Missile Wars
homethe threatthe technologythe strategydiscussion
interview: richard garwin
a photo of garwin

Richard Garwin, a physicist who helped build America's hydrogen bomb, is a senior fellow and the director of science and technology at the Council on Foreign Relations. He has written extensively about missile defense. Here, Garwin discusses some of the key moments in missile defense history, the inability to defend against biological warfare "bomblets" launched from long-range missiles, and other limitations of current technologies. Garwin also talks about his role in the controversial Rumsfeld commission report of 1998. This interview was conducted by FRONTLINE producer Sherry Jones in the spring of 2002.

... What happened with Sentinel/Safeguard back in the late 1960s, early 1970s?

When President Kennedy took office, Robert McNamara was the secretary of defense and tried to rationalize all decisions, especially in strategic forces. He realized very early that we had no technological prospect of building a defense of our population and industry, the whole country, against the Soviet ballistic missiles. But by the end of the Johnson administration, the campaign pressure mounted, and Johnson realized he would be vulnerable to the accusation of being soft on Soviet Union if he didn't have something.

McNamara, in a famous speech in San Francisco, spent 90 percent of the speech explaining why it made no sense for the United States to deploy a defense against ballistic missiles, and the last few percent then saying, "We're going to do it anyhow, but it's not going to be against the Soviet Union. It will be against China." China has, he said, an ICBM on the test pad, and it might be launched for tests within six weeks.

Well, it took 11 years for the Chinese to launch an ICBM. Nevertheless, the Johnson administration went ahead with a thin nationwide defense which was called Sentinel. This would have nuclear-armed interceptors around certain cities which would destroy incoming nuclear arms that would be carried by Chinese or a few Soviet missiles.

There was a clamor from the public though ... [who didn't want] to have nuclear-armed interceptors in their backyards. So when the Nixon administration came in with a pledge to defend the country properly, they discovered that the defense as it had been defined could not be deployed. So they took the same technology ... and they said, "Well, we're going to defend against the Soviet Union this time, but we're going to defend one wing." [And they put] 150 Minutemen offensive missiles with two radars ... in Grand Forks.

So they went ahead. In 1972, they twisted the arm of ... our negotiator for the 1972 ABM Treaty, to say that he really needed for bargaining purposes the deployment of this system. Of course, we got the ABM Treaty. The system went on mindlessly. It was deployed in 1974 and was operational, people say, for two days, two months or whatever, until it was finally realized that it made no sense at all -- that if the Soviet Union launched a nuclear attack, it would be very easy for them to take out either of the two radars on which the system depended. And they had spent, by then, $21 billion in, I guess, 1999 dollars, for nothing. ...

[Editor's note: See the timeline for more about the history of missile defense since 1944.]

Do you see any parallels to what has been going on in the most recent debate the last six, seven, eight years?

... I think there's a strong parallel with the national missile defense which the Clinton administration in its waning days endorsed, committed itself to deploy in the "3 plus 3" program -- three years of development, and then we'll make a decision and we'll be only three years from deployment.

Totally unrealistic. It would take at least five years, maybe seven years, to deploy the system. But it was useless, and is useless now. And it's still the one on which we are spending the most money, namely the midcourse intercept, ... all of which is difficult technologically. There's no doubt that it can be done with a willing partner. But it's pretty hard to believe that North Korea or Iraq or Iran or China or Russia would go to all the trouble and hazard of retaliation to launch a warhead at us which says, "Hit me, hit me." ...

Explain a little bit more what you mean about "without a willing partner." ...

A ballistic missile really coasts, falls through space. It's like a rock or a baseball. You throw it up and that takes a lot of effort and skill; the rest of the way, nature takes its course. [A ballistic missile] falls in a parabola and re-enters the atmosphere. ... While it's going up, it's very visible. When it's coming down through the atmosphere the last hundred kilometers, which is just a couple of minutes, it's very visible, even fiery. ... We have a pretty good idea of where to look [for it after the launch], because we've had satellites since 1970 which see the fiery launch, and they can plot where the warhead is likely to be. They can't see the warhead itself after the burnout of the propulsion stages of the missile.

