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Can the US Shoot Down a Nuke From Russia? | What to Know

With an increased number of verbal threats in recent years from Russia related to the use of nuclear weapons against the United States and other countries, the question of nuclear war has once again come to the public’s consciousness. If Russia were to launch nukes toward the United States, would we be able to shoot them down?

The U.S. has the ability to shoot down more conventional ballistic nuclear missiles from Russia. However, it lacks the ability to shoot down newer, more advanced Russian missiles, such as glide and hypersonic missiles. The U.S.’s main defense against such weapons lies in deterrence.

What intercept capabilities does the U.S. possess? This article will attempt to explain the current state of U.S. nuclear missile interception capabilities as they pertain to Russia’s current and future nuclear arsenal.

Missile defense system made of anti-missile tanks to intercept and destroy attacking missiles in the sky 3D illustration

What are Interceptors and How Do They Work?

Interceptors are just one component of the U.S. missile defense system. The other two are the Sensors and Command and Control centers that inform and control the interceptors. Interceptors are what usually come to mind when talking about the U.S.’s ability to “shoot down” nukes.

The U.S. missile defense system that is in place today is the result of continuous investment by several different U.S. administrations, beginning with Ronald Reagan during the Cold War with Russia.

The Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) as envisioned by Reagan was intended to provide a layered Ballistic Missile Defense (BDI) system that would make the U.S. invulnerable to nuclear attack.

Although the initiative has fallen far short of its intended goal, it has been responsible for a vast array of technological advancements. The fact remains that the U.S. only has the capability to shoot down missiles at certain stages in their trajectory, and has no defense against the now more advanced ballistic missile threats that Russia now possesses. No significant progress has been made toward this goal for a long time.

Because of the way ballistic missiles work, it is useful to examine the different stages that nuclear missiles go through from launch to detonation in order to analyze the capabilities that the U.S. possesses to intercept them. These stages will now be listed in order.

Boost Phase

This includes the brief window of time between a nuclear missile’s launch from its platform until its engines quit thrusting.

Midcourse Phase

The midcourse phase is the longest of the three phases and is currently the most viable time in which to shoot down a nuclear missile. Because it takes the longest, it is possible, in some cases, to make multiple attempts at interception during this phase. The ability of the U.S. to make a second attempt at intercepting a missile in this phase is dependent upon several factors, including the quality of U.S. data about the missile’s trajectory.

Terminal Phase

The terminal phase lasts less than 60 seconds and describes the period of time in which the missile plummets from the atmosphere towards the earth, where it will then detonate either on the ground or at a pre-determined distance above the ground. It is very difficult to intercept a nuclear missile during this phase.

Related How Far Russia’s Nuclear Weapons Reach | Is Anywhere Safe?

Boost Phase Interceptor Capability

The U.S. currently does not have any interception system capable of destroying a nuclear weapon during its boost phase. The U.S. has pursued the technology to do so a few times with the following programs:

  • Airborne Laser, or the Boeing YAL-1 Testbed system, which was successfully tested at some point.
  • Network Centric Air Defense Element, which could be launched by virtually any aircraft, including drones.
  • Kinetic Energy Interceptor.
  • Air-Launched Hit-to-Kill missile.

However, these programs have all been canceled for one reason or another, and the U.S. hasn’t made significant progress on any similar program for quite some time. These systems could potentially be the best option when it comes to defending against modern ballistic missile advancements because the missiles cannot maneuver or deploy decoy warheads during this time.

Midcourse Phase Interceptor Capability

There are two different U.S. systems that are capable of shooting down missiles during the mid-course phase of flight.

The Ground-Based Midcourse Defense (GMD) System

This system is the only one capable of shooting down ICBMs headed toward the continental United States. It includes 40 Ground-Based Interceptors at Fort Greely in Alaska and 4 at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

These GBIs are made up of two main parts: a rocket booster to launch them and an EKV, or Exoatmospheric Kill Vehicle, which is the part that actually intercepts or “shoots down” the missile that is being targeted.

This system is in the process of being upgraded with new interceptors that can carry more kill vehicles and thus shoot down more warheads. This is important because modern nuclear missiles sometimes contain multiple or decoy warheads.

Related The 16 Safest US Cities From Nuclear Attack.

The Aegis Defense System

The Aegis defense system is the sea-based part of the missile defense system. In comparison, the GMD system is meant to intercept long-range missiles, while the Aegis system targets short, medium, and intermediate-range ballistic missiles. It has some capability against cruise missiles as well. This system is also in the process of being expanded and upgraded.

Illustration of the US Navy Ticonderoga class guided missile cruiser

Terminal Phase Interceptor Capability

The U.S. has three different terminal-phase missile defense systems, namely, the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD), the Aegis BMD, and the Patriot missile defense system.

The THAAD system is deployed worldwide and has been used in the field. The Patriot provides defense from short-range ballistic missiles and is also deployed worldwide. It is highly portable and is made up of several different components, including a special radar that works together to target and intercept missiles.

Related The 16 Most Likely Russian Nuclear Targets in the US.

Which Russian Nuclear Weapons Can the U.S. Intercept?

Russia has over 6,000 nuclear warheads and a lot of highly advanced technology. In the event of an attack, the U.S. wouldn’t be able to intercept very many of them. The U.S. could defend somewhat well against a modest attack on regional targets, but in the case of the all-out attack that would likely occur if Russia were to attack the U.S., the U.S. would be incredibly vulnerable. The fact is that newer missile systems, such as the Zircon missile, are designed specifically by Russia to evade U.S. missile defenses.

The Zircon missile can fly at 7,000 miles per hour, or over 9 times the speed of sound (Mach 9). It has a range of over 1,000 kilometers or 620 miles. However, the U.S. has maintained that it can defend its own interests in spite of these missiles.

The Avangard hypersonic glide vehicle is another piece of advanced equipment that allows missiles to change their trajectory mid-flight, which is a huge advancement compared to the relatively fixed launch trajectories of traditional I.C.B.M.s. The Avangard is a much more concerning development due to its claimed maximum speed of Mach 20-27 and its longer range.

Illustration of a hypersonic missile flying above the clouds

Russia has approximately 1,185 Intercontinental ballistic missiles, 800 submarine-launched ballistic missiles, and 580 Air-launched bomber-carried nuclear missiles. The U.S. possesses only 44 interceptors as part of the Ground-based Midcourse Defense system. Hence, one can see that a disparity exists between the U.S.’s desire for guaranteed safety and Russia’s capabilities.

However, it should be mentioned that the U.S. is working on its own nuclear and conventional weapons capabilities with the Prompt Global Strike system, which could, in some regards, supplement the U.S. nuclear arsenal with quickly deployable conventional weapons.

The U.S. has also successfully tested a prototype hypersonic missile, the AGM-183A Air-launched Rapid Response Weapon, or ARRW (“Arrow”). This means that in many ways, the U.S. is at least on par with Russia in terms of new offensive capabilities, maintaining the system of Mutually Assured Destruction (M.A.D.) that has prevented nuclear war so far.

I hope this article has been informative.

Thanks for reading!

For more, check out US Nuclear Target Map: Most Safe and Unsafe Areas.