Missile Wars
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interview: gen. eugene habiger
a photo of habiger

Retired Air Force Gen. Eugene Habiger served as commander of U.S. strategic nuclear forces from 1996 to 1998. He tells FRONTLINE that he and others in the military consider the long-range ballistic-missile threat a low priority, and that he would prefer to see more resources directed to countering the much greater threat of terrorism. This interview was conducted by FRONTLINE producer Sherry Jones on March 19, 2002.

You were head of U.S. Strategic Command. You know what an intercontinental ballistic missile is. What is an ICBM?

Well, an ICBM is nothing more than a long metal cylinder loaded with fuel and something at the tip of the missile, a warhead of some kind. The missiles I dealt with all were tipped with nuclear warheads. Early on in the process of the development of ICBMs after World War II, there were just single warheads. But as the technology developed, missiles were built with multiple warheads. These were all nuclear. They're very sophisticated. They're very difficult to construct. Guidance systems, in order to give the accuracies that you need, are very expensive and require a great deal of technology.

So it is not a small task for any country -- whether you're talking about the United States or former Soviet Union, China, Great Britain, France -- to build an ICBM, an intercontinental ballistic missile. They're very difficult to maintain in terms of getting them in place. They don't require much in the way of upkeep -- as a matter of fact, the natural state of an ICBM in a silo is an alert state, because that's what it was built to do.

You have a crew of two crew members generally who are on duty 24 hours a day for varying lengths of time and varying lengths of days. They monitor the missile. God forbid if a situation were ever required to launch that missile. Thank goodness that, in the course of ICBMs and from the beginning of the Cold War in the 1950s, when we started to deploy these systems, we've not had to use them.

So the missile itself is, as you have described it, complicated, sophisticated. And the warhead, the nuclear warhead?

It's also very complicated. You bring up an excellent point; that is, there's a big difference between a nuclear device and a nuclear weapon. Many journalists, for example, assumed in May 1998, when the Pakistanis and the Indians exploded the nuclear devices, that they had nuclear weapons. I would submit: not the case. It's a big difference from having a nuclear event in a pristine environment like a concrete-lined tunnel, in which you have no vibration, no temperature extremes, no G-forces associated, and to have the weapon go off and no fusing that you have to worry about. ... When does a weapon go off? Does it go off a set number of feet above the earth, or does it hit upon impact or does it explode upon impact or does it explode once it reaches some depth underneath the ground? So there's a big difference between an event that occurred in May 1998 and an operational weapon.

As we've gone through the debate about the proliferation of nuclear weapons, and rogue states with missiles, there's a great leap of faith between being able to build a missile and being able to build a nuclear warhead to go on that missile that can survive the temperature extremes, the G-loading, the fusing requirements, the vibration. These are not easy things to overcome, and it took us many, many years. It took the Brits and the French many, many years. The Chinese still are working to miniaturize their nuclear warheads, and there's a very sophisticated country with lots of resources.

It's sophisticated, but it takes something of an infrastructure, I would think.

Well, it takes resources. It takes access to plutonium or highly enriched uranium, and that's not easy to get one's hands on. It takes sophisticated equipment to build a nuclear warhead that is small enough and light enough to fit onto a missile. These are very, very daunting obstacles as one builds or attempts to build a capability.

Can we, as a nation, as we're fully engaged in the war on terrorism, afford an additional $200 billion on a very unlikely threat?

But I think the argument that makes this whole issue of rogue states getting nuclear weapons come down to a very simple premise, and that premise is as follows. If any nation -- whether it's India, Pakistan, Russia -- launches a missile, we have satellites in geo-synchronous orbit that will tell us within tens of seconds to within tens of meters of where that missile was launched. I mean, there is a spotlight on that missile launch, so that our decision makers are going to know exactly where that missile came from.

Now, it doesn't make a whole heck of a lot of sense for a rogue state, for example, that wanted to make a political statement or a socioeconomic statement or a religious statement, to launch a missile. If I were the military advisor to a Saddam Hussein or the leader of North Korea, and they wanted to know how best to inflict great pain on the United States, a missile would be the last thing I'd recommend. There are tens of thousands of Conex containers -- these metal containers that come into the United States on cargo ships every day, tens of thousands -- and all you have to do is build a nuclear device. You don't have to worry about the G-forces, the vibration, the fusing, all the things that we talked about. You build a nuclear device with a remote control trigger on it, and when that Conex container gets into lower Manhattan, you set it off.