If you feel compelled to have a missile defense because you've always said [it] is necessary, go ahead. But don't spend very much money on it, and don't lie about its performance.

Then we pick it up with radar. That's not so easy either, because some of these re-entry vehicles ... can have rather low radar reflectivity. They can be pointed, and pointed at the radar, so that they don't scatter much energy back. We have very powerful radars. We pay a lot of money for them, and we can tell a lot about a re-entry vehicle just by the radar reflection. We can't tell very well where it is -- up, down or sideways -- but we can tell precisely where it is in range from the radar.

So we have a threat assessment. We see what warheads there are, how much other junk there is, ... the things that aren't warheads. [That] tells the interceptor, or two or four interceptors, to launch. They get launched. They propel themselves to where the warhead is expected to be. ... Then the interceptor itself looks out with its infrared sensor, and picks up the warmth of the body of the warhead. ...

If the warhead doesn't want to be intercepted, the easiest thing for it to do is to look like a feasible decoy, something that has the job of attracting the interceptor away from the warhead. So the [warhead] should have an enclosing balloon around it. The balloon should be a big Mylar party balloon, maybe 10 feet in diameter, coated with aluminum foil, all packed up tight and inflated in flight. It should be accompanied by empty party balloons the same size.

Now the aluminum foil keeps the heat that's inside from getting out. Aluminum foil will always have the same temperature and to make sure, the countermeasure's artist puts a half-pound lithium battery inside this aluminum balloon that's empty to simulate the heat that escapes from the warhead.

They look the same to radar. ... It doesn't make any difference that one weighs a thousand pounds and the other one weighs 10 pounds, because as Galileo made clear, if you have a feather and a lead shot, they drop at the same speed in a vacuum, and that's what we have out there. Lots of vacuum, so we can't tell the difference. ... It's a different system that takes into account and counters these countermeasures effectively. ...

I should mention the other penetration aid or countermeasure, which is rarely addressed by the missile defense fans, and that is we fear greatly a biological warfare attack on the United States. In fact, in the Rumsfeld report of 1998 ... we said there are two strategic payloads -- nuclear weapons and biological warfare agents such as anthrax, which wasn't famous at that time, smallpox, a lot of other things.

So if you fear the [biological warfare] payloads such as Iraq had loaded into its short-range missiles that could be used by North Korea or one of the other proliferant states, then you ought to ask, how are they going to do it?

Well, it's peculiarly effective for them to send over not a one-ton or 500-pound bunch of anthrax germs. ... [It would be] much more effective in killing people if they would break this up into 100 or several hundred little bomblets, each of which would have its own heat shield and doesn't get warm on the inside as it comes through the atmosphere and it explosively disseminates the anthrax.

Unfortunately, the United States perfected these things and published them in the 1960s, not as ballistic missile re-entry vehicles, but simply as bomblets which would be dropped from airplanes. But you put one of these things in one of these heat shields and you have a very effective counterpopulation weapon.

Now what does this do? As the missile gets up to speed and comes through the atmosphere, as soon as the propulsion stops, these 100 bomblets are liberated -- just kicked out with a few feet per second speed, not a throw, just a gentle push. Twenty minutes later, by the time they re-enter the atmosphere, they cover a whole city much more effectively than a single so-called unitary warhead -- a clump of anthrax, hundreds of pounds landing in one space, one place. These bomblets come to the ground. They explode, tried and true, and there you are at nose level, the bugs that you want to disseminate. ...

The midcourse or any terminal ballistic missile defense system is totally impotent against these [biological warfare] bomblets. ...

You mentioned that terminal phase would be useless against this example of the bomblets. In general, discuss the technical challenges in the terminal phase. ...

Some potential adversaries have been testing GPS-guided ballistic missiles. So it would come in ... within feet of their intended target, and those would be very effective. But those can be countered by a terminal interceptor -- by a truly short-range terminal interceptor, which would go out maybe only one kilometer, and a radar which would wait and really do nothing until it saw warheads attacking the point that you wanted to defend. ...

