’s say you have 7000 silos, and a missile defense around each silo that is 50% effective. If the Soviets launch a first strike, that leaves 3500 missiles to launch back. But what if they just launch two missiles at each target? That means there’s a 25% chance of each silo surviving. So we can still launch 1750 missiles. If they launch four times as many missiles, we can still counterstrike with 437 missiles.

Now, let’s say our missile defense is 90% effective (an attainable goal). Now, even if they launch 10 times as many missiles that still leaves us with 2440 missiles to launch back. They can build 50 times as many, and all we have to do is improve the system by a couple of percentage points to overcome it. It was an arms race they simply couldn’t win, which is why they hated it so much.

The net result is that a missile defense makes it impossible for the other side to launch a first strike against you, but it does nothing to make you able to launch a first strike yourself, since with even 90% effectiveness you’re still going to get hit by over 700 missiles. Therefore, it’s not an offensive system. Pacifists the world over should have been trumpeting the praises of SDI. Unfortunately, all the popular media ever presented was half-truths and misinformation.

As for the ABM treaties… The ABM system around Moscow was covered in the treaty, but the Soviets also built a massive ABM radar in Krasnoyarsk which was a clear violation.

Why is it necessary to bring land-based missiles into the equation at all?
What if the first strike did destroy 100% of our missile silos?
What could we retaliate with?
18 Ohio-class strategic missile submarines with 432 multiple-warhead Trident missiles between them.

Nothing I write about any person or group should be applied to a larger group.

  • Boris Badenov


No, no, no. Building an ABM system makes a first strike MORE likely by the other side. Why? Because we have removed the threat of their warheads against us, making them think WE are more likely to launch a first strike. (Everyone still with me?) ABM systems and SDI are offensive weapons in the nuclear race, not defensive. Building them would have been, IMHO, one of the worst things we could have done during the Cold War.

If the Soviets thought we had no fears about their missiles, the policy of mutual assured destruction breaks down. And then we have a situation of “who can press the button first.” Not one I would have been happy to see.

Falcon and dhanson,

So it sounds like the scenario works this way:

  1. Q. They’re developing ABM systems? A. Build more missiles and warheads.

  2. Q. They’re improving the technology? A. Build MORE missiles and warheads. MANY more.

  3. Q. They’re deploying the systems? A. Launch now, or forget it.

Put that together with the realization on their side that their systems might not be everything they could wish for, and that THEY DON’T TRUST US NOT TO LAUNCH ONCE WE DON’T FEAR THEM, and NOT launching (before it’s “too late”) looks like an unlikely option. Add in the facts that they were (are?) systemically paranoid anyway, and that they wouldn’t have known how far we’d gotten on the research (though they probably would’ve had a good idea), and it would’ve made for one Crazy World.

Remember, you can’t calculate the effectiveness of an ABM system in preventing (making impossible) a first strike as if we could magically get from here (no defense) to there (“no threat”). One must factor in the transition - and more and more weapons being built leading up to a perceived “use 'em or lose 'em” deadline is hardly a scenario for doves or hawks to sing the praises of, regardless of how rosy things are supposed to be “afterwards.”

David -

That was (sort of) what I was getting at. I don’t believe in ABM systems, precisely for the reasons you gave. If the Russians saw us developing a system, they would have raced to deploy and use their missiles that much faster.

Man, this thread reminds me of how much I liked government classes…thanks for the topic, Sofa King!

Another reason not to develop an ABM defense system:

Let’s say you got your missile defense up to the 90% goal. Your enemy will then come up with missiles with new technology that gets around your ABM, lowering that kill rate back down to dismal.

If the theoretical targeting systems and ABMs being developed are actually put into effect, then the anti-ABM countermeasures that could defeat these systems are relatively simple and low-tech to implement.

Current missiles don’t have anti-ABM tech. When the U.S. creates an ABM system, then missiles will be built with anti-ABM tech to get around it.

Simply put, it creates a new arms race without giving the U.S. a clear advantage.



Falcon, I guess I’ll have to learn to phrase things better when “clarifying.” I meant merely combine your and dhanson’s info., and referenced your names to make it “clear.” (Admittedly, the last paragraph was addressed more to dhanson. Sorry. And while I was at it, I should have complicated the scenario with Boris B’s subs - even the pre-Trident ones of those days. {:-Df <- that’s me; see my pointy head?)

Oh, I just thought you parted your hair in the middle. And yes, I did think it was clear you were agreeing with Falcon.

I specifically chose Trident-armed because they can hit targets all over Russia from within spittin distance of U.S. ports (if you can spit far). But you could also use pre-Trident subs if you assumed they could outfox contemporary anti-submarine technology, which I do assume but would be a little harder to prove.

Nothing I write about any person or group should be applied to a larger group.

