The A-135 system attained "alert" (operational) status on February 17, 1995. It is currently operational although its SH-11 component is deactivated (as of February 2007). A newer missile is expected to replace it.
The system appears to be operated by the 9th Division of Defence against Missile Attack of the 3rd Missile-Space Defence Army of the Russian Space Forces.
The Gazelle (SH-08/ABM-3), also known by its Russian designation, 53T6, is a short-range, high-acceleration interceptor missile designed and manufactured by the Soviet Union.(1) At present, 68 Gazelle interceptors are deployed around Moscow as part of System A-135.
By 1988, a total of 68 Gazelle interceptors had been deployed in underground silos around Moscow.
State acceptance tests of System A-135 were completed by the end of 1989. That same year, the Soviets decided to modernize the system even further to improve its combat performance. Thus, work continued on the new system during its period of experimental use, which lasted until the middle of 1994. At that point, the Gazelles were placed on full combat alert.
As the endoatmospheric tier of System A-135, the Gazelle missiles were designed to intercept ballistic missiles within the Earth’s atmosphere in their final or terminal descent phase. In the event of an attack on Moscow, the Gazelle was responsible for destroying any warheads that managed to evade the long-range exoatmospheric Gorgon interceptors. It served as a last line of defense against nuclear annihilation.
To accomplish this task, the Soviets designed the Gazelle as a high-acceleration weapon, capable of operating at speeds of over Mach 10 and able to withstand G-loads several times greater than those of convention surface-to-air missiles. The Soviets used high-strength, low-weight aluminum and titanium alloys and a special heat barrier to allow the missile to withstand the intense thermal build-up caused by its high acceleration. The Gazelle was equipped with solid-fueled boosters, giving it a range of approximately 80 kilometers. Each missile was initially armed with a 10-kiloton nuclear warhead.
The Gazelles were located in special hardened silos developed by the General Machine-Building Design Bureau, which also designed most of the Soviet Union’s intercontinental ballistic missile silos. The silos were equipped with fast-opening covers that permitted rapid missile launches. A total of 68 Gazelles are currently deployed around Moscow in four underground launch sites containing 17 missiles each.
In early 1998, Russia announced that, in the interest of safety, it had removed the original nuclear warheads from the short-range Gazelle interceptors. On April 21, Col. Gen. Alexander Yesin, Deputy Secretary of the Security Council of the Russian Federation, stated that System A-135’s interceptors had been newly equipped with conventional high explosive warheads. It is unclear, however, whether all of the Gazelle interceptors currently carry conventional warheads, or if some are still armed with nuclear warheads.
In 1999, the Russians flight-tested a Gazelle at the Sary-Shagan proving ground in Kazakhstan. It was the first test of a System A-135 interceptor missile since 1993. According to Commander General Vladimir Yakovlev, head of the Strategic Rocket Forces, the Gazelle test confirmed the combat readiness of System A-135. Many in the international community, however, saw this test merely as a warning to the U.S. not to go ahead with its own missile defense expansions.
In recent years, many in the U.S. and elsewhere have pointed out that, while the Gorgon and Gazelle interceptors might be effective against a single warhead attack, they would be quickly overwhelmed in the event of a multi-warhead strike. Others have claimed that the interceptor missiles would have a difficult time istinguishing between warheads and other objects, a factor that severely limits the effectiveness of System A-135 in the present age of sophisticated decoys and countermeasures.
In 2002, Anatoliy Sokolov, former commander of Russia’s missile and space defense army, confirmed U.S. suspicions that the Gorgon and Gazelle interceptors had become obsolete: “It makes no sense to maintain a dying system, as the existing antimissile defense is unable to provide efficient protection of the area, let alone the entire country.”(