Now the problem with defending the entire U.S. territory or our cities against nuclear-armed ICBMs or ICBMs armed with biological weapons in the form of bomblets, of course, [is that] the bomblets cannot be defended against at all, because there would be hundreds of them in a payload. You would need hundreds of interceptors to go after them individually. ...

Now we worry about North Korea sending one or two or four nuclear weapons against the United States, not thousands which will destroy the whole country. So it makes very little difference to North Korea if Washington and New York are defended by terminal missile defense systems. They could pick St. Louis or San Francisco or Los Angeles or Chicago, and they would be just as effective in destroying American people as if we were totally undefended.

So you have to defend in a terminal defense the entire country. It's far easier, instead of defending the entire nation, to [intercept ICBMs from] North Korea, which is a site the size of the state of Mississippi, ... before they reached a speed that would carry them to the United States. ...

So this is the so-called boost-phase defense. ...

Right. Boost-phase intercept has the big advantage, especially for small states, that is for North Korea, that you can get close. You can intercept before the missile has stopped burning -- maybe 250 seconds, four minutes after it ignites -- and you can do that really quite comfortably with the warning that we've had since 1970 from our defense support program satellites.

You could launch an interceptor very comfortably 100 seconds after the ICBM starts burning. The collision, [or] the intercept, would be made comfortably before the missile got up to full speed, so it wouldn't fall anywhere near the United States. If you intercepted 10 seconds before the end of powered flight, it would fall 5,000 kilometers short.

... At least one of the places where interceptors would be placed would be in Russia?

That's a good possibility to have a cooperative boost-phase intercept program with Russia. I would certainly invite the Russians to join us in this. We could have a joint site for launching interceptors south of Vladivostok, which is just north of North Korea. ...

How do you think China would respond to our placing interceptors so close to the Russian-Chinese border?

China is not happy about our building a missile defense. But they're probably unhappier about a theater missile defense that might defend Taiwan against Chinese use of force than they are about a national missile defense.

We never had any agreement with China not to build national missile defense but the boost-phase intercept would not threaten the Chinese ICBMs. The Chinese launch sites are too far inland for these sea-based or Russian-based interceptors to destroy them. So they wouldn't have a problem with that.

So this is an important point. As I understand it, boost-phase interceptors would not be effective against either Russian-launched or Chinese-launched ICBMs.

Boost-phase intercept based on the ground or in the sea would not be effective against ICBMs launched from either China or Russia, and that makes them less appealing to a lot of the supporters of national missile defense.

National missile defense was supposed, in the Clinton administration, to be built against the rogue states -- North Korea, Iraq, or Iran. Those are the ones which were identified also by the Rumsfeld commission in 1998. But you never heard a statement from the Pentagon or the National Security Council in favor of national missile defense ... [without] the capability to counter accidental, unintended, or unauthorized launch from China or Russia. ...

So we ought to get our desires straight. Do we have a threat from these rogue states? If it is the rogue states, why are we not more concerned about what the Rumsfeld commission identified as an earlier, more serious, cheaper, and technologically more feasible threat -- namely delivering those same [biological warfare] agents or those same nuclear weapons from short-range sea-based platforms -- that is, short-range missiles from sea-based platforms near our shores against coastal cities? ...

It seems to me that many members of Congress believe, in the discussion about a national missile defense system, that we may be talking about those rogue nations but we are also very specifically talking about China and Russia. So they are misinformed? ...

We're certainly talking about China and Russia. That is, we don't talk much about it. But I believe that the main purpose of the missile defense program is initially to counter China and to get a start on countering the missiles of Russia. I think it's camouflaged as something which is more acceptable against the rogue states. ...

You've said that you think some of the proponents of national missile defense have their eye on China. It's also been suggested that some of the proponents of national missile defense have their eye on space.

Yes, well, I think some people feel this is the last chance to put weapons into space, because somebody sometime is going to have a treaty banning all weapons from space. Of course, we're a long time signatory of the Outer Space Treaty, which bans nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction. So just as this administration wanted to get rid of the ABM Treaty as a goal in itself ... another objective of many of the same supporters of the administration -- maybe people in the administration, who knows? -- is to militarize space and to weaponize space.

