So how do you accomplish that without arms-control agreements?
Well, there are a variety of ways you do it. One is by disarming some of the most dangerous. Saddam Hussein, for example, should be disarmed. The U.N. wants him disarmed, and has tried to assure that he will be disarmed by sending inspectors. That has failed, so we have to look for other ways to disarm Saddam Hussein.
But another way is to recognize that weapons, per se, are not the problem. The problem is the combination of weapons and the motivations and intentions of those in control of weapons. So I worry a lot about a weapon in the hands of an Osama bin Laden, and I worry not at all about a weapon in the hands of the British prime minister.
One of the problems with most approaches to arms control is that they seek to bring into a common regime both the outlaws, the Saddam Husseins, and the defenders, the Swedish president, the Swedish prime minister. That's a little bit like saying the way to deal with crime is for the criminals and the police to form some sort of society. It doesn't work that way.
Let me take you back a couple of decades, I guess to March 1983, when you were in Europe at a NATO meeting, as I understand it. Tell me about the cable you received, or that you read, and your reaction -- that whole story.
This was the Lisbon meeting?
Right. When you got the Reagan ["Star Wars"] speech.
The defense ministers from all of the NATO countries except France -- France did not participate in that particular set of meetings -- were present. We were talking about a whole range of nuclear strategy, nuclear doctrine, nuclear stockpile questions.
After the first day of the meeting, there was to be a second day. We received a cable for clearance from Washington, from the White House, and it was a draft speech that the president proposed to give the next day, outlining his desire to begin the development of a strategic defense -- something that he called the Strategic Defense Initiative, and the rest of the world called "Star Wars." By majority vote, it became Star Wars.
I was a little taken aback by this, because I hadn't known the speech was being readied. I knew there was some thinking going on about missile defense, but I had no idea it was going to come in so far developed a form so quickly. I thought that we needed a little time to consult with our allies, that it would not be a good thing if this came as a surprise to them, or for that matter, as a surprise to critical senators and congressmen whose support we would need. So I urged that we delay the speech until those other things could be done, until those consultations could take place.
Once the president had delivered that speech at that time, that meant that his dream, as many people have called it, would come up against this same ABM Treaty.
Oh, yes. The ABM Treaty rules out any national defense. So a program to build a national defense is unavoidably inconsistent with the ABM Treaty. There's some subtleties of how much research and development can be done before you cross the line of prohibited activities. But by and large, the treaty did a pretty good job of ruling out the development of a nationwide national protection ballistic missile defense.
So what needed to happen?
We needed to do one of two things. Either withdraw from the treaty, which is a right we have always had -- people refer rather carelessly to "abrogating" the treaty; the issue isn't abrogation. The treaty has procedures for ending participation in the treaty. They're like liquidated damages procedures in contracts. Both parties go into the agreement understanding that each is free to give a certain notice -- six months, in this case -- at the end of which they are relieved from obligations under the treaty. Without that provision, I don't believe the treaty could have been ratified, because it was in the minds of many of us at the time that we were taking a chance. There had never been a treaty quite like this, that said, "You can't defend yourself against a potential threat." A great deal of comfort in 1972, when the treaty was negotiated, derived from the fact that if we turned out to be wrong, if there were unintended consequences, if the behavior that we expected to follow the signature of this treaty did not in fact follow, we could simply announce our intention to withdraw.
So that was one option. Another option was to push the development of new technologies as far as the details of the treaty constraints allowed us to do so, because we were clearly some years away from having a system that was ready to deploy. So there was debate about when exactly we would encounter the restrictions of the ABM Treaty.
So what happened? I know that it's a longer and more complicated story. But in brief, what happened to SDI?
Work continued on it, and a fair amount of technology was developed. A lot of ideas were explored. There were limits placed on what could be done under the terms of the ABM Treaty. So not all of the things that deserved to be assessed were properly assessed.