How do you protect against that? You can't. It's cheap. It's relatively easy to do. And, oh, by the way, you don't have that postage stamp on it saying exactly where it came from.

Then I can walk you through a number of other kinds of nuclear devices or weapons that can be built. A remotely pilotable airplane could be very easily built. You launch one of those off of a trans-steamer off the coast of New York or California or Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, Boston. You do the same thing. [As] in the case of the Conex container, you don't have to make it small. You don't have to make it light. You make it 5,000 pounds, and it's going to fit right in with all the other Conex containers. ...

I think the probability of someone attempting to do grave harm to the citizens of the United States is far more likely to come from a nuclear device in a Conex container, or any kind of other device. There are thousands of lead-lined coffins of United States citizens that come back from their deaths overseas to the United States. You put a small nuclear device -- again, a device in a coffin with a remote-controlled device, remote-controlled trigger on it. The remains of this individual are buried in downtown Chicago, and somebody drives by and sets it off. You've reaped a lot of damage and a lot of loss of life. It's relatively easy and cheap to do. ...

There are no simple ICBMs. There are no inexpensive ICBMs. There are very simple nuclear devices, inexpensive nuclear devices that can be built. As I said, the probability is far greater for that happen.

So is part of the point that you're making -- besides the ease of other methods of delivery, if you will -- that the proposed missile defense systems that are being discussed, debated, and to some extent tested, wouldn't protect us from these kinds of deliveries?

Well, that's the point exactly. The proposed national missile defense system would protect us from the classic old-think ICBM. Surely there are rogue states out there that at some point in the future would have the capability, the technology, and perhaps even the resources to build a missile that could reach the United States. But there are far easier ways to inflict that same damage.

There are a couple points about national missile defense that I think need to be made. First and foremost, if we're going to invest the resources, if the senior leadership of our country determines that the threat is credible and we're going to invest the resources, why all of a sudden are we just worried about the United States? Our position as a world leader has been to spread our umbrella, our nuclear umbrella, for the protection of the Japanese, the Germans, the Israelis, the Brits, the French, our other NATO allies during the Cold War. If we're going to build a system, why don't we make it a global missile defense to protect our traditional friends, as well as our new friends like the Russians?

The Russians are just as vulnerable to a rogue state attack, as unlikely as it is. The Brits, are we going to abandon them? The Japanese? That's a tremendous turnabout in the way we've traditionally handled ourselves with our allies, both old and new.

The final point I want to make, and I think this is rather significant, is the cost involved. Since 1985, the United States has spent over $65 billion on Star Wars and national missile defense -- $65 billion. We spent $45 billion for the B-2 bomber, but at least we got 21 bombers out of that investment. But we've received absolutely nothing for that $65 billion.

The ranges of cost that I've seen coming down the pike for a national missile defense system, on the low-ball side, which I think is very unrealistic, is an additional hundred billion dollars; the high side, upwards of $300 billion. Can we, as a nation, as we're fully engaged in the war on terrorism, afford an additional $200 billion on a very unlikely threat?

An unproven system?


What's your answer to that?

Doesn't make any sense. Should not be doing it. I think former Senator Sam Nunn has said it best: National missile defense has become a theology in the United States, not a technology.

Explain a little bit more about what Senator Nunn means, and why you think that's a very good definition.

Well, the issue of national missile defense has become polarized. It has become politicized. I have no political dog in this hunt. You have one party pushing full speed ahead for the deployment of the system. You have the other major political party in this country saying, "Well, let's think about this. Let's see if it's the right thing to do."

So it has become a theology with the one party, and not a realistic application of technology against a real threat. While I don't want to put words in any of the senior military leadership that are on active duty today, I would suspect that if you went to the service chiefs of our military forces and asked them where we're going to get the money to pay for this national missile defense and could they afford to have it taken out of their budgets over the next five years, I think the answers would be very interesting.

It seems to me we're getting more and more evidence here and there, from chiefs who have retired, who aren't in active service today, that they've always generally been very skeptical of national missile defense.