We already have many military systems in space, and I fully support them and contributed considerably to them. But putting weapons into space would be something new. I think that we should do it only after deep thought and consideration of whether it benefits our national security and that of our friends and allies. ...

With space-based, boost-phase systems -- ... which were proposed really in the 1940s but very vigorously in the SDI program in the 1980s -- ... you would have a thousand of these things ... in orbit. Instead of launching an interceptor from the ground, when the satellites saw a missile launch, one of the orbiting "brilliant pebbles" would be commanded to divert and to collide with the missile while it was in powered flight. ...

The big problem with the space-based interceptors is that you need a lot of them, even if you're defending against one tiny country, because you're defending the whole world. The orbits don't stay in one place. They are much cheaper to shoot down than to put up in the first place. So if we put these weapons in space ... who knows what they will be good for?

Weapons in space are going to be the targets in peacetime of people who will destroy them, and I don't want to enter that fray. ...

What do you say to the argument that ... "The earth is already bristling with weapons ... so there's no difference in space"?

Well, on earth we have our individual portions of the earth that we occupy. ... But in space, weapons go very rapidly over all parts of the earth, and they would be a threat to any country. So countries really have an interest in the behavior of other countries in space ... and there are only so many things that you can do to protect yourself against these threats.

So looking at weapons in space is something new. It's something which many nations are against. And it's something we haven't thought about at all. ...

Of course, if the world cannot survive without weapons in space because there will be some threat from some other country which will advance its dominion by weaponizing space, then of course we have to think about it. But ... I think we should think about it only in a cooperative fashion. If we don't want other countries to have the benefits of weapons in space, operated by consortia or by the U.N., then we ought to be very skeptical as to whether we will be able to do this without provoking other countries to do so, and having a war start in space, which would then spread to the earth. ...

To have conflict begin in space because of competitive weaponization and then spread to earth is just another way to bring about Armageddon, and we don't need another way.

... What do you say to those people who just insist that American know-how has always solved problems, and will again?

American know-how is trying to solve the AIDS problem and, in fact, we can do pretty well in prolonging life, but it's very expensive. We've solved many problems. But most of the problems that we solve are not problems where there's intelligent beings on the other side. ...

How would you characterize, in terms of their technical expertise, the strongest proponents of national missile defense?

Oh, I think the strongest proponents of national missile defense have no technical understanding at all. They just know that they would like this, and anybody who gets in the way just doesn't have the true faith and is just a troublemaker, an incompetent, and is also presumably dishonest in their objection to this system.

But let's have the opportunity to argue. When I have gone into [the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization], we've talked together and I don't see any objections to my analyses. I provide them the same analyses I provide the public, with a little bit added with classified information, but it's not really very different. ...

You've mentioned the Rumsfeld commission several times. ... Did the Rumsfeld commission, of which you were a member, ... look at the capabilities of national missile defense?

No, the Rumsfeld commission didn't look at all at defense capabilities, and we neither advocated nor argued against missile defense. We say so in our report. We say that we considered only the threat. We didn't consider the defense at all.

... After the release of that report, you wrote that you were alarmed at how the report was being used by the proponents of national missile defense.

Oh, I am continually alarmed and astonished, not only at the proponents of national missile defense. ... But it's the press, for the most part, which says the Rumsfeld report advocated missile defense. In fact, I finally got The New York Times to publish a correction, because ... two of its reporters wrote an article saying that the Rumsfeld report had advocated missile defense. ...

It's just that it's cited as the reason for building a missile defense. I believe that was also the reason that the Rumsfeld commission was created, because the advocates of missile defense in the Congress said what we need is somebody who will endorse the threat against which we can build a missile defense, and then our cause will be advanced.

So we did the best we could with our limited charter. We said, "Yes, indeed, these countries could -- within five years if they had a well-financed program and external technical support from missile powers and high priority on their program -- have an ICBM which would be unreliable, inaccurate and very few within five years or so." ...

