The 2007 Bush-Putin Disagreement:
Some background on Anti Ballistic Missile Defense


Presented to the umpteenth Seminar on Planetary Emergencies
Erice, Sicily
August 22nd 2007

The problem of anti ballistic missiles is not a new one. It is older than thearguments of Edward Teller(1) and President Ronald Reagan that led to the phrase "Start Wars". It goes back at least to President Nixon in 1970. Scientists and others thought that an anti ballistic missile program was an unnecessary escalation of the arms race.

Throughout the late 1950s and into the 1960s, the United States had been developing a series of missile systems with the intention of shooting down incoming ICBM warheads. During this period few people had realized that nuclear weapons and a nuclear war would be unlike any other. Whereas in a "conventional war, the advantage goes to the country that can deploy the greatest number of weapons, and that advantage goes as N^2, in a nuclear war with a hundred weapons or more everyone will lose. In the 1950s to 1960s the US maintained a lead in the number and sophistication of their delivery systems. An anti-ballistic missile system was considered to be an integral part of a defense of the US, reducing the overall damage in a nuclear confrontation which at that time the US military believed could be won.


The Nike-Zeus system was to be the basis for such a system and a limited system to defend missile bases was called Sentinel Around 1970, there was intense public debate. As relations between the US and USSR warmed in the later years of the 1960s, the US first suggested an ABM treaty in 1967. This proposal was rejected by the USSR and the interest of the US government diminished. But academic scientists became active, and included picketing of Nixon's White House by physicists. One of them being my friend Assistant Professor TBW Kirk from Harvard. They felt that the ABM system would be an unnecessary escalation of the arms race. Whether or not that was important, a treaty to limit ABM systems was signed in Moscow on May 26, 1972 and ratified by the US Senate on August 3, 1972. Following a protocol in 1974 each side could develop one system, one to defend Moscow and another to Grand Forks Air Force Base, North Dakota. This treaty seen by many in the West, including myself, as a key piece in nuclear arms control.

But the treaty did not stop development and planning for a possible future system. Panofsky pointed out that US funding for development of an ABM system remained an appreciable fraction of the US budget from President Nixon onwards. Funding was still over $5 billion a year updated to 2007 dollars. The total so far is about $150 billion updated to 2007 dollars. This has been spent on "research, and partial tests of partial systems".. Although an article by Bethe and Garwin had appeared in 1968(2), the generality of their argument was not widely appreciated, and although some experts undoubtedly knew the difficulties, a key issue rendering an ABM system an escalation that was not only expensive, and might not work, but also useless, did not become apparent to most scientists until about 1990. At first it was the deployment of the Multiple Independently targetable Reentry Vehicle (MIRV) system, allowing a single ICBM missile to deliver several warheads at a time. Either the USA or the USSR could simply overwhelm the ABM defense system with numbers, as the same number of missiles could carry ten times more warheads. But it soon became clear that to overwhelm an ABM system all that is necessary would be to release relatively inexpensive decoys. Interestingly, such an overwhelming of a radar system was a crucial part of the British-American strategy in May-June 1944 where Adolph Hitler became convinced that the liberation of northern France would be across the Straits of Dover, rather than in Normandy(3). As a result all but one of the Nazi Panzer divisions were unavailable to counter the attack on the coast of Normandy.

The confrontation between USA and USSR was reduced to "Mutually Assured Destruction" (MAD). Even as late as 1991 it was unclear that all the USSR military understood that it was indeed MAD. Indeed in a conversation in his office in May 1991, Marshal Yasov, Defense Minister of the USSR, told us that : "Chernobyl taught those of us who did not already know, that a nuclear war could not be won. For if something designed not to explode (Chernobyl NPP) made that much mess a nuclear war would destroy the planet." But before 1986 it was clearly worse. Soviet military theory fully involved the mass use of nuclear devices, in combination with massive conventional forces.