The reason why they are skeptical is because, if you look at the levels of prioritizations on how resources should be spent in this country on the military, the national missile defense falls way low in the priority list, especially in light of the situation and the events that have unfolded since Sept. 11.

We have many, many more things to worry about than the very unlikely probability of a missile from a rogue state coming across the horizon. I mean, if we're going to start allocating resources, let's start thinking about how we're going to control or monitor those tens of thousands of Conex containers that come into this country every month. How we're going to control the one million foreign nationals that enter our country every day. Those are very realistic problems that we need to step up to and allocate resources against.

I certainly have never argued against spending money for national defense, but at some point we have to draw the line. Do we need to buy more transport planes to engage in our peacekeeping activities or our ability to deploy forces throughout the world in this war on terrorism? Oh, by the way, this war on terrorism is not going to be a war that's going to be over in a year or two. I think the people of the United States need to come to the realization that the war on terrorism needs to be put in the same context as the war on poverty or the war on drugs or the war on crime. It's going to go on and on and on. There will be peaks and valleys.

Sept. 11 -- and I'm sure I'm certainly not saying anything that hasn't already been said -- was a turning point in our history. It's changed the way we look at our military forces and how we ought to equip those military forces. I don't think national missile defense system is something that's high in the priority list.

If one of these rogue states were to develop a long-range missile that could actually reach the United States, would it be possible for that state to develop such a missile without our knowing about it?



Because they'd have to test it. Remember, every time they test a missile or they fire off a missile, we know about it. You can't hide the infrared plume that's generated from a missile. You just can't do that.

I would certainly not put India in the category of rogue states. But India, for example, has a very sophisticated commercial space capability. It would be very easy for a country like India to convert their commercial space missiles into military versions with very, very long ranges that we wouldn't know about. But if you look at the rogue states like Iran, Iraq, North Korea, Libya, Syria -- we would know about those tests within, as I said, tens of minutes and within tens of feet as to where that missile went off.

So I think probably one of the greatest things, one of the most significant things, that could be developed without us knowing about, would be a nuclear weapon. It would be far easier to develop a nuclear weapon covertly than it would be to develop an ICBM. But virtually every nuclear weapon that has been developed by any country has been tested. So if a rogue state were to develop a nuclear weapon, in my view, they would have testing of some sort that we would be able to determine, to detect that testing, and come up with some assessment of exactly what was going on.

And figure out other ways of discouraging?

I think the administration [has] strapped on a dual-edge sword when, in the State of the Union address, the President announced the evil axis nations, and made it very clear that we were going to pursue those evil axis nations -- Iran, Iraq and North Korea. Well, if we're going to neutralize those countries, then you basically neutralize the rogue state issue. So national missile defense no longer should be on anybody's radar scope. ...

Another thing I just want you to follow up on. You said if a country were to launch an ICBM, it has a return address, a postage stamp. What are the implications of that for the United States, for our policy? We know who they are, so we retaliate?

Oh, yes. Again, just over the past few weeks, as the Nuclear Posture Review was leaked to the media, we have a number of statements coming out of the administration that talk about -- and in terms never expressed before -- about terrorist states, rogue states using weapons of mass destruction against the United States, would be vulnerable to an attack in kind by the United States.

We have never been that specific. In 1990, President Bush at that time indicated to the Iraqis that if they used chemical or biological weapons against the U.S. forces in the area, or coalition forces in the area, the Iraqis could expect retaliation that would be on a level unacceptable to the Iraqis.

In the mid-1990s, the Clinton administration passed a very, very strong signal to the North Koreans that if they did not get back into the box when it came to their nuclear program, they could expect potentially something that would happen to them that they could not tolerate. Very veiled expression of the use of nuclear weapons.

We made a similar kind of very veiled threat to the Libyans with their chemical and biological plant that was being built in some caves. Always in the past it's been very veiled, very ambiguous. Not so ambiguous that the nations involved in it don't understand it. But we made a major turn in policy just recently by saying, "You mess with us with weapons of mass destruction, you can expect something in the way of a nuclear weapon will be heading your way." I will guarantee you that that could be done in hours.

Does this concern you?

