MISSILE DEFENSE SHOULD PUT A LID OVER NORTH KOREA,
NOT OVER THE UNITED STATES
'Boost-Phase' Defense Would Not Undermine ABM Treaty
By Richard Garwin
Richard Garwin, one of America's top nuclear scientists, is credited with
the first design of the hydrogen bomb. Garwin, who served as
a member of the 1998 Rumsfeld Commission to assess the ballistic missile
threat to the United States, has emerged as the chief critic of a U.S.
national missile defense system. He is also author of the forthcoming
"Megawatts and Megatons,'' a book on nuclear power and nuclear weapons.
For more information see www.fas.org/rlg.
He spoke last week with Global Viewpoint editor Nathan Gardels. U.S.
President George W. Bush will meet Russian President Vladimir Putin and
European leaders for the first time in June to discuss the U.S. missile
This article includes a sidebar by Mikhail Gorbachev.
GLOBAL VIEWPOINT: Though you served on the Rumsfeld Commission,
which reported in July 1998 that the United States faced ballistic missile
threats from North Korea, Iran and Iraq, you have emerged as one of the
chief critics of the national missile defense system now-Defense Secretary
Donald Rumsfeld is promoting. What is your key criticism?
RICHARD GARWIN: It is natural to ask: If we can make rockets carrying
hydrogen bombs, if we can have gone to the moon way back in the 1960s,
and if we could put a cruise missile through a particular window in a
building during Desert Storm, why can't we defend ourselves against long-range
ballistic missiles that might come from an Iraq or a North Korea?
The answer is that nature does not observe what we are doing and try to
counter it. The moon does not hide, jump out of the way or shoot back.
Yet, countermeasures are the key to the performance of a defensive system.
And the current idea of building a very expensive long-range missile defense
to protect U.S. territory is no exception; it can toon easily be undermined
by relatively inexpensive and uncomplicated countermeasures.
Hundreds of bomblets containing anthrax or other disease-producing agents
could be let loose by the missile as soon as reaches its full speed and
fall separately through space to their targets. (Rather than a single
plume of biological agent carried by the wind through a city, bomblets
would provide multiple plumes that will likely increase casualties or
fatalities by factors of 4 to 10.)
Alternatively, a nuclear warhead could be enclosed in a balloon with similar
balloons nearby to confuse the intercepting missiles.
The key problem is that the proposed missile defense system aims to intercept
the enemy missile in the vacuum of space, where the trajectory of a feather
is the same as that of a nuclear warhead. In that environment you would
use infrared sensors to track the heat signal emitted from a warhead hurtling
along toward its target and guide the interceptor to collide with the
warhead. If the sensor of the interceptor can be fooled by decoys, there
is very little chance of knocking out the real warhead.
If the Alfa Romeo you are targeting can be disguised to look like all
the economy cars that surround it, how will you know which one to shoot
down, even if you can hit it? This kind of anti-simulation is a powerful
tool. Rather than have decoys look like warheads in order to deceive a
precision sensor on the interceptor, it is far easier to make all warheads
look like decoys.
The offense does not want to devote a ton of payload to each of the decoys
to make them seem real, but they don't have to: In the vacuum of space,
a featherweight balloon will do just as well.
The solution is unfortunately simple: wrap the warhead in a multilayer
aluminized plastic insulation to limit the amount of heat it would transfer
to the enclosing balloon, and provide a one-pound battery and heater to
provide comparable heat to each of the decoy balloons during its half-hour
flight time. Or one could simply use a warhead wrapped in shiny silver
foil inside a balloon painted white over its aluminized plastic film,
which will achieve a temperature in the Earth's shadow that in no way
can be distinguished from that of an empty balloon.
Evidently, attempting to intercept in mid-course while warheads and decoys
are falling through space would be ineffective.
GV: If long-range missile defense can be so easily defeated, yet
the potential threat of rogue missiles attacks is still out there, what
is the alternative?