Ignoring these scientific facts, President Reagan, encouraged by Edward Teller and others, took office he made a hall mark the development of an ABM system, which he called the Stategic Defense Initiative (SDI).. On March 23, 1983. Reagan stated that SDI was "consistent with... the ABM Treaty" and he viewed it as a defensive system and even suggested that the Soviets would be given access to the SDI technology. It seems that President Reagan really believed that such a system would work. It is less clear about Edward Teller's motivation. He must have understood the technical arguments but felt that further research might find a way around the issue. In that he may had some history. When he, and others, persuaded President Truman to go against the advice of the Atomic Energy Commission and build a hydrogen bomb, it was thought to be a difficult task. But further research showed it to be much easier than thought. He might also be calling a bluff - ss suggested later by his associate Dr Lowell Wood. The US at this time was allocating about 5% of their GDP on military spending. The USSR was allocating about 40% of their GDP, due to smaller overall economic base.(4). Secretary Yuri Andropov of the USSR had a "peace offensive". Which was immediately stalled. Andropov said that "It is time they [Washington] stopped... searching] for the best ways of unleashing nuclear war... Engaging in this is not just irresponsible. It is insane".(5) The USSR felt they had to build an ABM system to compete. In the early 1980s Secretary Gorbachev was taking a hard line in arms control discussions with the USA. He refused to discuss arms control further while the USA was developing, even though not deploying, an ABM system. Reagan had met privately with Gorbachev in a famous "wawalk int he woods" at a woodland in Chemin de la Voile on Lake Geneva.   In November 1986,  at the Rjehjavik summit, Gorbachev propsoed complete disarmamnet but Reagain istted that an ant-balitic missile system was an important part of this.   Gorbachev dug his heels in and insisted on the abandonment of the ABM program and also abandonment of the planned US weappons tests.  This changed in 1987.   

In 1987, the American Physical Society released a report (6) with many of the above conclusions. More importantly in February 1987, Dr Evgeny Velikhov, Science Advisor to Secretary Gorbachev and a participant in several Erice seminars on planetary emergencies, organized a conference on a "Nuclear Free World" in Moscow. There were about 2000 participants including 250 scientists. In a step that is unusual for USSR, particularly Russian meetings, participation was limited to 5 minutes each. Three scientists discussed the ABM system. Firstly Gerry Weisner, President of MIT, discussed the technical issues, followed by Andrei Sakharov, released from exile in Gorki the month before. It was explained how it would be hard to make it work, and it would be easy to frustrate the aims with decoys. Then I made the comment that it was no real threat to the USSr for the USA to waste its' money, and that should not be a reason for refusing to discuss important issues. At the final session, held in the Palace of the Congresses in the Kremlin, Gorbachev made a hard line speech again refusing to discuss matters and objecting to the US proposals to carry out a few more bomb tests. This led to a comment by a west German diplomat present "Don't Test Bombs; Test Gorbachev.(7)" But Gorbachev changed a couple of weeks later, presumably after a briefing by Evgeny Velikhov, became willing to talk.. That was the beginning of the end of the cold war.(8)
One of the most sensible conversations between USSR and USA was when Secretary Krushchev discussed matters with President Eisenhower. "Do you also have problems with your military industrial complex?". Indeed they both did and the USA still has. Eisenhower described the dangers a year or so later in a farewell speech at the end of his Presidency.(9) Although funding for the ABM decreased at the end of the Reagan presidency it did not stop. The military - industrial complex was, and is, too powerful. Recognizing the strong US pressure, not from scientists, to build an ABM system Dr Nikolai Ponomarev-Stepnoy, Deputy Director of the Kurchatov Institute, proposed to President Yeltsin that the USA and USSR build an ABM system jointly, but only jointly(10) This would have been taking President Reagan's offer to share the technology to its obvious conclusion. . I am told that President Yeltsin made such an informal approach but got nowhere. The push for an ABM system did not completely stop during the Clinton administration, but it was not till December 13, 2001, that President George W. Bush gave Russia notice of the United States' withdrawal from the ABM treaty, in accordance with the clause that requires six months notice before terminating the pact, but reversing 30 years of US policy.. The withdrawal took effect on June 13th 2002. I presume this was to satisfy domestic politics. Although, in international law, the US had a right to withdraw, this was the first time in recent history the United States has withdrawn from a major international arms treaty. This led to the eventual creation of the Missile Defense Agency(11). The withdrawal had many critics, including most scientists. John Rhinelander, a negotiator of the ABM treaty, predicted that the withdrawal would be a "fatal blow" to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and would lead to a "world without effective legal constraints on nuclear proliferation."(12)

