Missile Defense Should Put a Lid Over North Korea, Not America
Richard Garwin, one of America's top nuclear scientists,
is credited with the first design of the hydrogen bomb. Dr. 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 US 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 recently with NPQ editor
NPQ | Though you served on the Rumsfeld Commission,
which reported in July 1998 that the US 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 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 US territory is no exception; it can too 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 it 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 compact cars that surround it, how will you know which one to shoot
down, even if you can hit it? This kind of antisimulation 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
alumnized 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 alumnized 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 midcourse while warheads and decoys
are falling through space would be ineffective.
NPQ | 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 US military cargo ships in the Japan Basin.
This would allow them to strike a thrusting ICBM after it had been launched
but before it could reach full speed to hit US 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 1000
kilometers or so from the target, using a very simple ground-based radar
to help track a large rocket still the size of a school bus or a car rather
than the tiny point of a warhead. There would be a 4-5 minute window to
strike the thrusting missile before it left the atmosphere. Such a system
is far simpler and far less expensive than the long-range missile defense
In short, rather than putting a lid over the entire US 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 of Mississippi.
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 bomblets containing
biological weapons or by balloon decoys around nuclear warheads.
NPQ | Is it really possible to detect and strike a launching missile
within a 5 minute window?
Garwin | There is plenty of time for the actual intercept.
Starting from lift-off, 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 intercepted.
NPQ | If you can build a shield over North Korea or Iraq or Iran,
why the demand for a full fledged US defensive system?
Garwin | Because, it seems to me, many of the proponents of a US
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.
NPQ | Why will a missile defense for the US 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 US 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 3-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 US missile defense
system by the means I have described-antisimulation balloon decoys or
biological warfare bomblets. But, like the US, 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 US deployment
of a missile defense system to get a bigger budget for more missiles rather
than rely solely on countermeasures.
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