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After of its activation almost three years ago, from time to time, I keep hearing on the news about Russia making statements about the NATO missile-defense launch system placed in Deveselu (locally known as "Deveselu shield"), namely that it is a threat to Russia (source and source):

"Both the US and NATO have made it clear the system is not designed for or capable of undermining Russia's strategic deterrence capability," US assistant secretary of state Frank Rose told a news conference in Bucharest. "Russia has repeatedly raised concerns that the U.S. and NATO defense are directed against Russia and represent a threat to its strategic nuclear deterrent. Nothing could be further from the truth," he said.

The United States says it is in "full compliance" with the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, the landmark Cold War-era nuclear accord.

The statement from the U.S. mission to NATO on February 8 came a day after Russia demanded the United States destroy a missile-defense launch system deployed in NATO member Romania in order to return to compliance with the INF.

The Romanian Foreign Ministry also had a reaction to the latest Russian statements:

(..) the ballistic missile shield at Deveselu is a strictly defensive military structure, explaining that his remarks come in relation to the Russian Defence Ministry having asked the US to destroy the Mk-41 launching system in the composition of the Deveselu shield, on the grounds that it would violate the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF).

From a layman's perspective it is quite hard to understand why a defense system would be a serious issue for such a large military power.

Question: Why is having a NATO missile-defense launch system such a big deal for Russia?

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    Probably, for the same reasons an advanced russian missile-defence shield against North Korean missiles deployed in Cuba would be a worry for the USA. – Rekesoft Feb 12 at 12:22
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There are probably several reasons for the Russian government to be making these claims. Obvious possibilities include:

They're talking to the Russian population, not the rest of the world

The Russian economy is not doing well, so it's worth focussing the population's attention on external threats. This will tend to distract them from discontent over their living conditions, the steady concentration of power and wealth in the government and its immediate allies, and so on.

We don't know how healthy the Russian strategic deterrent is

The government is short of money, but they have a lot of missiles to maintain.

It's a negotiating strategy

If they make a fuss about a missile defence system, they might be able to get some concession in exchange for accepting it.

The Russians don't regard the Iranian threat as credible

The missile defence systems installed in Poland a decade ago were explicitly for defence against Iranian missiles. The Russians didn't regard that threat as credible, mainly because they feel that the Iranian government is somewhat rational and capable of being deterred by US strategic weapons, and by French and UK SLBMs.

So they don't see any threat that that the missile defence system could be used against, apart from Russia.

They suspect the missile defence system can be rapidly strengthened

One claimed reason why the missile defence system "can't be intended for use against Russia" is that the numbers of missiles are too small to make a significant difference. However, rapid production of weaponry has been an American speciality in the past. The present-day procurement system is quite inefficient, but that could be changed.

  • You also might add, it's a negotiating strategy. Better to act like you're outraged, and try to get the other side to take half a step back, than to say "Oh, that's okay" and get nothing. At the very least, Russia is creating an excuse for itself when it does something outrageous in the future -- "you can't blame us after you did X". – user15103 Feb 9 at 21:16
  • Good point, added. – John Dallman Feb 9 at 22:09
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  1. Russians are worried that the GBIs (ground-based interceptors) can be nuclear-armed, and used for decapitation strike.

    Jeffrey Lewis (of the Arms Control Wonk blog) had an article on one angle of this topic in Foreign Policy magazine in 2016, specifically about accusations about nuclear armed interceptors at Deveselu. In it, while dismissing most of this as Russian propaganda aimed at local Romanian population, he also cites his ealrier 2012 article which explains that Russians have a legit (to them, at least) concern:

    It is a funny sort of paranoid fantasy, the notion that the United States might place nuclear weapons on missile defense interceptors and use them to decapitate the Russian leadership in Moscow. But I suspect this is the rub. The simplest explanation for Russia’s overwhelming concern with missile defense is that the General Staff fears that Russia is much, much more vulnerable to an attack against the country’s command-and-control infrastructure — what used to be called decapitation — than we realize. Part of this is a fear that missile defense interceptors could be armed as offensive missiles, part of it is that missile defenses could mop up a disorganized Russian retaliation. Most of it, however, is probably sheer terror at the persistent technological advantage held by the United States in light of Russian vulnerabilities.

  2. Russia could be worried that the state of their strategic response is bad enough that high-efficacy missile-defense sites in Europe meaningfully affect their chances of response and therefore alter strategic balance and allow "reasonable" intentions about first strike without sufficient worry about counter-strike capability. That is a general opposition to almost any missile defense.

    Obviously, there are objections to that line of thinking (see this RAND study, which also on top of its own conclusions cites Russian experts). But that doesn't necessarily convince top brass and politicians in Russia any more than technical research convinces their counterparts in the West.