Some of us believed -- I certainly believed -- that in the end, you could not develop an effective missile defense under the terms of the ABM Treaty, even if you interpreted that treaty in a way which I think was entirely justified so as to allow unencumbered research and development on systems of a kind that did not exist in 1972.
There was a special provision of the treaty that referred to systems based on other physical principles, and the interpretation of that provision became a matter of some controversy. I'm quite convinced that the interpretation that would have given us freedom to develop those technologies was the correct one and one acknowledged by the Soviets. A close reading of the treaty in the negotiating record validates that, in my view. Others took a different view.
So when the Reagan presidency ended, there was no SDI, and the ABM Treaty was still operative.
That's right. The Reagan administration concluded that the interpretation of the treaty that would have given us great freedom in the research and development area. It was a valid interpretation. But they chose voluntarily not to exercise all of the freedom that that interpretation implied. That was a political gesture. So some of the more ambitious things were ruled out, in effect, and not permitted to go forward. Reagan left office without a missile defense in place but with significant work having been done.
What do you mean by "it was a political gesture"? A political decision?
It was a decision not to infuriate -- as we would have -- members of Congress who I think simply misread the treaty, and not to run into the buzz saw of what would have been a massive Soviet global propaganda campaign to discredit the United States. So even though we had the right, we chose not to avail ourselves of it.
Let's skip ahead to November 1994, when the Republican Party wins the Congress in a landslide. National missile defense was a part of the plank, the platform, that the party ran on. People have said to me that it seems, by that time, national missile defense had become almost a litmus test. Do you agree with that?
By 1994, with the Soviet Union no longer in existence, the question of a limited defense against threats that were then emerging -- the Iraqis, the Libyans, the North Koreans, and potentially others -- those threats were becoming real. The prospect existed, and still exists, that ultimately there will be some dozens of nuclear powers, and many of them will have ballistic missiles; may not be tomorrow, but it's certainly going to happen in 10 or 20 years, or 30 years, 40 years.
If we leave ourselves without any defense, we will become vulnerable to an increasingly large number of states. That means putting a great deal of confidence in the behavior of those states; and by definition, they will be states that have made an enormous investment, sacrificed things that most people hold valuable, in order to achieve those weapons.
Some of us think it's just prudent to be able to counter those. Moreover, if there is to be an American defense, some of those states, as they contemplate the huge investment in acquiring a nuclear missile arsenal, may decide it isn't worth it, since even if they get it, we will be able to neutralize it.
So it has important implications still for the future. But nothing like the emotional implications of the Soviet period when the argument was that any effort to build a defense would simply be offset by a larger effort to build an offense by the Soviet Union.
You mentioned the word "emotional." People have described national missile defense as something of an emotional issue, at least the rationale behind it. Do you agree with that?
What I think is more emotional is the opposition to it. I see nothing particularly emotional about wanting to put up a defense. It seems a perfectly natural thing to do. You put a roof over your head because you don't want to be rained on. If you can protect the sky overhead from a missile that might come in, that seems a natural thing to do.
To say you shouldn't have a defense -- now, that requires some emotion. There is a theory there; there is a theology there. I think it accounts for the passion. Ironically, it's a theology that's subscribed to by a great many scientists, who you would normally expect to be more objective.
The theory simply is that it is a good idea to be vulnerable to massive destruction by other powers, because if we can destroy each other, none of us will initiate a war. It attempts to achieve stability by threatening the most horrible consequences if anyone challenges that stability by initiating nuclear action. I think that's pretty wildly irresponsible, not least of all because the retaliation means the killing of innocent civilians. It's a form of terrorism, if you will. It's thought to be peaceful and instrumental, but it's basically a source of terrorism.
I remember the demonstrations many years ago against missile defense, and there were groups of mothers marching. It occurred to one of the brilliant architects of American strategic policy, Albert Wohlstetter, that the women marching down the street should be called "Women For Offensive Weapons Only," because that in fact was the position they were arguing.
So this argument does go back even before President Reagan?