It's already four years since 1998 [when the report was released]. ... In 1999, the CIA has said that they were expecting North Korea to launch the Taepo Dong-2, which would be a true ICBM that could carry a reasonable payload to the United States. But North Korea didn't do that, and now they have a moratorium on missile launches. ...

You believe the Rumsfeld commission was in fact established by people who wanted to establish a threat. Did you think that at the time? ...

Certainly, from before I joined the Rumsfeld commission, I believed that the purpose of the commission by those who created it was to establish a threat to advance the arguments for missile defense. I said to myself, "Do I want to join this commission and do my best to assess the threat, or criticize the report of the commission from the outside?" And I said, "Well, the country really ought to know about the threat and whether some people will use it. To advocate a defense that won't work is not my problem. I'll cross that bridge when I come to it. So I'll do the best I can in assessing the threat." ...

This report was greeted with some jubilation, I would say, in some halls of Congress. ... Do you think ... that there was a political spin put on this report?

... We had an agreement with Newt Gingrich that he would not say that the report had advocated defense. We had an agreement in the Senate, too, and they stuck to it. Now other people said, "Well, the threat exists, we must proceed with the defense." But I must say that the Congress was pretty good in not attributing to the commission advocacy of defense. ...

One of the key criticisms [of the report] is that, essentially, in assessing the threat, the terms were changed from what is likely to happen to what could happen, might happen, possibly happen. How do you respond to that? Is that a fair criticism?

We were, I think, quite precise in our report. We said, "We're not saying what's likely to happen. We're saying what could happen." ... We looked all over for threats and we found these three [North Korea, Iran, and Iraq. ... And we said, "If they had a highly supported program ... with foreign technology, then they could do this."

Now you have to ask, is it likely that North Korea will get its act together, this bankrupt country? Or that Iraq or Iran -- which have a lot more money but ... do not have as good a missile industry as North Korea -- will be able to do that? You can say perhaps we should have said, "Well, it's possible, but not likely." ...

If I were in charge, I would have changed the terms of reference probably to what was likely instead of what was possible. But the report is what it says it is. ... Now would we say that proponents of missile defense were happy with the report? Yes, they were very happy with the report.

Another of the criticisms has been [that] ... the chief witnesses ... were from among U.S. defense contractors.

Well, we had defense contractors. In fact, they used some defense contractors to determine how long it would really take to develop an ICBM in the modern world where you have ubiquitous ... personal computers. The current personal computer is more powerful, incidentally, than any of the computers that were used to design the most modern U.S. nuclear weapons.

We have a lot more simulation capability and advanced engineering. So developing an ICBM now is not exactly what it was before. ... So you have to talk with defense contractors. I've talked with defense contractors now for 50 years; I take what they say with a grain of salt. ...

[The commission] talked with anybody who wanted to come and talk with us. ... We had all kinds of witnesses. ...

The report, as I understand, also lays out another reason, rationale, for missile defense and that is the ... potential of blackmail from one of these proliferating countries. The national missile defense plans that are being discussed -- would they protect us from being blackmailed?

... The argument goes, well, the United States would not be willing to intervene in support of Taiwan, for instance, if China were using force against Taiwan, knowing that China could send nuclear weapons against the continental United States. To believe that missile defense would make a difference, you have to believe that not only would it work, but that the president would believe it would work, [so that] ... he would then be willing to intervene. ... [Then the] nuclear weapons would be sent by China against the United States, these would be shot down, have no probability of landing. ...

If you look at it, it doesn't hold water. So I don't believe that it helps with the blackmail threat.

Now we have totally other capabilities. We have pre-emptive capabilities against ICBMs. ICBMs are not Scud missiles that can be trundled around the countryside in transporters. They're very big, quite fragile, and [we're] very likely to know where North Korean ICBMs are or where Iraqi or Iranian ICBMs would be. In fact, it's been said we know where the Chinese ICBMs are, and they're liquid fueled, and take a long time to prepare to launch. So China's problem, of course, with its strategic force, is not our missile defense. It's the vulnerability of their strategic force itself. ... They've been moving very slowly to build mobile missiles, which they have not tested for intercontinental range. ...

