Tour of Russia’s Missile Defense Facilities


05/27/2011 By Richard Weitz

The second day of the Russia site visit began with a tour of the DON-2N multifunctional radar station at Sofrino, about 90 minutes outside Moscow. The facility is one of Russia’s most important aerospace facilities. It is a major component of Moscow’s missile defense system, which the Soviet Union constructed to protect the capital.

The Soviet government preserved the Moscow system as its sole missile defense site permitted by the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty. The DON-2N radar station can detect and track ballistic missiles, analyze targets, and aim interceptor missiles at them.

Furthermore, the radar station contributes to Russia’s unified missile warning and space surveillance system. It also detects and tracks objects in outer space and sends this data to Russia’s Central Space Surveillance Center.

Although the base commander greeted our group and saw us off, we were given a lengthy tour by Major General Vladimir Derkach, First Deputy Commander of the Russian Space Forces

As part of Russia’s military reforms, the Russian Space Forces (Космические войска России) are being merged with the Air Defense Forces into a single command. Earlier, they had been part of the Strategic Missile Forces, but this merger proved detrimental since the offensive forces received priority funding and other treatment. The Space Forces operate the GLONASS global positioning system as well as control the Baikonur, Plesetsk, and Svobodny Cosmodromes.

After we entered the complex and left all our electronic devices behind, the tour of the DON-2N multifunctional radar station began with tea, coffee, and some informal chatting with Derkach. Then we visited the base’s one-room interior museum. General Derkach explained that all Space Force units have such museums to assimilate new officers as well as remind all those at the station of their traditions and values.

Construction of the radar started in 1978. It became operational in 1996. The station’s exterior resembles a four-sided truncated regular pyramid. It is 30 meters high. The sides of its lower platforms measure 140 meters, while its upper platforms are 100 meters in length. The sides house phased array antennas for tracking targets and guiding interceptors.

Many of its systems operate automatically and are highly jam-resistant. It has independent supplies of power, water, food, and other inputs needed to function regardless of its external environment. Its key systems are duplicated to provide redundancies in case of attack, failure in one system, or the need to replace equipment and parts without shutting down.

The radar is capable of monitoring the airspace throughout the former Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, and other areas such as Iran. It works with Russia’s early warning satellites and the new radars Russia is constructing on its periphery to provide Russian commanders with aerospace situational awareness.

Although this was not discussed in the museum display, for some time in the 1990s, following the disintegration of the Soviet Union (many of whose early warning radars were situated in the other Soviet republics) and a sharp decrease in military spending (which led to failure to build and launch a sufficient number of new satellites to replace the Soviet-era ones when they went out of service), Russian leaders lost this capacity.

Both Russians and foreigners were concerned about this situation of uncertain early warning, since it could lead Russians to misperceive a nonexistent foreign missile attack on the Russian Federation.

After the museum, we then saw the display where the aerospace information is projected on a big screen. The command center used the kinds of telephones common in the United States in the 1970s and 1980s, while the display also looked like it did not use the latest big screen technology. Nonetheless, Derkach said the system was very accurate, and could easily detect objects the size of a soccer ball and focus on select objects with even greater accuracy.

The General explained that the radar’s command and control system operates automatically once it receives authorization to do so from the General Staff. We then entered a section of the station that allowed direct access to its exterior walls, where we saw one of the elements of the phased array being removed for repair.

Unlike the NATO hit-to-kill systems, Russian missile interceptors use nuclear-armed warheads. General Derkach said that Russia planned to transition to the use of only conventional warheads as the detection, targeting, and interception capabilities of the Russian systems improved and as the requirements for Russian missile defense changed.

Due to its explosive power and other effects, a nuclear warhead can more easily destroy incoming warheads as well as their decoys, which present problems for “hit-to-kill” systems that must distinguish between genuine warheads and decoys. NATO countries, which have long abandoned the use of nuclear warheads for missile or air defense, are eager to promote this conversion since they contribute to the imbalance in the number of so-called non-strategic (also known as tactical) nuclear warheads and make it difficult to negotiate arms control agreements between Russia and the West.

Many U.S. Senators have indicated that they would not support another Russian-U.S. strategic arms control agreement unless it placed restrictions on Russia’s large stockpile of non-strategic nuclear weapons.

General Derkach stressed that the DON-2 radar station, and other Russian facilities, could make an important contribution to any joint NATO-Russian missile defense system. He claimed it can detect all missile launches from Iran despite their initial launch site and subsequent trajectory.

Although the General stressed that Russia’s participation in any multinational missile defense system was a decision for the country’s political leaders, Derkach said it could theoretically save money, augment protection against missile threats, and promote international cooperation.

General Derkach explained that the DON-2 radar was also used to track outer space debris. Space is becoming more congested with orbital debris and other objects. Estimates are that there are more than 100,000 man-made objects in space, of which current technologies can track some 20,000 items. Even very small and undetectable debris can still threaten the more than one thousand active satellites and manned space ships.

Since my sister works for NASA, I asked the General about the new U.S. National Security Space Strategy, which calls for the United States to cooperate with foreign countries to address the growing quantity of space debris. A priority is sharing more data about debris and orbital locations with the private sector, foreign governments, and intergovernmental organizations.

The collaboration aims to improve the international community’s ability to rapidly detect and respond to adverse developments in space. The new approach recognizes that no one nation has the resources or geography necessary to track every space object. The goal is to avoid collisions by notifying satellite operators much earlier and with much greater accuracy of potentially hazardous conjunctions between orbiting objects.

General Derkach said that cooperation could easily proceed in two ways.

First, Russia, the United States, and other countries should make sure to avoid adding more debris by, for example, testing anti-satellite weapons (which the Chinese did in 2007, breaking a two-decades moratorium on such tests) or conducting more interceptions in outer space. He said the DON-2 radar station could help target and intercept objects in both the air and in outer space, but that the Russians had never used it for the latter purpose.

Second, Russia, the United States, and other countries could exchange information about the volume and location of space debris to improve situational awareness and minimize accidental collusions. Derkach agreed that orbital debris was becoming a major problem for Russia and other space powers since it damaged satellites and threatened space ships

We were all impressed by General Derkach’s professional manner and willingness to answer all our questions in a frank and often detailed way. At one point, he noted that all officers of the Russian Space Forces are educated at the Mozhayskogo Military Engineering-Space Krasnoznamennyy in Saint Petersburg. Even in Soviet times, the officers serving with the strategic offensive and strategic offensive forces were well-respected for their high levels of education and other attributes.

Meeting the General and his team made us feel that this superior performance continues despite the constraints placed on Russia’s defense budget and other military capabilities.