Oh, yes. It goes back. It really got underway in the transition from the Johnson to the Nixon administration. Robert McNamara had proposed a limited missile defense. It had been more or less approved in the Congress, and the Senate, in particular.
Then when after the election you had a Republican rather than a Democratic administration, Democrats who had been willing to support the Johnson missile defense program suddenly withdrew their support from the Nixon administration approach to missile defense. From that moment on, there was a rather bitter partisan, emotional debate.
It seems like I can't remember a time when we haven't been debating this.
It's a long time. I came to Washington in 1969 specifically to make an assessment of the state of the debate at that time. ... [And] I wound up getting involved in it.
I talked to one of the scientists. I don't think that he would say exactly what you just said about his "theology," but even though he's a skeptic about missile defense, he said, "If I thought it would work, I would support it no matter the cost." But he said that's not the choice we face, because he's concerned that the technology will never be there.
I think he's wrong about that, and I think the technological pessimists, by and large, have been wrong over the years. The things that were thought to be difficult, impossible, at least daunting, have been done. They've been done in quite amazing ways.
I would not be for it at any cost. At some point, there is a cost at which you provide better defense by doing other things and allowing that vulnerability, unpleasant though it is, to persist. So I think he's a little overboard on what he'd be prepared to do if he believed it would work, and I think he's wrong in thinking it won't. But we won't know until we try. It isn't going to be horrendously expensive to find out.
So how do you react to the technological problems? There have been mixed test results. The tests themselves have been criticized.
There are always mixed test results early in a program. I don't know of any program that doesn't have its failures. The important thing about failures is that you want them to be as illuminating as possible. You want to learn from them. If you have a failure in which a component breaks and that's the source of the failure, that's very good news, because you can go back and fix that component. The failures that are unexplained can be much more troublesome. You may have to have several of those before you begin to see the source of the failure.
But it is perfectly normal to have failures. Here there's a problem with the quality of the reporting on the technology. A failure is unquestionably a story; the full implications of failure are not always understood. It's frequently very good news that you've unearthed a fragility in the system that can then be fixed. You'd be far worse off if that failure didn't occur, and you built an entire system, only to discover that the failure was in fact inherent and would show up with some regularity in a statistical sense.
So of course there'll be failures. Is there reason to believe that the obstacles that need to be overcome are insurmountable? That somehow we would have to defy the laws of physics to move an object fast enough or to capture enough light to pinpoint an image? I have seen no convincing argument that there are physical phenomena with which we can't cope.
What about the problem of discriminating between decoys, which many scientists, physicists, even Nobel Prize winners, say is just impossible?
Of course it's not impossible. By definition, decoys have properties different from real warheads. If they're the same size, weight and shape, then they really don't add very much. You might as well just tap in another warhead. So to be effective, decoys have to multiply the number of objects that would have to be detected by the defensive system, which means they have to be much lighter. Frequently things like balloons are contemplated for this purpose, because they are in fact much lighter and you can have large numbers of them.
But there's a continuous cat-and-mouse game going on here. Technology permits you to make the decoys look and behave more and more like warheads. Behavior is important, because a balloon re-entering the atmosphere does not behave the same as a warhead with a blade of material re-entering. So if you wait long enough, the decoys will all disappear.
The question is, how much time do you need for your interception? But there's a cat-and-mouse game between making the decoys look more and more like real warheads, and developing the sensing technologies that can distinguish between real warheads and things that are made to look like them.
I'm betting on the side of the sensing technology, because it's harnessed to computing technology. The ability to very rapidly take a lot of measures and integrate them with high-speed, real-time computing is going to make it very difficult to produce effective decoys. And it's going to be especially difficult for primitive first-generation missile systems to incorporate very sophisticated decoys.
Sometimes I'm amused that the same scientists who say it's going to be very difficult for the United States, with all of its enormous technological capacity, to build an effective defense because the North Koreans, who are suffering malnutrition in the millions, are going to be able to develop brilliant decoys -- technologically sophisticated, beautifully manufactured, high reliability decoys. There's something wrong somewhere.