But the direction has changed. It is important to realize that the argument that anyone who can afford a missile can afford decoys applies not only to states, but non state actors. Some people would say rogue organizations, but, alas, states can be rogues also. The most dangerous aspect of supporting an anti ballistic missile program is to deceive one's own people that a technical solution exists for a problem that cries out for a far sighted diplomacy. Recognizing that the problems of the release of multiple decoys once the missile has reached altitude, the ABM proposers have concentrated on intercepting the missile in the "boost phase" before it has reached altitude and released its decoys. It has been proposed that decoys could only usefully be released when the missile had reached cruising altitude and that an ABM system might work in the boost (launch) launch phase. Indeed there are a couple of minutes in which an incoming missile can be identified and an anti ballistic missile launched to reach the missile in the "boost phase" - about 4 minutes. But there are severe constraints. The ABM system must be capable of a far more complex calculation than heretofore performed in that short time. It has been said in jest that one must not leave this up to Microsoft who seem incapable of making "Windows" error proof. Moreover the launch of the anti-ballistic missile must be within a couple of hundred miles of the launch of the ballistic missile itself. An APS study explicitly addressed possible sites near North Korea and Iran, widely believed to be potential problems and even called part of the "Axis of Evil" by President Bush. This was studied in a special study group of the American Physical Society.(13) I attach the principal findings of that study as an appendix.

In 2007 President Bush proposed an ABM system in the Czech republic and Poland. It is completely unclear why, of all the countries in the world that these two were proposed.   If all the complex technical problems were solved, this could address a launch from Ukraine, Belarus or European Russia, or even Germany or Austria, but not for Iran or North Korea. countries of present (US) concern. It is hard to perceive any logic behind this. Is it meant to scare Russia? Russian scientists like Nikolai Ponamarev-Stepnoy understand well that it has no real technical merit. Russia is vast, and could easily send missiles, with decoys from the Urals, in the same way that Stalin built (with help from US engineers) the steel industry at Magnitogorsk which during world War II could not be attacked by any outside enemy. It is, perhaps the inverse of Stalin's famous comment to the Japanese Prime Minister in the 1930s: "Tokyo is closer to Moscow that Moscow is to Tokyo". Mr Putin could easily have shrugged it all off and said publicly that this shows President Bush and his advisors to be technically incompetent. But he chose not to do so. Instead he repeated the Yeltsin proposal for a joint ABM system, and slyly suggested that it be in Azerbaijan, a country over which Russia has considerable influence. This would be close to Iran. This is about the only system that might make technical sense.

It is hard to see what all of this means. I know little about the way Mr Putin thinks, but I assume that for him, just as much or more than for President Bush domestic considerations took priority. It might well be hard for him to tell the Russian people that an ABM system on Russia's borders is not a threat to Russia's survival, and is merely a colossal waste of money by a stupid US administration. Why should we make it hard for Putin to tell the Russian people that the USA is not a threat? On the US side, scientific integrity and common sense is now a rarity in Washington and the advisors such as my brother-(in-law)2 Pief Panofsky calls the US nuclear posture as proceeding from Mutually Assured Destruction (Mad) to "Nuclear Use Target Selection" (NUTS)(14).