  • Boris Badenov

When the USA and USSR were the only nuclear nations, my Perfect World solution to the arms race would have been for both of them to collaborate on an ABM system. If both nations were protected against a first strike, neither could be caught with its pants down, and any attack would be sure to provoke a devastating response.

This would be unworkable in reality, of course, because the superpowers would need to trust one another to some extent, and there wasn’t much chance of that happening. But in principle it’d be a neat idea.

Laugh hard; it’s a long way to the bank.

An offer to aid the Russians in construction of an ABM system was part of our recent entreaties to them. While some of the arguments to the effect that the best defense is no defense might have made sense back when it was just the U.S. and Russia (I’m not convinced), the situation we’re approaching is far less stable, with ICBM capability coming to several rogueish neighborhoods soon.

Boris: 432 missiles isn’t a credible enough threat for a counterstrike. The Soviet leadership may have been willing to accept the casualties that 432 missiles would inflict if they thought they could ‘win’. That was certainly the Pentagon analysis. In any event, you’d always have a few boats in port, and the Soviets had some pretty good hunter-killer subs that might have taken out a few more. Who knows how many would actually get their missiles away?

The Trident subs were important because they did complicate the enemy’s war plan. I don’t know exactly what they were typically targeted at, but it may have been industrial infrastructure or something like that so that if there WAS a first strike we might still win a conventional war.

Falcon: You don’t get it. We only ‘remove the threat against us’ if we have a 100% shield, which we were never planning to have. A more realistic goal would have been a defensive umbrella that could stop maybe 70-80% of the missiles. If they launch 10,000, we’re still getting hit by 2000-3000 missiles, which is plenty enough to deter us from first striking. But THEY can’t first strike, because we can still launch 2000 missiles back. It forces a STALEMATE, which was our nuclear policy back from the days of McNamara.

DavidForster: See my comments above. We would never have a missile system that would let us live without fear. Just one that would prevent them from eliminating our retaliatory capability. This was the same strategy proposed for the MX ‘racetrack’ missile, and for the super-hardened silo missiles. If you can put a 10% uncertainly into the ‘kill’ of a missile in the ground, you can guarantee a retaliatory strike of 700 missiles (plus the 432 Trident warheads). They can’t first strike, but we’d still be obliterated if WE struck first. Stalemate.

Moriah: You are exactly correct. SDI created a new arms race. But it was an arms race of defensive systems, which HAS to be morally superior to an offensive arms race. But more importantly, it was a technological race, and in that area the Soviets were hopelessly outclassed. Our problem with the Soviet Union is that we could never match them tank-for-tank, soldier-for-soldier, etc. They would always outnumber us as long as they were willing to spend 50% of their GDP on the military. So Reagan used an end-around tactic - stop competing with them on that playing field, and change the game to one where WE have the overwhelming superiority. That is why the Soviets were terrified of SDI. Not because they thought we could first-strike them once we had it, but because they just couldn’t compete with us technologically. And if they tried to compete through brute force, the mathematics would have bankrupted their economy.

Economically, a technological arms race has a very important side-effect: Your country is spending its money on research and development, which trickles down into the economy, instead of just building more boats and planes, which doesn’t. There have actually been a large number of SDI spinoffs that have been commercially successful.

In any event, does anyone not remember that Reagan promised to GIVE the Soviets their own copy of our SDI system once it was in place? He couldn’t do this if it made a first strike more likely.

I simply can’t understand how anyone would be willing to accept the damage from the Trident fleet.

If two-thirds of our subs are in port, six are in the water. If half of those are hit by Russian hunter-killers, we have three subs remaining, with 72 missiles total. Assuming these are the weaker C-4 Tridents, then each missile has eight 100 kiloton MIRVs. Our three survivors have four gross warheads among them, each with a yield of roughly ten times the Little Boy. If half of our warheads hit, we would have destroyed 288 Russian targets, in 72 distinct areas, more thoroughly than Hiroshima. If the Russians are willing to accept those losses than nothing we could ever do could ever threaten them in the slightest.

Nothing I write about any person or group should be applied to a larger group.

  • Boris Badenov

I totally agree with dhanson here. 70-80% safety net ABM systems are defensive weapons allowing counterstrike, deterring the enemy from first srike.

288 targets are nothing. The USSR has thousand of mobile missile launching platforms (on heavy truck chassis) that could hundreds of kilometers between recon satellite fly-bys and launch from the middle of a damn road, making the Trident fleet’s barrage look like a flesh wound.

The whole thing is scary. After the very first missile is launched and verified both sides will enter the terrifying MAD mindset. I used to play these political wargames at the U of Maryland at College Park where we did just that, and let me tell you, you sweat up a storm.

Also, don’t underestimate Russia’s technology. It is very american to think they simply had a numbers advantage but our military hardware was better. They surpassed us in many areas. Jet Interceptors, Ground Attack Helicoptors & Submarine hunting to name a few. And there’s always that space thing.

It’s the money they poured into it – a frighting amount. We spent nothing in comparison.