The argument I've read is that if North Korea or another country in that category can build an intercontinental ballistic missile, then decoys are a small problem.
Do you ever visit the home of the young couple who have just spent every penny to build the house and they're sitting on packing crates because they couldn't do everything -- they couldn't build the house and furnish it at the same time? It's tremendously demanding to have sophisticated decoys. I'm not worried that we will lose the decoy business.
Another person that I've talked to said -- when I was discussing this whole question -- that it's really not technological prowess so much as intelligence prowess, because we have to know so much about those decoys to inform our computers. I guess the question is, do you trust our intelligence prowess enough to be able to figure out all of that information?
I have enough confidence in the phenomena we can observe during tests to believe that we will get at least as much out of their testing as they will. In fact, we'll probably get more out of their testing than they will, because our instrumentation is better. So, yes, I think we'll have sufficient intelligence to design against effective decoys.
But remember, most decoys burn up in the atmosphere. So if you wait long enough, the only things that come close enough to do damage are in fact the warheads. So if what you have is a terminal-phase defense, the decoy problem is solved. It's also solved in boost phase, before the decoys can be released.
So there's really only one place in space and in time where the decoy problem is a problem, and I believe it's soluble. It may well be that the best way to solve it is to destroy a missile that has decoys as well as warheads on it before it is able to separate the two.
Meaning, in what phase? After it's been launched?
After it's been launched, in the boost phase. In principle, a relatively slow-moving missile in the ascent, with a thermal signature that is easy to detect, is the most vulnerable ballistic-missile system.
How long does the boost phase last?
It varies. One of the countermeasures against a boost-phase system is something that's known as a quick-burn system, in which you minimize the amount of time that that very hot plume -- thousands of degrees -- is visible, because we have sensors that will pinpoint it. But it lasts long enough for us to believe we can track the missile with great accuracy.
Some people have expressed concern that the boost phase would not allow enough time -- that we'd have to react so quickly that there wouldn't be enough time for the president or the National Security Council to be consulted.
I think it depends on the scenario. If it's an event completely out of the blue -- no crisis, no confrontation, suddenly there is an object in space that we detect and identify as a ballistic missile headed toward us -- would there be time for the National Security Council to meet, for the president to listen to what his advisors had to say, to prepare a position paper? Of course not. But neither would there be any enormous risk involved in destroying that missile. If it turned out to be a dreadful accident, and the missile that was destroyed was in fact not intended as a weapon against the United States, I'm sure we could cover the compensation and apologize.
So I don't believe you've got to get the president to make a decision to intercept a missile that has all the characteristics of a weapon which, if allowed to continue on its course, could destroy millions of Americans. But in the real world, that seems to me probably the least likely scenario. A missile out of the blue may be in some ways the most challenging scenario, but it's a very low-probability event.
So what do you see as the more likely scenario?
The more likely scenario is a crisis situation, in which a country with nuclear weapons on ballistic missiles gets into some kind of conflict, and out of the course of that conflict, it lashes out, possibly in desperation, possibly because it misunderstands its own situation.
Even during the Cold War, the scenarios that worried us most were the conventional wars that started in the center of Europe and quickly got out of control, and somebody then decided to resort to a nuclear weapon.
If we were able to develop a boost-phase defense, whom would we be able to protect ourselves against?
The big problem with boost-phase defense is you've got to have the missiles positioned close to where the launch is going to take place. In principle, they can be anywhere; they just have to be within a certain distance. The most effective boost-phase defense will probably be something based in space and able to cover a significant area.
I rather like the idea of the mobile boost-phase defense that can be employed in crisis situations as a stabilizing force, but very possibly in situations that do not directly involve the United States. For example, suppose the situation between India and Pakistan were to deteriorate to the point where conventional fighting had begun, and it looked as though one side or the other might resort to a nuclear weapon. Suppose further that we had a mobile system, say, a sea-based system, that could be placed in the Bay of Bengal, with a warning to both sides that this ship is programmed to shoot down ballistic missiles, any ballistic missiles, and it will not distinguish those that are going from India to Pakistan from those that are going from Pakistan to India. So the act of firing that missile assures only that you will lose a missile. Now would that be a bad thing? Could that stabilize the situation? I think that could well contribute to a peaceful resolution, or a less violent resolution of the dispute that might otherwise get out of hand.
