Explainer

Putin’s Fixation With an Old-School U.S. Missile Launcher

Russia says the Pentagon’s European missile defense isn’t so defensive after all. Does it have a point?

By , Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter.
A U.S. Navy sailor walks past an MK 41 pad on the USS Chafee (DDG-90), anchored at a South Korean naval port in Donghae.
A U.S. Navy sailor walks past an MK 41 pad on the USS Chafee (DDG-90), anchored at a South Korean naval port in Donghae, about 118 miles east of Seoul, on March 12, 2009. Kim Jae-Hwan/AFP via Getty Images

When top Russian officials huddled before whirlwind arms control talks with the United States this week, they weren’t preoccupied with fears of a state-of-the-art futuristic U.S. weapons system being developed in a clandestine Pentagon laboratory.

Instead, with Russian troops continuing to build up on the Ukrainian border, their minds were on a U.S. weapons system that was first deployed way back in the Reagan administration, on U.S. destroyers, to fire Tomahawk cruise missiles. 

The Mark 41 missile launcher, also known as the MK 41, has been fired more than 4,000 times since first entering service in the 1980s by the United States and its allies and over three decades has become the Defense Department’s weapon of choice for retaliatory strikes, used everywhere from Iraq and Syria to the former Yugoslavia. Now Russia is worried that it could be the next target. 

When top Russian officials huddled before whirlwind arms control talks with the United States this week, they weren’t preoccupied with fears of a state-of-the-art futuristic U.S. weapons system being developed in a clandestine Pentagon laboratory.

Instead, with Russian troops continuing to build up on the Ukrainian border, their minds were on a U.S. weapons system that was first deployed way back in the Reagan administration, on U.S. destroyers, to fire Tomahawk cruise missiles. 

The Mark 41 missile launcher, also known as the MK 41, has been fired more than 4,000 times since first entering service in the 1980s by the United States and its allies and over three decades has become the Defense Department’s weapon of choice for retaliatory strikes, used everywhere from Iraq and Syria to the former Yugoslavia. Now Russia is worried that it could be the next target. 

The United States also uses the MK 41 in a defensive capacity—as launchers to shoot down incoming ballistic missiles in mid-flight. The Pentagon has set up missile defense batteries, known as Aegis Ashore, on former Soviet turf in Romania and will soon do so in Poland. The Kremlin smells a U.S. cover-up. It fears the United States could covertly adapt the defensive batteries to fire Tomahawks into Moscow’s airspace. 

“When we express concern about this, we are told, in effect: ‘Just trust us,’” Anatoly Antonov, the Russian ambassador to the United States, wrote in Foreign Policy last month. (Antonov is under sanctions in the European Union and Canada for his role in Russia’s 2014 military incursion in eastern Ukraine, when he served as Russia’s No. 2 defense official.)

The theoretical possibility of MK 41s being used on European soil for offensive purposes has become a subject of increasing heartburn for Russia as NATO and its missile defenses have crept deeper into Eastern Europe. These missile defenses are a protective shell of sensors and batteries, the Americans say; the Obama administration said they were needed to defend against Iran before inking the 2015 nuclear deal. 

Especially galling to the Russians is that starting in 2013, the Obama team raised concerns about Moscow’s compliance with Cold War-era arms control treaties, arguing that Russia’s development and deployment of ground-launched cruise missiles went beyond the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. That treaty forbids both sides from developing land-based missiles and launchers that could hit targets between 310 and 3,400 miles away. 

In response, the Kremlin began calling out perceived INF violations—including the MK 41 launchers creeping closer to Russia’s borders. (The United States withdrew from the treaty in 2019 at the direction of then-President Donald Trump.)

Experts said Russia’s argument against the MK 41 deployments is partly grounded in a hard-learned historical lesson. Ever since the United States went back on promises not to expand NATO in the 1990s, particularly by extending the alliance into the Baltic states, Russia has fought back hard against the possibility of Western military hardware creeping up toward its border. 

“It is a matter of national security for Russia because it regards NATO’s military presence in terms of the distance of a [precision-guided munition] strike into the Russian heartland from NATO’s easternmost border,” said Samuel Bendett, an advisor with the CNA think tank and a member of the organization’s Russia Studies Program. “This is how Russia views any NATO activity in Ukraine or in the former Soviet states.”

Do the Russians have a point? Technically, yes, but it’s complicated. Few missile defense experts buy Moscow’s argument that the Aegis Ashore system is a covert cover-up for putting cruise missiles closer to Russia’s borders. But the MK 41 launchers inside the missile defense batteries could be adapted to fire Tomahawks, experts said, if all the supporting hardware and software is also upgraded for that purpose. Those updates—or trucking in new weapons—would be difficult to do without tipping Russian intelligence agencies. 

Still, while the INF Treaty didn’t explicitly prohibit fixed missile launchers such as the MK 41, experts said it could still be seen as a violation of the spirit of the treaty since it is capable of launching land-based cruise missiles. 

“The way I would say it is it’s certainly not in line with the spirit of the treaty but it’s OK with the letter of the treaty,” said Pavel Podvig, an independent analyst based in Geneva who studies Russian nuclear forces. “You could install those fixed launchers, and they would not be different from mobile launchers, for that matter.”

U.S. officials have long brushed aside Russia’s fears about the MK 41 launchers on European soil, insisting that it is strictly a defensive system. Yet as negotiations between the United States and Russia heat up over Ukraine this week, there appears to be some wiggle room on missile defense—one of the areas where Presidents Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin seemed open to compromise after meeting in Geneva last June. In that way, the Russian gripes over the Cold War-era missile launcher could be a cudgel for a larger debate: over the conditions for reentering a reimagined INF Treaty. 

Wendy Sherman, the State Department’s No. 2 official, said the Russian side had addressed concerns that led to the demise of the INF Treaty and said both sides discussed “preliminary ideas” about missile placement along the treaty’s defunct lines. (Moscow has floated a possible ban on INF-range missiles in Europe.)

The concerns that could lead to another deal go both ways. The United States would like to keep NATO countries out of Russian missile range, and Russia has similar concerns about its homeland. Moscow is calling for Washington to allow inspections of the missile defense batteries as a reciprocal condition for further arms control talks, ensuring that they can only fire interceptors. 

“We have a long way to go, but of course, there are ongoing concerns about intermediate-range missiles,” Sherman told reporters. “That’s the whole reason there was an INF Treaty in the first place. That concern remains, and if there is a way for us to address it going forward, including our concerns that led to the demise of the treaty, that is something worth considering and seeing whether, in fact, reciprocal actions can be taken that increase our security.”

For her part, Sherman insisted Monday’s talks were more of a brainstorm than a negotiation, which could stretch out for months beyond the current crisis over Ukraine. 

But arms control experts are urging the United States to take the proposal seriously. They warn that Russia could deploy nuclear-armed ballistic missiles to further leverage the situation if talks fail. 

“Russia could do pretty nasty stuff,” Podvig said. “Not everybody seems to grasp this, that in terms of scaring each other off, Russia has some heavy artillery there. There is a danger of people kind of sleepwalking into this situation, and they will be facing off with a new nuclear-armed ballistic missile.”

Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter. Twitter: @JackDetsch

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