The result of our building a missile defense will probably be to accelerate their building mobile ICBMs, and to change the number from what might have been about 20 to however many interceptors we have, several hundred mobile ICBMs. I don't think that's a good idea, especially since our midcourse system won't be able to catch even one of those Chinese ICBMs.

Now you might ask, why is China going to build 220 mobile ICBMs if they don't need to do it, because the defense won't work against them? Well, probably their political leaders are no more perceptive than our political leaders, and they will not believe the claims that the weapons would be able to penetrate the defensive systems. Generals will come in and say, "We want to build more missiles, because that's the only sure thing. There's safety in numbers."

So the Chinese leadership will probably do both -- deploy effective countermeasures to render the defense ineffective even for one or two launches, and to have as many weapons as there are interceptors.

So you are among those who are concerned, not only with the talk about building national missile defense, but also with pulling out of the ABM Treaty? ...

I don't see why we had to pull out of the ABM Treaty. We have plenty of resources in the State Department and the Defense Department to negotiate with the Russians. We never, so as far as I can see from information from the Russians, gave them a list of things, modifications to the ABM Treaty that we wanted to implement in order to give us freedom of action in our tests and for a limited defense. ...

I think that we've lost a lot by giving up the ABM treaty and with people asking, what is the United States going to do next with its international obligations freely undertaken? ...

[You've written] that, based on your experience with him, you expected [Donald Rumsfeld] to be an informed decision maker when it comes to national missile defense. ... [What's your assessment now?]

The secretary of defense has said now we're not going to build a system to a certain standard; we're going to build a capabilities-based system. That's been widely misunderstood. It's totally ambiguous. I think he means that we're going to deploy whatever we have, and whatever capability it has, we will have that capability. Other people think we're going to build a system, not against the threat that exists, but against the capability that the North Koreans have of providing this threat. ...

I can't believe that he's going to spend a couple hundred billion dollars on a midcourse system that is going to be totally ineffective. ...

Now people say, "Well, of course, we'd have a much more effective system if we had a layered system." ... Well, of course, if you have multiple layers and you don't have to pay for them all, you'll have a much more effective system. But now if you're paying either in money or opportunity costs, then you have to ask, where should you put your first dollar? You shouldn't put it on the midcourse system, which is provably ineffective. ...

Given all that we've talked about, what do you now believe? Where do you rank the ICBM threat from North Korea, Iran, and Iraq?

Oh, I think that the ICBM threat from those three so-called rogue states is negligible, which means I can ignore it. I ignore it because any of them, if they really wanted to do damage to the United States, have much better, earlier, and cheaper ways.

It's not just my saying this. It's the Rumsfeld report that says it. It's the CIA and the intelligence community which says it. So national missile defense against those three states is totally optional. If you feel compelled to have a missile defense because you've always said missile defense is necessary, go ahead, have a missile defense. But don't spend very much money on it, and don't lie about its performance.

... One of the people I've talked to said that he predicts that -- as has happened in the past during the Reagan era, other times [when] there's been a lot of talk, political battles ... -- there will be something modest, and we'll move on.

I think that's quite likely, that people will wear themselves out. They will continue a research and development program. What's new now, though, is that there is an important set of people who really want to have a legacy, and the legacy is unilateralist -- the destruction of the web of treaties that apparently constrain the United States -- but which are, to my opinion, very much to our advantage, because it restrains other people.

We are, in any case, in a dominant position by virtue of our conventional capabilities, our intelligence reconnaissance, decision making. Why should we want to change the world from where we have it now? ...

home · the threat · the technology · the strategy · introduction · map
timeline · producer's chat · interviews · quiz: missile test · discussion
tapes & transcripts · press reaction · credits · privacy policy
FRONTLINE home · wgbh · pbsi

photograph © 1996 CORBIS; original image courtesy of NASA/CORBIS
web site copyright 1995-2014 WGBH educational foundation

SUPPORT PROVIDED BY

NEXT ON FRONTLINE

Losing IraqJuly 29th

RECENT STORIES

FRONTLINE on

ShopPBS