It does not concern me. It's been our policy. We're just now articulating a policy. We weren't at war until Sept. 11. We're now at war. It's a new ballgame. We look at the world through different colored glasses now. We've taken off the gloves. I think the administration very clearly has made a statement, which I agree with 100 percent: Nothing is sacrosanct anymore.

I'm sure for all the reasons that you've been laying out -- of the other ways of delivering weapons of mass destruction, other ways of causing harm to the United States -- that you and other military leaders long said that delivery on a missile, an ICBM, was one of the least likely. Is that true?

Oh, absolutely. If I were asked how to kill millions of people in the United States, I certainly would not recommend an ICBM. It is too expensive. It is very vulnerable to other people finding out about your program. The probability of a successful missile launch and everything working perfectly on that missile -- from the engine to the mid-course correction, to the separation of the warhead, to the guidance system that is going to get that warhead within hundreds of feet -- the probability of all those things working well even on missiles that have been around, and very sophisticated missiles in the United States and the Russian inventory, that didn't occur just overnight. It took years and years of development and testing and the application of technology.

I guarantee you rogue states don't have that capability, and will not have it for tens and tens of years.

So how do you explain the fervor, the rush to deploy this national missile defense system now?

It defies me. I have no logical explanation. There are people in the United States, good citizens of the United States, who are astounded when they discover that we don't have a missile defense capability. What's unfortunate is that we had more recognition of the dangers of ICBMs during the Cold War by several orders of magnitude than what we have today.

The Cold War ICBMs, the threat of nuclear attack, went off virtually everybody's radar screen on Dec. 26, 1991, when the former Soviet Union collapsed. People just quit thinking about nuclear war, about ICBMs. People today are astounded when they discover that the Russians and the United States still have nuclear weapons on order and on ICBMs. They are astounded. That's another story for another time.

Well, one of the suppositions that has been presented to us is that the current determination, the rush to deploy, has as much to do with getting rid of the ABM Treaty as it does with the national missile defense.

I find no substance in that argument. I've heard politicians state that the 1972 Antiballistic Missile Treaty was negotiated and signed by the members of the former Soviet Union. That country is no longer around, therefore it's no longer valid. Very, very superficial thinking.

You could say the same thing about the Non-Proliferation Treaty. I certainly don't think we'd like to have that treaty go away. The bottom line is that, yes, there are protocols involved with the 1972 Antiballistic Missile Treaty that allow us to walk away. But why should we do that? There is no good reason why we should walk away from that treaty.

It's an interesting point. The treaty allowed either both the Soviet Union and the United States to deploy a system either at their national capital or at an ICBM field. The Russians -- I think very wisely -- elected to deploy their system around Moscow. The United States, in its great wisdom, determined that we'd deploy that system to defend the great state of North Dakota and the ICBM fields there. The Russians deployed their system. That system is still operational.

We never deployed our system around the missile fields in North Dakota. I won't comment on the wisdom of those decisions, except to say that the treaty served us well. It prevented a proliferation of antiballistic missile systems that would create an advantage for one side or the other. It was the right thing to do. Because there's no credible threat, either today or in the future, in my view it doesn't make sense to deploy one now.

You were saying that the ABM Treaty has served us well. I know that you know top Russian officers. Your former, I don't know if you call them colleagues or not --

Sure. Friends, colleagues.

Colleagues. Tell me how they react to the ABM Treaty, how you might suspect that they are reacting these days, their attitude towards us, our technology.

Well, they're very emotional, and I truly mean emotional, when you talk about the deployment of a national missile defense system. This is something I've seen from my very first meeting with General Sergeev, who later became the minister of defense, his replacement, General Yakovlev. They see this clearly as a checkmate move to counter their deterrent force of ICBMs.

In the United States, there's only one thing that can destroy our society as we see it today, and those are those Russian ICBMs that are still on alert. Well, you've got to flip that coin to the other side. From a Russian's perspective, the only thing that can destroy their society, their culture, their government, is an attack by United States ICBMs.

Now we sit around in the United States saying, "Well, that's never going to happen." The Russian logic is, "Well, why should you worry? We're never going to launch an ICBM your way." But they see the deployment od, first of all, they were paranoid when President Reagan in the mid-1980s decided to go forward with the Star Wars program. This is nothing that is new, earth-shattering. But I think there is a large population of folks who have thought about these issues that would argue that it was Star Wars that brought the Soviet Union to its knees and brought it into the Cold War and the demise of the Soviet Union.