So I like the idea of a boost-phase intercept. It does solve a lot of technical problems -- decoys and the rest. It potentially has a stabilizing role to play in a number of places in the world.
But it would not protect us, as I understand it, against missiles launched from Russia or China.
Oh, there's no reason why it could not protect us. It would depend on where they were placed, where the interceptors were placed, and as I say, I think space is a very good place to consider.
But before development in space, it would be difficult -- we would have to be theoretically on the territory of one of those two countries, either of those two countries.
Or rather close to it. A lot depends on the speed of the interceptor. If the interceptor's fast enough, it can be at a greater distance and still arrive in a timely fashion. So there's some tradeoffs. The Clinton administration had no interest in this, so they were ready to agree to very slow speeds on our missiles, which would have prevented them from gaining any significant geographic coverage. This administration won't agree to limits like that, and so it's conceivable that we can do a good deal better.
You criticized the Clinton administration for trying to develop a system within the constraints of the ABM Treaty.
I don't think the Clinton administration ever wanted a system of any kind. They were perfectly happy with a world without ballistic-missile defenses, because they believed in massive retaliation -- that we could afford to wait, and if we were attacked, retaliate massive -- and the prospect of that would be sufficient.
I never liked that, even during the Cold War. I liked it even less when the Cold War was over, and it was impossible to justify basing our security on the threat to kill millions of civilians. It was hard enough to make that credible during the Cold War. But in the Cold War, at least one could argue we had no choice if we wanted to try to bring some stability to this deadly adversarial relationship. But once that was gone, I don't see how you can sustain that approach that says we will become mass murderers if somebody attacks us.
You mentioned earlier, when we were discussing the potential problem of decoys, that we would see other countries' tests and if they are getting close to the capability. Why, if we could see other countries' tests, wouldn't we take out those missiles before they're halfway erected?
Well, we might. I think we certainly should reserve the right, in our own self-defense, to destroy a capability against us as it is emerging, if it's a sufficient concern. For example, if we saw the North Koreans about to load fuel into a reactor that would produce the plutonium for nuclear weapons, I would favor destroying that reactor before the fuel can be loaded in it, just as the Israelis did in 1981 with the French reactor that was being built for Saddam Hussein.
But the tests that we would see are tests in space of boosters and vehicles that discharge decoys and the like. It's not always easy to distinguish tests of space-launch vehicles for peaceful purposes from those that have weapons in mind.
One of the arguments, as you know, is that because we are paying attention, we would know far in advance if a country were developing an intercontinental ballistic missile capability, and certainly a nuclear capability, that we would take it out. Someone called it "pre-pre-emption" -- "pre-boost-phase pre-emption." We would take it out. If we were to do that, then what is the argument for national missile defense?
One would want a variety of means. There are some nuclear arsenals that already exist, and so the option of taking them out before they're finished is too late -- India, Pakistan, China, Russia. So that's one set of concerns. There are countries who are beyond that, and they have the capacity to assist others.
We would not necessarily see development tests, because the No Dong could be sold to Saddam Hussein, and suddenly Saddam Hussein has No Dong missiles. Indeed, there's a lot of trade in this area. Many of the estimates of how soon it would be before other countries acquired nuclear weapons overlooked the potential when nuclear would-be's cooperate with one another, and buy and sell elements of a program.
But in any case, I don't understand why we would not want a raincoat if we live in a place where it rains. You could always take the view that if it looks as if it's going to rain, you can go live somewhere else, but we might get caught short. There might be a sudden storm.
The anxiety that once attached to the idea of missile defense is now gone after the Cold War, after the prospect of some all-out careening, crazy, out-of-control arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union. Yet there's a sort of penumbra of fear that lingers and stands in the way of what seem to be more dispassionate judgments about a modest investment in a modest capability.