GARWIN: The alternative is to intercept the ICBM in its accelerating,
or "boost,'' phase. To intercept a North Korean launch, interceptor
missiles could be deployed either on Russian territory south of Vladivostok
and abutting North Korea or on U.S. military cargo ships in the Japan
This would allow them to strike a thrusting ICBM after it had been launched
but before it could reach full speed to hit U.S. soil.
Unlike the difficulty of detecting a warhead in space, the interceptor
could easily detect the intense flame of a boosting rocket via the satellites
of the defense support program that have existed for 30 years and detected
every ballistic missile launched in the 1991 Gulf War from their positions
at a distance of 40,000 kilometers in space. This network of satellites
provides a scan of the entire Earth every 10 seconds and could readily
detect a launch.
Using this information, an interceptor could be launched within only
1,000 kilometers or so from the target, using a very simple ground-based
radar to help track a large rocket the size of a school bus or a car rather
than the tiny point of a warhead for that purpose.
There would be a four- to five-minute window to strike the thrusting missile
before it left the atmosphere. Such a system is far simpler and less expensive
than the long-range missile defense under consideration.
In short, rather than putting a lid over the entire United States and
much of the eastern Pacific Ocean as proposed, it would seem vastly more
reasonable to put a lid over North Korea, a country the size of the state
Similarly missiles that might be launched from Iraq could be handled from
a single site in southeastern Turkey. Missiles from Iran could be countered
by interceptors based on the Caspian Sea and the Gulf of Oman. Such a
system could not be frustrated by deployment of bombletsm containing biological
weapons or by balloon decoys around nuclear warheads.
GV: Is it really possible to detect and strike a launching missile
within a five-minute window?
GARWIN: There is plenty of time for the actual intercept.
Starting from liftoff, and assuming that the ICBM takes at least 250
seconds to reach full speed, the satellites should see it by 30 or 40
seconds. By 60 seconds there should be a trajectory accurate enough to
know that the flight might endanger the United States.
At that point, an automatic message would go from the headquarters of
the defense satellite system at Colorado Springs to the interceptor site
to ready two interceptors for launch. Launch would actually take place
after a further wait of 40 seconds to
allow for cancellation.
The interceptor rocket would burn for 100 seconds (or less if full speed
were not demanded), and the intercept would actually take place 150 seconds
after that launch.
So, 250 seconds after launch of the menacing ICBM, it could be
GV: If you can build a shield over North Korea, Iraq or Iran, why
the demand for a full-fledged U.S. defensive system?
GARWIN: Because, it seems to me, many of the proponents of a U.S.
national missile defense are not really concerned with North Korea, but
with China, which they want to contain. The "boost phase'' defense
I propose would be much more capable against North Korean missiles, yet
would not pose a threat to either Russian or Chinese ICBMs, and thus would
not undermine their deterrent capability.
GV: Why will a missile defense for the United States make China feel
so vulnerable, thus causing it to build up and spark a new arms race across
GARWIN: China apparently feels its own nuclear deterrent force would
be made far more vulnerable if the United States could hide behind a defensive
system while knocking out most of China's missiles in a first strike.
China currently has about 20 ICBMs, each with a single three-megaton warhead.
These ICBMs are based at fixed locations and have their nuclear warheads
stored separately from the missiles, which are unfueled. Since China has
no warning system, it is impossible for these missiles to be launched
before they are destroyed. Accordingly, China has a program to deploy
mobile ICBMs that are not so vulnerable.
It should be simple for China to defeat the planned U.S. missile defense
system by the means I have described -- anti-simulation balloon decoys
or biological warfare bomblets. But, like the United States, China has
signed the biological warfare convention and is barred from possessing
such weapons. So, unless Chinese leaders are capable of more restraint
than are the leaders of a democracy, it is highly likely that their military
will use U.S. deployment of a missile defense system to get a bigger budget
for more missiles rather than rely solely on countermeasures.
(c) 2001, Global Viewpoint. Distributed by Los Angeles Times Syndicate
International, a division of Tribune Media Services.
For immediate release (Distributed 5/29/01)