Vardo and THAAD Radar Puts US Strategic Nuclear Planning in the Spotlight

The Vardo radar controversy, which has echoes of the Krasnoyarsk radar controversy of the 1980s, has a long history, stretching all the way back to the Clinton administration when the US was still party to the Anti Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABMT).

The New York Times has an article on the planned deployment of a new radar at Vardo, in Norway, what the Norwegians call “Globus III.” Globus II, whose service life had not long ago been extended, was the radar at the centre of the initial Vardo radar controversy.

Globus II was initially the Have Star radar, which was a powerful, 200kw, X-band radar able to detect targets as small as 1-10cm.

According to the NYT article linked above

The new radar system at Vardo will merely upgrade an earlier American-built radar system and continue its mission, Morten Haga Lunde, the chief of Norway’s military intelligence agency, said in a cryptic statement last year. That mission, he added, is to track space debris like defunct satellites and to “monitor our national area of interest in the North.”

But that is precisely the problem. According to official accounts the Vardo radar forms part of the Space Situational Awareness system of the United States, and is meant to fill a hole in coverage of space debris in geosynchronous orbit. If that is all Globus II was devoted to then it could be argued that it contributes to strategic stability, as US early warning satellites are located at geosynchronous orbit.

However, Globus II, as noted, was the Have Star radar initially deployed at Vandenberg Air Force Base and its original purpose was to monitor ballistic missile tests.

The latter was the rub for the Russians.

Vardo and another X band radar at Shemya Island gave the United States an ability to gather information on all phases of Russian ballistic missile tests, especially the mid course phase of the flight of Russian ballistic missiles tests. It is at mid course that the warheads, and associated penetration aids and ballistic missile defence countermeasures, separates from the bus. X-band radars at Vardo and Shemya could give important data for US military planners, which could be feed into a database, enabling BMD sensors, theoretically, from differentiating warheads from decoys in a timely manner during a real world crisis.

That was a point emphasised by Russian scientists, connected to the international arms control community, at the time of the initial controversy

However, analysis by Russian and American experts shows that the certain principal use of this radar will be to collect detailed intelligence data on Russia’s long-range ballistic missiles. The second radar of the same type is planned for Eareckson Air Station on Shemya Island, some 1500 miles southwest of Anchorage. Both the Vardo radar and the planned radar for Shemya Island, operating together, collect precision radar signature data on virtually every phase of Russian tests of missiles and decoys, within minutes of their launch from Northern sea, the Plesetsk test range (about 150 miles south of the White Sea), and Tatishchevo (Saratov Oblast on Volga river) to splashdown 4,000 miles away near Kamchatka. Of particular importance, HAVE STARE will be able to obtain precision data in mid-course the critical point at which warheads and decoys separate from the “bus.” Previous US radars at Vardo and Shemya have lacked the ability to perform such measurements at X-band frequencies. Information gathered by these radars would be extremely important for the US NMD system significantly improving its capability to detect and discriminate Russian warheads and to track them on re-entry

This was also strongly emphasised by Ted Postol at the time

Further, the Vardo radar and the planned radar for Shemya Island at the western end of the Aleutians could, operating together, collect precision radar signature data on virtually every phase of Russian tests of missiles and decoys, within minutes of launch from the Plesetsk test range, about 150 miles south of the White Sea, to splashdown 4,000 miles away, near Kamchatka.
Of particular importance, HAVE STARE will be able to obtain precision signature data at X-band frequencies and in mid-course–the critical point at which warheads and decoys separate from the “bus.” Previous U.S. radars at Vardo and Shemya have lacked the ability to perform such measurements at X-band frequencies.

We have seen in recent days a North Korean drone crash land after taking pictures of the US deployment of THAAD BMD batteries to South Korea. The X-band radar associated with THAAD has attracted the ire of China, and the controversy reminds one of the Vardo radar controversy. Many supposed that one of the key purposes of the South Korean THAAD radar was to also provide data of Chinese ballistic missile testing.

However, Ankit Panda provided an interesting second interpretation that might be animating Beijing’s strong opposition to THAAD deployment in South Korea.

With a third AN/TPY-2 in South Korea, the resolution of U.S. data on incoming Chinese warheads would potentially be greatly enhanced. Specifically, China may fear that penetration aids for its ICBMs — such as decoy warheads — would be degraded, lowering the certitude that its existing arsenal would be sufficient for penetrating past the U.S. ABM apparatus. Theoretically, a triangulated AN/TPY-2 setup between Japan and South Korea could give U.S. midcourse interceptors in Alaska enough warning to have a better shot at an incoming Chinese missile.

Theoretically the deployment of the THAAD radar to South Korea helps US ballistic missile defence to counter a Chinese second strike.

Now that’s interesting with reference to Globus III at Vardo because of the angle emphasised in the NYT article

What most alarms Russia, he added, is that a role for Vardo in missile defense would severely undermine Moscow’s last indisputable claim to great power status — its nuclear arsenal and the ability to launch a retaliatory second strike from its submarine fleet in the Arctic.

With Globus III there now might well be a similarity with THAAD deployment in South Korea. I’m not in possession of data regarding the technical capabilities of Globus III.

I think that the most interesting thing about the Vardo and South Korean radar controversies is the apparent revelation of the mindset of US strategic planners. Assuming that both radars are partly deployed with Russia and China in mind they show us that US strategic nuclear thinking and planning continues to be dominated by first strike counterforce considerations, and that would be bad for strategic stability.