What's your definition of modest investment?
I can't imagine that we would be spending more than 1 percent of the defense budget, maybe one and a half percent of the defense budget. The other 99 percent, or 98 and a half percent, is intended to deal with a variety of other threats.
Sometimes it's important to look at the relationship between two decisions and ask yourself what are the consequences of making the wrong decision. If the decision is to build a missile defense, and that turns out to be wrong -- wrong because we don't need it, because the threat doesn't materialize as we thought it would -- we will have wasted some money building a missile defense. But suppose the other decision, not to build one, turns out to be wrong? The consequences of that could be catastrophic.
So if you're balancing risks in some sensible way, thinking over a reasonably long period of time, it seems to me the low-risk conclusion is that we should get on with the business of the missile defense -- not frantically and not without limitation, but in a measured and sensible way. So that if we do face 20 or 30 or 40 nuclear states, say, in the middle of the century, we will have been building a defense all along that is up to the task of coping with that.
Former Senator Sam Nunn has said that if we're ever going to come to a consensus about national missile defense, we have to stop debating it as a theology and start debating it as a technology. What's your reaction to that?
Oh, I agree with that. We need to make decisions about which programs will be most promising. I'm glad to hear him say that. I know what he means when he says that. That questions like, "Is it somehow wrong to put a weapon in space?" are purely -- not because space is too demanding an operational environment, but because it somehow breeches a theologically derived barrier. I'm happy to see us debate technology and not theology, because a lot of what stands in the way of some useful developments is, in fact, theology.
What do you mean about this particular theology against weapons?
There is a sentiment, a slogan, that we shouldn't have weapons in space; somehow, space should be free of weapons. I see no reason why space should be free of weapons. The earth is bristling with them. If we can make ourselves safer by deploying a weapon in space rather than on the earth's surface, why not? ...
Someone asked me, knowing that we have announced that we're going to withdraw from the ABM Treaty -- now, they haven't heard all of the arguments that you've given me today -- but they just simply didn't understand it, at a time when, in the fight against terrorism, when it seems to be so important that [the U.S.] lead an international coalition, it looks like we're instead going it alone.
I don't think we are going alone. But not every country faces the same situation as every other country. We have reason to worry that Al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations have as their principal target Americans and American interests -- not Spanish interests, not Norwegian interests, not even Russian interests. So it is not surprising that we're all going to see our requirements slightly differently.
We have a requirement for missile defense that I think a lot of countries don't have, because it's unimaginable that Liechtenstein is going to be attacked by somebody's missile. If we were Liechtenstein, I wouldn't be arguing for a missile defense, I can assure you.
We're in a unique position. We can't have it both ways. We can't on the one hand say, both to ourselves and listen to others say about us, "We are the world's only superpower," and then turn around and say, "Our behavior has to be consistent with that of everyone else."
There are some unique problems associated with being the only superpower. That is, you're the big target. You're the "Great Satan" for people who want to take on the symbolic manifestation of what they think is wrong with the world. So we have to do what we have to do. I think it's quite wrong to believe that the only way we can gain the cooperation of others is if we fail to defend ourselves in this way.
The others who are working with us in the war on terror are doing so for good reason. Either they don't want terrorists operating from their territory, they think they could be next, or they're simply pleasing the United States. But I don't think they're going to stop doing that because we built a missile defense.
Or pull out of the ABM Treaty?
Or pull out of the ABM Treaty. ... The withdrawal turned out to be a big yawn. It would be amusing to go back and get a page of the quotations of what was going to happen when we withdrew from the ABM Treaty. It was going to be everything from nuclear war, to the end of the international system, to total breakdown, to the cornerstone was going to fall from the arch of international security.
None of that happened. What we did during the Cold War was create another church, a strategic church, and it had its own theology. And it's been passed by, happily. By the end of the Cold War, we should dismantle it.