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Putin has repeatedly (personally) stated that his experts advise that defense-capable missiles can be re-purposed (he calls it "reprogram", obviously invoking the idea that the only change which would be necessary would be flushing of firmware of the missiles). He, on more than one occasion, invoked the possibility that such "reprogramming" can happen without even the host countries, in Europe, noticing a change.

In the same breath, Putin also insists that any missile siloed too close to Russia can have its range increased in the future, as technology advances. This claim is somewhat supported by historical precedent. After the end of the Iran-Iraq war, Iran increased the range of the Soviet missiles (which it received from the USSR) to make them capable of striking Israel. However, the trade off for increasing the missiles' range was a reduction in their precision.

Putin has stated (in no uncertain terms) that the Russian position is that the US policy may change in the future and that any commitments made may be "reconsidered" (a clear euphemism for "reneged") by the US. And that, as a result, any hardware allowed to be deployed in Europe may be upgraded (and that the US may upgrade it clandestinely).

NOTE

The links to Putin's speeches only make sense if you can get hold of someone who speaks Russian. Sorry about that.

As is clear from the 1st link, the "translation" is just a voice over restating the news program's narrative. The actual words uttered by Putin in public tell a somewhat different story. In the 1st link, he makes the claim that a change of firmware would not be noticed by Romanians. I don't believe that this particular point was made in the voice-over "translation".

I have heard him make the same claim about Poland when he was voicing his opposition to missile-defense interceptors in Poland, but I do not currently have a link to it.

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    (+1) Note that Putin may have a point. The missile defence system was "in full compliance" with the INF Treaty when works were started at Deveselu. The US has just retracted from the INF Treaty. – Rekesoft Feb 12 at 12:18
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Mutual Assured Destruction

The basis for the modern stalemate is called Mutual Assured Destruction. Under MAD, neither side can start a nuclear war because both sides have sufficient firepower to destroy the other side even in the face of a first strike. I.e. they can each fire in response before the first strike reaches them.

Missile defense systems threaten MAD, because they can (at least theoretically) make it possible to fire a first strike and not be destroyed in turn.

You might ask why a system in Europe matters. This is because missile defense systems are more effective the closer they are to the launch point. The United States can use a defense system in Alaska to defend against a strike from Siberia, but the same system would be much less effective against a strike launched from western Russia. A base in Romania, is much closer to western Russia and therefore more effective against a western launch.

Missile defense is most effective against the Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) part of the nuclear triad. The submarine launch and bomber portions require different solutions. The issue is that the US has a reasonably good defense against bombers. So a good missile defense system would leave only the submarine launch. And there are first launch options there, as the submarines have to operate autonomously.

Now, there is good reason to think that missile defenses are incapable of stopping enough missiles to make a first strike possible. But as they improve, they weaken the MAD deterrent. As such, they make it more likely that some future US president will see a first strike as a viable option compared to the alternative. How viable is controversial. I mean, if a defense system reduces casualties from 99.999% to "only" 99.99%, is that viable?

Domestic politics

I suspect that this problem is the real issue, but it makes for a less threatening picture than the missile defense being itself used for a first strike. So they make domestic political hay with the fantasy of the missile defense missiles being used for a first strike while still addressing the more militarily important risk. Because if they are successful in getting the system removed, it doesn't matter what argument they made against it. It's still gone.

Why it's a fantasy

In terms of the missile defense system being used for a first strike, this hardly seems necessary. The submarine and bomber legs of the nuclear triad are perfectly capable of engaging in a first strike. And they don't require any retrofitting. It would seem much easier for the submarines to get into launch position than to

  1. Build nuclear warheads for the defense missiles.
  2. Ship them to the location of the defense missiles.
  3. Install them.

All of those steps take time. If the US wanted to take that time, why not just ship in some ICBMs? But even that's unnecessary. The US could move submarines into position as easily as shipping the warheads and with much less risk of a leak. Submarines can be given sealed orders and are generally kept from communicating with the outside world. The three steps to turn the defensive missiles into offensive nuclear missiles would require taking normally public actions in secret. That very secrecy would risk the project.

  • Your point about submarines doesn't quite hold. Unless, of course, the balance has changed since the end of the Cold War. During the Cold War, the naval balance was maintained by the US having aircraft carriers while the SU vastly outnumbered the US in submarines. Submarines can only be tracked by submarines shadowing them. They cannot be tracked with satellites or with any radar/sonar equipment because of the volume of the ocean. Which meant that USSR always new where the US submarines were, but not vice versa. On the other hand, US had the ability to strike any coast with carriers. – grovkin Feb 14 at 3:01

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