But they are paranoid about our technological capability. They see the deployment of a national missile defense system as a checkmate against their deterrent capability. I have had a number of discussions with my Russian counterparts when I was in -- before I retired. Yet today, in my current retired state, I think they would be very, very supportive of a global missile defense system in which the Russians, as well as many of our other allies, would be under an umbrella. It would protect all of our allies, both new and old, against this threat, rogue state threat, if it were a credible threat.

But I guarantee you the Russians don't have the resources to employ a system. There are few nations-- I can't give you the name of one nation that has the resources to deploy this system, in light of the other pressing resource drains that we have in light of what happened on Sept. 11.

How do you suspect -- or perhaps you even know from recent conversations -- [that] the Russians are reacting to the fact that we have announced that we're going to withdraw from the ABM Treaty?

I'm surprised there hasn't been more of an outcry from the Russian government. The Russians are -- maybe they've been offered something behind the scenes. That's about the only scenario I can play out that has created this new silence on their part.

But personally,how do you suspect your counterparts, your former colleagues are reacting?

I think they're reacting with logic that says, "This does not make sense -- for the United States to deploy a system just to defend the United States." I think the Russian government, military establishment, is trying to figure out if our new-found -- their new-found relationship with the United States -- is going to be as cozy as they thought it was.

But by the same token, having said what I just said, we lost a very, very superb opportunity, a unique opportunity in the early 1990s, in 1991-1992, when the Soviet Union collapsed, by not stepping up and looking the former Soviets in the eye and saying, "OK, the war's over. You lost." And just like virtually every major war -- we fought World War I; we told the Germans. "No more. You guys disarm." After World War II, we told the Germans, the Japanese, "You disarm."

Well, what do we do after the Cold War? We did some things; the Russians did some things. But what did we have as the Cold War ended? We still had two very potent giants staring each other in the eye with a tremendous amount of capability and neither. We didn't tell the Russians, the Soviets, former Soviets, they had to dismantle their ICBM forces. We just let things kind of muddle along.

Look what we have today. We still have 6,000 nuclear weapons on both sides going down to 3,500. It's the right thing to do, but I would submit that this problem could have been solved a long time ago. ... The way I characterize it is, the Cold War ended; the loser really didn't lose.

One of the things that has occurred to me in this current debate or conversation that's focused on rogue states, as if they soon will have the capability to hit the United States with an ICBM -- for all the reasons that you've laid out -- I agree that that seems unlikely, while we are ignoring the country that still has tens of thousands of these ICBMs.

I would disagree. We haven't ignored Russia, former Soviet Union. We've engaged in continuing dialogue of arms control. After START II, as we go to START III, to get us down to, depending on how you do the numbers, 2,000 to 2,500, or 1,700 to 2,200.

We'll have a START IV after that. It's the right thing to do. But at some point, the Russians are going to wake up, and I think the United States is going to wake up, and say, "OK, we've reached the point now where these arms control discussions must no longer be bilateral -- the United States and Russia -- but multi-lateral. Bring in the Chinese, the French and the British, as well as the Russians and the Americans."

Do you think that our withdrawing from the ABM Treaty will affect the progress of the START treaties that you've just laid out?

I think it will. I think if the theologians have their way and we step away from the treaty, it will do harm to our relationship with Russia. I think it would perhaps detract from our credibility with our allies that are out there just flopping in the wind without any kind of protection. I mean, the Brits and the Japanese are just as vulnerable to a theoretical rogue state attack as the United States would be.

Someone has said that the technology lags behind the political fervor for missile defense. Do you agree with that?

Yes. As I said before, we've spent $65 billion on national missile defense since the mid-1980s. We don't have a heck of a lot to show for it. That's a lot of money being spent on technology. Virtually all of it has been spent on technology, and not the application of hardware that is useable. ...

Do you think a national missile defense will make us more or less secure?

Neither. I think it'll have a neutral impact. It may give solace to some citizens in our country that we're protected from a missile attack, but those resources could be well spent in many, many other areas in the war on terrorism.

Tell me about the current state of the program and your observations on that.