But there is another view of the effectiveness of the 1983 SDI proposal, that was expressed by Dr Lowell Wood, a scientist from Lawrence Livermore Laboratory who was close to Edward Teller, in Erice in August 2002. He accepted that the ABM system was ineffective because of decoys, but nonetheless the USA nonetheless was able to persuade the USSR, already saddled with a military budget about 40% of GDP, to spend on an ABM system. According to Lowell, the USA also used, during 1983-1987, economic tactics to delay the Russian-French gas pipeline, thereby depriving them of foreign currency. This, together with Gorbachev's "Glasnost", forced the collapse of the Soviet system. Indeed, while most westerners date the fall of USSR to December 1991 when Chairman of the Belarus Supreme Soviet Stanislaw Suskevich invited President Kravchuk of the Ukraine to Minsk, or August 1991 when there was the abortive army push against Gorbachev, President Ter-Petrossian of Armenia told me privately that the fall of the system began in January 1991 when the Communist parties in the peripheral republic stopped paying their dues to the central party(15). By the end of the year the Communist party was bankrupt. It is hard to argue that this retroactive view of the complex diplomacy is not partially correct. Indeed Reagan and Teller may have themselves believed that SDI would be ineffective and deliberately misled the USSR. . But I doubt that the leaders of Russia and their military industria complex, will be stampeded again by the USA into overspending on an arms race. I prefer to be a little frightened by the indications that my country, the USA is playing a dangerous game of allowing domestic politics to control its approach to nuclear weapons control and the danger of annihilating the human race.

In summation, while I would much prefer that no country make an ABM system, even for the boost phase, Putin's proposal makes more sense than Bush's..

1. 1. E.g. Edward Teller "Better a shield than a sword." The Free press, NY 1987.

2. 2. H.A Bethe and R.L. Garwin, Ani-Ballistic Missile Systems Scientific American 218(3):21-31 1968

3. 3. My late brother, Flight Lieutenant Lawrence Wilson, who never flew an airplane, was a radar officer and a part of this deception..

4. 4. The Collapse of The Soviet Military, William E. Odom, Yale University Press, 1998

5. 5. Andropov's comments are in Pravda. March 27, 1983

6. 6. N. Bloembergen and C. K. N. Patel, et al. Science and Technology of Directed Energy Weapons, Reviews of Modern Physics, Vol. 59, No. 3, Part II, pp. S1-S202 (1987),

7. 7. As the title of a little pamphlet I wrote at the time.

8. 8. Rough estimates based on arms control journals

9. 9. http://coursesa.matrix.msu.edu/~hst306/documents/indust.html

10. 10. Stated to Richard Wilson by Nikolai Ponamarev-Stepnoy orally in June 2007

11. 11. http://www.defenselink.mil/acq/acic/treaties/abm/ad_mou.htm

12. 12. J.B. Rhinelander, Journal of Conflict and Security Law, Volume 6, Number 1, 1 June 2001 , pp. 91-114(24), Oxford University Press

13. 13. D. K. Barton et al, The APS study on Boost-Phase Intercept Systems for National Missile Defense Reviews of Modern Physics. Rev. Mod. Phys. 76. S1 (2004).

14. 14. W.K.H Panofsky,  "Nuclear Weapons: Security or Insecurity?" talk at Stanford Linear Accelerator Center, March 12th 2007

15. 15. Personal communication after a talk at the Kennedy School of Government.

Subsequent comment:   My brother (in-law)^2, "Pief" Panofsky,  died of a heart attack on September 24th 2007.  On September 26th the SanFrancisco Chronicle published an ope-ed by him entitled "Missiles, no defense".   This reminded me of his first sttement on the subject on in Congressional Testimony in 1969.   For 38 years he has argued in all availvailable fora against ABMs.

  Let us hope that Pief's last words will be heeded.