Could Russia’s Nuclear “Shield” Let Moscow Survive a Nuclear War?

 In CIS, Russia, P5, Nuclear Reactors, Materials, and Waste

Here’s What You Need To Remember: The A‑35 system was designed to pro­tect Moscow and the Kremlin against six to eight nuclear ICBMs. The main U.S. ICBM at the time, Minuteman III could carry three war­heads each, making that eigh­teen to twenty-four war­heads.

The most heav­i­ly defend­ed city in the world is not Washington, DC. It’s Moscow. While the District of Columbia has legions of Secret Service and Homeland Security police defend­ing it, the Russian cap­i­tal is the only one in the world — that we know of — defend­ed with nuclear-tipped mis­siles. It’s all the result of an excep­tion built into a forty-four-year-old arms con­trol treaty.

The 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty was an arms con­trol agree­ment between the United States and Soviet Union. Unlike other treaties that focused on offen­sive weapons, the ABM Treaty focused on lim­it­ing defen­sive weapons, mis­siles designed to knock down incom­ing nuclear war­heads. The theory behind the treaty was that unre­strict­ed ABM mis­sile deploy­ments on both sides would lead to ever-esca­lat­ing offen­sive mis­sile arse­nals, as each side tried to over­come the other’s ever-grow­ing defens­es.

The ABM Treaty didn’t outlaw all ABMs, how­ev­er: each side was allowed a single ABM site with up to one hun­dred mis­siles. It could place them where it wished. The United States decid­ed to place the Safeguard system around Grand Forks Air Force Base in North Dakota, hoping in doing so to shield its most lethal and accu­rate mis­siles from sur­prise attack. Safeguard was only briefly oper­a­tional before it was dis­man­tled; pro­tect­ing a single loca­tion with an enor­mous­ly expen­sive system didn’t make sense.

The Soviet Union, on the other hand, was a highly cen­tral­ized gov­ern­ment with the cap­i­tal city of Moscow at the center. The destruc­tion of Moscow in a sur­prise nuclear first strike could crip­ple the USSR’s abil­i­ty to respond in kind. The result was the A‑35 system, a com­plete air defense net­work designed to ensure Moscow’s sur­vival in a nuclear war.

The A-35 system was first pro­posed in the 1950s, as American inter­con­ti­nen­tal bal­lis­tic mis­siles began to eclipse bombers as a major threat to Moscow. The orig­i­nal con­cept called for thirty-two antibal­lis­tic mis­sile sites ring­ing the city, along with eight bal­lis­tic mis­sile early warn­ing radars and one battle man­age­ment radar. Over the course of devel­op­ment, the number of mis­sile sites was reduced to four sites of eight launch­ers each (sixty-four mis­siles total), but the mis­siles them­selves would be armed with nuclear war­heads, great­ly increas­ing their effec­tive­ness. Instead of destroy­ing a bullet with a bullet, the ABM system would destroy bul­lets with well-timed hand grenades.

The system was first armed with the A‑350 antibal­lis­tic mis­sile. The A‑350 was nearly the size of an ICBM itself, a liquid-fueled rocket weigh­ing sev­en­ty-two thou­sand pounds. Armed with a two-to-three-mega­ton war­head, it was designed to inter­cept incom­ing war­heads at alti­tudes of up to 120 kilo­me­ters — high enough not to damage the city below with the ensu­ing ther­monu­clear blast. In addi­tion to the A‑350, Moscow was also sur­round­ed by forty-eight SA‑1 “Golden Eagle” sur­face-to-air mis­siles, each of which had a range of fifty kilo­me­ters and either a con­ven­tion­al or nuclear war­head, for inter­cep­tion of enemy bombers.

The A‑35 system was designed to pro­tect Moscow and the Kremlin against six to eight nuclear ICBMs. The main U.S. ICBM at the time, Minuteman III could carry three war­heads each, making that eigh­teen to twenty-four war­heads.

Despite these prepa­ra­tions, rapid­ly expand­ing nuclear arse­nals on both sides made A‑35 obso­lete. By the time of com­ple­tion, A‑35 was up against one thou­sand Minuteman III mis­siles, plus anoth­er six hun­dred Polaris mis­siles at sea, a number the system could not pos­si­bly stop. By 1968 the U.S. blue­print for nuclear war, the Single Integrated Operating Procedure (SIOP), dedicated sixty-six Minuteman missiles and two Polaris mis­siles to strip­ping away A‑350’s mis­sile and radar net­work in two dev­as­tat­ing waves, an attack amount­ing to eight war­heads per target. Altogether, an aston­ish­ing 65,200 kilo­tons of nuclear fire­pow­er would be used in a nuclear siege of Moscow last­ing just min­utes. (For ref­er­ence, the atomic bomb used at Hiroshima was six­teen kilo­tons.)

The ABM system was upgrad­ed in the mid-1970s. The new A‑135 system was designed not just to pro­tect the cap­i­tal against all-out nuclear war but a lim­it­ed attack, per­haps acci­den­tal or start­ed by some renegade American general. The system began devel­op­ment in 1968 but only became oper­a­tional in 1989. It was only con­sid­ered reli­able, how­ev­er, as recent­ly as 1995.

A‑135 was a sub­stan­tial upgrade. It added sixty-eight new mis­siles launch­ers to the orig­i­nal thirty-two, giving Moscow the full one hun­dred ABM launch­ers allowed under treaty. It used two mis­siles, the Novator 53T6 (NATO code name: Gazelle) endoat­mos­pher­ic inter­cep­tor and the OKB Fakel 51T6 (code name: Gorgon) exoat­mos­pher­ic inter­cep­tor. Both inter­cep­tors used ten-kilo­ton war­heads, much small­er than the A‑350’s war­head and a tes­ta­ment to Moscow’s faith in the accu­ra­cy of the mis­siles.

The thirty-two Gorgon mis­siles reached the end of their serviceable lives in 2002-03, and had been removed from active duty ser­vice by 2006. Meanwhile, the 53T6 mis­siles have alleged­ly been replaced with new mis­siles, also named 53T6, with a range of eighty kilo­me­ters and an alti­tude of thirty thou­sand meters.

Despite the new mis­siles, the future for Moscow’s ABM system is unclear. Much of the exist­ing system is old and will even­tu­al­ly need replac­ing. That will be expen­sive, and Russia’s defense spend­ing has begun falling again. Under the New START treaty the coun­try is allowed only 1,550 deploy­able nuclear war­heads, and the ques­tion is whether or not A‑135’s war­heads are more valu­able on bal­lis­tic mis­sile inter­cep­tors or bal­lis­tic mis­siles. Sooner or later, Moscow will have to decide whether to prop up such a lim­it­ed system, or go all in on nuclear deter­rence.

Kyle Mizokami is a defense and nation­al-secu­ri­ty writer based in San Francisco who has appeared in the Diplomat, Foreign Policy, War is Boring and the Daily Beast. In 2009 he cofound­ed the defense and secu­ri­ty blog Japan Security Watch. You can follow him on Twitter: @KyleMizokami. This first appeared in November 2016 and is being repost­ed due to reader inter­est.

Image: Reuters.

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