Today's date:
Summer 2001


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 He spoke recently with NPQ editor Nathan Gardels.

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 under consideration.

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 Asia?

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.

back to index