I've been observing with interest the use of technology to detect a real incoming warhead vis--vis a decoy. While it's theoretically possible for a rogue state with very limited technology -- and I underscore, theoretically -- to be able to deploy a missile, a warhead with a decoy capability. It took the United States and the former Soviet Union many tens of billions of dollars to develop a decoy capability. I would say that we would not have to worry about a decoy system being deployed by a rogue state, no matter how remote, for many, many years. In my view, it's interesting how we're trying to build a system that has much, much more capability than would ever be reasonably expected.

So you would disagree with those who say that if a rogue state could theoretically, was smart enough to theoretically get this warhead to the shores of the United States, that developing the decoy capability would not be that difficult? ... If they're smart enough to do the warhead, then they're smart enough to do the decoy? I guess that's the argument.

Not necessarily, and I don't agree with that premise at all.

Let me take you back to when, once again, to when you were head of Stratcom. I assume that, in that position, you were privy to our intelligence in terms of these rogue states -- Iran, Iraq, North Korea. Can you tell me in a non-classified way what you were seeing then about the missile threats from those kinds of countries?

I saw no credible intelligence at that time that we should be concerned. I used to speak to hundreds of visitors that would come through the command every month and I would give a little presentation. In that presentation, I would tell them that I'm not concerned about an incoming ICBM. I'm more concerned about-- I called it my Stanley Steamer Trunk Nuclear Device -- a nuclear device that you put in a trunk, a travel trunk. That's what caused me to lay awake at night, not any incoming missile.

Now there have been studies that have been done since I retired that have indicated that there are potentially a threat from rogue states. But again, very little credibility in my view in terms of a realistic ability to deploy a system anywhere near the next few years.

I think with the application of technology, the advancements in technology, certainly if we're going to go down this path, that we take the approach that we continue some modicum of a program at $100 million to $200 million a year to keep the technology going. When we see a rogue state out there developing the capability, then we move out very quickly and take the technology that's available at that particular point, because the technology that's going to be available to us five years from now is going to be much more sophisticated than what's available to us today.

So why not take a prudent approach, rather than saying, "Let's deploy a system within three years?" If we can deploy a system within three years today, why don't we wait until we see a credible threat on the horizon, and then make that decision and then deploy it within years of that date, with much more capability then the path we're going down now?

Do you think realistically we can deploy a system within three years?

Oh, sure you can, but it's not going to be very effective. It's going to be very expensive, and what's it going to protect us against?

Well, one of the current rationales is in the terminology "force projection," that if North Korea, for example, were moving against South Korea, we would be able to threaten North Korea.

Well, we have the Patriot system. If we're going to invest money, let's go after improvements in the systems that we have out there today. The Patriot system is not totally capable, but had a darn good track record against the Iraqi Scuds. Why don't we go out and deploy a system that is suitable for force protection of our deployed forces? Now that makes sense. That makes good sense, and I would endorse that 100 percent.

Back when you were in command of Stratcom, as I understand, it was generally the consensus of our intelligence community that there wasn't a credible missile threat from any of these countries that we're talking about, and that that pretty much continued to be the consensus until the mid-1990s, when one particular national intelligence estimate created a political firestorm, largely among supporters of missile defense. Does that go with your understanding of what happened?

Yes, you had one study that was done that lent some credibility that perhaps there was a capability by rouge states to develop an intercontinental ballistic missile. I've seen nothing that indicates that that study has any credibility today, based upon what we've seen since then.

But the process was terribly politicized, it seems.

Well, I would not comment on that. The intelligence community from what I've seen -- and I was in intelligence for a number of years before I went to pilot training and after I went to pilot training -- the intelligence community is a group of professional folks who are doing the right thing. That's not to say that at higher levels within the intelligence community, from time to time, there have been judgments made based more on politics than on fact. But I certainly don't see that as a typical way of the intelligence folks doing business.

But sometimes members of Congress and others can yell pretty loudly at them?

Oh yes, and we see that all the time. As a matter of fact, I saw it when I was the security czar at the Department of Energy, when you had a great hue and cry about things going on with a specific scientist at the Los Alamos Nuclear Weapons Laboratory, and that something Draconian needed to done. Then three years later, well, things turned around dramatically.

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