History of Russia's Anti-ballistic Missile (ABM) System

Published Oct 27, 2002

In 1962-63, the Soviet Union began constructing the world's first working ABM system, which was designed to protect Moscow. Originally, the system was intended to have eight complexes, each with 16 interceptors (for a total of 128 interceptors), in the Moscow area, but construction slowed in 1968 and by 1969-70 only four of the sites, with a total of 64 interceptors, were completed. Plans for additional sites were scaled back in 1972, when the signing of the ABM Treaty limited the Soviet Union and the United States each to two ABM sites totaling 200 interceptors. The system's architecture shrank again to one site with 100 interceptors when a protocol to the treaty was signed in 1974.

The Moscow system relied on a huge A-frame radar known in the West as the "Dog House" for long-range tracking and battle management. This was later supplemented by another radar, known as "Cat House," for the same purpose. A network of "Hen House" radars on the periphery of the Soviet Union provided early warning and missile acquisition information. Like the US Safeguard system, the Soviet system used a nuclear-armed missile (called the Galosh) as its interceptor. The interceptor used a warhead with a yield of several megatons -- several hundred times larger than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima.

Also like the US Safeguard program, the original Russian system had problems -- its radars were vulnerable to "blackout" or blinding by nuclear blasts (including those from its own interceptor missiles). The system also did not cover all possible attack corridors, so missiles approaching from certain directions might be undetectable. The Moscow defense was unable to deal with countermeasures, such as decoys and chaff, and could be overwhelmed by US missiles armed with MIRV warheads, which were cheap compared to the cost of maintaining or expanding the defense system. The system was designed to defend against an attack by only six to eight ICBMs -- a plausible number when the idea was first conceived in 1959, but essentially useless by the 1970's, when ICBM forces had reached massive levels. For these reasons, US intelligence assessed the Soviet system as having little ability to protect Moscow against a US attack.1

The Soviet Union began a major upgrade of its system in 1978, which remains unfinished. The new system was a two-layer defense using two types of nuclear-armed interceptors -- an improved version of the Galosh, for intercepting warheads outside the atmosphere, and the high-acceleration Gazelle (similar to the US Sprint) for intercepts within the atmosphere. The updated system, still nominally in operation, relies on the phased-array Pillbox radar at Pushkino for coverage and a network of large phased-array radars, along with the original Hen House radars. The new system apparently includes the maximum 100 interceptors allowed by the ABM Treaty. The system is still only intended to defend Moscow and is not a national missile defense.

Despite the improvements, US military and intelligence reports say the Moscow system would still be relatively easy to defeat. The Deputy Undersecretary of Defense for Strategic and Theater Nuclear Forces told the House Armed Services Committee in 1987 that although the Soviets had spent over 10 years and billions of dollars developing an ABM system, the United States could penetrate it with a small number of Minuteman ICBMs equipped with "highly effective chaff and decoys," he went on to say that, "if the Soviets should deploy more advanced or proliferated defenses we have new penetration aids as counters."2 The Department of Defense has said that the Soviet system is no more advanced than was the US Safeguard system, which was developed in the early 1970's, but deactivated as soon as it was deployed in 1975 because of its military ineffectiveness and high cost.3 A 1989 report on Soviet Military Power also concluded that "with only 100 interceptor missiles, the system can be saturated, and with only the single Pillbox radar at Pushkino providing support to these missiles, the system is highly vulnerable to suppression."

The Soviet Union continued to research both traditional and "exotic" technologies for use in ABM systems, but assessments by the Defense Department in 1988 put its programs at approximately ten years behind similar US efforts.4 Since that time, the break-up of the Soviet Union and subsequent economic troubles in Russia have led to a significant deterioration in the existing system and a lack of funding to complete the upgrade program or to undertake new research.

At the time of the Soviet Union's collapse in 1991, the new ABM system had still not reached full operational capability. Much of the early warning radar upgrade program associated with the improved system had not yet been completed, and of those radars that had been updated, several were in republics other than Russia. The sharp decline in the Russian defense budget after the break-up also effectively ended most work on the program, and the early-warning network quickly deteriorated. Despite these problems, the system has continued to operate at partial capability, and a secret presidential decree in 1995 declared that it was still operational.5

In recent years, the Russian public and press have been critical of the deployment of nuclear-armed interceptors so close to Moscow and of the high cost of maintaining and protecting the system. Some Russian defense officials, acknowledging its growing irrelevance in the face of a changed strategic situation. In February 1998, Russian Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev said at a press conference that Russia was "standing down a number of the ABM system's missiles from alert duty."6 The current state of readiness of the interceptor missiles is unclear. The radars associated with the system have other missions in addition to supporting the ABM system, so they remain operational.

Partially because of inertia, and partially because so many resources have already been expended on it, the system seems unlikely to be deactivated in the near future. However, the Defense Ministry is also unwilling to put in the amount of money necessary to keep the system operational. Instead, the Moscow system will most likely continue its decline.


  1.  Matthew Bunn, Foundation for the Future: The ABM Treaty and National Security (Washington, DC: Arms Control Association, 1990), p. 50.
  2.  Bunn, Foundation for the Future, p. 87.
  3.  Arms Control Association, Arms Control and National Security (Washington, DC: Arms Control Association, 1989), p. 84.
  4.  Strategic Defense Initiative Organization, Report to Congress, 1988.
  5.  Steven J. Zaloga, "Moscow's ABM Shield Continues to Crumble," Jane's Intelligence Review, February 1999.
  6.  Zaloga, "Moscow's ABM Shield."

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